An Extra Life On… Harry Potter 7 Part 2 (pt2)

My camera phone is crap.

It’s entirely appropriate that I should cover this film in two parts since it was made, as you’re no doubt aware, in two parts. This, apparently, wasn’t a ploy by Warner Bros to make even more money (because, y’know, 7 massively-grossing films wasn’t lucrative enough) but because – I’m told by a geezer as he ferries us to the set – many hardcore fans had complained that the makers were cutting too much of the books out of the movies, so the studio eventually bowed to their requests.

(Hmm, maybe if I pester Disney enough they’ll make future Pirates of the Caribbean films in zero parts…)

In fact, I’m informed that they were considering halving them from book 5 onwards, but Warner decided that by the time the finales hit cinemas, the fans would’ve hit puberty and grown out of it.

After the relative tedium of the first week, during which I spent much time deliberating whether I’d rather give it to Draco’s Mum or Miss Bonham-Carter (Draco’s Mum), us not-co-carefully selected supporting artistes switched locations to Leavesden Studios. That’s right, the only thing that gives the Watford area any credibility, and you’ve never heard of it. A former airfield that for the past near-decade has been the main base of the Potter films (everything gets abbreviated in Extras world, not just our lunch breaks), which – amongst sparse buildings – bears heap after tarpaulin-wrapped heap of wizarding memorabilia, like a huge al fresco attic. Bits of houses here, a purple triple-decker there…

At the far end of the runway-cum-carpark sat our ‘trailer’ for the next few months, a double marquee housing eatery, costumes and make-up. With most of the scenes outdoors, and winter closing in, we were regularly in at 06:00 to make the most of daylight hours. Once we’d suited up and swapped our payslips for disappointingly synthetic wands, we were shipped back down the tarmac, past Privet Drive with its backless, unfinished houses, and to the scene of battle: Hogwarts courtyard.

You have to hand it to set-builders, they can make a pile of polystyrene look surprisingly realistic, even from a few feet away. What seemed like a genuine stone quad with the odd section reduced to rubble was in fact from the same Blue Peter school of cardboard construction as the Robin Hood castle. The scene is completed by accessorising with some squashed giant spiders, a few toppled statues, the odd puff of smoke, and of course some world-class actors.

And they were all in this scene. (All except Alan Rickman, who was busy crying in a boat shed, I believe.) Which is the main reason we shot the initial scene, the prelude to the final battle, in about 3 million takes. Because everybody had to be snapped from a multitude of angles, good guys and bad guys, until the director had every possible permutation covered. This might sound inordinately dull, considering us Deatheaters – special or otherwise – were just standing around waiting for the signal. And yes, it would’ve been, had it not been for perpetuating fits of the giggles fed by lines from Voldemort, Malfoy and co. Apart from Mr Fiennes repeating “Neville Longbottom” in snigger-inducing fashion (which ultimately got cut), our funny bones were tickled by Draco’s Dad trying in vain to persuade him to cross over to the dark side, with the immortal line “Don’t…. be…. stupid!”, so painfully drawn out that we incurred pains in our sides attempting to stop laughing. In fact so immortal was the line that… it too was chopped from the final edit. (Yet even in the cinema, knowing it’d been cut, we still couldn’t stop ourselves from chuckling.)

Anyway, about three weeks after we started shooting, we concluded that primary scene (yes, three weeks! God knows how many random women Ralph had entertained in his trailer in that time,) during which basically Voldy says “Potter’s dead, come be baddies with me” and Neville says “Let’s fookin’ av it!”.

And then it all kicks off.

That’s when we got to charge at children, wands out, and the fun started in earnest. Some of us were required to ‘apparate’ (disappear) while other braver souls joined battle. The A.D. asked us who was born on an odd day, and those people were told to vanish. Thereby losing a few days’ work. Harsh, but that’s the way it goes. Lucky me, I got to stay, and laid assault to those pesky schoolkids with as much passion as one can with a plastic wand in hand, leaping over fallen bodies and surging forward, like Aragorn through a throng of Orcs.

