If you’ve watched Silicon Valley lately, we’ve already met. That’s me in the picture above next to Erlich.
When I was younger, theatre was one of my favorite hobbies — though I was never one of those kids who loved to take center stage and broadcast themselves every given opportunity.
After countless summer camps and play rehearsals I gave up my dream of becoming an actress because I didn’t think I was good enough. I became a writer instead and ended up doing a cameo on my favorite TV channel without even trying.
Sometimes life is funny that way.
Here’s how it happened.
I was less than two months into my new job at BetterDoctor, having just moved to San Francisco from Helsinki, when the email came.
“This will be fun,” our founder wrote on top of a forwarded message. It was an invitation from a producer’s assistant to participate in the filming of a new HBO series about Silicon Valley. I remembered reading about it, and the script seemed promising.
But the most interesting part was that it was HBO. I love HBO. Oz, The Sopranos, Rome, The Wire, Game of Thrones… all my favorite shows have come out under those three letters.
They planned to recreate TechCrunch Disrupt for the new show. They reached out to some of the real startups who were there and asked if we wanted to come to LA to attend the filming as extras — or send some swag to put on display at the set.
Two weeks before the filming, my co-worker was worried that he wouldn’t have time to go. I jumped at the opportunity. “I’d love to go,” I said.
Hello, it’s HBO! It’s not something you get invited to do every day.
I had never been to LA and I didn’t have a driver’s license. I knew that it wasn’t like San Francisco and I probably couldn’t take a bus to the set every day before 6 AM.
I asked if they could fit one real Y Combinator company at the set and then recruited the other half of Kippt to go with me. Now I had a personal driver. (Suitable for a Hollywood star, no?)
After some paperwork we were ready to go get our 15 seconds of fame.
Sitting behind a fake booth
I had been a movie extra once before in Finland. The first surprise wasn’t how early the filming starts or how much of it is just waiting for your turn, but how much work is actually involved in bringing in a 100 extras to stage a tech conference.
We were at the set at 7 AM, waited in line, filled some papers, waited in line again and got our startup t-shirts checked by the costume people. Then we could go and set up our booths in the large hall that was now becoming TechCrunch Disrupt. The alleys were swarming with people with tools and tape and stairs, hanging huge startup logos up from the ceiling.
The scenes shot in the Startup Alley and backstage that you see in the last two episodes of Silicon Valley took three days to make. One scene might have been a minute or two long, but we had to start over and do the same thing multiple times. Sometimes dozens. They had to make sure that everything looked the same as in the last shot, everyone was in the right place and moved and spoke at the right time.
About half of the 100 extras were from real startups, wearing their own logos and talking to “attendees” like they did at the real Disrupt. Some of the companies next to my booth, like HumanHeater and Self Surgeon, were obviously made up.
I was one booth away from Pied Piper and got to enjoy the scenes and see the camera action from pretty close. I didn’t know the characters then or much about the series in general, so it was mostly just hearing a bunch of slightly funny lines about 20 times in a row.
The challenging part was that we weren’t allowed to really talk. We stood at our booths meeting the “attendees” and every time we heard “Action!”, we started pretending we were talking to them but had to keep quiet. A hundred extras can make a lot of noise that drowns out the voices of the real actors.
The other extras there only knew that they were supposed to play visitors at a technology conference and check out the booths in the fair. They didn’t know what TechCrunch was or that some of us were real startups. Some came up to my booth after a while and asked: “Are you real?”
I recommend trying to demo a product silently sometime. It’s a lot of fun. People also suddenly get this urge to tell their stories when they’re not supposed to speak. I learned quite a few interesting ones.
The day I met Mike Judge
We were called back from a break on the second day of filming to find our booths moved. The pink BetterDoctor booth now seemed to be in the middle of the action, surrounded by cameras and crew. They never told me why they chose us. They just asked me to stand next to the booth.
