A spy on "The Beach"

Our correspondent reports from behind the scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio's new movie.

Published May 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm sitting at a bar on Kata Beach pretending to mind my own business, when -- ten seats down the bar from me -- Leonardo DiCaprio suddenly flies into a rage. Leaping up from his chair, he shoves a frizzy-haired blond guy out into the rain. "Get it right, asshole!" he yells after him menacingly.

Fidgeting on my barstool, I stifle a yawn.

Granted, I'd never expected to witness this sort of spectacle when I first came to Thailand -- but as of right now I've seen Leonardo call the frizzy-haired guy "asshole" no less than 14 times in the past three hours. Judging from the intense, vaguely frustrated look on DiCaprio's face, I'm about to see it for the 15th time.

Peter, a very tall and fat South African who's been my sidekick all evening, is decidedly more enthusiastic about everything. "I think I know just what this scene needs," he whispers to me cheerfully. "The next time that guy walks up to Leonardo, I'm gonna jump in with a body-block."

"Sure," I whisper back. "Rough him up a little. Shove his face in the mud. Leo will thank you for it. Save him the trouble."

Like most of the other 100 or so people crowded into the open-air bar complex, Peter and I are background extras for a much-anticipated, controversy-riddled movie about backpacker culture called "The Beach." Unlike DiCaprio, who is said to be pocketing $20 million for his starring role in the film, Peter and I are currently chalking up $1.75 an hour for our efforts. Thus, suggesting different ways to spring forth from the background and irrevocably alter the plot of the movie is our chief method of both glossing over our sweatshop-plebian status and staving off boredom.

Despite Peter's brilliantly nihilistic schemes, we have yet to dog-pile any principal actors, walk in front of the camera without wearing pants or spontaneously choreograph a Sharks-versus-Jets-style background knife fight. I get the feeling that Peter -- who is working as an extra for the sheer hell of it, and hasn't been legally sober since sundown -- would happily do any of these acts if properly inspired.

I, on the other hand, am not quite ready to get kicked off the set. This is because my presence here is inextricably tied to an event some two months ago when -- in the name of adventure -- I attempted to infiltrate this very movie by hiring a longtail boat out to the closed filming set on Phi Phi Leh island. When that mission (while masochistically entertaining and strangely epiphanic) ended in failure, I immediately scrounged up some personal photos, fabricated an acting risumi and mailed them off in the hopes of scoring consolation work as a movie extra.

However, since the account of my abortive Phi Phi Leh adventure later ran as a Salon cover story entitled "Storming 'The Beach'" (and implicated me in such transgressions as petty theft, insobriety and trespassing), I figured the odds of my landing a legitimate extra slot would be roughly comparable to the odds of my becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Thus, it was no small surprise when, a mere two weeks before filming on "The Beach" was scheduled to wrap, I checked my e-mail to discover that I had not only been accepted as an extra for three days of shooting at Kata Beach and Phuket Town -- but that I was also under consideration for the role of Traveler No. 1, a small speaking part that I never even knew existed.

Sitting here, pretending to sip from a Heineken bottle that went dry an hour ago, I feel a mixed sense of confidence and dread about tomorrow's auditions in Phuket Town: confidence that I can pass myself off as a convincing Traveler No. 1; dread that, in the midst of my audition, the producer will recognize me as the guy who showed up half-drunk at the cast hotel two months ago and stole his screenplay binder.

Ten seats away from me, Leonardo DiCaprio leaps up from his barstool and shoves the frizzy-haired blond guy out into the rainstorm.

"Get it right, asshole!" he yells for the 15th time.

Considering that "The Beach" stars DiCaprio, is based on the brilliantly plotted Alex Garland cult novel of the same name and is being created by the talented writing-directing-producing team that made "Trainspotting," I can't see how the movie will be anything but a financial and artistic success. Nonetheless, I feel a bit foolish for traveling all the way back down to Phuket on the outside chance that I'll have a few seconds of screen time in the finished product.

Granted, I took greater pains in trying to crash the Phi Phi Leh set two months ago, but I considered that to be a certifiable postmodern variation of adventure travel. Posing as an extra in a movie about adventure travel, on the other hand, seems passively, blandly existential -- like buying end-zone seats at a televised football game in the hope that viewers will catch a glimpse of you during field goal attempts.

Still, part of the goal of travel is to experience corners of the world rarely seen by others, to see people whose real lives are so shrouded in myth and conjecture that it would seem impossible to know them as we know our neighbors. What better way to experience that than to work on a movie set?