Well, that’s how it played in my head. I’ll never know, because that was cut too. In fact, the entire clash was disappointingly less colossal than I’d expected, and what we’d spent weeks (not to mention millions of pounds) creating was cut hugely. Perhaps they’d learnt a lesson from Attack of the Clones and gone easy on the full-on, brain-overload death-fest. It is somewhat disheartening, though, when you’re told you’re going to be a ‘special’ Deatheater and don’t even get picked out for your fighting skills; when you’re putting everything into your spellcasting, proper angry like Skywalker at the end of Jedi, and you notice the lame-o next to you is prodding at the air with their wand as if picking shoes out in a shop; when you work all hours of the day and night in cold and wet conditions, splashing in puddles and tripping over rocks, and about 75% of what’s filmed – Expelliamus! – ends up in the bin.

However, there were many good points about working on Potter, and I have many fond memories of it – the laughter (or stifling thereof); the excellent food; sitting in the marquee playing Trivial Pursuit (mainly because I won); dropping stones into the depths of people’s hoods then watching the subsequent attempt at retrieval; trying to concentrate on my moves while a stuntman ran past on fire; watching real-world females (especially hairdressers) go all gooey when you tell them you’re a Deatheater; and Daniel Radcliffe’s ever-present look of bewilderment, like he’s never been on a film set before, wide-eyed and gnashing his teeth like an amphetamine addict.

No, not part of the costume...

But the highlight of the lot for me was the night I got to play dead. An on-set decision which meant I wasn’t given thermals beforehand, and as I lay there, with combatants leaping around me (and occasionally on me), the temperature noticeably dropping by the hour, the damp seeping through my cape, I began to wonder what my life had come to. But then, at about 04:00, we finished for the night, and as the main actors left set, Miss Emma Watson walked past me and called ‘Good night’ to those around.

She may have said it to everyone, but I was nearest. So she said good night to me. Which is half a dream come true. The other half being I wake up next to her in the morning and she begs me to… [This has been cut – Ed.]

Next time: Ridiculous hair-pieces and fainting on John Carter of Mars


An Extra Life On… Harry Potter 7 Part 2 (pt1)


I know it makes me sound like a bit of a cock, but it’s always rather fun to get a phonecall from one of your casting agencies and to say to any accompanying friends (and frankly whoever else is within earshot): ‘Just a sec, it’s my agent’.

Even more so if you then turn to those around you and announce that you’re going to be in the finale of Harry Potter.

A month or so after Gulliver’s ended, having paid my board and lodging meantime with the odd gig on Holby City or some other BBC drama trying desperately hard to be decent, I got the call I’d been eagerly awaiting. In fact, it wasn’t just the opportunity to be a ‘Deatheater’ in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II, but a ‘Special Deatheater’. If you’re imagining a black-clad guy in a wheelchair, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, waving a wand with all the conviction of a female second-violinist and shouting ‘TIMMYYYY!’ then you’d be mistaken (although frankly I’d pay to see that film). The makers were auditioning not just for ordinary bad guys for the final sequences of the film, but co-ordinated, convincing wand-wavers who looked like they were genuine harbingers of doom, rather than baddies who were the other kind of ‘special’.

Yes, auditioning.

Not something you often get in the sub-human world of Extras. Something more familiar to proper actors, genuine thespians. Okay there were no words to be learnt, no emotive soliloquies to be rehearsed in front of the mirror, but still, it was quite a big deal. And I was nervous.

The agent had put forward a bunch of ‘suitable’ representatives to apply for the available roles, and I imagined these to be fit, agile, martial-arts-trained candidates who’d be practising backflips beforehand. Turns out they’d just chosen any old random people. Probably just those with a ‘W’ in their name. For example, my friend who’s a trainee stuntman and a Commonwealth gold-medal trampolinist (and not as much of a nonce as he sounds) didn’t get put forward, yet several non-gold-medal-winning citizens did.

