A day as an extra on the tsunami film, The Impossible

A day as an extra on the tsunami film, The Impossible

I have been self employed for close to 10 years now, but there have been occasions that I have taken up the odd day job. There was that time in Mumbai where I was a Bollywood voice over extra. Recently in Melbourne I got back on the factory floor for a day to help pack boxes for a friends business, and in December 2010 I was an extra for a big budget disaster film in Thailand.

I was in Bangkok when got an email about a film that was needing western extras. The film, The Impossible, is about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. The scene they needed extras for was being filmed in Surat Thani, in southern Thailand. The days pay would barely cover my flight but I wasn’t doing it for the money, I just wanted to experience a day on the set of a big budget film. So I got a flight Surat Thani and arrived at the hotel where the rest of the extras were being put up for the night.

The work day began with us being picked up at 4.30am to be taken to Surat Thani airport, which is where the filming would be for the day. Once we were at the airport we began what most extras do on set. Wait.

Early morning start on set for The Impossible in Surat Thani
[Early morning start on set for The Impossible in Surat Thani.]

By mid morning the production team had worked out what each group of extras were doing. I was then sent outside to begin a new round of waiting in the hot morning sun. I didn’t know many details about the film other than it was starring Obi-Wan Kenobi. Once we were outside we got to see the film set for the first time, and the reality of what the film was about kicked in. This is going to be a heavy film.

Dummy bloated corpses on the set of The Impossible
[Dummy bloated corpses on the set of The Impossible]

The set had taken over the whole airport, which was closed to flights for the day. The airport was transformed into a post-tsunami command centre with dummy bodies, makeshift morgues, missing persons noticeboards, and a temporary office.

I ended up in two scenes. One at a desk in front of a computer (not much acting required there) doing an admin job. A change of costume later and I was now in a scene coming off a bus from a recently landed flight from Europe, looking for a loved one.

Missing after tsunami
[Missing after tsunami]

The Impossible

Two years after that day of filming, The Impossible has now been released. I had almost forgotten about it until I saw a recent preview so I was eager to see the final result, and to see if I had made the cut.

The Impossible is based on the true story of a Spanish family of five (anglicized in the film) who survived the catastrophe. The film begins on December 24 with the family flying to Phuket for their holiday on Khao Lak. Everyone knows the story of the tsunami, so you know there is two days before the tsunami hits. Watching these two days of holiday normalcy is almost unbearable knowing what is about to happen.

Then there is the tsunami scene. The special effects of tsunami is unbelievably realistic, as you can see on this preview:

YouTube: Trailer : The Impossible

The films narrative is based on this families story of survival in the two days after the tsunami. Some reviews have been critical of not portraying local stories, and the thought crossed my mind while watching the film as well. However this film is one story out of millions that could have been told, and it is not meant to be a broad sweeping documentary. And their survival story is truly staggering, and according to one tsunami survivor it is realistically depicted.

As for my scene I didn’t make the final cut. While it was a worthwhile experience to see movie making behind the scenes, being an extra is not something I would rush to do again.

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  1. Too bad you didn’t make the cut. I’ve never made it into a filming, but I’ve thought about t quite a few times. It definitely sounds boring!

    It’s disappointing the movie tells such a Western perspective, although that’s their audience, so not too shocking.

  2. I saw the trailer before Hyde Park on Hudson and started crying. I’m not sure I will make it through the whole movie, but it’s interesting to read about your experience on set.

  3. On arriving in New Zealand a year ago people kept talking about Extras work so I gave it a ago. I was in an American Capri Sun Advert, a local gas station advert and appeared about 6 times (recurring character 4 of those times) in a NZ TV show. It was buckets of fun!!!! Not managed a big-budget one yet but i’ll keep my eyes peeled. I really enjoy being on set.

    The film looks interesting but it would have been cool if it was about some locals.

  4. Funny story! I didn’t know you were around then…

    I did a full 2 day stretch as an extra in some silly (almost made for TV, I think) German action flick called something like Tourist in Danger, along with Adventurous Kate and Backpacking Matt…

    I was living in Krabi at the time, and I remember they did the casting call for The Impossible as well shortly after that… I was THIS close to being Ewan McGregor’s double for that, but I decided not to make the 2 day trip out to Surathani.

    • This was just before I went up to Chiang Mai for what I thought would be a one time occasion, which ended up being multiple times.

      I hope one day when I am travelling in Germany I turn on the TV late one night and see you, Adventurous Kate, and Backpacking Matt on TV!

  5. Wow, I definitely want to go see this. I got weepy just watching the trailer. Sorry you didn’t make the final cut, but I still think it’s a pretty cool experience. Not too many people I know can say they’ve been an extra on a movie.

  6. Sounds like an awesome experience. It certainly gives you some insight into how complex putting a film together is. I remember being an extra on a Thai soap opera but it wasn’t quite as interesting as this. Very cool!!!

  7. Love reading about the odd jobs travelers pick up. Very cool!

  8. We were already excited to see this movie (plan to see in the next few days) but knowing that you didn’t make the final cut ticks me off. Had they left you in, they may have gotten a best picture nod. 🙂

  9. I really want to see this move. Although I could imagine there are people who will find this difficult to watch. It was not that long ago after all.

  10. Sounds like you had a lot of fun! Can’t wait to see the movie.

  11. I’m sure that is a memorable experience for you. I want to be included in a mainstream movie as a cast, but being the scriptwriter/director will be better 😛

  12. Dang! I’ve always wanted to be an extra in a movie (or just in a movie period.)

    Too bad they cut you though. 🙁

  13. Well, at least you have a good story to tell. So, you found you didn’t make it when you saw the movie?

  14. I literally just got chill watching the trailer! It looks like a very emotionally intense yet touching film. The tsunami was such horrible situation that impacted so many but it’s nice that the movie focuses on a family that survived. I’m going to have to see this! Also, that’s great you got to participate in such a big production! congrats!

  15. The family is from Barcelona, they say, which is where we’re based. Personally, I couldn’t go see it when it came out. Too hard!

  16. Jonathan Smith says

    Hi James! I came across this page because I’m trying to find OUR scenes from the movie- I was an extra as well at Surat Thani! I was also a family member getting off the bus, maybe we spoke and hung out. There were two busses though, so I don’t know…found this deleted scene though, it’s the closest we’ll get I think!

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks for the link! I saw an old bus pull up on the tarmac in one frame but it is not there afterwards. Interesting to see those scenes though – brings back memories. I wonder if we were on the same bus?

      Cheers 🙂


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