"Bullshit!" exclaims Peter, who sloshes up to my folding chair and hands me a plate of fried rice. We're in the midst of our midnight "lunch break," and the tropical thunderstorm has soaked everything but a small area under the blue and yellow mess tent. Peter is angry because he has been moved to the second-unit shoot a few blocks away in Kata Town.

"You have to come with me," he says. "All the other second-unit extras are a bunch of knobs."

By "knobs," Peter means that the second-unit director has culled all the boorish, mustache-and-plumber's-butt soccer-hooligan types from the extra pool for a series of background shots. Peter fits seamlessly into this demographic, of course, but I don't point this out. Instead, I simply join him and the other hooligans for my next shift, figuring it will only serve to make things more interesting.

When we arrive in Kata Town, there are stirrings of mutiny among the second-unit extras -- who have just now realized that there will be no principal actors in the second-unit shoot. This concern is immediately assuaged, however, when the director arrives and tells us that we get to act like we're drunk.

The scene that we're creating will serve as background color for the sequence where Richard (the DiCaprio character) briefly leaves his island utopia for civilization, so he can buy a rice supply for the beach community he has joined. We, the second-unit extras, are supposed to represent the revolting decadence he finds there.

A hierarchy quickly forms as the second-unit director assigns specific roles: three fellows with hockey-haircuts are given Manchester United jerseys and instructed to stumble out of the bar arm-in-arm; five blond Nordic types are instructed to weave a jeep up the street; a balding older guy gets the honor of spewing cream of mushroom soup onto the sidewalk. Peter seems pleased when he gets to walk hand-in-hand with a Thai bar-girl. I am assigned the comparatively dull task of walking from a designated starting place and stopping in front of a banana pancake stand.

Between takes, Peter jogs over to offer me encouragement or give me stage direction. "You were walking too fast that time," he tells me at one point. "And from the look on your face, I could tell that you really didn't want to buy any banana pancakes."

"How can you know that?" I counter. "You should pay attention to your own part."

Peter isn't listening to me. "I'm gonna find you a paperback copy of 'The Beach' so you can pretend to read it at the pancake stand," he says. "You know, as an artistic statement."

Peter never finds me a paperback copy of "The Beach," but he does manage to score me a ridiculous white motorcycle helmet swathed in pink lightning-bolt stickers. When I walk through the ensuing take with the helmet under my arm, Peter runs over and threatens me with physical harm if I don't buckle the helmet onto my head.

"It took me a lot of effort to get that for you," he says. "Plus, when the movie comes out, you'll want to make it easy for all the hot babes to spot you."

Finally convinced, I don the motorcycle helmet and walk through the next three takes looking like I've gone AWOL from the Village People. If the second-unit director notices, he doesn't say anything.

By the time our second-unit shift nears its completion, half of the hooligans have wandered off, and the other half (who seem to have opted for the Stanislavsky method of acting drunk) are getting colicky and belligerent. The second-unit director looks relieved when we finally finish all the angles.

As I'm walking back to the extras mess tent, a woman I've never seen before approaches me. "You aren't by chance a journalist, are you?" she asks.

"No," I tell her.

"What do you do, then?"

"Well," I tell her, "right now I'm a movie extra."

The second night of shooting takes place in Phuket Town, and starts on a series of downers. For starters, Peter is nowhere to be found, which means that I've lost my Falstaffian mentor, my acting coach and my comic relief all in one fell swoop. Furthermore, I discover during check-in that I am no longer under consideration for the part of Traveler No. 1. Distraught, I argue my case with Non, the Thai woman in charge of the extra pool.

"But you sent me an e-mail saying that I would get to audition!" I protest.

"Yes," she says. "But that was before we cut the field of 20 down to 12 finalists."

"But how can you cut 20 down to 12 without an audition?"

Non shrugs. Obviously, it was not her decision, and it is certainly no longer her concern. Diplomatically telling me that I should consider it an honor to have been one of the final 20 candidates for the role of Traveler No. 1, she herds me over to the extras mess tent. I sit on my metal folding chair and sulk, feeling like a groomsman who has just been demoted -- tuxedo, boutonniere and all -- to the back row of the wedding hall.

Fortunately, I am soon befriended by a buzz-haired Kiwi gal named Jackie. When I share my story of the mild hooligan anarchy at last night's second-unit shoot, Jackie tops it with her experience at the "beach rave-party" shoot three nights ago.

"They brought in a boatload of actual Deadhead crusties and rave-scene freaks from Koh Phangan," she says. "Everyone was tripping out, and each time they tried to shoot the scene, you'd get all 60 or so extras fighting over who's gonna dance right in front of the camera. And if you think that was crazy, you should have seen it when they found out there was free food in the mess tent. I wouldn't be surprised if they keep a lot shorter leash on the extras from now on."

