Stuart Fink is not happy to see me. I'm standing in front of St. Ambrose Catholic Church on the Hill, in the middle of the set for The Game of Their Lives, wearing what I'd hoped would pass for a soccer uniform. I'd aimed to lose myself on the set of a soccer movie, but the scene being shot today, unfortunately, is a funeral, and my get-up contrasts noticeably with all the dark suits and black dresses.
This is my second day on the set in a disguise; the previous afternoon I'd sneaked through a parking lot dressed as a delivery driver -- blue work shirt and pants, carrying a package and a clipboard. It worked: Nobody noticed me.
Right now Fink, the publicist for this movie, is about 100 feet away, standing behind the camera crew as they get ready to shoot a scene inside a barbershop. He sees me as I approach an extra and immediately barrels toward me, his fists clenched at his side. The extra's cell phone rings and he steps away, leaving me alone in the street. I've been on the set less than five minutes.
Fink strides up. "You're not really here, are you?" he huffs through clenched teeth. His ever-present sunglasses don't quite conceal his outrage; he appears ready to pull out his close-cropped gray hair. "You're not really here, are you?" he says again.
I tell him the obvious: that I am, indeed, standing right in front of him.
"Who invited you? Who invited you?" he asks, rocking back and forth on the heels of his bright white leather sneakers. Apparently he thinks I'm a mirage, and that I'll disappear into the St. Louis summer heat if he can just find the right magic words.
"No one invited me, but nobody kept me off, either. I just walked here," I say. (I don't mention that on my way in I bypassed several traffic barricades with "Street Closed" signs attached.)
"Then you're going to have to leave," he says. "Am I going to have to call security? Am I going to have to call security?"
The first time I hear Stuart Fink's voice, it's late June and he's left me a message. I'd called and asked for two weeks of behind-the-scenes access to The Game of Their Lives, the $27 million film about the 1950 World Cup that's being shot right here in River City thanks to the fact that five St. Louisans were members of that legendary U.S soccer squad. I want to meet and talk to the people who get a movie made but don't usually get much attention -- the lighting crew, the extras, the caterers, the hairstylists, the interns who do a little bit of everything. The volunteers who keep gawkers off the set. After all, it's not every day that Hollywood comes to this town.
Fink's recorded voice informs me that two weeks on the set would be out of the question. But he agrees to let me come by one day the following week and talk to a few people. We'll see what else I need after that, he says.
As instructed, I show up on location at Marquette Park, tucked between Grand Avenue and Chippewa Street on the south side. It's a mild day for summer in St. Louis -- sunny, temperature in the 80s, with a warm breeze. Streets all around the park have been closed to traffic, and dozens of late-1940s automobiles line the sidewalks throughout the neighborhood. Extras, dressed in period costume, are everywhere.
I find Fink and introduce myself. He opens his arms in a gesture of mocking gratitude. "My life is complete," he says, his raspy voice inflected with an East Coast accent.
Fink runs a tight ship, coordinating interviews with the stars and director David Anspaugh and providing poorly written press releases. A Los Angeles resident with a pair of sunglasses permanently attached to his tanned face, he has been in the movie business for about fifteen years, he tells me, and does other public-relations work between movie gigs. The biggest movie he has worked on, and the one he mentions over and over, is A League of Their Own, the 1992 opus about women's professional baseball in the 1940s.
All the big movie equipment has been set up in one corner of the park. The sound crew has a big trailer near the spot where shooting will take place. There's a massage tent, the director's tent, the refreshment tent, the actors' tent and a couple of big booms for the cameras. On the sidewalk next to the park, props are piled up -- picnic baskets, antique bicycles, a pair of bright red Radio Flyer wagons. Five or six boys about ten years old are dressed in khaki pants and plaid oxfords for their extra roles, and are playing on the soccer field between takes. Anspaugh, a veteran of the feel-good sports movie (the first feature he directed was Hoosiers, in 1986, and he came back with Rudy seven years later), is huddled beneath a big tent, watching the action on three monitors, attended by a retinue of handlers and attractive young women.
