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)

ACTION!

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.

BLOKE TO RIGHT

Aaaaggh!!

(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.

Boom.
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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…

Bleeding Cool!

I was fortunate enough to meet Rich Johnston a week or two ago, the man behind the comic and film site www.bleedingcool.com, and I’m proud to announce that as of this Friday he’s going to be running a regular-ish column by myself, kissing and telling (mostly telling, really) all about my work as an Extra in films and TV.

Expect gossip.

Expect glam.

Expect drama.

Expect ranting.

Expect arrows.

Expect you’ll enjoy it.

Part 1 goes into gory detail of last year’s ‘Robin Hood’. Warts, wenches ‘n’ all.

That’s this Friday 19th, at www.bleedingcool.com

Be ye there or be ye a rectangular shape.