That’s like if your company was hired to send a contract team to work on an I.T. project, and rather than deliver your best computer-loving nerds the company sent a random collective – a handful of tech geeks mixed with some guys from finance, a couple of admins, a receptionist or two, a cleaner, and the fire safety officer. That’s basically what they did.

And one of those guys was Steven Seagal’s brother.

Not literally. But if you saw this man, you’d be like ‘Is that Steven Seagal’s lesser-known, out of shape, less-coordinated older brother?!’ Cos he bloody was. Ponytail and all. And when I saw that guy, and a bunch of other out-of-shape folks looking just as anxious as me, I relaxed. This’d be a doddle, I thought. This is what that single Ju Jitsu belt, achieved at Uni between periods of extreme wastedness, was all for.

They dished out sticks of wood (wands), taught us a few basic attacks and defences, and then paired us up for ‘combat’. Imagine fencing, but done 20ft apart, with no contact. Which means you have to make your actions look all the more convincing. And so, two hours later, after much lunging, stick-waving, sweating, thrusting (calm down, ladies), leaping, tumbling, somersaulting, pretending-to-die-on-crashmats and the hilarious sight of Steven Seagal’s brother turning beetroot as he attempted his 4th press-up, we went home.

The next day, I got the part.

Fast-forward a few weeks, Autumn 2009, and I found myself at the world-famous Pinewood Studios dressed in by far the coolest costume I’d worn so far, in fact the coolest I’ve ever worn. Imagine Darth Vadar’s fencing outfit: black top that zips up at the back, embossed with some kind of other-worldly pattern, butt-hugging trousers that tuck into leather gaiters, over pointy boots, leather cuffs from wrist to elbow, a cape with an unnecessarily deep hood, and a scabbard. I felt like I should’ve had a Squire to help me put it on, and when I walked out the dressing room everything went slo-mo.

The anti-climax was that the wand itself was a lot like a seven-year-old whipping out his willy at a porno shoot.

Other than that, I haven’t walked with as much swagger since I was the first guy in my year at school to get a hand-job. Yes, I loved that costume.

After breakfast, a lot of us started practising our moves, going through the actions we’d been taught (The Matador, The Tommy Cooper… you can probably envisage the accompanying hand gestures) and generally readying for battle. The battle – the one many of us had been excitedly preparing ourselves for for weeks – was not in fact one of good versus evil, of wand versus skilled wand, but more a battle of keeping a straight face while the Big Names around us over-acted for their lives. Or it was for the next few weeks anyway. The first few days were spent inside the 007 Stage in an impressively-realistic-looking wood, with roots so convincing that if you tried hard enough you could actually trip over them (I never did that, no, not in my cool costume, no…). This is the scene where Voldemort and his posse are waiting – like weasels in The Wild Wood – for Harry to turn up. And when he does, we did our best ‘Oh my God it’s Harry Potter, I’m going to tiptoe warily towards him’ actions, wands en garde, until Big V zapped him with some laughably-pronounced spell that sounded like he was struggling with a particularly stubborn bowel movement.

And that was that. Not a massively thrilling start to filming of the most anticipated film of all time (Part 2), the highlight of the week being Helena Bonham-Carter’s burping (strangely sexy it was too), but it got better. The next week, I’d get to wave my wand at schoolchildren. Without the resulting knock on the door from the Authorities.

Yep, only in the film world…

Next time: The battle for Hogwarts, and Hermione’s pillow talk.

An Extra Life On… Gulliver’s Travels

I have to say, despite the mild discomfort and the worrying lack of pudding, Robin Hoodwasn’t all that bad. In fact as far as ‘work’ goes it was a bit of a laugh. The good thing about it – the admirable thing – was that very little was done on green-screen. I’m pretty sure most people reading this will know what I mean by that, but in case you don’t – It was the Real Deal, yo!

