An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt2)
(Originally posted as a column on Bleeding Cool)
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.
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:
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.
BLOKE TO RIGHT
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.