An extra for the day: My time on set in a 1980s gay nightclub

Ted West (David de Latour) and Bilkey (Todd Emerson) in the gay nightclub scene. I'm visible by Emerson's shoulder.
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Ted West (David de Latour) and Bilkey (Todd Emerson) in the gay nightclub scene. I'm visible by Emerson's shoulder.

There was no music in the club; the only sound was the shuffling of the dancers' feet.

They wore strange clothes, these silent dancers. String vests, tight shorts, lurid baggy jackets, lycra leggings, leotards. The hair was big, the shoulder pads bigger.

Away from the dancefloor, similarly dressed patrons were sat at tables smoking cigarettes. Mouths moved, hands fluttered, but there was no conversation.

The outfit included a pretty great silk scarf and a red women's blouse.
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The outfit included a pretty great silk scarf and a red women's blouse.

If someone had wandered in off the street to get a drink, they might have wondered what was going on.

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The fake cigarettes we were given burned just like the real thing.
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The fake cigarettes we were given burned just like the real thing.

But peering through the haze of cigarette smoke, the swirling coloured lights, they might have seen cameras, monitors, lighting technicians, make-up artists with brushes at the ready. They might have heard a director yell, "Cut".

We were filming a scene for TV3 drama Westside.

THE TIME-TRAVELLING TOURIST

British writer LP Hartley wrote: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

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For me, a child of the 90s, the 1980s might as well be Brunei. It is an unfamiliar, mysterious place; the pastel-shrouded land of aerobics and tape decks and the mullet and Ferris Bueller.

But last year, I was given the opportunity to be a tourist in the past. Westside, the Outrageous Fortune prequel series currently set in 1982, was filming, and I was invited to be an extra.

When I agreed to the gig, I had no idea what sort of scene I'd be in. Closer to the filming date, I found out I'd be a punter at an underground gay nightclub.

"This is going to be embarrassing," I thought, already imagining myself being made to wear something outrageous.

I'm really not proud of that reaction, but maybe it indicates there's still some kind of stigma around being gay in New Zealand. Which is awful, but perhaps not that surprising when you consider that we only legalised it 30 years ago.

Until 1986, men could be jailed for having sex with each other. Of course, they didn't let that stop them. There were underground nightclubs where men could go to meet others, have a drink, and dance.

In Westside, Ted West's gang of West Auckland ruffians decide to rob one of these bars. Because homosexuality is illegal, they know the bar's owners will be unable to complain to police.

But the situation is complicated by the fact that one of the gang's members, Bilkey (played by Todd Emerson), is gay, and a regular at the bar. His knowledge of the club and its layout is crucial to the heist's success, but he's torn between his crew and the only community that accepts him for who he is.

My first exposure to the world of Westside was through the costume room at South Pacific Pictures - the production company behind Westside, Shortland Street and a bunch of other Kiwi TV - in Henderson, Auckland.

The costume room looked and smelled like an op-shop - and in fact, that's where most of the clothes came from.

There were old leather jackets, bleached denim, leopard print crop tops, chunky white trainers, and some jackets that just defy description.

I was not the only extra there for a fitting; several other guys came, tried on a pair of hot pants and a string vest, and went. Maddie, the costume fitter, asked me which talent agency I was with. I blushed.

She looked me up and down and went to the rack, where she found me a pair of tight, striped and slightly flared jeans, a white singlet, and a bright red women's blouse. To complete the look I wore a colourful silk scarf tied French-style and pinned with a brooch around my neck.

Is this what people actually wore in the 80s? I don't know. The costume department had a mood board up that they'd populated with clippings from 80s gay pride magazines. One of the models wore a scarf just like mine.

Filming took place several days later in the basement of Toto's Pizza on Auckland's Nelson St.

The production had set up their base at a nearby school, with three massive trucks parked up with all the gear. Cast and crew parked there and a van took us down to the restaurant.

When I arrived I was greeted by Luka, one of the producers. He was Croatian and had an earpiece, a clipboard and a goatee. "If you think I talk strange, you're right," he told me.

Luka took me upstairs to a room where all the other extras were sitting around big round tables. There were around 50 of them, and they were all dressed in their 80s kit, with hair sprayed up and makeup painted on.

Bizarrely, they were all sitting in silence. Production was filming in an adjacent room separated by a thin curtain; any noise might be picked up by the mics and ruin the take.

I watched as an extra carefully, silently shook a bottle of water, and thought about how awkward it would be to see someone you kind of knew here.