Yeah okay the castle was polystyrene, but it was actually there and not ‘added in Post’. Yes a toddler with a tantrum could’ve battered his way through the fortifications, and yes stray arrows did pierce the flimsy wall and have to be plucked out with a well-aimed rope, and yes many more arrows were added in post-production at a cost of a grand each. A few Extras even got crushed to death, like in Ben Hur. No not really. But everything else was genuine, painstakingly and lovingly captured on up to seven (yes, seven) cameras at once.

Contrast this with Gulliver’s Travels, where much of my time was spent literally surrounded by great walls of luminous green, as if I were a microbe on the Joker’s scalp.

The first scenes we did were inside the ‘Lollapalooza’ village, filmed on an old army parade-ground near Aldershot, where us Supporting Artistes played casual townsfolk enjoying a lazy day out, a heavenly relief from storming a castle in heavy armour. The town centre was real enough – food-stalls, flower carts and the like – but any surrounding buildings were magically CGI’d onto five-metre green walls marked with calibration points. Gulliver, you are no doubt aware, was a giant, but of course he (played by Jack Black in yet another of his note-worthy ‘sensitive’ roles) did his bits elsewhere and was added later. So that the Background could follow his movements, we would be told to look at a tennis ball on a pole, or an orange cross on a cherry-picker. During the scene where he fights with a similarly-sized robot (you know you’re in a bad film when a giant robot gives Jack Black a wedgie), we were following not one but two fluorescent tennis balls on long poles, our heads tracking side to side as if watching a tennis match, with the A.D. shouting ‘Look at Gulliver! Now the robot. Back to Gulliver. He hits him… they wrestle… WEDGIE!!’ and us lot reacting accordingly, to the best of our abilities. (I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I have no intention of watching the film to remind myself.) It was a dazzlingly sunny day, and we’d been told not to wear sunglasses (apparently such technology had not reached far-off mythical islands), so had to stare up into the bright sky unprotected. Myself, I’m particularly sensitive to light, and couldn’t keep my eyes open without being blinded, so if you pause the DVD and spot a guy in the crowd with his eyes scrunched shut, possibly streaming, that’d be me.

The big bad robot won this round of the contest (Booo!) but later in the film Gulliver would get his revenge (Yaaay!). It’s fun to speculate how he did this, since I’ve no what actually happened. I like to think he sailed off to Skull Island, buddied up with King Kong, and trained for many days in a loincloth in the jungle, lifting huge rocks, smashing his shins against Jurassic-sized trees, then swimming back to Lilliput with the gorilla on his back. All to a soaring 80s power-ballad.

Anyway, after the mano-a-robo tussle, we moved to Pinewood Studios for a different kind of battle, where we swapped shorts and t-shirts for naval uniforms. Thick, heavy, waxy-coated uniforms, that kept the water out, and the sweat in.

Oh joy.

This time I was one of the bad guys, so was yet again cheering the loser (I now better understand why people support Manchester United.) I was proudly stood behind the Blefuscian King, once more staring at a tennis ball in the sky, cheering as our man (well, robot) struck the early blows. But then Jack fought back, no doubt recalling at a crucial moment his training from Skull Island, and defeated the metal beast. I’ve no idea how, I really don’t remember. But what I do remember is that the food here was decent. Despite the fact we had to queue behind the crew before getting served – nothing unusual there – the grub was good. And that counts for a lot. If you ask an Extra if they were on a particular film, they will often respond as so: “Yeah I was. Food was good on that”.

Feed your armies well, and they will serve you well.

And then there was Anvil Head.

