If following a protagonist through a movie is like following Alice down the rabbit hole, then background actors are the dirt. Dirt isn’t memorable. Dirt isn’t particularly tall or short, well-dressed or shabby. Unless you’re desperate in Scrabble, dirt is an uncountable noun, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s neither singular nor plural. Dirt is dirt.
This analogy makes background acting sound unappealing. It is not. For as crucially important as it is to be countable in a democratic sense, let’s be real: it is often refreshing to vacation in the realm of unaccountability. And if you can take your sabbatical inside the whirring big-top chaos of a movie set? All the better. Why turn down high-access invisibility?
It’s also something of a McGinty family business. When my mother gave birth to my younger triplet siblings in 1990, her life became a series of math problems. Choice A: pay child care costs, times three. Choice B: earn four paychecks by transforming a movie set into daycare (five paychecks if I came along, too). A change to Pittsburgh’s tax credit policy created an inorganic film boom that coincided with our childhoods, and so for 2 ½ decades, we have secured a little walking-around money by wrapping ourselves in whichever style best communicated the hopes and follies of some ill-fated American decade (spoiler: all American decades are ill-fated). We have read paperbacks and played hangman in what is somehow always a Biblical amount of rain or heat. Then, when called upon, we have attempted to break the McGinty Screen Time Record, a competition in which my mother is a fanatical entrant, an unparalleled auteurist extra.
Her approach: If all of this is pretend, then why don’t I just pretend it’s my job to stand right behind the lead so I can count up my seconds on screen?
We’ve been able to develop this and other on-set credos for a simple reason: none of us have ever been in a good movie. When there’s little in the way of an overarching directorial philosophy, you can pretty much direct yourself. My mom will stop to tie a shoe or drop a handful of nothing in a mailbox, hoping to stay in the frame a moment longer. Yawns are popular. Props pop. It’s important to remember: we’re not actors, not really. We’re dirt molecules clicking our heels as Alice tumbles past.
Recently, though, my own sly, selfish efforts at the family’s screen time record were disregarded and maybe even reformed by two directors with bigger goals in mind: David Fincher and George C. Wolfe. At first glance, these two practitioners of honest-to-God cinematic vision share more in common than simply their unknowing supervision of this D-rate extra. Their recent Netflix-backed films, Mank and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, are both period pieces set in pre-World War II America. Both films draw upon totemic source material—Citizen Kane, and a play from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Both films have era- and genre-specific tones that, for some, may grate—the righteous theatrical monologuing of Ma Rainey, and the literary why-I-oughta jokiness of Mank, which can at times sound as though Jonathan Franzen handed his best jokes and three cups of black coffee to Fozzie and Gonzo. Creative control and authorship are not just themes of each film. They’re plot points. The directors practically jump into the frame, too, as they attempt, in their respective conclusions, to author something of a revision to the source material.
But these directors differ significantly, particularly with regard to what they find unsettling and how best to capture it. The easiest way to talk about their differences is by talking about walls.
David Fincher’s obsession with walls is well-documented. It is documented by Fincher himself. In the director’s commentary of Panic Room, he recounts a conversation with set designer Arthur Max. Fincher’s instructions: “I gotta be able to move any wall and make it go anywhere, and I gotta be able to put a camera wherever I want.” YouTube is not lacking for videos which highlight the mesmeric camera movement in Panic Room—through keyholes, down stairs, spinning, probing. Could this movement be likened to “camera invades every orifice of a house?” Yes. Does this probing technical style at least sync with the narrative? Yes again.
That’s the thing about Fincher: his preen-and-peek technical showmanship is (at least usually) employed with some sort of narrative reason. It isn’t superimposed. It emanates (at least somewhat) naturally from the story.
