By guest contributor, Matthew Cole.
I thought it was pretty cool when offered a role as an extra in a new movie being shot here in Korea. In exchange for the princely sum of about US$100 I agreed to spend my Saturday doing something… somewhere… as “a killer”. All I can say at this point is that my ass really hurts and my knees are scraped up pretty badly. Ok, that doesn’t sound good. I’ll start from the top.
After sending a picture and my stats (height, weight, ethnicity, blood-type, kimchi tolerance etc.) I was requested to be at a Seoul subway station at 2.00 the following morning. I arrived 40 minutes early and wandered into a pub for a pint and a shot, figuring it might toughen up my voice a little, in case of some “killer” dialogue. I had no idea what the movie was about or my own role. I imagined being interrogated in a Korean prison, defiantly shouting lines like, “You’ll never find those bodies, copper! Not ALL of them! (maniacal laughter).” The drinks relaxed me, but did nothing to remind me that movie extras, by definition, do not speak.
At 2:00am I was waiting as instructed, trying to look like a “killer” (not a bad idea at that time of night at a random subway station, even in Seoul). Two other foreign guys were also loitering nearby. A Korean guy walked up to each of us and said something in Korean with the word “movie” in it, so we climbed into his SUV.
The young Korean guy said precisely nothing as we sped off into the night. The recruiter texted me reassuringly though, asking whether I’d made the rendezvous. I replied, rather politely I thought, that I was currently being driven through Seoul with three strange men to an undisclosed location. The reply came immediately. “OK, it is a four-hour drive to the shoot.” Four hours?!
I was in the front seat next to Kim No Talk, and decided to catch some Zs. No chance, as every vehicle in Korea has a dash-mounted GPS monitor constantly beeping and shouting oddly pointless directions in Korean every five seconds (“after five hundred meters, keep driving for eighty kilometers”). Three hours later we pulled into some roadside restaurant. Kim No Speak opened his door and got out. I did the same but he turned and said, “No. Wait. Sleep. One hour.” This was the first and only thing he’d said since ostensibly kidnapping us in Seoul. The guys in the back had their seats reclined all the way and were making the best of things, so curled up into the fetal position, wedged somewhere between the glove-box and the arm rest, and tried to sleep. What felt like four minutes later, Kim Say Zilch was back, and said, “OK…” He was no longer alone.
We trudged into the little restaurant and sat on the floor to enjoy some kimchi soup (a Korean favourite, this meal of cabbage, boiled with all manner of strong spices, apparently to disguise the fact that the actual cabbage has already been fermenting for several months – it isn’t really as bad as it sounds) and several other weird side-dishes that you don’t see much in the city these days: various weeds and seafood that looks back at you. Looking around I noticed other foreigners wearing military gear, and wondered out loud what branch of the military they might be attached to. Too exhausted at this stage to realize that they were also part of the cast, I failed to notice that the subdued laughter at the table was at my expense, and we returned to our rotting cabbage in silence.
It wasn’t until I stood up, realized my entire left side had in fact managed to get some sleep, and fell straight down again, through the unfortunately positioned little waitress and into the collection of shoes that reside at the door of every traditional Korean restaurant – that I realized this ragtag assembly of hipsters, tough guys, SWAT team members and one lone Korean supermodel in stretch pants (all now quietly watching me while casually dining on the various things looking back at them) were probably not the usual breakfast regulars.
Waiting outside I was gradually joined by some of the other foreign guys; they were speaking English with Russian accents.
Onward again, and the road now deteriorated, but the scenery was simply beautiful. Huge, green mountains with sharp peaks juxtaposed by deep, narrow valleys and a sky of deep azure blue (unlike the yellowish pall that hangs almost permanently over Seoul). The GPS had a seizure when we turned again onto some goat-track leading further up the mountain. At the top a parking lot was already crowded with buses and trucks.
We were directed to an old abandoned factory and into a large, dirty room littered with rubble, and piles and piles of dusty old books. Without a glance, a bored-looking Korean lady handed me a military outfit, and pointed to the stacks of dusty books, which sadly served greater purpose than they had in years, as a changing-room wall. Behind the moldy stacks, I put on the commando garb… and it fit. Perfectly! Even the boots! I had a bit of trouble with the body armor, but miss Supermodel Stretchy-pants was there. Introducing herself as Crystal, she was friendly and helped me with my armor and knee-pads. Oh, how fucking important these things would turn out to be!
