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Deadwood Crowd Control


Three filthy, hairy “prospectors” mime an argument with a fourth around a steaming pot over the price of a ladleful for supper. Two others “fight” over a bottle. Yet another soaks openly in a tub while 180 of his comrades go about their business.No, this isn’t a look back in time to some ghostly western town. It is, however, a moment in a day’s work on Deadwood’s main thoroughfare at Melody Ranch Studios in Valencia, Calif. These carefully orchestrated activities of the extras portraying the men who line the street involve skilled teams of ADs and prop, wardrobe, and hair and makeup departments for the HBO show.“I love those days where the whole street’s working,” says star Timothy Olyphant, who plays Seth Bullock. “And those extras couldn’t be more authentic-looking.”In the show’s original pilot (the series is now in its third season, which will be its last) western re-enactors filled many of the prospectors’ boots. According to UPM Hilton Smith, “We’ve used different casting operations, as well as some re-enactors for the pilot. Some of these guys are very into ‘western.’ The old west is their life.”Over its three-year run, Deadwood has kept a core group of about 150 male and 30 women background actors, including 30 left over from the pilot. “A lot of them were older men, retired, with long beards, who were just doing it for fun,” says 1st AD Kenny Roth. While many come from the usual Hollywood extras roles, still others arrive with specialty skills. “A lot of these guys are world rodeo champions,” adds series creator David Milch, who studied rodeo cowboys while researching the show.The number of extras required varies, depending on the scene and time of day, the largest ever in one day being about 220 for a Season 2 episode that included a visit from the Army. Day scenes typically involve 80 to 100.Roth will attend production meetings, questioning both Milch and the episode’s director on street-scene requirements. He’ll also do a walk-through with the director to determine points of view of his planned shots for various scenes in which extras will be required. “I’ll ask him what kind of angles he’ll be shooting,” says Roth. “Any time you’re inside one of those buildings looking outside, you need to see people.” And, if a shot looks all the way down the street, yet more extras are needed. “It takes a lot of bodies to fill that street,” adds 2nd AD Libby Minarik.The work day starts for the extras at 5 a.m., with groups arriving in 15-minute intervals; Minarik staggers the schedule to lessen the load on wardrobe and makeup. After parking and picking up pay vouchers (25 percent are SAG, the rest non-union), the actors head to wardrobe for their costumes.Approximately 360 players are pre-fit, ranging from prospectors in the street, to the downscale whores of Al Swearengen’s Gem Saloon, to the upscale gals at the Bella Union. The various players and their costumes are assigned a number, speeding the distribution of clothing.The clothing, of course, is generally in tatters. “You’re missing a button? Button the other ones,” says costume supervisor Le Dawson. “These prospectors were trying to make money. They couldn’t just run to the tailor and say, ‘Hey, I’m missing three buttons.’”The clean extras are sent to makeup to be “dirtied up.” “This was a town with no plumbing,” notes makeup department head John Rizzo. “Personal hygiene wasn’t on the top of the list.” Makeup crews touch up the extras with additional dirt throughout the day, should someone accidentally wipe their face.The dirty lads are then given a prop, which they’ll put to use in their assigned activity for the day, and then given breakfast and put on hold in base camp until needed on the set.At 7:45 a.m., the extras are brought on set. Before anything happens, Roth will typically read them the scene’s sides to give them an understanding of what will be going on, any dialogue or action that will be taking place. “They get an idea of whether they should look at the action or just go about their business,” he says.The AD team, made up of two 1st ADs, two 2nd ADs and one 2nd 2nd, will then go about placing the extras on the set and assigning them business. The team usually goes by their own instincts for the scene, though sometimes the director or Milch will ask for a desired setup. “We get them up there early, so that when the actors arrive, the background is ready to go,” says Roth.Crosses are carefully planned—particularly cumbersome with large numbers of extras and actors taking the long route down the street. “Somebody who starts all the way down the street has a certain timing, to catch up with Tim [Olyphant] at a certain point,” adds Roth. “They have to be moving, just to keep up all the timing, or to send a wagon through at a correct time.”“I’ll spend the most time talking to the extras closest to the actors and set really specific business,” Minarik says. Sometimes extras are able to come up with business on their own, speeding up the process, which can take 30 to 45 minutes for a big scene. “I try and setup about a half dozen little vignettes.”Many of the extras are given specific jobs, which they will have throughout the season. “There are guys who will say, ‘Hey, that’s my meat stand!’” says Roth. “Which is fine, because we want them to feel part of the show, which they are.”The background are often called upon to make careful note of their actions at specific points in a scene, to make certain their business is repeated properly when coverage is shot. “They’ll sometimes have a ‘B’ start mark, sometimes a few more,” Minarik explains.Often, the incredible array of background can go completely unnoticed—or almost completely. While an entire streetful of extras may sometimes appear as an out-of-focus blur to the audience, the effort completes the picture. “Even though you don’t see them, you feel them there,” Roth says. “It’s a big help to the actors when they’re walking down the street and there’s people there.”Olyphant agrees. “There are times where I’m really taking them in, where I realize they’re really part of it and are connected to it,” he says. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a scene and you look at one of these guys and you don’t want to look them in the eye because he’s going to completely take you out of whatever the intentions of the scene call for. Because they’re right there in it.”There are benefits for the extras, as well, some of whom Milch may take a liking to and write lines for, enabling the actors to get Taft-Hartley’d into the union. “You’re not doing it for the money,” says “gun shop owner” Rich McMullen. “You’re doing it more for the exposure, and to be on a set. And for that one possible shot. I’m hoping that the first lines I get to speak on film are David Milch’s.”

Written by Matt Hurwitz

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