Let me tell you something. If you’re ever job-hunting and see an advert for a Third Assistant Director, do not apply. The ‘Thirds’ are the liaison between the Crew and the Scum. They are the ones who sign them in, tell them to go where they should go, tell them they shouldn’t be where they are, tell them not to wander off because they’re needed (nearly always a lie), and so on. I’ve met very few good thirds, and those who are rapidly move up the ladder, because to be a good third you need to be a nice friendly likeable person, but at the same time not so loveable that you can’t give people firm directions when needed. Much like a teacher. So the good ones soon get promoted, which therefore, logically, tells you that most thirds are cretins.

None more so than Anvil Head. I can’t recall his real name, but he was a laughably bad Third, with a squat body topped by an over-sized anvil-shaped head, and all the social skills of a tapir. As he came over to announce in his comically nasal voice ‘Alright guuuuuys, back on set now’, it was customary to ignore him at least the first two times. Eventually though we’d clamber up from whichever shady resting spot we’d found and trudge back to set, re-fastening whichever items of clothing we’d undone. However it was comforting to note that, no matter how little worthiness we felt we had as Extras, we would never achieve the genetic low-point that was Anvil Head.

The set at Pinewood was not the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage that some of us would work on later for Harry Potter, but an imposing structure made of those big iron shipping containers, stacked five-high in a rectangle.  (This, for building regs purposes, is classed as a temporary structure. Like a garden shed.) Through a narrow gap in a corner we slipped, brushing aside a flap of green felt, to discover that the entire walls were draped with it. Hundreds of square metres of bright green fabric, onto which would be generated a vast ocean and an armada of ships. One of these ships, though, was real. I say ‘real’, it was in fact half a boat – like a cut-away cross-section in a maritime museum – propped on pistons. We clambered aboard and took our positions, myself, being an officer, on the poop deck (snigger), overlooking the crew. Enormous fans billowed the sails as the gurney rocked the boat side-to-side, cannons went off, and water sprayed over the deck. These scenes, despite the stifling heat and the urge to tear off your neckerchief, rip open your thick coat and gasp for air, were pretty good fun. Gulliver was talking to the Captain of the ship, so yet again we were gazing up at an orange mark on a pole. But, unlike before, Jack Black himself was on the ground below us, in front of his own little green-screen, over-acting his piece into a microphone and splashing around topless in the ‘water’, his chubby arms slashing at the air, ape-like. This was the first and last time that the lead actor joined the Second Unit for filming, but it was certainly memorable. After all, it’s not every day you get to see Jack Black’s mighty moobs bouncing around.

Next time… Wand waving and celebrity belching on Harry Potter 7

An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt2)

 I should make something clear now, before I delve any further into the whole-other-world of Extras, and that is this:

They aren’t called Extras.

Strictly speaking, they are Supporting Artistes. Yes, with an ‘e’. Also known as S.A.s, Background Artistes, Background, or Crowd. You see, several years ago a legislation was passed against their unfair treatment, because somebody somewhere grew a conscience and proclaimed that ‘Extras have feelings too!’. Thus the Unions stated that we shouldn’t be known as ‘Extras’ less that implied that we’re superfluous, expendable, insignificant, and that we should be regarded as equals. Therefore we are now ‘supporting’ the main actors, and should be treated as humans, not cattle. This also means that we’re meant to receive the same food and drink as the cast and crew.

Excuse me while I stitch up the gaping holes in my sides.

On Robin Hood especially, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more scum-like or more cattle-like.

Here is what DIDN’T happen: After shooting a few scenes in the morning, during which the Supporting Artistes were very well looked after and not made to run about in the July heat more than necessary, we all sat down with the rest of the gang for a delightful, hand-prepared meal and chatted to each other as equals, nattering about how the scenes went, sharing stories of previous work, and exchanging business cards. Ridley then stood on his chair, thanked the Background for their stirling work so far, and we all went back to Set with smiles on our faces for a thoroughly rewarding afternoon of filming.

