An Extra in Ubud: On the Set of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Travel Stories: Liz Sinclair gets her Hollywood moment in Indonesia, but the job is far from glamorous

12.02.09 | 10:43 AM ET

A temple in Ubud, iStockPhoto

Being an extra in a movie sounds glamorous, but in reality it consists of long hours and a lot of standing and waiting.

Columbia Pictures is currently filming an adaptation of the best-selling book “Eat, Pray, Love” at locations around Bali. The movie stars Julia Roberts as the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Javier Bardem as her love interest, Felipe.

I went to a casting call in Ubud a month ago, had my photo taken and a few weeks later received a phone call. The production was shooting a scene in the Ubud Market and needed foreigners to play tourists. “Bring three changes of clothes and a market bag. You can’t take cameras or phones,” said the woman on the phone. “Oh, and bring sunglasses, too.” She told me to arrive at Pura Dalem, in Peliatan, by 6 a.m.

On the day, I arrived by taxi with some friends, Andy, Sylvie and their daughters, who were also extras. The parking lot next to the Pura Dalem was crammed with trailers. Dozens of people, American and Javanese, with earpieces and walkie-talkies clipped to their belts, scurried like ants. One of the trailers contained the film’s wardrobe. I saw floral dresses for Wayan (the herbal healer) and khaki pants and a panama hat for Felipe.

A woman at the registration desk across the road gave us green plastic passes, with the words “Eat Pray Love Extras” printed on them. “Wear these at all times,” she said.

A food tent was set up next to the desk, with chairs full of Balinese extras, and warmers and plates with Indonesian food on tables. The woman saw me wave at an Indonesian friend. “Breakfast for foreigners is across the street, with the cast and crew,” she said.

Inside Pura Dalem, Bali Good Food Catering was serving Western food. Cast and crew were already in line, getting breakfast. The Hamiltons and I filled our plates with fruit, eggs, French toast, bacon and sausages.

As we ate, Haggarty (“We go by last names on the set”) gave us a brief preview of the day. Extras had to sign consent forms and weren’t allowed to talk to actors or take photos.

Haggarty asked people wearing visible logos to change. He explained the studio wasn’t allowed to show corporate logos unless they’d signed a contract to display the brand. He was also checking clothing colors, to make sure no one clashed with the principal actors.

We were then bused to a small guesthouse (the “holding area”) across the street from Ubud Market. We waited, sitting in small groups, talking or reading. A tent was set up with tea, coffee and food. A man distributed nasi bunkus (take-away rice) to the Balinese extras. At 10 a.m., a man named Emil counted us off into groups. He took one group across to the set, then a second. My friends and I were left to wait.

After an hour, Andy and I decided to watch the filming. We crossed the road and snuck onto the set. We wound up next to a video monitor inside a shuttered shop. We peered out through sarongs, T-shirts and baskets hanging on the walls. I could see Bardem and Roberts walking through the market, practicing their lines.

Crew members positioned extras around the set, singly and in pairs, according to height and build. I noticed that the crew often paired Japanese and Chinese, or Korean and Chinese extras together. A man walked around, taking digital photos. When I asked, he told me he was in charge of ensuring background continuity. Dozens of crew members were moving cameras and huge baskets of fruit around in a seemingly random ballet, speaking constantly into their earpieces.

A Balinese shop owner told me she had received no fees for her lost business. “There was some money paid,” she said, “but it went to the market temple.”

At midday, the foreign extras were bused back to Pura Dalem for lunch. The Balinese extras remained in the holding area. Lunch was a healthy spread of fresh salads, grilled vegetables, fish and focaccia sandwiches, with freshly-baked biscotti for desert. “Gee, are we in California or Ubud?” Andy asked.

After lunch, we returned by bus to the set. The bus got stuck in a traffic jam on Ubud’s main road. Haggarty asked the driver to open the door and let him out. The driver refused and Haggarty asked again, raising his voice. “We’re at a cultural impasse,” said an Indonesian-speaking extra who was talking to the driver. “If he lets you out, he’s afraid he’ll be in trouble with the police.” Finally, the bus reached the set and we all disembarked, and returned to wait in the holding area.

