It’s that time for another blog post. To be honest, I’m fairly embarrassed that I’ve waited this long to talk about something so blog-worthy: my debut on the small screen. Don’t jump out of your seat with excitement, though: I was recruited merely to be an extra in a commercial for a Thai cruise that travels up and down the Chao Phraya, the main river in Thailand around which much of the country has developed, between Bangkok and Ayutthaya.
Similarly, don’t think I’m playing down the experience: it was fucking awesome. I mean, I was hired to be background noise in a commercial, thereby (at least according to my initial presumption) needed to do jack shit in order to receive payment: three days and two nights on a small cruise boat with inclusive food and lodging as well as—and here’s the kicker—TWO free vouchers to return to the cruise to do it all over again, sans cameras. Yea, twist my arm.
Around 8:30 p.m. on August 24, a Wednesday, I received a call from my close friend who relayed the offer to me. She had few details, but the ones she did have were all I needed to make my decision: “Fuck yes. I’m in.”
Friday night—the night we were to leave—a big group of teachers went into Bangkok to grab some delicious Korean food before wading (I shit you not; we were wading. The rain was so bad that there was significant flooding, and using a cab was pointless because traffic was at a standstill) to the movie theater to see Cowboys and Aliens. Spoiler alert: it sucks donkey. I’ll skip any further synopsis or criticism and simply say that Cowboys and Aliens has no idea that its title means it’s supposed to be ironic.
The terrible movie behind me, I went for a couple drinks with the friend who recruited me for the commercial and her boyfriend. We were to be picked up at 3 a.m. by the production company, so around 10:30 p.m. we both figured there was no point sleeping; we might as well drink another beer or two and play more pool.
Dumb idea, if not enjoyably so.
Four and a half hours later, all six farangs (two chicks; four dicks) were packed in a van. All independently had the same idea and had stayed up all night. By about 5 a.m., we were still sitting in the production company—which was the size of a cobbler’s—looked at each other, and asked, “What the fuck were we thinking?” One guy was still kind of drunk and had to experience his hangover during the morning shoot.
(Look at me. “Morning shoot.” I’m already savvy with the lingo and the jargon and the whatnot.)
Pichit, one of the guys in charge, must have seen the glazed-over look in our eyes, because he eventually sent one of his assistants out to grab ten to fifteen canned iced coffees, three of which I proceeded to inject directly into my jugular.
I knew only the two chicks but the other five already knew each other, so I was slightly worried that I’d have to play odd-man-out sometimes. However, the three other dicks (and by dicks, I obviously still mean ‘humans equipped with man-junk’ and not anything pejorative) proved to be awesome people, and by the end of the weekend we were one big happy Thanatharee family.
After a few hours of sitting around, we finally hopped in a pair of minivans bound for Koh Kret, an island at the northern limits of Bangkok and within the Chao Phraya, which is totally swimmable from the mainland. Reportedly, the island is still fairly insular: it maintains much of its historically Mon tribal influences, including, and most importantly for Thanatharee’s concerns, its popular pottery.
It was here, on Koh Kret, that the farang actors became familiar with Pipit, our handler, for lack of a better description. Because of his quality English-skills and occasionally overwhelmingly overwhelming upbeat attitude, he was hired specifically to help out us whiteys. He ended up serving as another (meta)extra—the guide to our on-screen tour group—but his main role was to supply translation services (which were wondrously scrapped by the end), help out the actors in any way, and supply the same corny, scripted jokes all weekend. We wouldn’t have made it through the weekend without him.
Indeed, we were incredibly well tended to by everyone, especially when it came to food. I don’t know if they wanted to fatten us up for some reason, but every time we turned around there was fried rice, chips, sweets, water, soda, energy drinks, and/or coffee. I think the only times I spent money were for some sticky rice, a soy milk, and when a friend and I bought some Cokes for the crew on a particularly hot day.
Despite Pipit’s constant state of go, all of us were falling asleep on set.; in fact, a couple of the guys actually did. The lack of sleep was catching up to all of us (a pursuit that was to get significantly closer), but Daniel—the name of the lead character—had it the worst, and probably the best, of all.
The cruise’s full commercial, which comes in at over twenty-three minutes, is the story of Daniel, who somehow ends up with a group of enthusiastic, white tourists in Thailand (us, the extras). Daniel, on the other hand, is initially wholly unenthused and simply does not give a flying fuck. He walks around, at first, with his iPod pumping into his headphones while lagging behind the rest of us. Thanks to Thanatharee, the experiences it affords, and (of course) a bubbly girl, Daniel progressively comes to love the hell out of Thailand. Thus, Daniel is the core of the commercial—meaning the actor who plays him was regularly in front of the camera.
It was during the pottery scenes on Koh Kret that it became clear that Daniel had 400% more work than the rest of us, with bubbly girl having 200% more. While the extras, and sometimes bubbly girl, were able to escape from the lens, sit down, and relax, Daniel was doing take after take after re-take after re-take after take, all the while enduring solar-hot studio lighting. This real-life scene: Daniel alone, baking under the lights, was the story of the shoot.
