An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt1)
(Originally posted as a column on Bleeding Cool)
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.
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.
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…