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200 Girls

So few extras, so little time.

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Scott Parker was worried. All Friday afternoon the tall, unshaven director had walked through Rogers Park taping up flyers that said, "Starfish Studios needs girls ages 6-12 years old to be extras in its feature length movie 'Bobby Got Grounded.' We need 200-300 extras....There will be an orientation meeting from 6:00-8:00 PM at the Good News Church--7649 N. Paulina." It was now eight in the evening, and in 13 hours he planned to shoot his movie's biggest scene: ten-year-old Kimberly, one of his stars, urging a horde of girls to kill the neighborhood rats. A crane was coming. So was a cameraman who'd worked on Road to Perdition. But only 30 girls were sitting in the pews of the church.

"We need 170 more," Parker shouted, flinging out a pair of flapping hands. The girls giggled. "This scene is not going to work with 30 girls. Between now and nine AM tomorrow we're going to have to get more girls. What you need to do is go home and call five girls and tell them to come to Juneway Terrace tomorrow. Tell them we're going to have lunch from Burger King and Buffalo Joe's. We're going to have a crane operator from a Tom Hanks movie. If this movie is good, we're going to show it at film festivals around the world. But it's going to look pretty lame if we only have 30 girls."

Rhonda Walker stood up and led her eight-year-old daughter, Marqueita, out the door. "We gonna bring ten girls with us tomorrow," she promised.

"Bobby Got Grounded," Parker's story of a boy who gives his mother's grocery money to a pretty girl and has to earn it back, is the first feature film for his production company. Since he graduated from Northwestern University eight years ago he's been working with children in the corner of Rogers Park social workers call North of Howard and neighbors call the Juneway Jungle. God led him there, he believes, to work with the poor--first substitute teaching at Gale Community Academy, then making short films with students after school. "Bobby Got Grounded" has a $30,000 budget, most of it donated by an Atlanta Falcons fullback Parker met in a prayer circle at Northwestern. Parker, who's sleeping on a friend's couch while he's between apartments, doesn't expect to make much money from the movie.

At six on Saturday morning Parker was in the Howard Street office of Starfish Studios. He still hadn't shaved. But he'd printed out a new flyer--"Come for free food and be in the movie"--and handed it to two volunteers, who'd rushed it to a 24-hour Kinko's. The copies were back by eight, when Parker unlocked the church's kitchen. He'd ordered breakfast for 200: boxes of doughnuts, baskets of bananas, gallons of orange juice.

A dozen girls came in, sat down at the long tables, and waited to eat. Soon there were two dozen, then three dozen. The girls ate quietly, though Precious and Ashley argued over a chocolate doughnut and Jamie asked, "Are we gonna get a chance to talk in the movie, or are we just going to be part of the crowd?"

"I got my ten," Rhonda Walker said. "I called up some of my friends and saw some girls on the street. We're having a yard sale for the church on the lot, and two of my friends had their girls with 'em. I said, 'Let me have your girls.'"

But Parker still didn't have enough people, so he decided to shoot a few small scenes in the morning, then do the crowd scene in the afternoon. He gave flyers to the girls who'd come and some volunteers he'd recruited from his prayer group at Uptown Baptist Church, then sent them out to look for more kids.

Moon Kwon, an eighth-grade teacher, left the church with three girls--Larissa, Ashley, and Asha. On Howard Street they spotted two girls walking in front of a shoe store, accompanied by an older man. Kwon and her girls dashed across the street between idling cars. "We're doing a movie shoot today, and we need a whole bunch of girls their age," Kwon said, handing a flyer to Aaron Reed, the pair's guardian. "We're shooting at one in the afternoon."

"They gonna pay these girls?" Reed asked.

"They're gonna give 'em lunch."

"Just kidding," he said, and promised to bring Kamillia and Queen to the church at 12:30. He said he'd always wanted to be in the movies himself. He'd tried to get hired as an extra in Barbershop but couldn't find the set. "I know they're gonna enjoy this," he said. "It's a chance to be in the spotlight."

Asha handed a flyer to two girls in the checkout line at Dominick's. "We gonna be famous!" one of them shouted. "We gonna be in the movie theaters!"

Lunch was supposed to arrive at the church by one o'clock. But at one it was coming in 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes later it was still coming in 15 minutes. Fifty girls fidgeted in the kitchen. They colored posters for their big scene--"Down With Rats"--turned cartwheels, played hand-clapping games, climbed all over the toilet seats in the bathroom, argued about their favorite movies. Dejonee liked Crossroads. She tried to describe the plot, but Ervetta, who'd written "I Love God" on a strip of masking tape and stuck it to her shirt, wouldn't let her. Whenever Dejonee opened her mouth Ervetta held up her hand. "Bzzz. You had your turn. My favorite movies are Cinderella, Cinderella, and Cinderella."

Around two o'clock, after wings and cheeseburgers, 60 girls marched up Paulina, each holding hands with another girl. They turned right on Juneway, then crowded three deep into the alley that was Parker's set.

Parker--a sweet, earnest man except when he's directing a movie--was waiting for them in front of the crane he'd rented for $2,000. "Quiet on the set!" he bellowed into a microphone. "Here's the rule. If the camera gets in your face, ignore it. If you don't we won't even come by you again. We'll make sure you're not even in the movie."

The girls gasped.

Kimberly--like all the movie's leading actors, a student in Parker's after-school film classes--was supposed to rally the girls against the neighborhood rats with a revival-style speech. The girls were supposed to egg her on by singing out "Uh-huh" and "That's right." It was the girl-power scene.

"How many of you ever found a little cockroach or spider in your bathroom and had to get your uncle, your granddad, or that boy next door to come over and kill it for you?" Kimberly said sassily. "We supposed to be afraid of snakes, spiders, mice, bugs, rats, and all that. The only thing we're not supposed to be afraid of is dirty dishes, dirty bathrooms, and dirty laundry. Listen, sisters! We gotta show these rodents who they messin' with. We gotta hit these rats so hard they grandchildren gonna feel it."

The alley was wall-to-wall girls. A few clapped tentatively.

Parker stopped the camera. "Cut! Hey, guys, this is not even close to what we need. Come on--preach, preach!"

The second take was rowdier. The girls chanted "No boys! No rats!" and "We need a plan, not a man!" They lifted Kimberly's spread-eagled body onto their shoulders and carried her down the alley.

Parker had one more girl-crowd scene to shoot--the one where they run into the alley. Ervetta had a starring role in the scene--she was to ride a bike at the head of a stampede of girls. Parker stripped off her "I Love God" tape and stuck it on his own shirt, then lined up the kids at the corner of Marshfield and Juneway and yelled "Action!" It was a Mad magazine cartoon, with girls rolling up the street on skateboards and scooters. A boy who'd sneaked into the scene sprinted ahead, carrying a football.

On the second take Ervetta fell off her bike. A girl hurdled her head. "I liked when I ride on the bike," Ervetta said afterward. "I hated when they ran over me. They gonna show the part where I fell?"

"They gonna edit that out," another girl told her.

The shooting over, Parker asked the girls to line up against the alley wall, then wrote their names and numbers in a spiral notebook. Sixty girls had been almost enough, he thought. Sixty had looked like a crowd. He told them he needed them back on the last Saturday of the month--to chase an ice cream truck. He hoped they'd each come back with a friend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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