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Mostly Film writers recall their fleeting experiences at the business end of filmmaking

Indy Datta

photo
Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ in a film. META.

So my mate Gavin was making a film, and he asked me if I wanted to be an extra in one scene. Obviously, when the call came I had been hoping to hear that his star, Kris Marshall, just wasn’t measuring up, and, he’d been thinking – and this was so crazy it just might work – but did I think I could possibly pretend to be in love with a beautiful French actress (Annelise Hesme) just for the duration of a wistful romantic comedy but, sadly, no. Still, as my drama teacher always said, possibly, there are no small parts, only small actors. Maybe this could be the start of something big.

My scene was to be shot inside the Tate Modern turbine hall, at that time hosting Tacita Dean’s “Film” installation. But first there was a scene to be shot with the two leads outside the gallery. It won’t be a surprise to anyone to learn that there’s a lot of waiting around on film sets, but it maybe isn’t until you have to spend three hours with the other extras huddling under an umbrella gas heater on the Southbank after midnight on a freezing winter night that you really know what waiting around is. It was so cold that venturing more than a few yards from the heater was foolhardy, which meant I didn’t get to see much of Gavin and his stars at work, although I did get to see the lighting crew wrestle with a balloon light which looked like a giant glowing Nurofen that wouldn’t stay put in the wind.

A giant glowing Nurofen, yesterday
A giant glowing Nurofen, yesterday

At long last we made it inside the eerily empty turbine hall, Dean’s empty vertical screen at one end like a negative of the 2001 monolith. Our job as extras was to make it look less eerily empty, but as it was a low budget film, there weren’t that many of us. So we were carefully choreographed to move across the background of long lens shots that were tight on Kris and Annelise in the foreground. I was to pretend to buy tickets from a booth and then walk up the stairs past some other extras and then out of shot. When action was called, I brought all of my experience and training into play and, if I say so myself, I nailed it. This even though there was nobody at the ticket booth and I had to pretend! For some reason, Gavin went for more takes. Of course, I nailed it again, and then again.

A few months later I saw a rough cut of the film. I was shocked to realize that I was barely visible in the scene. You’ll be able to see me if you keep an eye out but I’m basically just a small blurry speck. This must be how Ben Chaplin felt when he saw The New World.

Sparks and Embers is in post-production for a 2014 release.

Indy Datta may also be seen later this year as “blurry man in the background” in Fred Rowson’s short film Woodhouse, unless he gets cut.

'We're not so different, you and I.' James Bond talks to his mum
‘We’re not so different, you and I.’ James Bond talks to his mum

Kate le Vann:

Ten years ago, he wasn’t James Bond; he was the mother fucker from The Mother. His new film, with the same director, would be an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Enduring Love, which everyone had read, including me. My boyfriend worked at Senate House in London – which was also being Gotham City around that time – and told me they were hiring extras for a shoot there and you didn’t need Extra qualifications: he thought I’d have fun. I agreed that I would definitely have the most fun ever.  I called the number and was asked to turn up at 5am on the day wearing summer clothes. It was autumn and I’m weedy about the cold, so I put on six short-sleeved t-shirts, a thin little cotton cardigan and some baggy old jeans. I rode there on an empty bus at 4.15 feeling excited. The thing is, I really love the movies.

The other extras were a lot more glamorous. They’d done it before, they were real actors, they had agents. They were friends. We were given a paper bag breakfast on a freezing cold double decker bus that had been fitted with little tables. I was shivering and ate everything, though it was all cold. It was dark outside and I was lonely.

When the light came, we were told where to go and what to do. Rhys Ifans, a hit in Notting Hill, was the bigger star at the time. He had to eat a Big Mac from the carton and was pissed off about it. The crew were whispering that he was a vegetarian. A new Big Mac came with every take and each one darkened his mood. That famous Rhys Ifans interview earlier this year? I could have told her that would happen.

A symbolic balloon. Also pictured: Kate.
A symbolic balloon. Also pictured: Kate.

For the next scene, my last, I was chosen to wear red. This made me very important. In the film red signifies anger and passion and is a visual echo of the red balloon from the first scene that began the whole terrible mess. Wardrobe gave me a red corduroy jacket. I was glad of it because I was still freezing, but it was two sizes too big and made me look stocky. And even then, although he was not James Bond, something told me I wanted to look my best around Daniel Craig. I didn’t get to stare at him much, but in one take (that was not used) he jostled with Rhys Ifans so hard that they both smashed into me, nearly knocking me over.

When the film came out I saw it in Vancouver with a different boyfriend – the one I got married to. I saw my hips first, stocky under the big red jacket; it looked like that was probably all you’d see of me. Then, unexpectedly, for a quarter of a second my great big white moon face, out of focus, filled the screen. I glanced at my fiancé. I love you, I thought, but back in London I was in the movies.

Niall Anderson

A highly symbolic bath. Also pictured: existential despair.
A highly symbolic bath. Also pictured: existential despair.

It goes without saying that pedants tend to be impatient and rather angry people. Never has my talent for pedantry or my temper been so exercised as during a brief stint as a script supervisor on a few films in the 90s.

Script supervision is basically on-the-spot continuity work: if the clock on the wall reads six o’clock during take one, then it’s the script supervisor’s job to make sure it reads six o’clock in all subsequent takes. If an actor’s cigarette is burned halfway down in one scene, it’s the script supervisor’s job to make sure it’s burned to the same length in the next scene – the shooting of which may take place a week later. The script supervisor is also likely to be the only person on set to have read the whole script, which can make for some interesting conversations with the more free-wheeling and “instinctive” members of cast and crew. The script supervisor only ever has bad news to impart (“We need to do that again: it’s the wrong sort of lightbulb”). By the end of a shoot, everyone hates you.

It also drives you slowly insane. A single scene on a short Irish film convinced me never to do it again. Two characters are taking a bath together. Everything was going wrong. Lights failed, microphones didn’t record, one half of the bathing couple either hadn’t seen the latest updates to the script or hadn’t learned their lines in the first place. It was already late, and getting later. Everyone was tired. More to the point, two of the cast were in the nude in a rapidly cooling bath.

My job was therefore to keep the bath hot, while also keeping the level of the water more or less constant. This meant the actors getting out the bath every so often, which meant they dried out: their hair in particular was very different every time they sat down in the bath again. They’d have to sit in the bath for a good ten minutes to reach the approved stage of bath-wrinkliness and ambient sweatiness. It was past midnight and everyone was exhausted. Also – was I imagining it or was one of the actors developing a bruise? Definitely. We needed make-up. But make-up was in a trailer, sleeping. And in the meantime I was stuck in a small overlit room with two naked people I’d only met a few days before. I was the only reason they were still naked. I wanted to die.

When I finally saw the completed film, I was both pleased and displeased to see that the bath scene had been cut out. To spend so long on something that could be summarily magicked out of existence was, of course, not a brilliant feeling. But it’s the script supervisor’s job to be essentially invisible in the final product, and this scene had been such a personal ordeal that I think something of the anxiety of its creation would have come across on screen. I resolved to apply my powers of pedantry to jobs where nobody need suffer hypothermia or naked embarrassment on my account. It’s been a bit over a decade since. So far, so good.

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