SARATOGA SPRINGS - They made him shave off a mustache that took 20 years to grow. Then they wanted him to stand out in the cold for 16 hours. Joe Cavallo say it’s a small price to pay. Just maybe, his 15 minutes of fame will be come, to be witnessed by millions of moviegoers when “Seabiscuit” premieres next year.
After months of preparation, the gang’s all here.
Tuesday marked the first of five consecutive days of filming for the movie “Seabiscuit” -
the first major motion picture filmed here since Robert Redford brought “The Horse Whisperer” crew to Saratoga Springs in 1997.
While star-gazing fans were reduced to peeking through the gates on the closed sets at Saratoga Race Course and Congress Park, a number of regional extras were privy to the goings on inside.
Movie "extra" David Kieserman of Saratoga Springs, word came late Monday that he was in.
“I got the call to report the night before, to come down at 5:30 on Tuesday morning,” said Kieserman, who had already gotten his hair cut to fit the 1930s era, and was ready to go.
“We picked up our costumes and had a very nice breakfast. They laid out a big buffet, then transported us to the other side of the track,” he said.
Much of a day in the life of an extra is spent doing a lot of waiting around.
“We’re doing background and atmosphere scenes,” Kieserman said of his role. “And doing
some scenes behind the principal actors.”
Those principals include Tobey Maguire, cast in the role of jockey Red Pollard; Jeff Bridges,
who portrays Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard; and actress Elizabeth Banks, playing
Howard’s wife, Marcella.
During these daylong shoots, more than 100 actors and crew are at work in the general area.
Kieserman said despite all the down time in a close space to one another, communication with the lead actors is discouraged.
“They all have their staff people around them and they make a point of saying ‘Don’t touch the horses, and don’t talk to the stars.’ Of course, if you have a speaking role, you can talk to them.”
Wendy Goodman Thum, one of the Kentucky-based extra casting associates for “Seabiscuit.”
scouted Spa City eateries and high- traffic areas a week prior to when shooting began looking
for extras to cast.
“We tried to use real horse people from the area, and that was a plus,” said Thum.
“We are delighted to be able to draw on local talent.”
For professional actors like Kieserman, belonging to unions like SAG is a necessary part of
“It costs $1,200 to join SAG. After you join, the monthly dues are approximately $66,” he said. His paycheck per movie depends on whether or not he has a speaking role, for which he is paid more.
SAG is upfront about the the lure of fame for its members.
“The truth behind the clichŽs of struggling actors awaiting their ‘big break’ for countless years are only too painfully true,” according to the organization’s Web site. “About 90 percent of our membership must rely on income outside of the acting profession for food and shelter.”
Still, for actors like Kieserman, it is a long-term alliance. He estimates that he has been in
about 40 films, from speaking roles in the Woody Allen films “Broadway Danny Rose” and
“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” to a role in “Ghostbusters II.”
The tedium often associated with the life of an extra is rewarded with time on the big screen and memories.
Kieserman recalled one particularly memorable break during the filming of “The Way We Were” that resulted in a spontaneous game of football on location at Schenectady’s Union College with the movie’s principal actor Robert Redford.
Joe Cavallo is interested in making new memories.
“You can’t say whether you’ll end up on the cutting room floor, or on the big screen,
but you know, I got a shot at it,” he said.
Cavallo - “which in Italian means horse” he says - found himself in the middle of some major players during the filming of “Seabiscuit” at Saratoga Race Course this week.
“The shooting was on the main track, with Unit 1. And if you’re working on Unit 1, you’re
with all the hot shots and the main director,” he said.
Cavallo exchanged pleasantries with Jeff Bridges, hung out with actress Elizabeth Banks and talked shop with director Frank Ross and actor Chris Cooper.
“I talked with Chris about his character in ‘American Beauty’ and told Frank Ross how much
I liked his film ‘Pleasantville.’ He wrote the screenplay and directed that film, just like
he’s doing for ‘Seabiscuit,”‘ Cavallo said.
During Cavallo’s first day of filming, California jockey Rick Frazier - who is playing lead star Tobey Maguire’s double - was filmed in some horse riding action.
“Then they filmed Tobey riding while Jeff Bridges (as Charles Howard) and Banks
(portraying Howard’s wife, Marcella) checked the horse out. It’s an authentic Saratoga scene, they actually bought the horse here,” Cavallo said. “My job during the shoot was to walk up to the rail with a racing form from 1935 just as Tobey’s horse was going by.
“On Wednesday morning, they shot (the character) ‘Red’ being dragged by a horse across the Oklahoma Track,” Cavallo continued. “The afternoon shoot took about four hours and concentrated on Red lying on the ground with a broken leg.
In that scene, I’m 10 to 15 feet away. My job was to rush up to him, and then quickly
back off as this 1936 Packard ambulance comes flying down the lane,” Cavallo said.
“It was pretty funny. They were throwing leaves down and bringing in buckets of ‘blood’ to make the scene authentic as the ambulance is racing across. There must have been 11 or 12 takes and we were saying ‘well, what if he doesn’t hit the brakes. What if this car goes out of control?”‘ Cavallo laughed.
The vehicle used for the ambulance was bought and restored for about $30,000 by a Connecticut family who owns an ambulance service.