Once in costume I asked Crystal to take my picture. She said photos were not allowed during production. I went for a walk. There were large buildings all around, with lots of outdoor metal staircases and broken glass everywhere. I was hoping for some steam turbines or things that pointlessly shoot flames at nothing in particular – I guessed the crew would take care of those. It did look just right for that final shootout with your arch nemesis.
Even at 8:00am it was getting hot, especially under three layers of commando gear. I assumed we were near Busan and the East Sea. I really didn’t know.
Someone gave me an Uzi. I mean, a fuckin’ Uzi! It was the real deal, minus the parts that would enable it to make holes in people… but I enjoyed squeezing the trigger to hear the empty KLAK! of the chamber, and was comforted by the lack of death resulting.
I was sent up a rickety flight of iron stairs to the roof of one of the buildings. I knew my insurance wouldn’t cover any mishaps resulting anywhere near this shit. This roof would become my own seventh ring of Hell over the next several hours. It was HOT up there now in the sun. I’d learned before the hard way… as a bald man, this would not bode well.
With little English, the stage director largely mimed my role, which was that of a guard, pacing back and forth angrily atop the building, scouring the surrounding mountains for an imaginary enemy. Gesturing into the open air he said, “Helicopter cam. No see!” Got it. Don’t look at the helicopter. I was excited. I felt cool in all that oppressive heat, sporting my cool commando gear and an Uzi. I joked and said, “So, like this?” and smiled and waved as if at a helicopter cam. He laughed. He knew I understood.
So we waited, as movie extras tend to do. My Eastern European friends were on the ground below me, also keeping watch for the enemy, whoever that was. We waited. The guys below looked up and spotted me, so we pretended to shoot at each other, and laughed nervously until we heard the radios: Silence! Ready positions! And…. ACTION! (all in Korean except the word “Action,” which in Korean is apparently “Action”). There came a high-pitched buzzing noise. I didn’t look. I paced angrily back and forth, clutching my Uzi and keeping watch. The helicopter cam buzzed around like a giant neon-green horse fly for a few minutes, and then… “Cut!” I let my guard down, but only for a moment. Three more times we did it, then I was called off the roof to get some water and shade.
I strolled into the building I had been so fervently guarding to find a very big, very fake rocket. It finally dawned on me: We were the bad guys! Well, of course: we were the foreigners! The good guys were surely the Koreans in the black spec-ops gear.
As a bad guy I found a new sense of camaraderie with my Eastern European co-workers. Apparently a few of the Russians and the Kyrgyzstani fellow had worked together before. Another American was also there, apparently the leader of our bad-guy cabal. He was standing by the rocket, showing one of the Korean girls a video on his phone. It was a viral video made a couple of years previously by some friends of mine. They were watching and laughing, so I decided to join in. “Ah, the E.V. Boys! They’re friends of mine. We used to work together when they wrote that song”.
“Yeah?” he replied, and went back to the video. Apparently I had not yet earned sufficient chops as an actor to speak to him. It was time again for work.
We were mustered into the room next to the rocket, where we found the lovely young Korean actress. She was (wait for it)… the Hostage. Led by my fellow American, we were to escort our sexy hostage through the rubble to an adjoining, equally depressing building, all the while scanning for The Enemy – who could be anywhere! Actually, they were sitting nearby in the shade eating kimchi.
I took my place among the bad guys, standing behind our hostage (not the worst view). The director yelled impatiently that I take my correct position on the roof, to resume pacing back and forth; acquiring sunstroke and looking angry (this would prove increasingly easy). The child introduced to me as the Stage Manager told me I was “very important!” Back up to the hot tar roof I went. Silence! Ready positions, and… ACTION! And again. And again. My folically challenged dome was burning in the hot sun. Not good.
Eventually I was back on the ground, and in the shade. Time drags for a movie extra, but I love people-watching. Were any of these Korean actors famous? I had no idea. The good guys tended to stay away from the bad guys. Even at lunch, they would eat in one building and we in another, though we all got our lunches from the same truck. The crew would choose sides and eat wherever they liked. Soon I was called back to the hottest tar-covered roof on Earth. This time, I would be going to my death.