At 1 p.m., Emil finally called my group. As I entered the set, I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a local journalist I knew. “Are you an extra?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’ve crashed the set to get some pictures,” he said. But security had overheard him. “Are you an extra? Where’s your badge?” someone asked him. He turned and walked quickly back into the market, but two heavy-set security men followed him.

Haggarty placed me in front of a woodcarving stall, and told me to pretend to shop. Which I did, over and over, as the director called for multiple rehearsals.

Suddenly, Haggarty reappeared, “You,” he said to me. He looked at Mary, the extra next to me, “And you. Come with me.” He led us by the shoulders to the far side of the set. I looked up and saw Roberts and Bardem standing, chatting, nearby in the shadows. “Stand on the ‘mark,’” Haggarty said. He pointed to a piece of duct tape on the ground. Cameras are focused on the mark, so if an extra isn’t in the right place, she won’t be in focus. “Walk over to me. Pretend you’re looking at these shirts,” he said. “But don’t talk, just pantomime. They’re recording dialogue in this scene.” Haggarty went to stand over in the shadows, under a boom that held a camera.

I heard “Action!” Mary and I started walking. “No, No!” I heard Haggarty yelling. I looked up to see him waving his arms at us, “Wait until they say, ‘Background,’ ” he said. (No one had actually told us this.) Mary and I both froze. Then I heard someone yell, “Background!” We started walking again, but we were off the mark. I looked ahead and realized that I was about to collide with Bardem. I heard Mary gasp. “I almost tripped Julia Roberts,” she whispered.

Somehow, we managed to navigate around the two stars, who walked on, speaking their lines, ignoring us. The director yelled, “Cut!”

The stars walked back to their marks. Mary disappeared. I couldn’t see Haggarty. I had no idea what to do, so I returned to the woodcarving stall, where I found Mary. She told me the director had seen her in a previous scene, in a different part of the market, and for reasons of continuity, she couldn’t appear in another scene.

For the next few hours, the extras walked back and forth, pretending to be tourists shopping. I wanted to buy some durian, which filled several nearby baskets, but had to keep looking at carvings. My feet started to hurt. The occasional real tourist wandered onto the set, unaware of the movie, only to be removed by security.

Finally, filming ended. The crew started to dismantle the set. Emil called out, “All extras return to the holding area.” Roberts and Bardem were whisked into cars by bodyguards wielding open umbrellas to protect them from photographers, and driven away. I went to buy some durian, and found that the crew had given all the fruit, which were pre-purchased props, to the Balinese shop owners.

I went back to the holding area. A few extras who hadn’t been used yet were driven off to a coffee shop for the next scene. An accountant paid the rest of us. It was five o’clock: We’d been waiting, eating and walking for 11 hours. The foreigners received $100, foreign kids $50 and the Balinese extras were paid $20 (half-day) to $50 (full day). In the end, my friends hadn’t been in a single scene. “At least we got paid,” Sylvie said. “But it would have been fun to have been in the movie.”

Australia-based Liz Sinclair is living in Bali, learning Indonesian, volunteering as a grant writer for a maternal and child health center for the poor and writing about Australia and Asia, with an emphasis on Indonesia and interfaith issues. She has written for The Melbourne Age, The Big Issue, Australia, The Brunei Times, The Evening Standard and Islands magazine.

3 Comments for An Extra in Ubud: On the Set of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Terry 12.02.09 | 5:04 PM ET

Interesting to read, Liz. I’ll watch the movie if you’re in it, but otherwise I’m more convinced than ever to give it a pass!

pelu 12.07.09 | 6:42 AM ET

Imressive yarn. I’ll hunt for the book, read it and then wait anxiously for the film (because it’s Julia Roberts) to do decide which is better. I’ve always loved to fo that.

Kelsey 12.10.09 | 11:57 AM ET

“The foreigners received $100, foreign kids $50 and the Balinese extras were paid $20 (half-day) to $50 (full day).”

That’s unsettling.

Of course, maybe that’s a function of supply and demand. There are way more Balinese than foreigners.  Also, Liz, would you have worked as an extra for $20?

Too often tourists think they are worth more than the people who live in the country they are visiting.  Now Hollywood has put a number to it. Tourists are worth twice what locals are worth.

I’m still unsettled.

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