Well X-Men: Days of Future Past was a superb return to form by Bryan Singer. A wonderful, character driven superhero movie that when you look back on it, was very selective with its action. Bring on Apocalypse and the next Wolvie instalment!
Seeing Hugh on screen always triggers a brief memory of my time working on Les Miserables, in the past I have heard the saying “write about what you know,” so with that being said, I thought it might be worthwhile to give you a few installments of my experiences doing movie extra work. Having done three movies, I have been fortunate enough to learn and experience a lot, so I hope to share that with you.
Doing extras work (or “Background Artist” if you want to be posh) is a very rewarding, fun thing to do, but make no mistake about it; it can be physical and mentally exhausting.
The first movie I did was Les Miserables back in early 2012. I had registered with my agency the summer beforehand, and my job at the time allowed me to be flexible with my schedule and fit this work in, so I seized the opportunity while I had the chance! I was asked if I had marching experience as they wanted soldiers for the movie, so I exaggerated the truth a little saying I had drill experience, but that was with St John Ambulance as a kid… I didn’t mention that part. It made no difference, really as it was a piece of cake and there were many others who struggled.
Anyway, it was about two weeks work, three days on location at the old Naval College in Greenwich London, followed by a long stint at Pinewood Studios. After a day of costume fitting at Pinewood, I headed down to London. Now, call times are normally very, very early, so it was down to careful planning I stayed in a hostel near Lambeth North tube station, but I had get up around 3.30am to walk to Waterloo to catch the very first train of the day to Greenwich which got me on set just before 5.30am. From there, you find your marquis, register, get changed and then queue for makeup. After that, it’s a matter of killing time and having breakfast. Food is a big plus side on this line of work – it’s a full English breakfast (or continental if you prefer) to start with, followed by lunch and dinner (depending on your finish time and plenty of drinks in-between. You are well fed and watered as you definitely need the energy!
Around 8.30-9am we were called to set by the various ADs, to be issued our rifles and given basic training. Now these things were period replica, working firearms, so we had to sign for and be responsible for our own gun, which could not leave our side until we finished for the day – that is through toilet break and meal times too! Sounds easy? Well when these things weigh a good few kilos and stand around 5 feet tall, 6 with the blunted, but solid steel bayonets attached, so they can easily do some damage! After some very interesting training, we were sent to set for marching drills and set up. To say the set was impressive would be an understatement. The entire exterior of the Naval College was transformed into a period set, the architecture of the buildings lent itself perfectly so the whole feel of the place really had an energy and buzz about it. When you add a few hundred extras to that, dozens of horses, crew and props, the end result is something quite special.
I admit that the buzz wore off after a few hours of standing around, especially in an itchy wool uniform, boots with no padding in the soles, a heavy rifle, hat and heat from direct sunlight and nowhere to sit, but to complain would have done no good, nor would it have made time go quicker. I found the best trick was not to anticipate much, as the set-ups and re-setting of shots took hours. What impressed me greatly was the calm nature of the horses and their handlers who were enduring the same wait all day in the same conditions, only the horses had to go through various stunts, noises and action at the end of it all and keep their temperament.
Background music of the song that would play to this huge funeral procession scene would be piped in through speakers as we had to march to the beat for a better visual, then on cue we were to break formation and chase down the street as things kicked off. We did this a few times and each re-set took hours. With everyone there on the payroll, it’s clear to see where a movie’s budget goes!
After a few days of doing similar things and other set-up scenes, the third day was a tough one, as we were asked to do overtime and do a night shoot with an interior shoot in one of the halls (also used in Pirates of the Caribbean 4 I was told) with Russell Crowe doing the “One Day More” song. Seeing Russell in costume in person, was pretty cool in itself, the guy is very intense and certainly carries a presence on set. It was fascinating to watch him work, as he is very much focused on the scene and strives for the best in himself, the crew and the extras too, rallying us with an explanation of the scene and its purpose. He was very smart and astute too, as the floor of the hall was crippling us standing around.
After a full 12 hour day of standing around, going into the final hours of the day we were all hurting and flagging, so Russell would laugh and joke with us to keep morale up between scenes, it was very impressive of a guy who didn’t need to do that. People criticised his singing abilities in Les Mis, but it puts things into perspective when he had to sing raw, live on set with no post production enhancement and no full music to sing to and just a guy on a piano playing the basic tune into an small earpiece, it’s like singing with headphones on. I think this choice was a brave and clever move from Director Tom Hooper, as I think the movie would have been flat and a bit pointless if they tried to recreate the stage show on screen. This was more like an opera, but focusing on the raw emotion of the scene conveyed in the singing.
Anyway, after that gruelling day, I got back to my hostel in the early hours of the morning a broken man, but buzzing after the experience, and relishing the remaining days on set in Pinewood, where things would really kick-off! ….That’s Part 2. Continued next week.