Three Louisvillians have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a projected $200,000 documentary of a year in the life of a man often called “The World’s Greatest Extra.”
Jesse Heiman, the subject of the documentary, has been in hundreds of movies, television shows, commercials and music videos. “Spiderman,” “Old School,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Glee,” “American Pie”…
Director Nick Weis has seen the casting calls that Jesse Heiman answers. Some of them call for an actor who is “very, very fat.” Or one who “looks unhealthy.” Is a “nerd.” Is “ugly.”
He’s also seen the abuse heaped upon Heiman on the internet, especially since his appearance opposite Israeli model Bar Refaeli in this year’s Go Daddy Superbowl commercial. If you saw it you remember it: it featured Heiman and Refaeli in an extended, graphic kiss– so graphic, in fact, that the ad was eventually censored by CBS.
What if you found yourself in Hollywood at the age of 21 and discovered that everyone wanted to cast you but as “the loveable loser” or “the fat guy” or “the gross blind date”?
And what if they didn’t even want to give you a true character? What if they just wanted to stick you in the background, in an unnamed, non-speaking role? What if they just wanted to use you as a visual joke?
That’s Heiman’s story. The Boston native moved from his teenaged home in Austin to Hollywood because he wanted to be a writer.
Weis says he’s interested in the mindset of Hollywood exploitation. Heiman was bullied all his life, and he’s still getting bullied.
“Does it make it okay if he’s getting paid?” asks Weis.
That’s a question that this documentary will explore.
Weis is a lifelong Louisvillian. He went to St. Xavier High School and the University of Louisville where he studied marketing. He was interested in international business so as a senior, he took a Russian class.
The final exam was to make a video filming yourself wandering around Louisville, talking to people in Russian.
And Weis caught the bug. Not the Russian bug, the film bug.
“None of us involved in this film ever intended to be in film,” says Weis.
He worked with WDRB for a while. Director Edward Heavrin tapped him to work on “The Potter’s Field,” a short documentary about the St. X’s student volunteers who serve as pallbearers at indigents’ funeral. The film was featured at the Flyover Film Festival to a sold out audience.
That documentary was also partially funded on Kickstarter. They’re still working on how and where to distribute the film.
CBS Nightly News was just in town to cover St. X’s program and met with Weis.
Heavrin is now Weis’s principal photographer for “The World’s Greatest Extra.”
“The Potter’s Field” took them three years to make. “It was an education,” says Weis. “This time we’re a lot more prepared.”
After “The Potter’s Field” was finished, Weis said that he didn’t know if he’d work on film again. “The idea just had to present itself,” he said.
In 2011, a Swedish man named Wilhelm Hemple made a YouTube video about Jesse Heiman’s background ubiquitousness. The video, kind of a moving “Where’s Waldo?” for Heiman, went viral. It’s been viewed more than 3,350,000 times.
Weis saw that video back in 2011, but he stumbled across it again last summer. And as sometimes happens with YouTube, watching that one video led to him watching another and another, until he found Heiman’s video blogs.
“And I just watched them all,” says Weis. “All at once.”
“And I was totally, totally intrigued by this guy’s story. The humbleness of him. It’s kind of inspirational. He’s like a Hollywood myth. How did he become this famous for just standing in the background?”
Weis thought “there should be documentary about this guy.” The idea of this documenary was so strong, so sure with him that he wouldn’t allow himself to look it up on the internet to find out if there had already been a film about Heiman. He was afraid he would be heartsick if someone else had done it first.
He said, “I could tell from the video blogs that there was a story there.”
When he finally got up the courage to Google to see if some other documentarian had gotten to Heiman first, he learned that no one had.
He reached out to Emily Carroll, who used to be the director of marketing for Louisville’s International Festival of Film. Carroll and Weiss have been friends since high school She moved to Los Angeles two years ago to do production work for films. She currently works for BermanBraun, and Weis knew she was making lots of contacts.
Carroll joined the team to handle the business end of things.
Weis said that they debated for days as to the best way to reach out to Heiman’s managers and agents and publicists.
In the end, Weis just took the plunge and messaged the actor himself via Facebook in November 2012.
Heiman was interested.
Weis went into development and Heiman got with his “people.” Weis began planning what he would film, started developing the business plan.
“And I got an email on January 2 from his agent that said pretty casually, ‘oh and by the way we booked a Super Bowl commercial…” says Weis.
“That totally changed things. In my original concept, that would be the ending. The whole story would have led up to that.”
Indeed, after the Super Bowl things were different for Heiman. “He’s no longer hiding in the background,” says Weis. “Was this his fifteen minutes of fame or can he take this to the next level?”
On the first day of filming, Heiman wanted to eat lunch at the Grove, L.A.’s premier celebrity-spotting spot. Heiman wanted to show Weis just how the Super Bowl ad had elevated his profile. Weis was skeptical, but after five minutes at the Grove, he got on the phone to Heavrin, who was back at the hotel, demanding that he grab the camera and get some footage.
The footage is in the preview. “One camera shows up,” says Weis, “and then another and another. Paparazzi.” Mario Lopez is filming a segment for “EXTRA” nearby and he stops filming so he can take a picture with Heiman. Girls are giving him hugs.
Weis and Heavrin have been out to L.A. four or five times now to film with Heiman. Weis will move to L.A. next month and stay for at least eight months as they finish up filming
Weis says about about Heiman: “He is genuine. He is humble. He has this honesty to his personality. He’s been called really terrible things. But he has this hopefulness to him.” He says that the actor loves to play video games and has a best friend named Sarah, but no girlfriend.
“I want to give him a voice,” says Weis. “It’s a very universal story of an actor in Hollywood trying to make it and the hardships along the way.”
The $65,000 that Magic Happens Productions, the company formed by Weis and Carroll, is trying to raise from Kickstarter will help pay the principal photography for the film. They’ve already had interest from distributors, and they’re weighing the best options.
As for Heiman, he’s just finished up working on James Franco’s independent film of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”
The Kickstarter has ten days left and is 31 percent funded at this point.