The crew relaxed on the shaded rooftop of an adjacent building. The Good Guys were snacking in the shade with the crew… lucky bastards.
Up on tarmac Hell, I was to look vaguely toward the crew, then scan left, then right, to spot the Good Guys running toward my building. Just as I raised my Uzi I would get shot and die dramatically, collapsing onto the hot tar roof. We did a trial run. “Test! Action!” Scan, scan… BANG! Acting, baby!
The issue here was timing, but we just didn’t have it. I say “we” because I will not accept full blame for this. The Good Guys ran out on cue, but the distance between us was quite short. I didn’t really have time to turn around naturally and spot them before getting shot, largely because my boots were beginning to melt into the tarmac. I must have made an infuriatingly comedic-looking Bad Guy, attempting to stomp around (then dramatically die) on what now resembled a giant sheet of fly-paper.
I tried explaining this to the stage manager, who thought I just didn’t know my cue. Helpfully, he set a walkie-talkie at my feet over which the director, sitting nearby in the shade, would yell “BANG!” when he wanted me to drop. I tried explaining the situation again in broken Korean, and again failed. The walkie-talkie sank into the tar. The stage director picked it up and thoughtfully, inspecting the glob of sticky black goo that came with it. The Good Guys were simply moving too fast for me to find my mark.
Somehow I managed to get killed in only two takes! I felt like a natural, especially when my Kyrgyzstani friend told me his death had taken fifteen takes, and had hurt like hell because they’d had him throw his body back into a pile of scrap metal. He had asked for a softer landing position, like maybe some empty cardboard boxes (like the ones that always seem to be in alleyways during car chases) but the director insisted on the scrap metal for dramatic effect. Anyway, I’d apparently done well.
The other actors heard I had died well and decided to talk to me. They were suddenly quite nice. Even the American came over and told me he was from Baltimore. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I said, “Oh, great! A Ravens fan!” and he smiled and said, “Yep!” The Koreans understood this meant some kind of rivalry, so we all shot at each other with our fake guns.
By 1:00 I figured I was done, given I was dead and all. I removed the bulkier bits of my commando uniform. A prop guy came and took my Uzi away. I sat in the shade, relaxing and watching the show around me. From the building where the beautiful Korean hostage was still being held, there suddenly came a VERY loud barrage of sustained gunfire. The Good Guys appeared on the roof and rained hell on whatever was below, flames spraying from the muzzles of their rifles. Then the stage director approached me. ‘Clothes!’ he barked.
I assumed I could go back into the decrepit book depository and change back into my civilian garb and started up the hill. ‘Where are you going?’ the director yelled in Korean. He started dressing me again and ordered me back up to Hot Tar Hill to re-shoot my dramatic death scene. I really should have seen this coming. The helicopter-cam would be there again and they also wanted an extreme close-up of my face; they wanted to capture the agony of Biff’s final moment (I’d given my character a name: Biff LeGuerre).
‘Okay, but they took my gun away! No Uzi!’ I said, and pantomimed using an Uzi. The director went away and came back with a rifle with a scope on it. This seemed a more believable weapon for a rooftop guard than an Uzi (as far as I know) but hey… continuity. This would look funny. I tried to explain but he just said ‘Kaja! Baliwa!’ (Let’s go! Hurry!), so up I went. This time my rifle was a toy – even the orange paint was showing through from under the black spray paint, and the electrical tape was no match for the butt of the rifle, which broke off. I went back downstairs to show them that this piece of shit would not work. Someone went to the suitcase where they stash the formerly real weapons, which was now locked. We all waited a few minutes for some other person with the fake-uzi-suitcase-code to arrive and unlock it. Must be a union thing.
Back on the roof, Uzi in hand, and this time with the whole film crew who lounged comfortably in the shade, by the deadly paper-mache missile. I gestured to the director that I had been wearing knee pads before… another continuity issue. Apparently it didn’t matter; the helicopter cam would be too far away to notice such details, and the extreme close-up camera would be focused on my face. Crew members were setting my mark – a tough job when they said, ‘a little bit to the left…’ and my boots picked up the fucking roof when I tried to move. It was HOT up there.
