09/30/2010 2:05PM

A reporter's brush with movie magic

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A camera crew catches the cinematic Secretariat in full stride.

Diane Lane knifed between me and Hank Goldberg. “Right this way, Mrs. Tweedy,” I said. Nailed it, just like De Niro.

Then the director shot a couple more takes, with me and Hank merely getting out of the way. One of those takes ended up being used in the final cut.

My first film, and I’m already on the editing-room floor. Now I know what Kevin Costner felt like when he made “The Big Chill.”

I was at Churchill Downs one year ago, lucky enough to be chosen by the producers of the movie “Secretariat” to be in the background of a press conference scene that takes place before the 1973 Kentucky Derby. I was flown from California to Kentucky on a Monday, shot the scene Tuesday morning, and was on a plane home Tuesday night. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, and I got paid $105, the going rate for an extra.

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The experience, though, was priceless, because it afforded me the opportunity to see the hours of preparation that go into what amounts to a minute or two on the screen.

The producers of “Secretariat,” Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray of Mayhem Pictures, have made several sports-related films over the years, like “Invincible” and “Miracle.” As an inside joke, they and publicist Chip Namias of Athlete and Event Sports get a handful of actual sports reporters to be in the background of press conference scenes. That was how ESPN’s Goldberg, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated, and I ended up at Churchill Downs last October, standing alongside Lane, who plays Penny Chenery Tweedy, and Kevin Connolly, who plays Bill Nack. Nack, who wrote the definitive book on Secretariat, was there, too.

The previous week, a similar scene preceding the Belmont Stakes was shot at Keeneland. Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News is one of the actual reporters in that scene, and he gets great screen time, asking the first question.

Upon arrival at Churchill Downs on Tuesday morning, we were ushered into make-up – where my hair got a touch of pomade and a 1970s-style part – and then to wardrobe, a long-bed truck filled with every size and color you could imagine of hideous leisure suits and polyester pants. Suddenly, it was the first Tuesday in May. Nixon was still president, and my beloved Sham still had a chance to win the Derby.

We went to the area where the scene would be shot. The preparation was meticulous. Layden sat in the main pool of reporters in front of the podium while Goldberg and I were placed behind the podium where Lane, John Malkovich (playing Lucien Laurin), and Nestor Serrano (Pancho Martin) would sit. Other actors and extras filled in the remaining chairs in front of the podium and stood in a semi-circle behind the podium.

The director, Randall Wallace, patiently coached us on what the scene would entail. Yet after the first two takes, Wallace noticed that a few of us were anticipating a funny line from Serrano before he says it, and were grinning too soon. “Don’t give it away,” Wallace cautioned before we did a few more takes.

Goldberg and I were in the background of several shots of that scene. Desirous of being the most believable reporter extra ever, I wrote down the actual dialogue from the actors, as it was spoken, into my notepad. Method acting.

And that was it. After a break for lunch, Goldberg flew home to Miami, but Layden and I had later flights so we stuck around and watched the shooting of the next scene on that day’s schedule, the crowd watching the Derby.

There were no horses on the track and maybe 200 people in the stands. But the scene is shot in such a way that you’d think the place was jammed – a fascinating window into movie making.

A white canvas, about 100 yards wide, was hung from the front of the box seats. The actors – Lane, Malkovich, Dylan Walsh (Jack Tweedy), and all the extras – were instructed to look at the canvas and follow a laser pointer as it moved across the canvas.

Chic Anderson’s memorable call of the 1973 Derby was played over the loudspeakers, and the person entrusted with the laser moved in sync with the call. So as the field came through the stretch the first time, the laser was on the bottom of the canvas, and it continued to follow Anderson’s call throughout the entire 1:59 2/5 it took to run the race. The actors, transfixed on the canvas, were reacting in real time to where the horses would have been on the track.
As Anderson brought the horses through the stretch, the noise level rose appreciably. I got goosebumps. It was amazing that so few people could be made to look, and sound, like a large, boisterous crowd.

One year later, I finally got to see the movie at a screening. You’ve got to know where to look to find me, but I’m there. And all the reporters are in the credits, lovingly referred to as the “Hack Pack.” It almost makes up for Secretariat drilling Sham in the Triple Crown. Almost.