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That time I was on Halt and Catch Fire

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2017

Kottke Halt

*record scratch*

*freeze frame*

Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up back in the 1970s with such a sweet jacket and bitchin’ mustac— Ok all jokey tropes aside, I got to appear on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire last night as a background extra. (Mild spoilers follow.) This season of the show is set in the 90s, but this episode flashes back to the 70s soon after Gordon and Donna get together. My scene takes place during this flashback and is pretty short. Gordon is at a gas station, waiting to use the pay phone. A man (that’s me!) exits the station with a 6-pack of beer, gets into his car, and drives off after Gordon crosses the pavement to the phone. And that was it! But as a big fan of the show — and I refuse to have any chill about this — it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in forever.

I’ve been watching the show since the first season, when the action focused on a small company trying to build one of the first IBM-compatible PCs on the market. (You may have read about this show on kottke.org once or twice. Or a dozen times. I have an unauthorized Cardiff Electric t-shirt I bought from some sketchy site online. Did I mention I was a big fan?) At some point during the next two seasons of the show, when the action moved from PCs in Texas to online services & anti-virus software in Silicon Valley, I followed the two creators of the show, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rodgers on Twitter. And at some later point, they followed me back and we tweeted at each other a handful of times.

Meanwhile, the show got renewed for a fourth and final season. At the end of season three, the characters started talking about this new thing called the World Wide Web and it was clear that season four was going to focus on early 90s web startups. Now, I don’t know if you know this about me or not, but I love the web. (Oh, you could tell? I let that slip at some point?) And I am so very nostalgic for the early days of the web in the 90s — the Mosaic days, the Altavista days, the Bobaweb days, the Entropy8 days, the Suck days, the CSotD days, the alt.culture.days, the 0sil8 days, the Yahoo on the akebono server at Stanford days. The days when I was young and dumb and decided to quit grad school in a promising field without talking to a single other person about it because I just knew I needed to do whatever I could to get a job working on the web, a job that didn’t even exist at the beginning of my junior year in college. Season four was going to be about those days?! Holy shit.

In June, Chris Cantwell, who was down in Atlanta to direct an episode of the fourth season, tweeted that he was in the hospital, on dilaudid waiting for a kidney stone to pass and was available to answer any questions his followers had about the show. After a crap-can month of May, I’d been focusing on being more direct with what I want, so fuck it, yolo, totally trying to take advantage of this poor guy being hopped up on goofballs, I tweeted back:

Do you need extras for s04? Will do retro web design on screen for zero pay. I still can code circa-1994/5 HTML by hand.

Which was like 30% joking and 70% serious. A few minutes later, he replied:

Dude if you can fly out here I’ll put you in a long wig and put you at a gas station.

I had no idea what the hell he was talking about — remember, he was super fucking high — but we followed up via DM and I bought a plane ticket for Atlanta and booked a hotel the next morning. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get what you want, even if it’s not exactly what you asked for.

Kottke Halt

Kottke Halt

Less than a week later, I’m in Atlanta. They put me through wardrobe, where I tried on two sets of 70s clothes (they ended up using a mix of clothes from the two looks). I got a tour of the storeroom where they keep all of the clothes for the series; it was massive…I kept thinking I was going to uncover the Ark of the Covenant in there. I went from there to hair & makeup, where they fit me with a wig and mustache for Cantwell to approve. My scene wouldn’t shoot until the next evening, so they had to take it off that afternoon and put it all back on the next day:

Kottke Halt

I got to meet the actors that played Gordon, Donna, and Joe…they were super nice. Hell, everyone was super nice and professional and seemed to be having fun…a good crew. I was there to be an extra, but since I knew Cantwell, I was also “a friend of the show”. (Everyone kept saying, “oh, you’re the blogger!”) So they took me out to a couple of the sets, and I got to see Mackenzie Davis do her thing (<3!). They showed me how everything on-set worked and gave me a headset so I could listen in on what was happening. I met the show’s producers, one of whom told me that with my hair and mustache, I looked just like his friend Bill Paxton from 20 years ago, in Tombstone…to the point where it freaked him out a little to see his recently deceased friend standing before him. I saw a stuntman jump off a cliff into a quarry. They gave me a chair to sit in so I could watch the action on the monitors in real-time. I ate so much food at the end-of-day meal. I got to drive a big-ass Chevy from the 70s. I read a call-sheet for the next day’s shoot that totally spoiled the season’s biggest reveal and I didn’t even care that much.

On the day of the shoot, the scene took place at night, so my call time was 6pm. Did the hair and makeup thing again, ate, sat around, got dressed, and then was shuttled out to the set at around 10pm. I watched them set up and then it was go time. I did my scene probably 8 or 10 times. They shot it with two different camera setups and had me change little things here and there…like the first time I walked out of the store, I didn’t have the beer in my hand:

Kottke Halt

And then, right around midnight, it was done. I filled out my sheet to get paid ($51.64 after taxes) and somehow stayed awake on the 90 minute drive back to Atlanta.

That last-minute, three-day trip totally blew my travel budget for the summer. Was it worth it? When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

Update: Will Fitzgerald pointed out that I now have a Bacon Number of 2.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a parlour game based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. Movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and prolific character actor Kevin Bacon. It rests on the assumption that anyone involved in the Hollywood film industry can be linked through their film roles to Bacon within six steps.

While not strictly within the rules (HaCF is TV, not film), I was in an episode of Halt and Catch Fire with Toby Huss and Huss was in R.I.P.D. Because of a few physics papers I co-authored in college, I also probably have an Erdös Number (I’d estimate 5 or 6?). I’ve got a ways to go on an EGOT, but I’m doing pretty well on the Bacon-Erdös scale!