An Extras Night In
Producer Charlie Hanson on the beginning of Extras
It was summer 2004 when I got the call from Ricky Gervais asking if I would meet with him and his writing partner, Stephen Merchant. In a café, one week later, they outlined their plan for Extras. They had started writing first drafts of six episodes in which Ricky would play Andy Millman, an extra who wants to be an actor. His co-lead would be Maggie, also an extra but motivated by the quest to find Mr Right. Stephen would make appearances as Andy's ineffectual agent. Each episode would be set on the fictitious location of a movie or tv show in which stars would guest. Would I be interested in producing this series which Ricky and Stephen, two of Britain's finest comedy talents, would both direct?
Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Ross Kemp, Jude Law, Les Dennis, and Samuel L.Jackson had all verbally committed to playing themselves subject to availability. As the scripts started to appear in October we planned to start shooting in March 2005. I contacted the stars' agents. No one could fully commit at this stage and we would just have to wait till a window appeared in their busy schedules. Meanwhile we started meeting actors for the other parts with the casting director. After a long and thorough process we found our Maggie, actress Ashley Jensen. Then Sam Jackson's agent called to say Sam would be coming to London in February and asked if we could film his scenes then.
So it was that we found ourselves at Pinewood for one day only, one month ahead of schedule. As the set filled with our cast and crew, and the supporting artists playing the fictional crew of the action movie in which Sam was supposedly starring, mild confusion ensued. Ricky, Stephen and I knew our heads of department but we didn't know their teams so couldn't tell apart our real crew, from the extras playing crew members. Our Director of Photography shot the opening sequence on film and then he and his team used two video cameras to continue shooting the episode, whilst the fictional crew simulated operating the film equipment.
In many ways this first day was akin to shooting a pilot, the only difference being that Ashley and Ricky would have to act their first scenes in the company of one of the world's best known movie actors. There were the usual first day nerves and the tension in the studio was palpable as our AD announced, "Mr Jackson is travelling to the set". As he entered you could hear a pin drop. He stopped to adjust his shoes, which were uncomfortable. He stopped again, this time to take them off, still surrounded by rapt silence. A costume assistant offered him another pair. It felt an age as he crouched to tie the laces. The long silence was broken as Ricky's voice ventured from across the studio, "Amazing! I thought you'd have someone to do that for you".
Mr Jackson laughed with the whole studio and the serious fun commenced!
After the Office
In this web exclusive video, Ricky and Stephen reveal the importance of the double act to Extras and how Andy and Maggie were the Stan and Ollie of the show. Visit Comedy Extra to see more exclusive interviews.