No, that didn’t happen. Here is what did: At around 1400, about eight hours after we’d had breakfast, with not even a tea or Hobnob to fill that gap, pick-up trucks drove onto the sprawling woodland clearing carrying large polystyrene cubes, full of smaller containers of food. The trouble is, the caterers never know when the director’s going to call lunch, they can merely anticipate. And what’s preferable to lunch being called and the food not being ready? Yes: cook it in plenty of time and leave it to go cold.

Imagine you are hungry, trying to conjure up some passion for the umpteenth take of the same scene, and are freely perspiring into your thick armour. Lunch arrives, but you can’t go grab it yet. Your morale drops even further knowing that when you finally get your mitts on it, it’ll most definitely be cold. Tepid at best. You edge closer to it, envying the bastards who are lucky enough to be positioned a few metres from it. Then you finish another take, look over at Ridders… he seems happy… he nods… you start walking… and then ‘Okay that’s lunch!’ and you charge towards those polystyrene containers like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, head back, mouth gaping, running with pure joy.

Only to be greeted by a tuna steak that’s grey and cold.

And there’s no fucking pudding.

It really is survival of the fittest, with no respect for the elderly or infirm. They often get out-run and out-elbowed, and being at the back end of the queue, then have less time to eat their even-colder grub.

Meanwhile, the crew, stars and stuntmen get a nice spread with several choices of every course, on top of the paninis they’ve been brought during the day.

And pudding.

Hardly ‘fair’ is it?

But if you get found sneaking into the crew food area, if you so much as nick a mug of their filtered coffee (infinitely preferable to sachets of Nescafé Original), they snap at you like you were a servant in a country manor, helping yourself to Lord Trufflewhit’s pheasant and lighting up a Cuban.

And if you complain, if you kick up a fuss and moan that you’re entitled to the same food and that you’re not a lower class of human being, you’ll not be asked back the next day, or possibly ever again, because mysteriously you won’t be needed. And they don’t even need to give an excuse.

You can probably understand why much of a Supporting Artiste’s waiting time is spent moaning.

But anyway, back to the exciting, glamourous world of film-making! I was lucky enough to see some of the ‘rushes’ from the shoot. Nah, that’s a lie ? one of the French soldiers videoed it on his phone and I had a peek. If you’ve never had arrows fired at you (I’m guessing no), this is what it’s like: Whereas with paintballs you might catch a fluorescent blur before the stinging pain, arrows are a more mercurial beast. This movie, filmed from the ramparts, (in reality, lofty scaffolding with a rocky façade,) played like so:

(Fade In)

A WIDE SHOT of the battlements against the sky. All quiet.

1st A.D. (voiceover)


A pause… then a mist of ARROWS hovering mid-air, like the grey crest of a giant wave… then WHOOOSH! as they rain down on us, far more quickly then their graceful arc through the sky would suggest.



(Fade Out)

The resulting bruise, apparently, is very similar to that of a paintball.

Several days into the scenes in the woods, and we’re doing a night-shoot. These can be a drag, but they also mean higher rates of pay, and a chance to have a sly nap amongst the ferns. One night, us brave soldiers on the hill did Absolutely Nothing all night, except watch dubious video clips on somebody’s smartphone.

Meanwhile, in the village at the bottom of the slope, there is much singing, whoring and revelry. My old friend Rumour has it that the merrymakers were told to really get stuck in. So ? presumably faithful to the cause of making the most realistic film possible ? one Supporting Artiste plunged his grubby hand down a busty wench’s top, giving a bit more ‘support’ than necessary, resulting in accusations of sexual assault and the police being involved.

All while I was up on the hill watching midget-porn.

A few days later, after much charging, bow-twanging, and cries of ‘PUDDIIIING!’ as we laid siege to the French (the caterers eventually got the message), came the grand finale to our attack, and my personal highlight of filming in sylvan Surrey.

