This past weekend, I had an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to try for a long time: I was an extra in a horror movie. And not just any horror movie, mind you, but a sequel to the cult classic Sleepaway Camp, directed by the original director and featuring much of the original cast. Here’s the full story…

First, let me give you a little background on the Sleepaway Camp series. The original came out in 1983, around the time that the Friday the 13th series was making summer camp-themed horror movies popular. But Sleepaway Camp had quite a few different elements that really helped it stand out from the standard slasher fare of the era. Don’t get me wrong… it was no masterpiece, but the deaths were creative, the characters were unique, and the plot had a number of good twists. As a horror fan from the time I was 10 or 11, I frequently saw Sleepaway Camp on the shelf at the video store (it was available in pretty much any mom-and-pop video store throughout the 80s and 90s), but I didn’t rent it until I was in my mid-teens and a friend of mine told me that his uncle was in it, playing the father than got run over by the boat in the beginning of the movie. I rented it and immediately, it became one of “my movies,” one of those movies I’d go to again and again, slowly building an obsession of sorts.

There were two sequels to Sleepaway Camp, directed by a different person than the original. They took a much more humorous approach to horror, as was the fashion when they came out in the late-1980s. The lead character was played by Pamela Springsteen… yes, Bruce’s sister. They were both fun movies, but I always had a preference for the dark grittiness of the original. Oddly, even among the small group of rabid Sleepaway Camp fans, there are two distinct factions: those that prefer Robert Hiltzik’s original and those that prefer Michael Simpson’s two sequels. Quite frankly, I enjoyed them all and can’t help but laugh at the little fanboy disputes that have ensued in recent years.

So, a few years back, I e-mailed back-and-forth with Jeff Hayes, the webmaster of SleepawayCampMovies.com (who, at the time, was co-running the site with the current webmaster of SleepawayCampFilms.com, before they had a dispute and went separate ways… are you confused yet?). I hooked them up with Dan Tursi, my friend’s uncle that was in the first movie, for an interview. From that point on, we kept in touch and Jeff kept me informed about the Return to Sleepaway Camp script that Robert Hiltzik was dying to shoot. Hiltzik stepped away from the movie business altogether after the original movie, so this “return” 20 years after the fact is quite a story. In addition, Hayes’ site really helped bring notice back to Felissa Rose, who played Angela in the original movie. Though she was missing in action for over 15 years, in the last five years she’s worked on almost ten new horror movies. The Sleepaway Camp story is an inspiring one for any rabid fan who’s ever dreamed of meeting his idols and even reviving a series many people thought was long dead.

(It should be noted that a fourth Sleepaway Camp began filming in 1992 with yet another director, but was axed before it really got off the ground. From the footage seen on the bonus fourth disc in the special box set, it looked to be a pretty awful movie.)

So, here we are in 2003, after several years of rumors surrounding Return to Sleepaway Camp, and now it’s finally in production (pretty well funded thanks to an extra from the original movie!). Jeff was kind enough to set me up with the woman in charge of casting the extras and two weeks later, I was driving six hours to Camp Starlight in way-northern Pennsylvania.

I took Friday off so that I could make most of the drive up in the light. Lake Como and Starlight, PA are definitely “out there.” The last 25 miles of the trip were on woodsy back roads where I saw maybe two or three other cars. I even passed a pair of bears on the side of the road. Friggin’ bears.

I stayed at the Lake Como Inn, a combination inn/restaurant/bar. The rooms were really nicely decorated, the bathrooms were clean and much more like someone’s house than a hotel, and the price was right. Plus, I was the only guest. The only thing that kept this from being the perfect place to stay was the bar: it was open until 2am each night, and the loud jukebox and rowdy “yeeeeee-haw!”s woke me up a number of times. The two territorial German Shepherds also woke me up, once at 4am by crashing into my door and startling me awake thinking someone was trying to get in. Nevertheless, the stay was fine and it was a good home base for me during the shoot.

Saturday morning, I got up early and after locking myself out of my room and being let back in, I headed over to the campsite, about four miles away. After parking and beginning the long walk to the extras holding area, I ran into Anthony, the line manager, who helped direct me to the proper building. I got inside and the room was already filled with a couple dozen kids. As I wrote my name and age on the sign-in sheet, I noticed that everyone else on the page was 13, 14, maybe 15 years old. I felt a gray hair sprout as I wrote “28.”

I was sent over to wardrobe, who applauded me for bringing some of own gear, and hooked me up with a Camp Manabe counselor t-shirt, presumably because I can no longer pass as a middle school student despite the fact most of them are taller than me. I then went back to the extras holding area and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

One of the things I found out during that morning of waiting: as annoying and stupid as The Fast and The Furious is the first time, it’s even worse the second time around. During that morning, I spoke briefly with Sue, who runs SopranoSue.com, a Sopranos-stalker… er, “sightings”… web site. I’ll reserve any further comment.

I also hung out with Dan and Chelsea, a 17-year-old couple who had seen one of the fliers calling for extras at a video store or Wal-Mart. They’d never seen the original movie, but were looking forward to being extras nonetheless. It was at that moment I realized that 95% of the people in that room weren’t even born when the first Sleepaway Camp was released. Yikes.

Late in the morning, they called for all the male extras. Except me. Because I’m old. “You’re a counselor,” they told me, “We’ll need you soon, but not in this shot.”

There were no major star-sightings in the morning, aside from getting to say a quick hello to Vincent Pastore (the Sopranos‘ “Big Pussy”) as he walked by.