Of course, Daniel also had the best experience. (To clarify, his real name is not Daniel.) Although his hours were much longer and expended energy much greater, he was able to do much from which the rest of us were excluded: make pottery, forge a knife, play with tiny dolls, and put the finishing touches on a traditional drum.
Over all three days, the production schedule was packed. So, from pottery we went directly to a blacksmith who specialized in knives of all kinds. After we poured out of the van, we approached three workers hardening red-hot steel (I think it was steel) by hammering it in expert rhythm as another worker knowingly flipped the near-knife at precise moments. The place, thanks to the constant, hell-hot fire, caused me to break out in a sweat right away, which I barely noticed because of the impressive scene with the workers happening around the fire. Maybe because this is where my best photos were taken, but this part of the weekend was my second favorite.
Until we broke three of the blacksmith’s four hammers, that is.
The producer and director wanted a shot of the tour group hammering away after being shown the procedure by the lead blacksmith. However, there was one gigantic difference between the two processes: the presence of hot, soft steel between the cold, hard, steel podium and the powerfully descending hammers—and the lack thereof. Because we were slinging hard metal hammers onto the hard metal podium with no soft metal to absorb the blow, we three farangs broke seventy percent of the smith’s hammers. If you ever want to feel like a horrid asshole, fuck up the majority of a manual laborer in a developing country’s tools.
Directly after knives and hammer-breaking were some generic shots of us riding bicycles. Whatever; in my mind, all of this was just a prelude to a free phenomenal dinner—which was filmed—free beers, and free bed. The entire boat, which normally accommodates twelve but was well beyond capacity with the sixteen members of the crew, was serviced by a single, small kitchen and one chef, who had only one assistant. The staff, regardless of size, busted their asses to serve a tremendous spread of fried eggs, luscious rice, curries, and stir-fried vegetables. I probably ate about half of my body weight in delicious food, a pleasure interrupted only by the hordes—not an exaggeration—of mosquitoes that descended on the boat because it was docked and immobile.
By the time I put my head on a pillow—around 11 p.m. or midnight—I had been awake since 6:30 p.m. the night before. This is, undoubtedly, the longest stretch I have ever stayed awake. I daresay I was near hallucination.
Sunday, 6 a.m., let’s do it again.
Although every morning started with a shower and every night included another, they barely seemed to help. We were always running around and often in front of studio lights, meaning we were regularly encased a layer of dirt, grime, and sweat—not to mention the occasional stank. This filth was easily my least favorite part of the shoot, along with the ravenous horde of mosquitoes—but was a pretty fair trade for everything else, which was normally fantastic.
We had a hearty breakfast and left for what I can best describe as a juvenile-care center. The location housed 2,000 kids, ages 4 – 17, who had either no parents or whose parents were incapable of supporting them. We fed a group a large noodle lunch as they lined up and poured forward to receive large handfuls of noodles before moving onto the fixings.
The kids we served were mostly younger—about 4 – 13 years old. And they were remarkable. A handful was understandably shy, but the rest were playful and full of smiles. My favorites were the very young and/or small ones who wouldn’t continue after they received their noodles, but instead waited with their plates raised, silently asking for more a bigger serving. I must have given a few children amounts of noodles that were bigger than their heads. One girl who stood out was about 13 years old and told Pipit—who then told the farangs—that she wanted to be a doctor when she grows up. This girl probably has jack shit, but she refused to let anything keep her down.
The crux of this scene comes at the end, when a little girl—maybe 4 or 5 years old—tugs on Daniel’s shirt and implores him to open her box of chocolate milk. You assume his cold, disaffected heart begins to warm when he bends down, disengages with his iPod, helps her, and makes his first attempt at speaking Thai. The girl is impossibly adorable, so Daniel doesn’t stand a chance.
Unfortunately, involved at the heart of this moment is commercial exploitation. Call me bitter and cynical—because I do—but a small, beautiful, vulnerable-looking girl was chosen for a reason. There were plenty of kids there—tall; short; fat; injured; despondent; ebullient (fucking awesome word); male; female; ninja-type with a shaved head except for a braided ponytail who liked to linger at the periphery while climbing support structures—whom were passed over for the adorable (and entirely palpable) girl. Of course she was chosen, but I think the fact that she needed to be chosen irked me a bit.