T.J. Miller (Erlich) showed up, then Mike Judge, the director and writer known for Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill. They introduced themselves, we shook hands and Mike started directing T.J. and the others for the next scene.
I slowly realized that I was going to be standing in the middle of the scene.
While the directors were figuring out other stuff, T.J. asked me and the guy on the next booth about what our companies do. He seemed genuinely interested in the health gadget the guy had built and wanted to buy one for himself. It seemed to me that he didn’t know that much about startups or tech (as you already knew if you’ve watched their interview with Michael Arrington at TC Disrupt). It was obvious that the producers had done their homework well, though.
We didn’t know what was supposed to happen in the scene. No one told me what to do, except that I was to stand close to Erlich. I didn’t have a clear picture of who the characters were and what it had to do with the plot, I just watched and listened and tried to act like I would act if it was a normal situation. We practiced a few times, readjusted and started filming. It’s an iterative process to direct a scene like that, I learned.
It was super interesting to see how professionals like Mike and T.J. worked, and I was pleased to see how nice and respectful they were towards the extras. They didn’t seem like the Hollywood egos you sometimes hear about.
T.J. was making jokes every chance he got. Sometimes he managed to crack up the whole crew and make everyone relax. It is valuable after a 12-hour day of waiting and shooting the same short scenes over and over again. I imagine it’s also good practice time for a comedian.
Mike Judge, on the other hand, wasn’t playing around. I learned that it must take an immense amount of focus and vision to direct scenes with that many moving parts — from the joke-cracking main actors to the dozens of startup extras.
You could see that some of the people were getting tired of doing the scenes over and over (or “one more time” as they always so nicely asked everyone) and also that it was Mike’s wish to redo them as many times as needed for the outcome that was good enough for him. I have a lot of respect for that.
To be honest, I must have been so excited or in a flow state that I don’t remember many details about the making of my scene. When it was done, T.J. and Mike shook our hands again and thanked us for the help.
We were asked if we wanted to come the next day when there would be only a handful of extras around. We said yes.
Touring the hacker house
I didn’t really think about getting my face on TV until some of the other extras came to congratulate me afterwards. I just thought it was fun. Okay, maybe pretty lucky too, and really really interesting. And hey, we got our logo in there. That’s why we came, right? It’s a big thing for a startup.
The next morning we shot a backstage scene that took an hour or two of preparation —mostly figuring out the right startup t-shirt colors and the groups to wear them (I still got to wear my own), where we would stand and what we would do. One of the makeup artists even wanted to do my hair just for that scene.
I saw the backstage scene in the second last episode (#7), and the resulting clip was about five seconds long. I was in it for about two. That’s a lot of work for two seconds. I can’t even imagine how many hours of sitting and watching the editing must take.
We had some time to take a tour of the studios with the friendly producer’s assistant and he showed us the hacker house where Pied Piper lives. They started filming in a real house in Palo Alto but then remade it inside the studio. There were some cool stories about how they got all the surrounding to look the same as in the real neighborhood (giant photos). The place felt very real. Every detail from the video games to the beer bottles was like from an actual hacker house.
Six months later I had forgotten that I’d be on TV anytime soon. I was finishing my second book when the episode came out. I kind of missed it.
We watched the episode at the office on Monday morning. Nobody had expected our cameo to be that big. I started getting messages about it and everyone was curious about how it happened, so I wanted to write about the experience now that I still remember.
I never seriously dreamed about being on HBO, but I’ve always known that their level of quality is something I strive to reach in my own work as well.
That’s why it was a huge experience to get to work with them and see how a production of that level is really made. I didn’t have a very glamorous picture of TV work to begin with, and this made it clear that it’s a lot of things people don’t generally expect it to be.
There’s no glamour. Some excitement, yes. But mostly there’s just a great idea, millions of decisions to make, a lot of work to do and countless hard-working people to craft all the thousands of pieces into something beautiful and enjoyable.
And then hoping it would make the world a better place.