I find Bob Krattiger camped out in the shade on the edge of the park in a lawn chair, a laptop across his legs. Clad in a white muscle shirt and flip-flops, he looks like an aging surfer, right down to the brown feathered hair and bushy mustache. Krattiger is the gaffer, which translates, in layman's terms, to "lighting technician." He doesn't have much to do today. The sun is out, and the cameras are filming a soccer scene and a halftime pep talk.
"I'm pretty much in charge of the lighting. That's what I do," he tells me. "I'm not doing too much today. It's a good chance to catch up on paperwork. But I'm getting ready to get into some serious lighting next week. We've got some late shots next week, and I've got a couple of big trucks coming in from LA, some big lighting trucks."
His Southern Cal ease today is misleading, Krattiger assures me. "It looks like there's a lot of sitting around," he says. "But when the shit hits the fan, you have to be ready to go."
Indeed, there doesn't ever seem to be a time around here when somebody isn't working hard. While Krattiger basks in the sun, Rebecca Bossen, the movie's dialect coach, is standing a few feet from the shoot with a headset pressed into her long, frizzy red hair. Scenes with a lot of dialogue, like the one being shot now, are where the shit hits the fan for her.
"It's complete relaxation, followed by a frenzy," she says. "While people are working hard during every single soccer scene, I just chill out until they're filming scenes with dialogue. Then I listen carefully."
Though she has lived in Chicago for two years, Bossen had never visited St. Louis before shooting began. The long hours on the set haven't allowed her to explore the city as she would like to, or to have much contact with locals, save for the extras and a handful of crew members. But even from that limited exposure, she has found some fascinating linguistic details. Among them: the East Side's hip-hop dialect ("It is what it is -- there's no word for it, but it's very distinctive; it's not even distinctive to St. Louis, just certain communities") and the infamous pronunciation of "Interstate Farty-far."
"I'd heard about that before I came down here, but I didn't believe it," Bossen confides when she mentions the latter. "But it's really like that!"
As I make the rounds, Fink, in his white polo shirt and green baseball cap, keeps a close eye on me, making sure I stay away from the stars and behind the cameras. After a couple of hours, he escorts me to the community center near the park, where the production has set up headquarters, for lunch.
The rec center's gym has been converted into a gigantic cafeteria. A volleyball net divides the room, with the extras, dressed in 1950s garb, on one side, and the cast and crew on the other. An elaborate buffet table lines one wall, with a substantial spread of salad, broiled chicken, pasta, sandwiches and dessert.
A group of actors playing members of the U.S. soccer team is seated at a table in the center of the room. Most of their faces are vaguely recognizable, but their names aren't. Their credits range from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and American Beauty to The Caveman's Valentine and Tomb Raider 2. They're all sweaty underneath their blue, long-sleeved jerseys and heavy wool socks, replicas of the uniforms worn by the 1950 team. A few feet away, an actor dressed in a linesman's black-and-white-striped jersey sits alone, his forehead beaded with sweat and his yellow flag draped across his lap. Not far from him, the three surviving St. Louis natives who were members of the U.S. squad -- Harry Keough, Gino Pariani, and Frank Borghi -- are eating their lunch surrounded by fans and well-wishers, including Zachery Ty Bryan, a former star of the sitcom Home Improvement, who's playing Keough in the movie.
On the other side of the net, the 30 or so extras called in for the day's shoot sit by themselves or in groups of two or three. Al Huebner, dressed in a tan suit culled from the extensive wardrobe that has been set aside for extras, is reading a paperback novel, his tray pushed aside. A brown fedora and a vintage camera rest on the table next to him.
Huebner, a commercial artist, has done some voiceover work for video games and worked as an actor on the Goldenrod showboat in the 1970s. His experience and patience have worked for him here; he expects he'll be in five or six scenes, playing a journalist who's covering the U.S. team. "I brought my old camera to stand out," he notes. "When the call comes, I can rise to the occasion."
The 57-year-old Huebner will be paid $5.15 per hour for his effort. Filming takes up only a small percentage of the time on a movie set, and extras learn early on that most of their time will be spent sitting and waiting. After they're picked, they wait for the call from the casting director, who tells them when to come to the location. Once they get there, get checked in, have their hair and makeup done and get dressed, they must wait to be called to the actual set. Once they're on the set, they wait for filming to start. Then, after all that preparation and anticipation, they're expected not to be noticed.