When filming was done I was given a couple of minutes to meet the busiest guy on set: director Murray Keane.

Keane was huge and stern-looking. He wore stubbies and swore profusely. He asked me if I'd been practicing my 80s dance moves; I hadn't.

A veteran of New Zealand television, Keane used to be an actor, with roles on Away Laughing and Peter Jackson's Braindead, among other projects. 

He made the switch to directing in the 90s, and since then you'd be hard pressed to name a major New Zealand television show he hasn't been involved in. Shortland Street, The Tribe, Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons, Nothing Trivial, Go Girls, Agent Anna, and now Westside - Keane's directed episodes of them all.

He was planning to get six to eight minutes of footage from the evening, which meant more than 10 hours of work for cast and crew.

Keane explained that Westside is a one-camera show, meaning it's shot on only one camera at a time. This is more time-consuming than filming with two cameras, which is what Shortland Street does, but it yields better results; prettier shots, more chances for the actors to really nail their lines.

After a good hour of pretty much sitting in silence, it was time to start shooting our scenes. The extras - all 50 of us, in a range of fabulous costumes - descended the narrow staircase into Toto's basement.

There were so many crew members it was hard to keep track of who was doing what. One guy started splitting the extras up into groups and giving us tasks to perform: propping up the bar, dancing, grinding on a couch. I was kind of relieved to be sat down at a table opposite another extra.

I never got the guy's name, but found out this wasn't his first extra gig - in fact, he was pretty much a professional. A non-speaking role as a policeman in the Pork Pie remake was a career highlight.

He wasn't the only veteran extra in the nightclub scene. Some of them had been in so many South Pacific Pictures productions they were on first-name terms with crew members.

I was told to pretend I was on a date with the guy sitting across from me. We were to be engaged in a close conversation - the thing was, we couldn't actually voice any words.

The scene we were filming, where Bilkey (Todd Emerson) and Ted West (David de Latour) have an uncomfortable conversation about the former's sexuality, needed to be done in complete silence so the boom mic would only pick up the actors' lines.

That meant our intimate conversation was entirely mimed. I kept mouthing, 'Yeah, I know, right?'

I can't remember how many takes director Keane wanted, but I do remembering him ending each one by thundering "cut" so loudly it echoed off the basement's ceiling. 

What was remarkable, to me, is that not a single one of the takes needed to be redone because the actors fluffed their lines. The multiple takes were simply to get different camera angles.

The camera, by the way, needs a paragraph of its own. It was a monster, suspended from this plastic thing shaped like a scorpion's tail that was strapped to the cameraman's waist. The camera hung in front of his face.

I suppose the point of the rig is to keep the thing steady, but it left me in awe of the cameraman's core strength. He must have had abs of steel.

Between takes the crew swarmed over the set, refilling glasses of drink to the right levels and touching up the leads' make-up. Some of the extras - myself included - were given fake cigarettes to smoke.

These prop cigarettes were visually indistinguishable from the real thing, but they didn't (we were told) contain any tobacco. For continuity, I had to light a new one for every take, so by the end my mouth felt like sandpaper.

They also filled the room with a gross fog of smoke. I'm glad that back in 2017, we've banned smoking indoors.

After we'd finished the scene it was time for dinner. One of the sweet perks of working as an extra on these things, I'm told, is you usually get a good feed. The Westside dinner didn't disappoint. There were steaks. There was pasta.

The scenes I was there for were now done, but I went back down into the basement to watch when filming resumed on another scene.

Noticing me standing around (still in costume, by the way), Keane sat me in his directors chair and told me to call "cut" on the scenes.

This sounds like a pretty simple job, but there's actually a little more to it than you might think. My first call, Keane said, was too early. His rule of thumb is to wait a heartbeat after where he feels the scene ends; it's far better to have a second too much footage than be a second short.

My second attempt left it too long, however, and Keane, clearly realising we'd be here all night if I was left in charge, took over again.

I got to slip out not long afterwards. I felt pretty drained; it's amazing how much waiting around takes it out of you. But compared to some of the other extras, I was getting off pretty easy. Some of them - and the rest of the cast and crew - were due to stay on past 2am.

The thought of silently partying into the wee hours didn't particularly appeal to me. I was glad to get out into the cool night air, in my regular clothes, in 2016.

Jack's episode of Westside screens on TV3, August 7, 8.30pm.

 - Stuff

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