Take Mindhunter, the quintessential Fincher title (if he could stick a camera all cozy in someone’s ear and film their brain, this voyeur would). Twelve or so minutes into the pilot, Jonathan Groff’s Agent Holden Ford slips along a hallway at the FBI academy; he can hear someone lecturing. The topic? How to unpack the motives of serial killers. The speaker grows louder, then he’s visible: it’s Jordan Gelber as Peter Rathman, an instructor presenting to a packed lecture hall of fascinated FBI employees. The face of serial killer David Berkowitz is projected onto the screen.
Out in the seats, we, the background dirt, listened to the speech without moving, although I had already been moved around quite a bit. My first two locations in the scene had been primo, and in each instance, I was diagnosed, by Fincher via lackeys, with what we’ll call terminal set curiosity. My condition expressed itself not with lesions or fevers but instead an inability to stand still and do nothing.
My final fate: seated three rows up from the monologuing Jordan Gelber, who Fincher threw down the rabbit hole at such a furiously repetitive pace that, well, another line about rabbits comes to mind. For a week after the shoot, I could recite 100% of Gelber’s monologue on my walk to my temp job. I was spending my seven-to-sevens on a hospice floor, where I helped funeral directors transport bodies down the elevator, through a back door in the basement, then we’d kick out the legs and slide the gurney in a hearse. I was learning all sorts of unsettling facts about fluids and smells and families and grief, to the point that it actually struck me as preferable to recite monologues about serial killers. That’s what I would do on my short morning walk. I’d see if I could still recite Gelber’s monologue, all the way to the kicker:
“Where do we go,” he asks the group of FBI employees, “when motive becomes elusive?” At this point our job was to pause, think, then scribble notes. I scribbled notes 10 times. Twenty times. Thirty-five…
I’m not sure how many takes there were overall—some extras afterward thought 70, others guessed well over a hundred. I’m not sure it matters. Fincher’s obsession with “takes” is over-discussed, or perhaps mis-discussed. When he shoots several dozen takes, he’s not looking for better performances, different enunciation or actorly choice. He’s calibrating the point of view through which such enunciations are perceived, and he is doing so relentlessly, obsessively. I know this because, at some point during the shooting of Gelber’s monologue, power tools were introduced. Perhaps they were part of the plan, but judging from the reactions of various crew members, it seemed spontaneous.
Fincher had decided that he wasn’t content to peek in on the monologue from the hallway. He wanted to shoot the auditorium from inside a wall in the hallway. He didn’t just want to spy on the lecturer. He wanted to spy on the lecture and also the spier, Groff’s Agent Ford.
We were told to relax. Gelber drank water. Two years later I would see him in a short film called Great Choice, a madcap sui generis joy in which Carrie Coon gets stuck in a demonically looping Red Lobster commercial; when Gelber emerged at the short film’s conclusion, I thought: I wonder if this recursive Red Lobster commercial makes Gelber recall that FBI lecture hall, where we were trapped in a room while two men, maybe one, cut a rectangular hole into a hallway wall. I don’t know whether it was drywall or something tougher. I don’t know whether they used a jigsaw or jab saw or something else. Holt McCallany paced. The crew did their absolute best not to look at their watches. There were 50, maybe 75 extras in the room, some of them real actors and some me, all of us waiting while Fincher instructed the crew to slash one incision in a wall, then another.
I’m embarrassed to confess how awesome I thought this was in the moment. This kind of choice, I thought, is what commitment to a point of view looks like. It’s perspective clarification in real time. Fincher is teaching a master class in revision, I thought: revision is just a matter of figuring out what’s blocking you, then destroying it.
There were maybe 40 or 50 white extras on set to film the opening scenes of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and every single one of them noted the arrival of the film’s producer. When Denzel Washington appears in public, there’s three phases. The first is recognition. Yes, that is unquestionably him.