“On Thursday we froze our butts off. Let me tell you, they killed us,” Cavallo bristled at the memory of the frosty day. “It was so cold during the shoot we were begging for space heaters. But you know, sitting right there with us was Chris McCarron. Here’s this guy, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, hanging out with us.”
The 47-year old McCarron amassed more earnings than any other jockey in history at the
time of his retirement in June. Still, Cavallo cringes when remembering the feeling, or lack of
feeling in his feet.
“You have these 1930s shoes which have no lining. They’re just straight leather. The feeling
in your toes, that was the worst part.” Or so he thought.
As the long day grew into night, Cavallo found the mounting call of nature impossible to put off much longer. Waiting for a pause in between shots, he seized the opportunity.
“I told one of the assistant directors that I really needed to use the bathroom,” he said.
The breaks in-between filming were fairly long, so Cavallo figured he had plenty of time.
What he didn’t plan on was finding an easy way to slip out of, and then back into his 1930s costume.
“I was wearing an outfit that had suspenders and loops and button pants topped by a three-quarter length coat,” he said. After eventually solving the mystery, he returned to the set.
“Finally, I start heading back to where we’re shooting the scene and I see (extra) Tom Curley just sitting there smiling. The cast is there and the director is there and they’re all pointing at me and laughing, so I said ‘Hey, what’s everybody laughing about?’ Curley looks at me
and says ‘Guess who everybody’s waiting for?”‘
Cavallo’s involvement in the film came as a lucky stroke of coincidence. He was at talking
with a friend Lisa Burke when she mentioned she was working as the local “extra casting” liaison for “Seabiscuit.”
“I said to her geez, you know, I always wanted to be in the movies. So as a joke, she says ‘OK, stand right there and I’ll take your picture.’ I stood against a wall right there in my house, and she snapped a shot. When they called me up a few days later, I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘You gotta be kidding me!”‘
One of the first things Cavallo was warned about were the long pauses in between the action. “They told us there may be as many as five or six hours a day when you’re not doing anything, so I brought along (Laura Hillenbrand’s) book “Seabiscuit” to read. I was standing next to Elizabeth Banks and we were watching them filming a scene. I asked her if she would sign my copy of the book. That’s how this whole thing started.”
During the course of his days on the set, Cavallo enlisted the help of Jeff Bridges’ hairstylist, Tobey Maguire’s makeup person and the kindness of the film crew who filled the book with their signatures.
“Jeff Bridges is just a great guy. He walked right over and started talking to everybody. They were all such wonderfully friendly people,” Cavallo said.
Chris Cooper inscribed his character’s name “Tom Smith” beneath his signature, and Rick Frazier signed on as “Red’s Double.” There are also inscriptions from producer Kathleen Kennedy and jockey Chris McCarron.
The most challenging autograph to get was Tobey Maguire’s. Attaining the star’s signature became an interesting sub-plot among the extras who rooted Cavallo on as the moment of
“I spoke to Maguire’s makeup person and handed her the book,” he said.
“Tobey was sitting in a van along the backstretch and getting ready for a shot.
We were all watching. She took the book with her up to Tobey and fixed his makeup, and paused. He asked her ‘Is there something you want me to do?’ We were all watching from 50 yards away in the background. She said to him ‘I would really like it if you could sign this book.’ And as he took the book to sign it, we were all like yes, yes, yes. We had a lot of fun,” Cavallo said, pointing to Maguire’s signature with the name “Red” scrawled beneath it.
“For me it was a real eye-opening experience,” Cavallo said of the shoot.
“I have so much admiration for the crew people and all the assistants and the directors.
They are there at 3 in the morning and they don’t leave until 8 or 9 at night.
It’s unbelievable how they keep their sense of humor and are so friendly through it all.”
In one of his scenes, Cavallo played a clocker, positioning himself on track’s rail. Next to him, Chris Cooper portrayed trainer Tom Smith. Cavallo marveled at Cooper’s acting ability. As scene after scene was reshot, Cavallo watched and learned from Cooper’s reactions, body movements and gestures. It was dawning on Cavallo that he was in the middle of some big Hollywood doings, when after one particular scene, some assistants came over to mark him.
“When you’re in the camera’s view,” Cavallo said, “they mark you, and give you a number.
My number is S-72. They come up and take a polaroid photo so if they need to re-shoot the scene they know who you are and exactly what you were wearing.”
One scene filmed late into Thursday night will remain with Cavallo for a long time.
“What they were trying to do was recreate daylight, in the early morning hours.
They brought in tons of smoke. The guy who was spraying it - his name was Frank - and (director) Ross is saying ‘more smoke Frank, more smoke - smoke ‘em, smoke ‘em,
smoke ‘em to death,’ and they filled the whole track.
It was an incredible shot. It looked just like it does in those late August, early September mornings at the track,” Cavallo said.
“(Producer) Kathleen Kennedy was there and she came right up to me - she knew I had
worked there years ago - and she said ‘Is this how it was?’
I told her it was just like I remembered it. She said that was exactly what they were trying to do.
“I worked at the track when I was a kid and it looked exactly like it was then. There was a
big fog hanging over everything, as if the sun had risen but you can’t really see anything yet. And slowly, as it starts to get lighter outside you can hear the faint sounds of hoof-beats in the distance,” he said. "It was an incredible scene.”by Thomas Dimopoulos published in The Saratogian, Nov. 1-3, 2002.