March 19, 2004 > It's Bee Season in Tri-City!
It's Bee Season in Tri-City!
by Praveena Raman
What do Karen Joshi, Rachel Nuno, Karthik Raman, Mekala Raman and Sarah Thomsen have in common? All of them have been performing on stage since age 6 and they have also worked together in numerous musicals produced by Star Struck Musical Theatre in Fremont. Recently they all had the unique opportunity to work as extras in the Hollywood movie Bee Season.
It all started in January of 2004 when Pam Randolph, a Star Struck Musical Theatre parent and a talent manager, contacted Karen, Rachel, Sarah, Mekala and Karthik to see if they were interested in auditioning for Beau Bonneau casting company, for the movie Bee Season. All of them were excited to think that there was even a possibility to be in a movie. Unfortunately for Mekala and Karthik there was a conflict on the audition day and they had to miss it. However a couple of weeks later they received another email from Leona Hoegsberg through Joyce Peters (owner of Fremont's Giant Steps Children's Bookstore) with the information that the same casting firm was looking for East Indian children and adults. After the auditions, parents were asked to get an entertainment work permit for the minors so they would be eligible to work in the movie if selected. They had to file this within a few days to even be considered for the casting in February and March 2004.
Now with the auditions over, they waited to see if they would be called. "In a way it is the luck of the draw," said Karen Joshi, a student at Cesar Chavez middle school. "You get selected if you fit the type they are looking for." When nothing happened for a few weeks, Sarah, a 6th grader at Chadbourne Elementary School, thought that it was too much to expect that she might be considered and decided to put this possibility at the back of her mind. She was also busy with the rehearsals of Les Misˇrables at Mission San Jose High School (MSJHS).
Much to her delight and excitement, she was contacted in the middle of February - with 2 days notice - to see if she could work as a member of the audience watching the Spelling Bee Competition. She was also thrilled to see her friend, Rachel Nuno when she checked in at Albany High School where the scene was being filmed. Interestingly, Karthik, a student at Gomes Elementary, was also contacted around the same time to be a member of the audience for a two-day shoot. Unfortunately, he had to decline this opportunity due to conflicts. He thought that perhaps he had missed his chance but was pleasantly surprised to be contacted again in March for a one-day shoot as a Spelling Bee student. He was also thrilled to have some company as his sister, Mekala,, a student at MSJHS, was also contacted for the same shoot and role and his father as a member of the audience. This time the shoot was taking place at the Kaiser Convention Center at Oakland and, much to their delight, they found that their friend Karen was also a Spelling Bee Student.
When initially contacted, they found out that there are laws governing what minors can and cannot do when working in the entertainment industry. Parents were asked to open a Coogan Account, a special "blocked" trust account set up to save a percentage of the minor's earnings for their use in adulthood. Funds from this account cannot be withdrawn, even by the trustee. The students were also told that they had to bring some work assigned by their teachers with them, as they had to have supervised classroom time to study for three hours during the filming. Minors cannot work for more than 9 hours in a day. They also have to be chaperoned by a parent.
All extras were instructed on the color and type of clothes that they had to wear and where and when they had to report. This time they had to wear fall color clothes that were in muted tones as the scene was set in the fall time period. Sarah and Rachel were allowed to wear casual clothes like jeans, but Mekala, Karthik and Karen were told to wear semi formal, elegant clothes since they were cast as students in the California Spelling Bee finals. These instructions were given to them a couple of days before the shoot.
On the day of the shoot, after checking-in, all the extras waited in a holding area. Next they were checked to see if their wardrobe and make-up were correct while their chaperones filled out paper work. After that, they were checked in by a teacher and escorted to a classroom for instruction. "We had an actual classroom as our location was at Albany High School," said Sarah. "We worked on our homework from 9:00 a.m. until noon and then were released to our parents."
For Mekala, Karthik and Karen the classroom experience was not as pleasant. Their classroom at the convention center was actually a dressing room and the lighting was bad. It was a strain to study under those conditions, but that was all part of the experience. Sarah and Rachel had to wait from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. until they were called to the set. Once on the set, they sat in the audience in the second row and were instructed how to clap when the spelling bee students spelled a word. They had to clap politely - less if a word was spelled wrong and energetically if the student got it right.