The second phase is short. It’s respect. People turned away. They avoided staring, or they at least tried to. For some extras, “respect” encompassed merely a blink, then they moved swiftly to the third phase: regression, or perhaps reversion, to our vain, gawking, pre-teen selves. The man is a human ice cream truck. The jingle is broadcast through his teeth. Scene: Washington stops at a small girl, a hip-high actor holding her mother’s hand. Washington, to girl: “Can I have your autograph? I want it when you’re famous one day.” I’m cynical; I’m not insusceptible.
George C. Wolfe, meanwhile, limped up and down the fabricated 1927 street. He squinted at the fruit on fake fruit stands. He inquired about the crank-handled old cars. He told a pair of female extras that they had just done so great, so so great, but that they better be that great again, right now, let’s go!
It feels more than a little silly to present Fincher as a known quantity yet offer a brief bio for the absurdly accomplished Wolfe, whose musical Jelly’s Last Jam was nominated for 11 Tonys in 1992. His stage direction of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches earned him the job of directing the world premiere of the play’s second part, the awe-inspiring, head-scratching (and awe-scratching, and head-inspiring…) behemoth Perestroika. The truth is that you don’t really need to be swayed by his bio if you’re around him. Wolfe’s gifts as a director are apparent in roughly the same amount of time it takes to recognize Denzel Washington. In Slate’s oral history of Angels in America, actor and director Joe Mantello describes Wolfe as having “the metabolism of a hummingbird. He talks fast. There’s a lot coming at you. If you receive it, if you open yourself up to it, it’s completely fucking inspiring.”
I admit that I was not open initially. From the moment I arrived to wardrobe and hair, I was confused. Why were I and so many other white extras on set for an August Wilson play? These plays were taught to me as a Pittsburgh kid. I teach them as an adult. Out on the fabricated summertime street, I was surrounded by more white characters than the sum total of whites referenced in all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
The answers emerged slowly. They arrived from Wolfe directly. Usually, a director sends some lackey over to direct the extras. This person offers second- or possibly fifth-hand advice about how to behave, where to walk, so on (on Mindhunter, for instance, I seem to remember being given instruction by this very kind guy from the local film scene, a guy who, when movies aren’t in production, clerks at a liquor store near my house). George C. Wolfe did not send someone else to offer instruction. He approached the seven or eight white extras standing on the sidewalk and offered direction himself. When the three black musicians approached with their instruments, we were to hold our ground. Wolfe stomped his feet into the beat-up street. He flexed his arms lowly. We had to dig in, he said, be mean, be awful, don’t budge as these guys walk past. It’s your neighborhood, this black director reiterated to the white extras. He showed us how to carry our bodies. If they bump you, he said, don’t give in, not even a little, either hold your shoulder or bump back.
The final cue was the most specific: once the musicians had passed, our eyes needed to follow them down the street. When they turned the corner, it was imperative we all stare at the exact same brick. No gesturing, no chicanery, no clamoring for some family screen time record. We had to stare at that single brick without making any singularized motion. The musicians, like Alice descending into the rabbit hole, were proceeding uneasily into the story, and we could not distract from their journey. We couldn’t be individualized racists. We needed to be a racist backdrop.
Here’s how you know a room is fake: there’s no vents or radiators. There’s no real way for air to get in.
In Mindhunter’s FBI lecture hall, there was no airflow of any sort. My strongest recollection of hours two through 500 in that room is of my vision swimming. I wasn’t allowed to wear my glasses, which was fine. The room’s temperature was not. It was a stale hot interior. The wall in the hallway was proving difficult. Once the incisions were complete and the appropriate chunk was removed, new problems arose. There were camera-related issues. Human issues, too—would a cameraperson be able to fit inside the hole?
Less discussed were the problems in the lecture hall. Several dozen extras in suits and thick polos were projecting their CO2 onto one another without much O2 coming back. The tall woman in a blue FBI polo right in front of me put her head on the table. The woman beside me fanned herself with her notepad. Heat wasn’t the sole issue. The room felt stale. It was atmospherically inert, then suddenly, there was motion, action, none of it filmed. An extra started yelling. It was the older British guy, by the chalkboard. During my fleeting stint in a prime spot beside him, I had learned that in real life he was an arms dealer in a nearby rural county. On set, the Brit was an FBI higher-up in a blue blazer and ‘70s slacks. He was shouting: medic!
