The highlight of our two-month stay in Paris this summer, hands down, was the day and a half Jan and I spent as extras for a film being made for the Paris Opera Ballet.
We had short roles but fairly prominent ones — we’re the first people you see when La Grande Sortie (“The Grand Exit”) opens, two Americans arguing gently about why they’re late as they run up to a queue of well-dressed Parisians waiting to enter the theater.
The 10-minute film was written and directed by Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager, who is increasingly well known in the theater world, both as a still photographer and as a director of short films centered on the world of entertainment.
La Grande Sortie is one of the first works to be included in the Paris Opera’s “3e scène” (“3rd Stage”), the digital extension of the opera ballet championed by the choreographer and director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied. Born in Bordeaux, raised in Senegal, he is best known in the United States as a former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and the husband of actress Natalie Portman. (We saw an HD video of his Daphnis et Chloë, music by Ravel, at the Sarasota Opera a couple of weeks ago and thought it was magnificent. It was recorded before he became head of the ballet in 2013.)
If you are seriously interested in music and the arts, as we are, the opportunity to spend a day on and around the main stage of the Opéra Bastille made the time and effort worthwhile. It’s a huge rush to be inside the magnificent 2,700-seat hall when there’s no performance going on — just dozens of costume assistants, staff, electricians and other backstage folk, plus some very complicated camera setups — the nuts and bolts which, put together in just the right configuration, make up the pinnacle of international ballet and opera.
What’s a figurant?
We were among 72 figurants, as extras are known in French, and among five who received special mention in the titles because we had speaking roles. (See the slide headed “Avec” (“With”) near the end of the film.)
The film was shot over three days but we were involved in only one, Sunday, June 20, when the audience and exterior shots were filmed. The day before, we were called to a studio near the opera for costume selection, which went smoothly and took most of the afternoon. It left just enough time for a nice dinner in Le Café Bastille, a bistro around the corner from the opera.
Sunday started very early. Uber picked us up at our apartment in Montparnasse at 5 a.m. and delivered us back there fourteen hours later.
First stop when we arrived was the large ballet practice studio on the eighth floor above the main stage of Opéra Bastille, where the costumes and makeup stations had been installed. If you know us and watch the film, you’ll see some significant changes wrought by the costume and makeup departments — I don’t wear caps except when I go out for my morning walk in Sarasota, and Jan doesn’t have a blonde bouffant hairdo. Or that dress. Or those plastic pearls. The shirt definitely belonged to someone else.
Our role was to act like Americans who don’t quite grasp French culture — that will be clear when you watch it.
The film opens with a slow Steadicam pan down the July Column in the center of the Place de la Bastille, and then we come into view, panting our way toward the end of the entrance line, arguing over why we’re late. The delay had something to do with the fact that Paris restaurants don’t offer free iced-tea refills (which is true, as far as it goes, but in fact they rarely even offer iced tea).
The contrast of this American in his red plaid shirt and ball cap with the well-turned-out Parisian crowd is striking. There’s some stereotyping going on, but not a lot.
Arty alert: This is a movie about an étoile ballerina’s career collapsing during the course of a single performance. It’s avant-garde, not traditional, but the music is luscious. Stick with it and it will repay your effort.
Ten takes and a half-dozen dialogue changes later our speaking part was done, and it was hardly 7 o’clock.
Then it was back inside for costume changes on the main stage (where the costume racks had been moved), and audience shots. The rest of the day was spent moving around in the seats so Alex could create the audience views she needed, plus the final scene showing the étoile (the star dancer) leaving the theater. We had changed costumes three times and had a classic movie-set lunch under a tent set up in the catering area.
As opera spectators, we see only the seats, the pit and the visible parts of the stage — not the warren of hidden passages within the walls and behind the stage or the large wings on each side of the stage. It is immense, and impressive.
While I still prefer the old opera house, Palais Garnier, the new one (inaugurated 1989) is fast on its way to being my favorite.
Here’s my quick video overview of what it looked like toward the end of the day on the stage:
How we got the gig
How we were chosen for the job is almost Lana Turner-ish.
When we’re in Paris we normally take French lessons at Lutèce Langues, a school not far from the Seine and Place du Châtelet, on the Right Bank. The school breaks for 15 minutes between the first 90-minute session and the second, and during that time we rush downstairs
to one of our favorite bistros, Au P’tit Boulevard, for coffee. Over time, we made friends with the manager, Alex (another Alex, no relation to the director that we know of).
And then one morning Alex the manager came to the school looking for us. His friend Nicolas Lublin of Slowdance Productions was seeking two middle-aged Americans to cast in the upcoming movie. We did a short interview on the street, then later his assistant Anton Lombard came to our apartment and did a video interview, which he sent to Alex the director. She either liked what she saw or didn’t have time to look further, and we were hired.
She and her staff were a pleasure to work with — very professional and efficient.
We were a little surprised to learn we would be paid, and not badly. Some of the other figurants told us they get fairly steady work because of the tremendous amount of movie-making done in Paris. If you stay there any length of time at all you’ll find your sidewalk blocked by a movie crew.
My photos below tell the rest of the story. If you want to see more backstage pictures at Opéra Bastille, go to my Google Photos folder online (unedited).
- WQXR’s Operavore tells about 3e Scène, with links to several of the short films, including ours.
- The equivalent New York Times article.
- Vanity Fair’s article discussing “La Grande Sortie” and how stage fright separates the amateurs from the professionals.
- 3e Scène’s own English-language site, with the film in larger format.
- “La Grande Sortie” on Youtube
- Alex Prager’s bio, from her web site. She is clearly an over-achiever, and still quite young.
- A fascinating movie about how the Paris Opera Ballet works: Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. (IMDB link, from which you can go to Amazon to stream (Prime $) or buy.
- How the Steadicam works (Wikipedia)
My new novel
Last Stop: Paris, the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare, will be published on Dec. 1. Review copies are available. If you would like to review one or both of the books, please email my publisher, including a link to any previous novel review you’ve published. To get the flavor of my first novel, look at it on Amazon. It was picked as the top historical mystery of 2014 by Readers’ Favorite, the big review site, and reached #39 on the all-Kindle best-seller list.
All photos taken with the iPhone 6 using the Camera+ app.
September 28, 2015 at 3:47 am
Fantastic ! What a kick. Then I saw the film: wonderful. What an honor to be part of it.
I love that company too. Went to almost every one of their productions when I lived in Paris.
Thanks so much for sharing this with us. joan
September 24, 2015 at 12:41 pm
What a great story! And the photos accompanying it are fabulous. You two have such fun when in Paris, you always seem to find exciting things to do. Keep it up and keep us posted.
September 24, 2015 at 11:02 am
Congratulations John and Alex for your film career. Must have been a lot of fun.