Lunchtime rolled around and I had grown weary of the loud noise and staring at the same carpet for hours on end. At least, I thought, lunch was a chance to eat with the cast and crew and get out of that holding area. As it turns out, the cast and crew were eating separately, feeding on freezer-burned hot dogs and hamburgers at the barbecue pit while the rest of us were served chicken nuggets, onion rings, and salad in the cafeteria (obviously, for me, this translated to just salad). As excited as I was to be there, I was also a bit frustrated.

After lunch, we were rounded back to the holding area. Not too long after, they called for a group of guys that hadn’t been in the previous shot. This time I was brought in to be an extra in a cafeteria scene. I sat at the end of a table—I was a counselor, after all—with a few other guys, including Dan. The shot focused on a character that stood right by me and threw a small megaphone off-camera. We were instructed to eat and pretend-talk until the guy said his line and threw the megaphone, at which point we were told to laugh. My total face time: maybe 3 or 4 seconds. Chance of face time: pretty good, since I was sitting by the guy that delivered the lines.

When that scene was done, we were sent back to the holding area. By this point, it was about 3 o’clock. We were told they’d be shooting another cafeteria scene that would require all of us. As the minutes and hours ticked by, we were told over and over “just a few more minutes,” until at about 5:30, we were finally informed that they wouldn’t be shooting that scene and we could go home. As annoyed as I was with the total lack of action on Saturday, I felt really bad for all of the female extras, who didn’t even get to be on set once.

For dinner, I didn’t feel like returning to the inn where I had a very mediocre spaghetti dish the night before, so I decided to drive around the middle of nowhere (which is exactly where Starlight, PA is located) until I found something. That something was a great little place called Mrs. Pizza in Lakewood, PA. Good food and good conversation hit the spot after a disappointing day.

Sunday morning, I woke up early, made sure not to lock myself out of my room while I showered, and headed out to the set for the second and final day of my involvement. I told myself this was going to be a better day and apparently, that worked, because it was a much more enjoyable time, even though I was there for almost 11 hours. As soon as I got into the extras area, they told me I was needed, so I dropped my backpack, picked up my shirt from wardrobe, and headed back up to the cafeteria. In this one I was in the distant background of another scene that involved a counselor telling the movie’s protagonist, “Maybe if you weren’t such a wanker, your brother wouldn’t be hitting on your girlfriend,” in a deep British accent. I was eventually moved as they shot closer because they didn’t want me to be recognized from the scene the day before at the table across the cafeteria. During this shot, my total face time: almost nil. Chance of face time: almost nil.

They moved me to a distant corner table with Jeff Hayes, his girlfriend, and a couple of older men. We served as shadows for main characters that were supposed to be sitting there. I think I was supposed to be Ronnie (the guy from the first movie with the short-shorts) even though he was elsewhere in the scene.

After those scenes were done, I ended up hanging around the set rather than going back to the holding area, just because I could. It was so much nicer at least being close to the action, even if I wasn’t involved at the moment. Throughout the morning and afternoon, I met a number of cast members, including Felissa Rose (Angela), Jonathan Tierston (Ricky), and Paul DeAngelo (Ronnie). When I was sitting at the corner table during one of the shoots, Ronnie came over and stood behind me near a small heater to warm up his legs. I joked with him that “at least your shorts are a little longer than they were in the first movie.” I thought it was funny, but he just found it mildly amusing.

I also got to meet some of the younger stars of the movie, many of whom were in their first major or supporting roles. I was pleasantly surprised that these kids, and they really are just kids, were really mature and friendly, more than happy to pose for pictures with people and chat. It was refreshing to see people just getting into “the business” enjoying the attention rather than trying to dodge it.

Lunchtime on Sunday everyone really did eat together and the spread of food was significantly better. Still, not exactly gourmet, but it was filling and I had a few options beyond salad.

Sunday afternoon involved more waiting, but again it was around the set, so it was much more enjoyable. Late in the day, they did a handful of “crowd shots” in the cafeteria. I went back to my counselor position of the day before, but then was picked out (by the director!) to move to a different table to fill in a slightly more important empty chair. This was the last scene of the entire movie shoot involving extras, and some of the kids were getting a bit rowdy. When we were told to go ahead and talk, laugh, and pretend we were at camp, a couple of the tables decided to start a full-blown food fight. The director didn’t yell, though, so the fight may make it onto the film. Nice.

I had a few more chances to be on camera, as I may have been in the frame during some other characters’ lines. I’m hoping my exaggerated reaction at least managed to get my hand or head into frame. Possible face time: 8-10 seconds. Chance of face time: decent, about the same as Saturday.

Before heading out, I chatted briefly with director Robert Hiltzik and some more with Jeff Hayes. I didn’t get on the road until 6:45pm and made the drive back to VA in almost one five-hour shot. I got home around midnight and was up for the work the next morning. As the boys in the bar would say, “yeee-haw!”

All-around, it was a great experience. Even if it was an awful lot of sitting and waiting, I really enjoyed being on the set. And since it was a pretty small group of extras (about 25 people) on a relatively small budget movie, it was much more intimate than, say, the scene in Gandhi with 100,000 extras. The cast and crew had clearly become like a family, as cliche as that sounds, and some camaraderie even developed among the extras who were around for the weekend. Thanks to Jeff Hayes and Shari Houtman for giving me the opportunity, and to everyone I met during the shoot.

Return to Sleepaway Camp is set for theatrical release in late-Spring/early-summer 2004.

(Now, check out some pictures from the weekend.)