In his arms, he held a young woman. She had been the most prominently staged extra for Gelber’s monologue, occupying a spot in the scene that suggested she may have been real actor of some kind, someone with a low profile for whom this scene in Mindhunter could have meant something, though it’s also possible she was no different than me. What wasn’t debatable was that she had fainted. The arms dealer was keeping her afloat. His wrists stuck out from underneath her armpits.
The young woman was whisked away. The scene was revised. Shooting continued. Gelber’s monologue recommenced:
“Wanton, indiscriminate murder. Seemingly random, serendipitous. Each one, extremely violent.”
It took a take, maybe two, before I began to process what had just happened. A girl had fainted. She was gone. Between takes, I scanned. Was she okay? Was she coming back? It seemed possible that we had just accidentally killed off a real character in the show. To hell with the character: what about the actual person?
I imagine that my temp job was infecting my brainwaves. While transporting bodies from hospice rooms to hearses, I’d often run into some visitor or employee on the elevator, sometimes the basement. They’d say some dispassionate version of “oh,” then go about their business. Post-fainting, that was the vibe in the packed lecture hall. “Oh.” We readied our notepads.
“No explanation,” Gelber said 50 million more times, “no apparent reason. They weren’t sexually assaulted, there was no attempt to relieve them of valuables, they didn’t know their assailant.”
I sat in a white polo, take after take, thinking: that fucking wall made that girl faint. They spent five or 500 minutes demolishing that wall, all while that girl traded weight against the chalkboard and tried to find appropriate ways to stand in her long thick skirt thing from the ‘70s. Maybe she had a chair at some point. She definitely did not return. Her character doesn’t show up in the final cut. I do. I’m sitting there going cross-eyed in the hot room, my naked eyes watering from staring so hard at Gelber, and when he hits the kicker—“where do we go when motive becomes elusive?”—you can see me journaling.
People are more important than walls.
Humans should not be subjugated to point-of-view concerns, though maybe this has always been how things work on set and I was always too young to realize.
My eyes hurt so bad and my hand was so unaccustomed to handwriting that, somewhere toward the end of shooting, I just decided to scribble the same line over and over.
Death By Fincher.
August Wilson plays are single-location affairs. The set descriptions are identical at the beginning of Act One and Act Two in Ma Rainey: “The lights come up in the studio.” That’s the whole play. That’s August—The Piano Lesson circumnavigates a family piano, Jitney the phone in a jitney station, so on. In the Denzel-directed movie adaptation of Fences, the action is primarily contained to the Maxson household, but there’s several departures that felt, to me, like the movie taking a breather, an unnecessary reset. My suspicion—perhaps my hope—was that the wall of whiteness I helped form at the outset of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would be a one-off, a bit of initial scene setting before the movie settled into the recording studio for good.
But Wolfe’s adaptation is not interested in simply cutting away techniques that might not have worked in previous adaptations or stagings. Wolfe—and here screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson also deserves immense praise—leaned into such departures. Rather than find small moments in the play where the film’s narrative can depart the singular location, Wolfe’s departures amplify the existing tension, as is the case when the movie’s second wall of whiteness encircles the blues singer Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis. Her nephew, Sylvester, has driven her to the studio. There’s a collision in the street; who hit who is unclear. Whereas the play brings the police officer and his line of questioning indoors, the film keeps the characters out on the street. Onlookers form, all white. A dozen or so extras fence in Ma and her crew from the right side of the screen. A second line forms behind the cars. There’s more extras than there were before.