This discomfort brings me to another gripe: the lack of black people in the commercial, particularly within the cast. When I met up with the rest of the actors and saw they were (and still are, obviously) all Caucasian, I thought, “Yup. Whites. Makes sense.” Thai culture relies heavily on skin color, as it is believed to indicate social status. Therefore, giving one’s self white skin is frighteningly popular. Any market of any size will have whitening agents, from straight-forward whitening cream to the very confusing whitening deodorants. Some of my students, in fact, cake so much white makeup on their faces—and often only their faces—that they look like mockeries of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
The skin-color thing, as far as I can tell, is significantly more class oriented than racial (not that the two can be perfectly partitioned), but it still results in racial discrimination, albeit for reasons of received, concealed, and maybe presumed notions of class. About halfway through the weekend, I learned that two black farangs we all know had been passed over as extras after their pictures were shown. “No, we don’t want them. We want people look like you,” the casting director reportedly said. For the rest of the shoot, I was terribly uncomfortable. To be sure, the people associated with both the cruise and the production company were absolutely wonderful. Consequently, I refuse to blame solely the people in charge of casting. Instead, such decisions point to larger cultural norms and expectations, and I do not support such one-dimensional condemnation. However, I do think the above observation is worth an aside, even if to only scratch the surface of skin color in Thailand in this blog.
Done with the support home, we hopped on the back of our bicycles (while on which we were chased by a fucking mean soi dog) and rode to a place that made traditional clay dolls. This part of the day was relaxing and boring, and less than nothing happened. Here, it began to amaze me how much sitting around took place during the shoot, especially for extras. Aside from the mandatory outfit changes—we had to account for three days—we didn’t do much of anything except eat, chat, and fill some B-roll.
The last scene filmed away from the boat took place at a drum manufacturer. We were here for fucking hours, and Daniel bore most of the workload, placing him again in front of the studio lights, which seemed to get hotter every time they were turned on. At this point, I was at the brink of utter exhaustion. Despite the massive amounts of food and exciting experiences, I just needed some damn sleep. As a result, I began to get a little punchy—and when I get a little punchy, I get a little incredibly vulgar. So when I was paired up with my friend to fill some B-roll with casual scenes of conversation and mirth, I resorted to describing depraved sex acts, punctuated with as much cursing as I could manage while still holding onto comprehensible syntax. By the time I saw the boom mic positioned right over our heads, it was too late: I was halfway through relaying the mechanics of a rusty trombone (Warning: do not Google ‘rusty trombone’ unless you promise to withhold judgment). Luckily, my prayers were answered when all footage on the B-roll was covered with a music track, and maybe served only as vague, quiet ambient. Whew.
Finished with the drums, it was back to the boat and dinner. I gorged on three servings of fried eggs, vegetables, and rice before moving onto beer. As if by some tacit agreement, almost all sixteen members of the crew proceeded to get shit hammered. We were all working hard(ish) and none of us were willing to allow free beer to go to waste. The whole night (d)evolved into intermittent dance parties, one guy army crawling around the deck of the boat, and self-proclaimed Captain Jack Sparrow, the boat’s captain, facing a bottle of whiskey.
As it happens, the party began to die down and some farangs wound up on the upper deck of the Thanatharee. Five of us—one went to bed—discussed Thailand and the expected length of our stays. Myself and another new person said we only expected to stay a year before moving home/on, while the other three—whom have all been here for over a year and half—encouraged us to have more open minds. According to them, they didn’t fall in love with Thailand until after being here six months. We’ll see how I feel if/when I have the opportunity to renew my contract or consider another job, but their advice and, to a degree, browbeating made me take a new angle on Thailand, which was then proving to be more taxing than not.
Who the hell knows when I fell asleep? I remember only two things: stumbling to bed and waking up with swollen feet, on account of the mosquito army. Goddamnit.
Monday, despite beginning at 6 a.m., was nothing other than pleasant. Everyone moved slowly, nursing their hangovers and trying to energize themselves for the final day. One of the extras left early to resume her duties as a teacher, but the rest stayed. As I said, the day was easy: we biked a bit around U Thong, the main road in Ayutthaya, which circumscribes the center of the city and runs along the Chao Phraya, before spending the day lounging on the boat as it made its way down the Chao Phraya. This was our first and only chance to be on the boat as it cruised along, and it was wonderful. Plus, said lounging served double duty, since shots of which were exactly what the production crew wanted. The crew managed to turn utter laziness into consistent beauty.
Indeed, the talent and skill levels of the production crew were remarkable. Far from amateurs or charlatans, they were true professionals whose collective eye for film making was of the highest order. They had scouted all of the areas and directed us to make the most of the location, working the camera with intent precision. All of them busted their asses, and produced a visually stunning product in the end.
I have no idea when shooting concluded. 5 p.m.? 7 p.m.? Regardless, after respectful and relieved goodbyes, a van took us into Bangkok, where four of us ate at The Nine, a three-story mall devoted entirely to restaurants. Food wasn’t cheap, but I had spent maybe forty baht all weekend, so a splurge wasn’t wholly irresponsible. We sat around, chatted about the trip, and parted ways. Because it was so late, I slept at a friend’s who lives in the city, making it back to my campus by 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. class, thankful I did my lesson plan days prior.
Here’s the final (stunning) product:
By the way, I’m writing this in a café in Pai, Thailand, aching from muay thai two-a-days, sleep deprivation, and a minor motorbike accident. But all of that is for another time.