Finn Wields a Lightsaber in New "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Footage
It was four o’clock in the morning. We had to leave my place in Santa Barbara at 2 a.m. to arrive on time to get into costuming and make-up at a blimp hanger in Tustin, CA. Corporate Headquarters called me in.
And by Corporate Headquarters, I mean Starfleet.
From a notice on Startrek.com to a casting call of what honestly felt like over 9,000 hopefuls and fans (one even flew in that day from the East Coast to wait his turn in line!), I got the callback from some very nice people who would induct me into a lifelong dream.
For others, this was just another day at work. For you non-California types, one can make a semi-honest living as a movie set extra. The professionals were rather amused by the extreme nerd set milling about and there was a rumor running around amongst us that if they found you out to be a Super Fan, they might remove you as a security risk. JJ Abrams wanted this more secret than secret and all of us were under non-disclosure agreements. Talking Trek was difficult at first, but it didn’t stop the fans from finding our own. Suiting up in the women’s dressing room, I heard one girl complain about how nerdy some of our fellow extras were. “One guy was complaining about the pin on our jackets!” she decried.
“Really, oh my God,” I commiserated. “… which one was he again?”
I found him and agreed that the arrowhead symbol on our jackets was normally reserved for Enterprise crew only rather than as a universal Starfleet symbol. No, we didn’t bitch for hours about the inconsistency, but rather gleefully giggled to ourselves about our secret info bond. At one point, I thought I spotted something that could be mistaken for a crude Guardian of Forever and sparked an instant debate with the guy next to me in gestures and code words that would have made Cold War KGB agents proud. Slowly but surely, we all came out of the woodwork, fans proud of our uniforms and smashing hairdos taking our moment in history.
Deemed ‘not futuristic enough’ at first glance, I was late out of makeup the first day of my shooting; after a redo, I had to high tail it by myself in my enormus raincoat from the trailers to the set. There, I took off the coat and stepped around a corner to behold rows upon rows of Starfleet cadets in formation, uniforms perfect, expertly coifed. We looked AWESOME. Abrams himself welcomed us to Starfleet, thanked us for our involvement and we were placed into small squads. My illustrious ‘Echo Squad’ was going to have an obstacle course to run through the set at a double time march to board a shuttlecraft. The shuttlecraft was one of the fully made-up mockups, labeled ‘MOORE’ and destined for the Enterprise. Cameras, props, one of those forklifts that can move sideways, this was it. Excitement was in the air, fans were buzzing and soon, someone was yelling ‘Action!’ and I was booking for the Enterprise.
Over and over and over and over…
We did a lot of takes. Well into the night, we marched, ran, turned in formations, through smoke and wet concrete floors (they look great on camera!) in too tight jackets and slippery boots, but we did it. Shuffled around to dress different parts of the set so they could digitally add it in later, we were pressed into service for anything the film crew needed. “You’re livin’ the dream!,” shouted assistant director Tommy Gormley at us in his thick Scottish accent as the nights grew longer and longer. “People would kill to be where you are!” He was right, of course. I remembered watching Star Trek; the Motion Picture on TV and VHS and smiling at the large briefing scene as the Crew of the Enterprise is told of the mysterious probe in space headed their way. That scene had some rather auspicious fans as extras for that moment as a way of thanking them for Trek finally hitting the big screen and before there was “BNFs”, there was a 170 Trekkies cast as the crew of the Enterprise. How cool is it to support something that, for it’s time, was as random as a canceled TV show, only to be given a place in its production?
Towards end of our shooting days in Tustin, they opened up the back door of the dark and smokey blimp hangar and as we hung around for the last calls of the day, I watched Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban walk towards the back of the set, into the bright light of day, surrounded by smoke. At this point, the environment was practically Speilbergian and we weren’t even filming. The three men stepped out of the mists and into the light and I got back to running my obstacle course. Living the dream, you know.