I could feel my scalp was also really burning, so I snuck back over into the shade whenever I could. After twenty minutes I heard the drone-cam buzzing and it was time to roll. I tried to re-create my earlier success of turning slowly, then back to the spot for my dramatic death. I threw myself forward, head back in agony, landing on the hot tar roof and the hard, metal Uzi full-force – this time with no knee pads. It hurt a little. The second time my chaffed knees screamed. The third time was agony. The fourth time, my boots were stuck so firmly to the tar that I actually fell backwards. Slowly and carefully they explained, ‘No, forward!’ as if to a slow-witted six-year-old. Again, and again, and again. I could feel the frustration rising up from the Good Guy team below, running back and forth in their black commando gear as I fucked up shot after shot after shot. But my knees were screaming pain; I could feel the blood running down my legs. And I had a gash on my elbow from landing on the Uzi once or twice. But again and again and again, I tried to throw myself forward as hard as possible – I did it for the art. I did it for the movie. I did it for ACTING!!!! But seriously, when your mind knows how much it’s going to hurt, your body just won’t accept the order. Eventually, I just went down slowly, and rested on my hands. ‘Cut! OK, good!’ Fuck. The director came over and told me I was a good actor! I didn’t feel like a good actor. My knees were done for and my elbow was stinging from the sweat running into the wound.
Downstairs, the sniper smiled, and said something in Korean. The crew laughed. I was feeling pretty self-conscious about my weak-ass performance, but Crystal told me, “He is happy that he got to shoot Bruce Willis!” I had to smile. I get that a lot here. Apparently to Koreans, I look like Bruce Willis. The other actors were very supportive of me now. The first-aid girl arrived and began applying ointment to my bloodied elbow and knees. Someone stormed over to the stage director, demanding to know why I hadn’t been given knee pads. I was given knee pads and sent back to the roof, but this time they only wanted me to fall forward so they could get some better angles to splice together. After that, it was all over for old Biff. His death (and life) was now a matter for the cutting room floor. Will he actually be in the film? We’ll see.
I spent the rest of the shoot sneaking around the set snapping clandestine pictures of the action. I even got some video of a scene where the Good Guys try to defuse the rocket, but instead sprayed a bunch of hydrogen out of the boosters and they all fell over, which may or may not have been the plan. There was another explosion of gun fire from where we evil doers had taken the sexy hostage, but I never did see her again. I did see Ahmad the Kyrg again, who’d also died dramatically on the rooftop. They had wired him with squibs, so his death was apparently to be the big finale. The poor guy must have been in a lot more pain than me, having spent his day throwing himself into scrap metal. Later, two SWAT vans three unmarked police cars with red lights flashing, two truckloads of Korean military personnel, and a helicopter arrived – a real one. It appeared our work was done.
Staying out of shot (I thought), I chatted with a Maori guy who had decided acting was more fulfilling than his former career as a chef in one of Seoul’s twelve-gazillion restaurants. Our pleasant chat was rudely interrupted when a SWAT team burst into the missile room in full body armor, guns drawn. If you ever see this film, and notice two guys hiding in the background, you’ll know why. We extras were told to gather our shit and get off the set. We changed back into our civilian clothes and returned our filthy commando crap to wardrobe, then headed toward our respective vehicles. My new Maori friend suggested I ride back with them, so I did. We pulled out around 5:30 p.m. and arrived in Seoul four hours later. Crystal rode in the car with us. She slept the whole way. She snores. Back in Seoul I said goodbye to my new friends and we tiredly went our separate ways. I had to ask though… when were we to be paid? ‘…Oh, you have Rashid’s number’?
Oh well. I hopped on the bus, and twenty-three hours after leaving, I was home once more, sore as hell. All things considered, it was an interesting experience. Apparently we had been in some place called Taebaek. Lovely scenery down there.
Incidentally, the working title of the film in English was “Inception Deception” but that was apparently ditched in favor of “Mr. K” or simply “Spy.” If it actually ends up in theaters or on DVD, check it out. Watch for the uncomfortable bald guy pacing angrily on a roof. That’s Biff. Biff’s a dead man.
If you ever want to be an extra in a Korean film, it’s not difficult. Check Craig’s List in Seoul, or send an email with your information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh, and by the way, I did get paid… a cool 120 bucks! Good times.