Most of the more than 100 extras on The Game of Their Lives are only called in for a single day, to fill out the crowd in the stands for a game scene or to pass in the background during a street scene. On a subsequent, unauthorized visit, away from the prying eyes of Fink, I meet Nick Oliveri. The eleven-year-old Clayton resident had been called in that day at 7 a.m., then told his call time was 9 a.m. He waited with his fifteen-year-old brother Michael until late that afternoon to get his moment on camera -- a moment that may well not make it to the final cut.
The boys' parents sat with them in shifts, based on their work schedules, reading and re-reading the Post-Dispatch. "I don't find it exciting at all," says Sheila Oliveri. "I think it's a waste of a day. But they wanted to do it, and in the end they'll write an essay when they go back to school this fall about what they did over the summer, and they'll be able to say, 'I was in a movie.'"
Huebner's role is slightly more substantial. He'll get face-time on camera, however briefly, and will appear in more than one scene. His chance to make it onto the screen is far greater than most of the other extras. But he'll also be on the set for three full days at least, much of it spent outside, sweating in his 1950s costume.
"I don't expect to be walking down the red carpet any time soon," Huebner concedes. "But when the movie comes out, my kids will be able to point to the screen and say, 'Hey, I see Dad way back there!' I'm getting $5.15 an hour. But if they said they wanted me to do it for free, I'd do it for free."
After my first day on the set, Fink agrees to let me come back one more time the following week. But he still has reservations, and a couple of days later I get another voicemail.
"Matthew, it's Stewart Fink," the recording begins. "You've got the phone number. I need to talk to your editor before I can decide whether you're invited back to the set or not. Can you call and leave his or her number?"
When we hook up that afternoon on the phone to discuss my second official visit, Fink explains that he doesn't understand what it was I hadn't been able to get on my first visit. He also frets about the precedent: If he gives me unfettered access, he says, he'll have to allow local radio and television stations the same. And he says he doesn't want the distraction of having me on the set all day long, every day.
He finally relents, saying I can visit the new location for one more day, when the shoot moves from Marquette Park the following week.
(Not that I let Fink's dictates keep me away. Access to the set is tightly controlled, but security is porous. In all, I'd spend a total of five days on several of the film's sets, only a little of that time in "disguise." I simply tell the volunteers at the barricades that I'm a reporter, then act as though I belong on the set, and steer clear of Stuart Fink.)
The day before my sanctioned visit, I go to the set on my own. The new location is at Soldan High School, near the intersection of Delmar and Union Boulevards. The crew is shooting a soccer scene set in New York on the football field, but the production has taken over much of the entire block around the school, including the West End Community Center on Union. Unlike the closed set at Marquette Park, however, here the streets and rec center remain open. The crew has set up headquarters inside the rec center, where neighborhood children and teenagers still come to play basketball, swim or just hang around.
Inside the community center, Stefan Block is sitting quietly at a folding table, eating a piece of cake. A tall, sleepy-looking redhead dressed in ripped blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, Block is outfitted with a headset he uses to communicate with the crew -- and to help drown out the distractions of helping run a film production inside a fully functioning inner-city recreation center.
"At this location, I get hundreds of questions," Block says. "Forty or fifty times a day somebody comes up to me and asks, 'Can I be in the movie? Make me a star!' I just push a button" -- he points to the headset receiver on his belt loop -- "and stare blankly and say, 'Copy that,' and they think I'm doing something important. The other day somebody came up to me and I just started writing down on a piece of paper, 'I can't take this anymore.' It made it look like I was doing something."
Block, a senior in Washington University's film- and media-studies program, has been on the crew for about six weeks, working as an unpaid intern for assistant director Chris Stoia. He's still trying to figure out exactly what his responsibilities are. Some days he's on the set at 5 a.m., checking in extras and herding them into the hairstylist's chair and then passing them on to the wardrobe department. Other times, during night shoots, he's there until 7 a.m. Often he's just wandering around on the set, probably doing something important but always looking a little lost.
"It's been OK," he reports. "I'm losing my mind today. I'm still having fun, but I was here nineteen and a half hours yesterday. And I've become a smoker. Just that set culture, you know?"