If you’ve seen Robinus Hoodus Maximus (they may as well have called it that, or Gladiator II: Ye Mediaeval Years), you may remember the English climaxing their assault by blowing the bloody portcullis off. By this point we’d mounted the hill and were clustered in a crescent around the castle gate, within nose-blowing distance of the Frogs. Soldiers hid behind walls of shields while our hero Russell helped a ‘Powder Monkey’ hook leathery elephant-bollock-like sacks of explosive onto the iron lattice blocking our way. Once they’d retreated to relative safety, a few lucky archers got to dip arrows into buckets of fire, and take aim. If you’re a Heathy & Safety officer, look away now….

This wasn’t CGI. At all. Random everyday archers, not stuntmen or specialists, lit their arrows with real fire and, as the shields were lifted, left loose at the giant testes. We’d been told to imagine that when the arrows hit, there was a huge explosion, and to react accordingly. Note: Extras aren’t renowned for their reacting. Somebody had presumably told my colleague Ridley this, because when those arrows hit home and there actually was a huge explosion, a great churning ball of flame, about ten metres high and wide and singe-ingly close to us, 300 of us soldiers went ‘SHIIIT!’, shielded our faces with our arms, and reacted thoroughly convincingly.

The A.D. shouted ‘CUT! See you Monday,’ and we all skipped back to base, re-living the moment and ? for a brief second ? feeling slightly less worthless than normal.

Next time: Green screen aplenty, and a topless Jack Black, in Gulliver’s Travels.


An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt1)

When I tell people I’m an Extra in TV and films, without fail they immediately and unabashedly ask ‘Does that pay well?’. Which doesn’t tend to happen when you say ?I’m an accountant? or ?I’m a carpet cleaner?, or any normal job, but then the world of Extras is far from normal. In fact, it’s fair to say, it’s in a little world of its own.

I became acutely aware of this during a stint on the recent Robin Hood. Whilst stumbling up a hay-strewn mound towards a polystyrene castle, I found an arrow flying just past my left ear. A rubber-tipped arrow, to be precise, but a high velocity missile with the ability to bruise and maim, nonetheless. Any other business in this country, and the Health & Safety Executive would’ve been round faster than you could say ‘Workplace accident’ and hundreds of people would’ve been jobless. But no, not the world of film. It gets left to its own devices, like a special kid in a wendy house.

So, let’s backtrack a bit, just like in the films where they tease you with an exciting opening scene, then cut to ‘Three weeks earlier’…

Actually it was about three months earlier, and I’d responded to an ad asking the general public to put themselves forward to be in Ridley Scott’s ‘Untitled Robin Hood Adventure’. (Of course it’s not really Mr Scott’s film, he didn’t write it or anything, he just waved his arm where the camera should point. The story of the original script ? and it was very original ? of how it got bought for millions of dollars, and then totally gutted and changed into a vastly different adventure altogether, is an interesting and tragic one, especially from a writer’s viewpoint. But I digress…) There I was in West London on a Saturday morning, queueing with other white and warty hopefuls for all of about six hours, so that our shining lights might be discovered and we would get to fight alongside Russell Crowe. After they’d taken my measurements and I’d informed them I’d done some archery (all of 20 years ago, but it counts), I went home and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In fact I realise now that this was a test, since much of an Extra’s time is spent waiting. There is a genuine skill to waiting around and not dying of boredom.

Eventually, several weeks later, I got the call to be one of the archers, and so I ended up in a cosy costume on aforementioned mound with a hand-made longbow and a handful of semi-lethal arrows at my waist. NOT, I should point out, on my back. Apparently this is a historical untruth created by ? who else? – the film business. Genuine hunters of yore had their quivers around their waists, since this meant a much more subtle movement when cocking an arrow, thereby less likely to startle the deer. I was told this on my first day by the very bowyer who hand-made all the 150 bows. This was like a school field-trip to an educational mediaeval re-enactment centre! Only with a wodge of pocket-money thrown in.

