This poster was taped in the windows of nearly every storefront along historic Main Street in Darlington.
It all started quietly last year when UW-Madison alumnus and Academy Award nominee Michael Mann started scouting locations in Wisconsin his new movie. No big deal, that guy from Scrubs came through a few years ago and Madison kept a cool head. Then we started hearing about the film, to be titled open casting call at Monona Terrace in mid-February as a way to get out of a day of work. The lineup included what must have been a thousand other hopefuls, all holding personal photos with forms with name, age, and vital statistics. They took a fresh picture of me, asked me to not cut my hair, and I was sent on my way. Again, no big deal; it was only an extra role after all.
Then I got the call in early March. Can I come get fitted for wardrobe? Can I get my haircut? Sure! I was fitted in a double-breasted three-piece suit, with shoes that were a little bit too small but bearable. They also shaved my head an inch above my ears, and then took the hair they left on top and slicked it back, parted in the middle. Friends said I resembled either Alfalfa or George McFly, depending on the cultural touchstone of their generation. Seated next to me was Ellen Weisling, a court reporter for the Fifth Judicial District in Wisconsin who was cast as a court reporter in the movie. She later told her on-set story to The Capital Times, a good example of how excited us extras are to have taken part in the filmmaking.
And like many other extras, I spent the next few days telling friends and family that I had been chosen out of thousands of hopefuls to be in Public Enemies. The casting department gave me some pretty specific instructions on the shoot at the Lafayette County Courthouse on Wednesday, March 19, which would be the third day of production in Wisconsin.
By now media throughout the state was going berserk, with shoots in Columbus only a few days away. The city streets transformation to the 1930s was a big deal and locals were getting quite excited. Buzz was quickly building, with news of Johnny Depp and the productions arrival a top story. Spy photos were all over, and Public Enemies was becoming Wisconsin's worst kept secret.
My call in Darlington that Wednesday was at 5:15 a.m., but I was to arrive 15 minutes early. I had over an hour drive to look forward to, so I couldn't get up any later than 3 a.m., but they mentioned I should call an extras hotline after midnight in case any of this information changed. Of course, I was asleep at midnight, desperately trying to get some rest before the big day. En route to the southwestern Wisconsin town, my fear was confirmed when I dialed in and learned that my call had been pushed back an hour. No matter, I was up and on my way.
I arrived in Darlington under the cover of night and parked as instructed behind the still-closed Casey's General Store. A parade of many men and a few women of all ages started arriving too, emerging from their cars fresh-faced and excited, and looking not nearly as sleepy as I felt.
A shuttle was to transport us up the town's historic Main Street to the Darlington Municipal Building, but the distance was short and I decided the cool morning air and a slight uphill walk would do me good. There was already a line of extras waiting at the rear of the building, each person engaging in small talk about their favorite Depp movie or what they did before they became an actor. After filing through the line, we filled out time cards and packed into a gymnasium for a breakfast buffet and the start of a long wait.
Waiting did not necessarily mean boring. The morning hours flew by as I spoke and joked with my fellow extras, all of us waiting for our wardrobe and makeup before heading into the courthouse across the street. Seated opposite me was George, something of a professional extra who entertained us with movie stories about meeting William Shatner and shooting scenes for The Negotiator with Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, along with others about cross country road trips gone wrong and spending a night in jail. He was exactly the sort of person you want to talk to when you've got time to kill.
Throughout the morning, extras were led five to ten at a time into a room upstairs to get into costume. The roles included sheriffs -- some of whom were played by Madison Police Department officers -- along with detectives, National Guardsmen, reporters, photographers, and simple courtroom spectators.
I was to be an assistant to the character Louis Piquette, a Platteville native who was Dillinger's defense attorney. Near as I could tell, I would be sitting at the table with Depp, the man whom all of southern Wisconsin was trying to sneak a peak of throughout the week. I was put in a lineup with about 20 other extras, and after two-time Oscar winner and Public Enemies costume designer Colleen Atwood gave us the thumbs up, we were camera ready.