Because he works so closely with the extras, who specialize in sitting around and waiting, there's a lot of downtime for Block. So far today, he says, he has read 100 pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated. But as with Krattiger the gaffer and Bossen the dialogue coach, the sitting-and-waiting is punctuated by frenetic bursts of activity.
"The mornings and evenings are crazy," Block says. "All of yesterday was hard. Some days I stay on my feet all day."
Just then, as if to prove the point, he's interrupted by a (real) voice on his headset. Shooting is about to start on the football field, and the extras for the scene need to be there.
"Copy that," he says. And then to me: "I have a job to do. It'll be about one minute long."
He disappears around the corner to corral his extras.
In St. Louis there's a sentimental attachment to The Game of Their Lives, owing to the fact that its story, based on a 1996 book of the same name by Geoffrey Douglas, revolves around the lives of a handful of local players from the 1950 national team that upset England 1-0 in a World Cup match, for perhaps the most dramatic win in U.S. soccer history.
But nostalgia has little to do with the selection of St. Louis as the site for filming. Last fall Crusader Entertainment contacted the Missouri Film Commission to scout locations, particularly on the Hill, where four of the five local players hailed from. When director Anspaugh came to town with a location crew, he liked what he saw and made a tentative agreement with the commission to film the bulk of the movie here. (The climactic game scenes will be shot in Brazil, in the stadium where the actual tilt took place.)
Jerry Jones, director of the film commission, estimates The Game of Their Lives could mean a $67 million boost to the local economy, based on what he says is an industry-standard formula of multiplying production costs by two or two and a half. (Last fall, when the movie had a projected budget of $40 million, the commission announced that the economic impact could be as big as $100 million.) Jones also hopes this production will lead to more movies being shot in Missouri. But the producers picked St. Louis over cheaper locations in Canada (which has siphoned much of the U.S. movie production business in recent years, thanks to generous tax incentives and a concerted effort by local governments) for one simple reason: its look.
At Marquette Park, a few 1940s cars, the majority donated by local classic-car aficionados in return for parts as extras, are parked around the block (many strategically placed to block modern conveniences such as garbage dumpsters and satellite dishes). Bleachers appropriate to the era were constructed, a retro scoreboard installed. At Soldan, with Union Avenue Christian Church looming in the background, the only major alteration is a period scoreboard. Aside from that, the producers are satisfied that t he St. Louis cityscape that'll be visible in the background looks just like it would have a half-century ago.
"They came to the conclusion that St. Louis was the only place that looks like St. Louis in the 1950s," says Bryan Schmidt, a St. Louis resident working as a location assistant on Game. "Some of the houses had storm windows, so they covered them with paint or tape, and the city repainted the fire hydrants black because that's the color they were in the 1950s. That's basically all they had to do."
Of course, that's something of a backhanded compliment, but it's one that has followed St. Louis filmmaking for years. In the early 1980s, the city was picked to stand in for a nuclear war-ravaged New York in John Carpenter's Escape from New York. And while the heartwarming family scenes of the 1987 Steve Martin/John Candy vehicle Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were filmed in Chicago, grim, far-from-home-during-the-holidays scenes were shot at Lambert International Airport, the old bus station downtown and on Interstate 70. Dogtown was the setting for the working-class romance White Palace in 1992. The Depression-era film King of the Hill, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was filmed here, too, in 1993; like The Game of Their Lives, King of the Hill is set in St. Louis, and like Game the city was chosen because not-so-benign neglect has kept so much of the place looking just as it used to.
The opening shot for National Lampoon's Vacation is a depressing overhead view of the Eads Bridge. Gary Gonder, who was director of the Missouri Film Commission from 1984 to 1992, admits that the Vacation shot isn't one of his proudest moments: "I never include that in my list of credits."
Anspaugh's work on Hoosiers and Rudy give the current movie some pedigree. But despite its high profile here, The Game of Their Lives is by no means a major motion picture. The cast is made up almost entirely of up-and-coming actors (with John Harkes, a veteran of the U.S. national soccer team, and Gavin Rossdale of the British rock band Bush, making their debuts). Alongside Home Improvement vet Bryan as Harry Keough, Gerard Butler, whose biggest credit is the post-apocalyptic dragon epic Reign of Fire, plays Frank Borghi, while fellow St. Louisans Charlie Columbo and Gino Pariani are played by brothers Costas and Louis Mandylor, respectively. The film's sole big-name star is longtime character actor John Rhys-Davies, who recently portrayed Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings films; here he has a small role as a coach.
