VCU students involved in Oscar- nominated film “Lincoln”

Michael Todd
Assistant Spectrum Editor

The world may never know for sure if Abraham Lincoln, as history tells, never told a lie. In 2011, however, several VCU students discovered firsthand the making of the film telling Lincoln’s history-changing story.

Released in October 2012, “Lincoln” recounts the last few months of the Civil War and the 16th president’s push to pass the 13th Amendment. The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, recently received 12 Oscar nominations including best director, picture and actor. While the majority of filming took place in Petersburg, several scenes were shot in Fredericksburg and in the heart of Richmond.

Some VCU students participated in the film’s production as set design and construction workers, extras, actor stand-ins and more. Some were involved for as little as a day or two, while others returned to the set for weeks.

Auditioning as an extra for “Lincoln” consisted of little more than turning in an application listing basic details such as availability, extracurricular activities and the optional, though preferred, presence of a beard. In his enthusiasm to take part in the film, however, creative advertising student Brad Fantuzzi arrived to the mass interview, conducted in summer 2011, in full costume complete with a guitar used to improvise songs about 19th century life.

Aside from working as a townsperson, Fantuzzi most enjoyed portraying a Confederate soldier in the film’s reenactment of the Jacob’s Ferry battle.

To prepare for the scene, extras participated in three days of imitation combat training using rubber guns. Participants were taught four choreographed moves, as well as responses to certain moves to prevent chaos. Extras were sorted into groups based on how quickly they learned — and on whether or not they could keep a straight face.

During filming, the choreographed element of training proved unnecessary as the extras overtook the scene in a free-for-all. In anticipation of this, stunt actors in the front line learned even more specific fighting moves to provide the illusion of legitimate battle, with chaos reigning in the background.

Extras were also instructed that, if they fell during filming, they were to act dead.

“The first time they said rolling, and then let go, everyone fought their hardest … and every single person (slipped and) fell on the ground,” Fantuzzi said. “The whole battlefield died in two seconds. And Spielberg got on the (megaphone) and was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I know, falling on the ground, you’re supposed to die. But we can’t have everyone die. So try to stay on your feet.’”

Though the scene lasts little more than 20 seconds in the movie, Spielberg shot the reenactment 25 or more times, by Fantuzzi’s estimation. Shot on a particularly rainy and frigid day, with heavy wetsuits weighing down the majority of extras, many volunteers abandoned the set because of weather conditions.

In accordance with the Screen Actors Guild guidelines, all participants received additional compensation for potentially hazardous conditions like scenes involving smoke, and cold or wet weather. In the case of “Lincoln,” this also included special qualifications, like any actors with beards. Fantuzzi fell into all of these categories.

Though students’ majors were unimportant in casting, senior theater performance majors Nick Skliris and Justin Ahdoot will be able to add the experience to their resumes for their careers after graduation.

Skliris began his experience with “Lincoln” in August 2011, responding to a “call for beards” put out for the film.

After playing a dead Confederate soldier for one day and a union soldier for two, Skliris was recruited as a stand-in.

“There was this one kid who was going to be the stand-in for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and they looked at him, and they looked at me, and they were like, ‘No, no, no, get out of here, kid.’ And they picked me,” said Skliris. “It was literally that lucky, just because I was more (Gordon-Levitt’s) height and more his hair color.”

Technical preparation for films is often tedious and lengthy. Stand-ins hold the place for the actors as the crew perform routine prep work, including lighting, while the actor remains offstage. Unlike stunt or body doubles, they do not actually appear on camera, but still physically resemble the actor as closely as possible so that conditions will remain the same for the actor during filming.

Skliris acted as a stand-in for several of the film’s key actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

Though he only participated in filming as a Union soldier for two days, Ahdoot says he is visibly recognizable in one of the movie’s scenes.

Working on the film’s set proved, for Skliris and Ahdoot, to be an enlightening experience in both positive and somewhat unfortunate ways. The pair witnessed a lot off screen, such as how locations for different scenes, though entirely unrelated in the film, were located almost directly on top of one another on set.

“Watching the movie, it was actually a little hard sometimes… A lot of the movie magic was unveiled,” said Ahdoot. “It just made it, when you watched it, a lot different because you’re like, I know that (isn’t real) because I was right there. It’s hard to believe what they’re telling me.”

Some VCU students were as active off camera as those who participated as extras and stand-ins. Cinema and philosophy student Andy Kennedy-Derkay worked as an assistant to the directing department of “Lincoln.”

After both an initial interview with production coordinator, Justin Haut, and a follow-up interview, Kennedy-Derkay began work with the directing department a week and a half before the film’s production, all the way through the last few days of filming. Working three or four days a week at eight to 10 hours a day, Kennedy-Derkay spent over 350 hours on set while still balancing a 16 credit semester his sophomore year.

Some of Kennedy-Derkay’s responsibilities included processing and directing hundreds of background actors, working with the stunt coordinator on practice stunts, keeping order—and quiet—during filming and closing down set at the end of the day.

“We had over 200 actors in almost every shot, and 100 of them were incredible name actors like Michel Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, Dave Costabile, David Warshovsky and Walton Goggins,” Kennedy-Derkay said. “These guys populate so many of the films that helped me fall in love with filmmaking, and it was unbelievable to go to work for two or three weeks and see them every day.”

For two weeks, Kennedy-Derkay assisted the stunt coordinators and rehearsal team in the film’s opening battle scene. At one point, he was allowed behind the camera to film.

Kennedy-Derkay said he felt that what got him hired was not his cinematic background, but his enthusiasm.

“They owed me nothing in letting me help,” said Kennedy-Derkay of the experience. “And getting to observe guys like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and gaffer David Devlin light a set was more tribute than I ever could have expected as a college sophomore.”

Even VCUarts students played a role in bringing the film to fruition.

Alum Joshua Bennett was one of three mold-maker and plasterers, all of whom have BFAs from VCU’s Sculpture and Extended Media program, involved in set creation. Bennett and his team, led by VCU alum and construction coordinator Richard Blakenship, sculpted, carved and cast whatever the production designer instructed them, using reference photos.

“Sometimes it would be, ‘We need a hollow architecture feature to cover the sprinkler heads in this modern theatre, can you make something like that?’” Bennett said of his job. “And we’d have to kind of make it up.”

A majority of Bennett’s time was spent producing approximately 200 4×8 foot brick skins. The team had to create a mold, which would allow for unlimited copies of the same design, of a negative of a brick wall. The team placed burlap between layers of plaster for a realistic textured effect. Though the skins had the appearance of real brick, each was only a quarter to a half an inch thick.

Despite any physical discomforts of filming, VCU student “Lincoln” participants were overall appreciative for the opportunity to appear in the popular film—and, perhaps, to save some money on shaving cream and razor blades.

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