The pressure only grows. For the third wall of whiteness, Wolfe really revs the key in the thematic engine. In the play, Slow Drag the bass player and Sylvester depart the studio to get a Coca-Cola for an irritated Ma. In the movie, we see where they go—Polaneczky’s Grocery and Delicatessen. Inside, they stop cold before a wall of white extras, at least one of whom was part of my initial group out on the street. The men stare directly into the camera, and I like to think that these white extras in the deli are staring directly at me. There’s no dialogue, but I can hear a voiceover from Wolfe: Oh, you and your protectionist bullshit were worried I’d add too much whiteness? You want the movie to pretend like there aren’t white men lining both sides of every threshold? Tell you what—maybe the deli extras can fund a diversity fellowship so that the deli can be like every other masthead and website and brochure and panel in this country of ours that’s so comi-tragically entombed by whiteness.
The final wall of whiteness is the most devastating. In a coda that has been added by Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson, the white producers are making a recording with white musicians. No Black musicians appear in the scene. The film’s white walls have closed like a vice and squeezed them out. The Black characters have spent the movie battling, negotiating, and pleading with white characters and also each other, yet the film closes with white musicians occupying the studio as easily as white insurrectionists in the Capitol Building. They’re playing a soulless version of a song written by Chadwick Boseman’s trumpet player, Levee, who was paid a pittance for the rights to the song he wrote. Levee is nowhere near the mic to help author its aural existence. He thought he was the play’s Alice. Turns out he was just an extra in the story of a hit song sung by whites.
That Boseman is absent for both the movie’s coda and also its streaming premiere adds undeniable gravitas. Death is a thick paint. As a character, Levee is textured and then some, smooth yet peppered with stingy ridges, and in seemingly every line, Boseman is able to both find grooves and dwell in ruts.
Yet the collective fascination with Boseman’s performance has overshadowed Wolfe’s significant if quieter accomplishment. Here’s the simplest way I can describe what Wolfe has done: not only has he revived a storied but overlooked text by foregrounding the collision of whiteness and blackness in everything from transitions to conclusions, but he has done so in a year that has featured predominantly Black bodies aligning themselves against walls composed mostly of white bodies. He has directed one of the few August Wilson plays that features white characters and has added even more whiteness, a counter-intuitive move that reinforces August Wilson’s themes while also illustrating the insatiable pointlessness of diversity discussions rooted in tabulation as opposed to interpretation. Given the calendrical juxtaposition of Ma Rainey and Mank as well as my experiences with each director, it’s hard for me to avoid adding an arbitrary win over Fincher to Wolfe’s list of accomplishments. Whereas Fincher wants to burrow into walls so he can peek out, Wolfe has dug white extras into his film like fence posts, knowing full well that the most impenetrable walls are other people. Whereas Fincher destroys anything that hinders his shot, Wolfe stuffs his scene with that which is so peskily indestructible: whiteness.
In this comparison, I’m obviously leaning way too heavily on my personal experiences with these visionaries. Their respective catalogs are oceanic, full of many wall-related shots and scenes that would no doubt quickly refute or reframe my comparison. I’m also heavily, hopelessly influenced by the cultural context in which these films arrive. Filmmaking that artfully eavesdrops from a curated distance carries far less visceral resonance with me in these seditious months than filmmaking that confronts and unearths every infuriating scrap of subtext.
It comes down to what unsettles you. For Fincher, that undisputed king of creep, of anticipatory discomfort, the most unsettling possible shot of Alice is of her falling into the rabbit hole. You don’t know when she’ll land. You don’t know whether the surface she strikes will be soft or hard. Daggersome roots and rocks protrude from the walls, interrupting the shot on purpose to enhance the sensation that Alice may be impaled. Every other intrusive object has been eradicated. It’s imperative that the young woman fall in the most perfectly unsettling way, even if other women are quite literally falling just outside of the shot. The result is a tortured kind of anticipation. The worst is forever just around the corner, whereas for Wolfe, the scary part isn’t the falling. The scary part is the tunnel itself, and not just that its sides are forever narrowing. White faces line the walls.