Inside Hollywood: Bow Valley Edition

The life and times of a lowly film extra in the Rockies.

By guest writer Mike Donnelly

Mike as a starving trapper.

Mike as a starving trapper.

The Revenant

Simply by virtue of looking rather unkempt and having nothing to do for a few days last spring, I got on as an extra in The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio.

As director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu waited for more snow to fall on the Goat Range just outside of Canmore, I waited for one of five assistant directors (AD) to tell me what to do. I was a playing the role of a ‘Trapper’ and when I wasn’t standing around, I carried boats on my shoulders, stacked and scraped furs, sat around campfires and fake-drank grog.

The day started with a 4:30am breakfast at the Holiday Inn, then it was downstairs for wardrobe and makeup. By 6am we were herded onto buses and driven up the Spray Lakes Road to the set, which consisted of an elaborate 1820s-style fur trade fort complete with log palisade, and corner bastions. Here we were handed our props from a table laid out with rubber muskets, powder horns, bows and arrows, leather satchels and hunting knives.

Besides the cast, crew, and their requisite cube vans and trailers, there were dozens of other extras wandering about: not just trappers but traders, boatmen, blacksmiths, men on horseback, Blackfoot, Arikara, and Sioux.   

Prone to wandering myself, at the 15th hour of the last day, I decided to go for a stroll. As I rounded a corner of the fort I saw an AD approaching.

“You there, in the red coat! Pretend you’re drunk,” he commanded.

I hesitantly obeyed, stumbling about with my back to the camera.

“Cut!” came the call.

“Less drunk!” shouted the AD.

“Rolling. Action!” the voice sounded again.

After another cut, the AD walked over.

“You are no longer drunk. Just be passed out.”

As I lay in the snow, my fur hat pulled down over my eyes, my wool mittens clasped tightly around an empty bottle, dusk began to settle. Take after take, the directors refined the scene.  The temperature dropped and the light faded. Now and again I would steal a peek at the camera, mounted on a crane in the open meadow, as it panned across the grounds in front of the fort then followed a fur-cloaked Leonardo on horseback as he passed through the village of sleeping tipis and smoky campfires.

I had a feeling I was really nailing my role.

Lewis and Clark

In July, another blockbuster descended on the Bow Valley; Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks were producing a new mini-series for HBO about the Lewis and Clark expedition across the American West in 1804.

The previous week I showed up not far downstream from the confluence of the Bow and Highwood Rivers for canoe practice, only to be informed that I wasn’t supposed to be there. Now I was told by wardrobe that they didn’t actually have a costume for me to wear.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected – in fact I was still waiting to be paid for working on The Revenant three months before.

Luckily for me this morning, “Tim” hadn’t shown up, so I was fitted with his white canvas coat and breeches, and the blue felt hat of a US Marine Corps soldier.

Three of my fellow marines had been waiting to be hailed since dawn, killing time between snack breaks with ping pong matches. When a call came over the radio that we were needed immediately, we dashed over to wardrobe, where it was discovered that during the last raucous game of table tennis, two of the marines had split their pants.

“Do you understand how furious I am with you right now?”  the woman from wardrobe fumed. “I can have that ping pong table taken away.”

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All sewed up, we were quickly shuttled up river via jet boat, the sandstone bluffs lit by summers evening light, we weaved between gravel bars and past occasional drift boats of fly fisherman. 

Nine large dugout canoes were lined up against the north bank of the river.  There were others dressed as we were, loading bales and kegs into the boats, a collection of bearded voyageurs scattered amongst them. On the bank were men and women with headsets around their necks, earpieces in their ears, makeup bags around their waists. One lone crew member stood behind a monitor, absently swatting the air with a battery operated, tennis racket bug zapper. 

“I’m Creed,” the red-bearded marine in the stern greeted me as I stepped into the centre of the boat. “And that’s Labiche.” 

A long haired, Captain Jack Sparrow type gave a little nod. As I settled on my knees in the canoe and picked up my paddle, I wondered to myself, “I don’t think those are their real names at all, these must be method actors.”

We were then joined by a rather large, shaggy, black dog. “His name is ‘Sir,’  the trainer said to me as he climbed back up the bank. “He’ll probably try to jump out of the boat so just try and keep him in place.” Was ‘Sir’ in fact his real name? For all I knew this animal was a method actor as well.

As the camera rolled, one by one, the wooden canoes peeled off from the river bank and headed upstream, across the clear waters of the Bow and into the setting sun. I attempted to maintain an even paddle stroke, while at the same time, did my utmost to prevent 120 pounds of wet, unruly, slobbery faced, Newfoundland dog from jumping into the river and ruining the shot.

Hell On Wheels

After 5 seasons of shooting in and around Calgary, AMC’s Hell on Wheels – the story of the race to complete the Transcontinental Railway across the American west – finally wrapped up in the fall. In late summer I found myself in a mock up of a western town, set on a ranch in the rolling hills west of Calgary. A hotel, stage coach office, saloon, Chinese laundry and a half dozen or so other period buildings led to a railway platform where an old steam engine sat. The sign next to the train signal read “Laramie.”

I was dressed fancier than the other Laramie townsfolk. My outfit had been pieced together the week before by a very enthusiastic wardrobe girl at the show’s production house, located in a vacant car dealership south of Chinook Mall. She went about her work like she was throwing colours on canvas.

The end result: burgundy pants tucked into high brown boots, a long black coat, a peach coloured cravat tucked into a grey woolen vest, and what felt like a very tall, grey, top hat. I suspected that I looked a little ridiculous. 

This was confirmed when I made my way on to set.  “Don’t you like my, creation?” the girl who had dressed me asked of a colleague.

“It’s a little Willy Wonka,”  came the reply. 

The day was warm.  The extras, 50 or 60 in all, were cooped up in the old school house, hidden from the camera out in the street.

Mike as Willy Wonka.

Mike as a west-bound Willy Wonka.

 There was a doctor, businessmen, carpenters, railway workers, rough looking types, upstanding ladies of the town and working girls. Finally the call came in that everyone was needed on set.

I fell in with a group following a girl with a headset. “I need someone to hold this hammer,” she called. A young man dressed in a short jacket and a newsboy cap eagerly offered. “You’re too fancy,” he was rebuked, until she looked back at me. “Well at least you’re not wearing a top hat. Come.”

Over a radio I could hear the director venting his frustrations at another group of extras. “C’mon guys! Lets move that coffin five feet. This isn’t hard!” 

Eventually, I was shuffled to the furthest end of the street and instructed to cross in front of a team of horses without getting run over.

“Rolling!”

The empty street of false fronted buildings had come to life. The wagon driver and his team of horses worked their way towards me; a carriage rolled by in the other direction. Harnesses jingled, wagon wheels creaked,  footsteps echoed on the wooden boardwalks. Workers rolled barrels down from the train platform, a salesman gestured with his cane and hawked snake oil to passers by. Another man, getting his shoes shined near a storefront, perused a newspaper.  Ladies glided past with parasols over their shoulders, side by side down the street in pantomimed conversation.

After 13 hours of waiting around for something to happen, suddenly there was a flurry of activity. It was fun. It was exciting. 

“That’s a wrap people!” And it was over.   

I had avoided getting trampled and at $12/hr, I hoped I would be getting paid for this one.

Mike Donnelly

Mike Donnelly

Mike Donnelly, who from time to time calls Jasper home, works as an archaeologist in Alberta, BC and the North West Territories. That is, when he’s not off exploring the waterways of western Canada.

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