Back at Soldan, trailers emblazoned "MOVIES IN MOTION: TRANSPORTATION FOR THE STARS" line Union Avenue and its side streets. Nearer the athletic field, dozens of old cars are parked along the sidewalk beside new SUVs and sedans. In spite of the heat, teenagers leaving the rec center and residents of the surrounding neighborhood are standing around, occasionally asking busy crew members how they can get a part in the movie. One woman, about 60 years old, pulls her car to the curb and asks what the movie is about. When she's told, she wonders if the World Cup tournament was played at Soldan. She was one of the first African-American students there in the early 1950s, she says, and thought they might be able to find a part for her.
On the field, the scene is like a military maneuver, with large booms, immense light-reflecting tarps suspended twenty feet off the ground, actors in period costume kicking heavy brown leather soccer balls around between takes, grubby tech-crew members running back and forth and two dozen extras in the stands. There's a tent for the extras to sit under, another with cold drinks and snacks, another for Anspaugh and his assistants and another for the sound crew. There's even an old bus parked on the west side of the field; during the shoot, it's moved forward about ten feet to fit better in the frame.
All this infrastructure, of course, will disappear from the final cut. Even more impressive is the efficiency with which it's moved from shot to shot. The tents are picked up, followed by all the equipment. The booms are driven from one corner of the field to another. It's like watching roadies set up an arena rock concert -- over and over again, all day long. In between, they continue to perform highly technical, labor-intensive work.
Today's scene is set in New York, with the U.S. soccer team playing a warm-up match against a semipro club. It's only about 45 seconds long -- a shot by the opposing team into the national team's net, a short shouting match among the frustrated U.S. players and then an announcement by team captain Walter Bahr, played by Wes Bentley, that his team has had enough. "That's it. That's game. Thank you, gentlemen," will be the scene's only audible line. It's rehearsed again and again, then shot from several different angles -- as are the ball being kicked into the goal, the New York players celebrating and the fans in the crowd applauding.
At one point Anspaugh, seated in his director's tent and watching the scene unfold on three monitors in front of him, informs Bentley he needs to sound more winded when he delivers his line. Already drenched in sweat, Bentley dashes from the field to Anspaugh's tent, tags one of the poles and holds his pose for a second or two, then races back to the field for the next take. The small crowd inside the tent laughs. "That's Wes getting winded," someone says.
All told, the brief scene takes half a day to shoot. The camera work has been preceded by hours of preparation -- research on the period sets and costumes, actors learning and rehearsing their lines, camera operators and lighting crew setting up, the sound crew finding the perfect spot. Not to mention the weeks of soccer training, the catering, the dry cleaning and laundry, the site preparation, the hotel accommodations, travel plans, street closings and rec-center reservations. Ideally, none of that advance work will be discernable in the final product. The boom mikes will stay out of the frame, the dry-cleaning tags will be removed from the shirtsleeves and none of the foreign-born actors will speak with an accent.
"It's hard," says Bossen, cracking open a bottle of water and trying to find some shade. "There's some glamour and glitz, all the things you'd expect on a movie set. But you can't lose sight of the fact that we're working really, really hard. There are moments that all I wish for is a nice air-conditioned room. But we've got something good here. Movies are so much about entertainment and showing everybody a good time, or saying something with a film, but there's so much work involved that you never see. This is my first movie, and I can appreciate it in a different way now."
I'm about to appreciate it in a different way as well. When the scene is finished, the actors rush to our tent for cold drinks. Fink stands at my shoulder, apparently worried about the potential for celebrity dirt. The actors, covered in sweat and grime, swarm under the tent to get out of the sun and dig inside the nearby coolers for ice to rub on their faces and necks. Bentley lies down on the grass. Amid the noise, more than a few of the talent are heard commenting about the weather, as in: "It's fucking hot."
At this Fink leans over. "Matthew, I think you have everything you need, so I'm going to ask you to leave the set."