The cameras were on a track and moved back and forth when shooting the scene. The same scene was shot multiple times with small breaks in between until 7:30 p.m. Sarah observed that the waiting time was not too bad. "We [Rachel and Sarah], made friends with people whom we had never known and we played cards with them." Karthik agreed. He discovered that the mom of one of his new friends, Kelsey, was the actress Jan Haley-Soule who plays Wendy, the nanny, in the daytime Soap Opera Passions (airs on NBC at 2:00 p.m.). "She was amiable, charismatic and fun to talk to" observed Mekala. "And she played games with me while waiting in the holding area," chimed in Karthik.
Karen, Mekala and Karthik had a slightly different experience during the shooting of their scenes. Their waiting time and classroom time was interrupted often. At the start of classroom time, a hair-dresser came by to inspect everyone's hair. She sprayed Mekala's hair with hair spray and tied it tightly away from her face into a twist. Karthik's hair got sprayed and brushed down while his friend Kelsey had her hair tied into two braids. An hour into their classroom time - around 9:00 a.m.- they were called on to the set to film the Spelling Bee finals.
There were 20 students with Spelling Bee star, Flora Cross. "It was boring off stage as we were anticipating an exciting time on the sets of the scene." said Mekala. "Once we got on the set, the first take was exciting. We were instructed by a professional acting director. He gave us pointers on how to get an apprehensive look on our faces. After the first couple of takes, it became tedious to be apprehensive for so long." Mekala felt that extras need to have a lot of patience - they have to wait a lot and then on the sets, they have to sit and watch the action taking place over and over again. Mekala and her friends also observed how carefully a scene is set and how much hard work goes into it by all involved even though the scene might be one that just flashes by on the big screen.
The professional tech people working on the sets impressed the students with their expertise, concentration and efficiency. "I was astounded by the fluidity and expertise of the tech people," said Mekala. "There was pin drop silence when the filming was taking place and they did not waste any time during retakes." After the first scene was shot in the morning, Mekala and Karthik were one of fifteen students supposedly eliminated from the final spelling bee round. "I was lucky to be picked to go on to another round and film a different scene," laughed Karen. "I had to change my dress and we went on for another half hour in the morning." During Sarah and Rachel's shooting, they saw the spelling bee star but the main actors did not make an appearance. However, Richard Gere did make an appearance during the shooting of the final Spelling Bee.
"We were redoing our first scene in the afternoon at around 3:00 p.m." said Karen, "We were on stage," added Karthik, "When in walks Richard Gere." "I just felt, Oh! Wow!" Mekala interjected dramatically, "there is this famous person in the same auditorium as me breathing the same air. Interestingly I had only seen his picture in the paper and was able to recognize him immediately. I have not seen any of his movies as yet."
For the scene that they were filming, Richard Gere entered the auditorium, walked down the aisle and sat in a seat in the audience before the take was cut. This take was repeated about three to four times before they were satisfied. The students also observed that nobody rushed to get his autograph or talk to him when he was there. They were all very professional and took him in stride.
Karthik noted that it was a little intimidating to see all the technology that was present on the scene but none of them had felt nervous as they had been performing on stage. They were fed and well looked after. They also noted that all the people working on the sets were very courteous and thanked the extras for their time and participation. All five of them said they were grateful to have had this opportunity and that their experience was "fun", "exhilarating", "educational and definitely one that they would like to repeat."
Bee Season starring Juliette Binoche and Richard Gere and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is an adaptation of Myla Goldberg's debut novel. An eleven-year-old girl emerges as a contender in the national spelling bee finals and her newfound fame changes the way she relates to her family. The film, which is being shot currently in the East Bay, is scheduled to be released in late 2004.
Sarah, Karthik and Mekala can be seen locally on stage in Les Misrables opening Friday March 19th at Mission San Jose High School (information in the arts section).