And what a dream! I was there as Kirk was put before the Academy council for cheating the Kobayashi Maru; if they had turned the cameras on the cadets as we watched the scene unfold before us in Long Beach, we would have had visible proof of jaws dropping as it dawned on us what we were getting to be a part of. We gathered together at lunch breaks, putting together our timelines, wondering which one of us was Finnegan and all those years as a kid where I used to run around on a playground pretending to be on an away team mission, pouring over encyclopedias and manuals of starships and history, all my hard work in being a Huge Trekkie was actually paying off. Main cast members Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine were incredibly friendly to us lowly extras, not to mention JJ Abrams himself who took the time to very politely apologize to an extra he’d be CGI-ing later in post-production. We even got to talk Dark Knight movie news with self-declared ‘nerd’ Karl Urban (who reminded us all cheekily after coming to set late one scene that he was in Lord of the Rings!). My fellow cadets traded emails and started a mailing list to beam proudly at production shots as they were released, gathered to watch Quantum of Solace for the first trailer, someone even came to visit me in the hospital to show me the trailer we were actually in this time. We bonded together with the glue of enthusiasm. I was a part of the future that gave me some of my favorite friends and fan memories.
Well, turns out it wasn’t my future after all. When Kirk was handed the Enterprise in a ceremony in front of the entire Cadet class we could have sworn he was a part of, a glitch appeared. What about the Farragut, we wondered, what about moving through the ranks before someone handed you the Captain’s chair? Why was Pike in a wheelchair? It was one thing to contradict continuity from books or what fans had put together, but now we were headed into rewriting the Original Series. Cannon law. The Holy Writ.
I wasn’t happy. Over and over and over as we took take after take of Kirk relieving Pike of his command and receiving his commendation (fun fact: that medal he gets is actually supposed to be for ‘original thinking’, they just cut the line), I worked myself up into a lather over this travesty of justice. Sitting at lunch, I groused with a fellow member of Echo Squad about how just giving Kirk the Enterprise seemed unfair. Why not just commend him for whatever he did (no one had seen the rest of the movie by this time in the filming), hint at the future to come and move on? He’s clearly a cadet, how could he get a Starship, let alone the flagship right out of school? Why would you choose to cheapen the history of a major icon after 43 years? That’s right, I was an indignant Trekkie on the set. A fellow cadet then spoke to me words of wisdom that followed me right into the theater as I got to watch the completed movie that long awaited day in May.
He said that, to get him into the scene, he imagined himself as one of the many unsung heroes from engineering aboard the Enterprise. That he figured in the middle of some incredible and insurmountable odds, Kirk had to have taken the helm and saved the ship from utter destruction. His applause as Kirk is awarded a captaincy for his valor was out of gratitude for his ingenuity and for saving his life. He was a little embarrassed about his method acting, but his story put me right where I needed to be.
Folks, we survived Enterprise. We survived the steady decline of Voyager and Deep Space Nine and even the Next Generation to some extent. We have Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Phase II and Warp 11 and even as something as simple as ourselves to get us through the Trekless nights. We love Star Trek because, deep down, it’s our show. We the fans can make it whatever we want to be at this point, no matter what Paramount puts on the screen. And yes, this isn’t “Your Father’s Star Trek” but in my case, my dad’s a cool guy and I liked his Star Trek. Heck, some Trekkies my age are dads and what do they show their kids? “Space Seed” and the love is passed on. Or the kids go listen to Fallout Boy, what do I know about this all new, all different target demographic?
Well, they love the movie for one. Star Trek has been an incredible hit with non-Star Trek fans so much that even Trek fans are overloving it, just to look cool (I kid, I kid). This ‘reboot’ has been an incredible hit and while others go in watching a movie with flashy special effects, hot young actors and action, action, action!, I go in to watch a bunch of friends I got to know over a couple months and see our hard work pay off.
And I know at least one of those cadets severely disapproved of Kirk’s commendation and rank award, enough to go to the Academy Board of Directors!