By Peter Bognanni ’01
Peter Bognanni ’01 is an assistant professor of English at Macalester. A film made from his novel The House of Tomorrow is due out next year. It stars Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, and Maude Apatow.

“Roll sound!”

The command rings out from the back of the moving train car.


My pulse quickens and I wonder if I have time to fix my posture.

“Roll Camera!”

I don’t. The camera assistant snaps the slate, the director calls “Action,” and I immediately begin to scratch a large, unsightly rash on my left forearm.

“Slower,” says the director. “Slower! Tilt your head. No, don’t make a face. Okay. That’s fine. Keep doing that.”

I scratch slowly. Artfully. I am both the rash and my nails on the rash. I am a professional actor, I think.

It is four in the morning, and I am playing “The Guy With The Rash,” a featured extra role in the movie version of my 2010 novel, The House of Tomorrow. If I’m lucky I will earn five seconds of screen time. Most likely they’ll chop it down to two or three. They might even lose my face entirely and settle for a close-up of the skin condition a makeup artist took an hour to create. My wife, Junita, is asleep next to me. That’s her role: to be asleep on me. She went method hours ago and actually passed out.

Even though we’ve just begun, all the filming will be over soon. This is an indie movie and they’re packing the shoot into 18 frantic days. It has taken six years for this project to finally come together, and in less than a week, everything will already be shifting gears to post-production. When it actually happens, and the magic movie people are gone, I will tell Junita, with no hint of irony, “I feel like the circus just left town.”

And not because I got to meet celebrities and can now namedrop them shamelessly (cough, cough Nick Offerman) or because I got to hang around with my best friend, producer Tarik Karam ’01, and the amazing director Pete Livolsi. And not even because I got free Pop Tarts and mini Ritz Crackers from Craft Services anytime I wanted. What I’ll miss more than I would have imagined is being back in the world of my book again.

When a book is first released it seems to appear and disappear from shelves in the blink of an eye. You work for years perfecting every sentence, every turn of the plot, and then the launch goes blurring past in a matter of months. And if you’re like me, you spend most of that time worrying no one likes it while staring at your Amazon ranking as if it were an exact measure of your self worth.

So this time, when the circus comes to town, I vow to enjoy it. And in the course of 18 days this summer, I see my story created from scratch again. Sometimes, this means watching as the teenage boys at the heart of my book rehearse a song for their band in a small hotel room in Dinkytown, and feeling—for a moment—like I’ve stepped into a cozy room in my own brain. Sometimes, it means watching an Oscar-winning actress perform a scene in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center where I took my first-year theater course 15 years ago. Sometimes it means standing below as a camera crane hovers over a geodesic dome in North Branch, Minnesota, and realizing, maybe for the first time, that this is a real movie.  

And sometimes it means becoming an extra in my own fictional world. Which, in the end, isn’t the worst metaphor for what this whole process is like. Once you put a work of art in the world, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. If you’re lucky, readers take over and become creators themselves, imagining the book in their own way. Reviewers find meanings you never dreamed of. And if you’re really lucky, a director takes over to create a new vision altogether. The author’s role is a small one. Once the writing is done, we become extras.

Which reminds me: back on the train, my scene is over. I’m told I can wash off my rash if I want to, but I leave it on for a little while. All around me, a car full of extras dozes and reads. One of the teenage boys plays with his character’s signature Zippo. The crew packs up their equipment. Outside, I watch the pre-dawn scenery whip past. The train is on a closed loop, moving in a listless circle. Morning is almost here. I’m a little motion sick and more than a little tired, but I’m learning to enjoy the ride. 

December 5 2016

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