As it turns out, Jackie is exactly right. When Non returns to the tent, our nightly extra pool briefing is mostly rules and warnings. "Three things to remember tonight," Non tells us. "One: No drinking on the set. Two: Don't steal anything -- believe it or not, we've had some problems with that. And three: Don't talk to Leonardo or try to take his picture. Try not to even look at him, if you can help it."

Non splits the extra pool into smaller groups and marches us three blocks to the set in front of the On On Hotel, which has been altered to look like a Khao San Road (Bangkok) guesthouse. Unlike last night's activities in the relatively quiet streets of Kata Town, the streets surrounding the Phuket Town shoot are packed with onlookers. It's a spectacle both exhilarating and weird: Thai locals and tourist rubber-neckers stand four deep on the sidewalk behind a line of police tape, snapping photos and calling out to us. Not to be outdone, a few extras take out their cameras and snap pictures of the onlookers.

I am assigned to a restaurant table inside the On On Hotel, for the scene where Leo's character first arrives on Khao San Road. My seat doesn't offer me much camera exposure, but it does allow me a good view of the whole room. It suddenly occurs to me how silly all of us extras look. Sitting in a real guesthouse on the real Khao San road, we would look perfectly at home -- but here on the film set, self-consciously drinking our prop-department beers and peering around, we look as awkwardly posed as 1970s Sears catalog underwear models.

Leonardo arrives with his bodyguard, and the crew begins the tedious process of taking light-meter readings, laying down dolly-tracks and applying makeup. Leo's bodyguard is stationed not far from my table, and I get a good look at him. Tall and balding, he doesn't look like your traditional muscle-bound bad-ass. Nonetheless, I instinctively fear him. He's dressed in safari khakis, and he has this look of extreme, humorless competence -- like he could break your neck with a flick of his wrist, or fell an elephant at 500 paces. Even if Peter were here, I don't think I'd make any jokes about dog-piling the principal actors.

Leonardo's scene wraps up in an efficient four takes, and I am back outside in under an hour. The crowd of onlookers has already thinned a bit. Before I have a chance to find Jackie or any of my other new acquaintances, I am approached by a pretty blond woman who introduces herself as Sarah Clark, the film's publicist. She's not the same woman who approached me last night, but she asks the same question.

"You aren't by chance a journalist, are you?"

I decide to stick with my stock answer. "Actually, right now I'm a movie extra."

Sarah Clark flutters her eyelids. "Well, Leonardo's people have some concerns about you. Apparently you were seen asking questions at the Cape Panwha Hotel back in January."

Leonardo's people? The mere notion of "Leonardo's people" recognizing me on sight gives me an Orwellian chill. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out just yet.

Sarah Clark continues: "If you're a journalist, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Perhaps if you had gone through proper channels it would have been OK to be an extra, but you've just sneaked in like a spy, and we can't accept that."

I want to make Sarah Clark understand that my presence here has nothing to do with the soulless machinations of mass media, but with the private world of the spirit -- that I am merely here to look into the mystery of that which has already been discovered and scrutinized: to set out from the mouth of the Columbia (so to speak) to claim St. Louis for the state of Oregon. I want to watch from the inside while her cohorts create what will become dreams of paradise for mass consumption. This is what I want to tell her.

Instead, I babble something resembling this: "Well, I'm not really a journalist. I'm more like a character in the movie. But only in the thematic sense. I'm just testing the parameters of a closed community. Same as what happens in the movie. And writing about it is a harmless empirical exercise."

To a publicist's ears, all of this succinctly translates into: Please kick me off the set.

Which is exactly what she does.

It takes me 15 minutes to walk from the film set to the $4-a-night Thara Hotel. I am just beginning to relax within the concrete-walled confines of my room when I hear a loud knock on the door.

A lone phrase leaps into my head: "Leonardo's people."

In an instant of terror, I imagine Leo's big, balding, khaki-clad bodyguard breaking down the door and cuffing me across the room -- breaking my thumbs for the fun of it, perhaps, or shoving my face into the toilet until I reveal the location of the producer's missing screenplay binder.

Bracing for the worst, I walk across the room and open the door. Standing there in the hall is the Thai lady who owns the hotel, and her two little kids.

The lady holds up a camera. "We saw you at the movie place earlier tonight," she says. "Is it OK to take your picture?"

Grinning with relief as much as anything, I kneel between the kids.

"What do you play in the movie?" the mother asks as she lines up her shot.

The answer is out of my mouth before I even have a chance to think about it.

"Traveler No. 1 ," I say.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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