I'd been awake for about 6 hours by this point, and it was the first time I saw the sun. We were walked across the street to the courthouse, which was to stand in for the Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana where Dillinger was arraigned after capture in 1934. Depp fans were out in force, lining the streets and lawn of the Municipal Building and snapping photos as the extras passed by; watch this video clip for a look. In a true Hollywood-Red-Carpet moment, I waved and blew kisses to my new adoring fans. This day was going to be alright.
After getting inside the courtroom, I came back down to Earth a bit, as my role had been cut in order for more armed guards to be placed near Dillinger during the scene. I did manage to snag a prime spot in the courtroom, though, seated in the front row behind Lili Taylor, who is playing Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley.
It appeared to be mid-morning when the shoot started shortly before noon, and it stayed that way through the day thanks to a massive spotlight positioned outside the window. The courtroom gallery was quickly filled with men and women in '30s period garb, while crew positioned cameras and prepared for the shoot. We were never formally introduced to any of the cast or crew, save for Mann himself and assistant director David Kelley, who would be giving us most of the orders for the day.
JD, as Depp was known on set, entered without fanfare from the rear of the courtroom, walking down the center aisle of the courtroom past us extras. His hair was cut in similar fashion to many men in the room, and he was dressed in a dress shirt with suit pants and matching vest. During the actual takes, he was also fitted with handcuffs and leg shackles, elements essential to the scene.
Each time the scene was set up from a different angle as the "second team" of stand-ins was brought in. These men and woman fit the profile and of the stars, and were used by the crew to determine lighting and frame camera angles. They took off as the principal cast entered, but remained on hand for future shots. While they got to rub elbows with fame a little closer than I or my fellow spectators, they ultimately wouldn't make it into the movie, which is kind of a shame.
After a few rehearsals, Mann got started with the first take of many through the day of the scene. Running for a few minutes, it focused on Dillinger's entrance into the courtroom and his subsequent arraignment. While the defense attorney Piquette (Peter Gerety) protested his shackles, the prosecutor (Alan Wilder) contended that Dillinger would best be moved to the Indiana State Penitentiary. Depp had no dialogue, though his verbose attorney carried the scene with quite a few lines. After some courtroom squabbling, the judge (John Lister) decreed that the gangster would remain in Crown Point under the protection of Sheriff Holley until his trial start ten days hence. As history records, though, Dillinger would escape long before this point, famously using Holley's own V8 Ford to make his getaway.
Director of Photography Dante Spinotti and the photographers shot with two top shelf cameras, covering the scene with wide shots and close-ups of every actor from multiple angles. The scene was repeated for the entire day, with only a short break for lunch. While some of the extras groaned there at repeating it over and over, I gained a new appreciation for how intensely difficult it is to get the right shot and delivery.
Eventually the extras in most of the courtroom were dismissed as they moved the cameras to the perspective of the gallery. Luckily remaining in front, I dutifully continued my role, staring at Dillinger as he entered while casually whispering to the gentleman sitting beside me. For continuity purposes, it was important that extras performed the exact same actions for every take, so in the event of a quick camera cut there aren't any unexpected continuity difficulties. Of course I was somewhat nervous when the camera was settled right over my shoulder for a shot of the prosecution and the judge. But then I remembered, I'm a professional and a star now!
With the arraignment scene completed, the dozen or so extras remaining in the room had to wait before being dismissed, as another scene was about to be shot in the rotunda of the courthouse. Here, Depp as Dillinger was led down a hallway and into the courtroom under armed guard. Some minor movie magic was employed as the camera followed him into the back of the room though the scene we spent most of the day shooting showed Dillinger entering through the front. This was the only shot of the day I got a chance to see from behind the cameras, as I watched a monitor along with Spinotti.
After a couple quick takes, the clock struck 8 p.m. and Mann called it a wrap. Public Enemies was finished for the day in Darlington, though it would be retuning to Columbus the next day, Crown Point itself last week, and on to the Chicago area and various other locations around Wisconsin in the coming months.
I exited the courtroom a new man, a star, and returned to wardrobe and got my jeans back on and my cap over my head. It was dark again, but the streets were still lined with fans hoping for a glimpse of someone famous. I wasn't the guy they were looking for, but it sure felt like it. And though it had been a very long day, and would still be another couple hours before I'd be back home and in bed, I waved again to my fans and walked back down to my car.
I'll take the limo next time.