EXT: A blanket of stars against the blackness of space, yellow text rises slowly in a worms-eye view perspective…
“EPISODE 2: The attack of the french soldiers
Tired and battered from a gruelling three days on set at the Naval Colleges in Greenwich London, John and his band of intrepid movie extras flee to the vast landscape of Pinewood Studios. There, their greatest challenge awaits them…”
EXT: Camera pans down…
Actually, before I get to our final bit of shooting on Les Mis, I forgot to mention a nice lady I met on the first day, just after getting into costume for the first time. It turns out she does this as her hobby, as a retired pensioner, she doesnt like gardening, cooking, sewing or any other stereotypical past time enjoyed by UK pensioners. Instead, she travels the country and does this for fun. On her last movie she spent 3 days sat next to Sir Anthony Hopkins in an airport scene, so they got to natter quite a bit, so I think she was right to choose this hobby over crochet! It turned out she was only doing Les Mis for one day as she had been selected as a featured artist, and be the first person to get shot in the movie (keep an eye out for her in the big funeral scene). Being a featured artist meant that not only does she get paid more, but becasue she was picked out for a certain role, she couldnt be used elsewhere for fear of breaking continuity in the edit. Pretty cushy job if you ask me!
Anyway, on to Pinewood. As I recall it was a full week of shooting, and I commuted each day with some of the lads I had worked with previously on the Greenwich set. We stuck together on set when we could really, it helped make the waiting around less tedious and made the days fun. They were a great bunch of lads, but there were some who were very irritating. I’m not going to point fingers, dish dirt or anything like that, but lets just say that the characters in Ricky Gervais’ series “Extras” were quite accurate! There were some who didn’t treat it seriously enough, but there were some who took it way too seriously and over-estimated the importance of their individual role. After the Greenwich stint, we were told a few people had been sent home for their behaviour and it didnt surprise me when I found out about a few of them. As time went on, the men were sorted from the boys I guess.
Walking around Pinewood Studios, seeing the famous 007 stage, the new Hitchcock stage (which I think we were using if I remember correctly) and thinking of some of the legendary moves that had been made there over the years was enough to give you goosebumps for sure! Once on set, the scale of the movie becomes apparent. A whole network of streets and buildings, life size and meticulously crafted inside and out, such as interiors of shops and stuff that there was no chance in seeing on camera, this level of craftsmanship was truly impressive.
Firstly, our small group had to change from our damn cool navy blue Elite Gardes costumes and wear the more recogniseable lighter blue and white uniforms (making us look like we were auditioning for Buttons in Cinderella). The set up for the week was pretty much the attack on the barricades towards the finale of the movie. An all out attack consisting of volleys of rifle shots and canonfire, along with the return fire from the heroes of the piece inside a sound stage wasn’t really good for the ears, but you could really feel the force of some of the shots. One shot in particular from a blunderbus that had been double-charged, nearly knocked us off our feet – the sheer force of the blast and the sound left us winded and ringing in our ears! At one point, the stunt team needed 2 volunteers so me and another lad from our little group jumped at the chance! We got padding put underneath our costumes, as we would have to be shot and fall right onto a real stone cobbled road, and for safety we of course had to swap our rifles for a stunt rubber rifle, before practicing with them being shot and dropping convincingly. Pretty cool stuff I admit, but as with a lot of the shoot plans changed all the time, so we were instead drafted into a small team of soldiers for a much more exciting task – hunt down Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne.
At one point in the fight, Eddie’s character gets shot, leaving Hugh to drag him away and retreat into the sewer system and escape. We were set with the task of attacking from a back alley and searching for them, kicking down doors, running down alleyways etc, chereographing it on the spot with Director Tom Hooper, the Assistant Director (who was a real work-horse and did much of the on-set directing for Tom), the military advisor and Hugh Jackman himself. Hugh was certainly different to Russell, far more approachable and easy-going, yet a total pro at his job. It was hard to tell under the baggy sleeves, but he’s a tall lad with a broad frame and I am assuming shredded to hell by that point, no doubt in training for then going on to shoot “The Wolverine”. It was damn cool to have worked with Jor El and now Wolverine, but once things get going, the whole star-struck thing wears off, as you have to concentrate and give it hell. We spent most of a day doing this, and I had to opt out of kicking doors open as my uniform was quite tight, so any high leg kicking would result in a definite tear in the rear! Still, we spent most of a day doing that, which was pretty damn awesome.
As the week went on, the days took their toll, we were behind schedule so rolling lunches were the norm. Rolling lunches were just pretty much go in groups, grab food from catering, come back and eat on set while they set up the next shot. The hours of crouching and kneeling on the cobbled street and dropping from being shot were also starting to really do some damage to my knee. Still, I pressed on and we all had a laugh. There was one point where 3 soldiers were picked to take pot shots at a kid while behind the barricades, and during the rehearsal, the last bloke actually fired his rifle, which was only meters away from Tom Hooper, who ran for his life! Luckily he was far away enough to not be affected by the gunpowder blast, but if it was a modern replica firearm firing a blank, things could have been much worse. Another guy I felt for was the cameraman who I recall dropped one of the main cameras after hours of set-up with a dolly track, so that was another morning lost.
On the penultimate day of shooting, it was time for the big sequence of storming the barricades. Everyone it seemed was on set to see the set up for this one including Russell, Helena Bonham Carter and Amanda Seyfried who is a very petite girl. They soon disappeared though, and the rest of the day was leading up to a huge gun fight, and set piece. By this time, my knee was just about really to quit on me and I was in constant pain, so I opted to be shot fairly early on, which may not have been the best idea in retrospect, having to drop onto my knees repeatedly, but it was either that or brave the very rickety-looking, nailed together, barricades. I was positioned on the far left right next to our commander, who plays a nasty piece of work (you’ll see inthe movie), but had an incredible voice, so after chatting to him between takes turns out plays Russell Crowe’s part in the West End version of Les Mis, and they gave him the time off to come and do the movie.
After another long day, we finally wrapped for the night, and walking back to get changed, I ended up walking with Eddie Redmayne on the way to his trailer. Nice lad, very friendly, but I could see in his eyes he was exhausted, so I politely tried to keep the small talk brief ending with a quick handshake. It was a great reward after the end of a very tiring day. After make-up tried their best to make me look human again after the dirt, oil and make-up was removed, I could feel my knee swelling, so once I was changed, saw the nearest person of authority and told them I was done. I later found out that the following, (last) day was the aftermath of the fight, where the soldiers spent all day playing dead on the street. I could have done that, but health comes first I guess and I didnt want to risk any further damage. Besides, the overall experience was incredible, and I had another movie to do with another Australian A-lister… Eric Bana.