Days on film sets are long. So long that you will be convinced somebody is cheating Father Time and crowbarring extra hours between the standard twenty-four. We were shooting in some woods in Surrey ? the very same place where Ridley shot the first scenes of Gladiator, where his favourite hunk Russell had given the infamous order: ?At my command, unleash Hell? – which, for those of us without cars, was about an hour’s coach trip from Euston. Big films are kind enough to lay on coaches for the crowd, but they tend to leave unnecessarily early, 0430-0500 being the norm. Which, for many, means getting up around 0300 to get a night-bus into central. These are the sort of hours you usually only see when you’re catching a low-budget flight to Lanzarote, when you’re excited to be getting up because you’re going on holiday.

Once at ‘Base’, consisting of a few big marquees in a chewed-up field, we proceed to breakfast. Then, at the given hour ? 0600 or 0630 perhaps ? some loud-mouthed A.D. (Assistant Director) yells at you to sign in and go to Costume. Wearily and grudgingly, we file over to get our payslips, and form a long queue to dress up. This is officially the start of an Extra’s day, and what better way to commence than with some good ol’ waiting! Stood there in a 50-deep line, gazing bleary-eyed at the floor, trying to block out the inane conversation next to you, and wondering why you couldn’t sit in breakfast fifteen minutes more so you could chew your Weetabix properly.

Thus begins an Extra’s day, which, depending on whether you’re filming indoors or out, and what time of year it is, may last around twelve hours. 150% of a typical working day, filled with lots of waiting, and climaxing with yet more waiting as you queue to be signed out.

Oh hang on a sec! The film business is meant to be all glitz and glamour! I completely forgot. So yes, once we all got our battle garb on, we got whisked by minibus to ‘Set’ ? a few minutes’ drive through the woods ? and sent to pick up our weapons. Weapons! And shields! To attack the French, no less. What grander way to start the day? And all in the name of King Richard the Lionheart and England. Huzzah.

After all 300 of us archers, swordsmen, pikemen and engineers (blokes with spades) had lined up and been briefed by our general (or an A.D. who doesn’t seem to know what a megaphone is), we took up position on the slope below a small French castle and awaited orders.

And awaited.

And awaited.

Typically the first assault of the day commenced around midday. Yes, a whole six hours after arriving at Base. Three quarters of a ‘normal’ working day. What some people would call ‘lunchtime’. But lo, lunch for the film world is barely a whiff on the horizon. However, while we stand around… then sit around… then lie around… wondering what’s taking so damn long, and initiating conversations with Random Bloke next to us, possibly with the words ?So have you done much of this before??, the crew busy themselves preparing the shot ? lining up the cameras, laying cables, setting up props, kindling realistic-looking fires, ‘touching up’ the Extras (oo-er), and basically doing all the hard work before the ‘stars’ arrive on Set. (One day, Russell didn’t turn up until about 1500 because he was watching The Ashes in the pub.)

And then the fun starts. Arrows are handed out to the archers, and we’re told to fire OVER the castle walls, not AT them. Then on the command of ‘Action!’ or ‘Background Action!’ we attack. With apparently no real input from the school of Orderly Warcraft, we run/shuffle/amble up the slope, those with arrows firing them vaguely in the direction of the battlements (some of course hitting the walls, presumably those who didn’t do archery when they were ten), and one or two whizzing past your own head. Just as you’re about to fire one home, thinking ‘Why, that turret’s no bigger than a Womp Rat’, somebody will run straight in front of you and you’ll have to use emergency evasion so as not to wound your own team, either ceasing fire just in time, or launching the missile about 30 degrees to the left of the castle, narrowly missing a catering truck.

Then, just as you’re thinking ‘Am I insured?’, somebody far away yells ‘CUT!’, an A.D. nearby echoes the message, and all of us return to our starting positions, panting and grinning and thinking this is the awesome-est job ever.

All of which excitement lasts about three more takes, then the ennui begins to hit…