Following on from last week’s account of my eight days as an aristocrat filming Sade, here’s part two: The soup spoon and Daniel Auteuil’s nose. Or … why the director had to confiscate my spoon.
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I arrived on the set the next day at 6.00 am and trotted up the abbey stairs to the aristo’s waiting room. And stopped dead. There were seven extras in the room, all of them clutching pieces of paper to their chests, and all of them mouthing lines. This was not an auspicious start to the day. After the debacle of the day before, I’d declared myself mute. My French accent was good for only one syllable. After that everyone would know I was English, and unless the screenwriter had slipped in a part for the Scarlet Pimpernel, I’d ruin the film’s credibility.
I slunk off to Wardrobe, determined to keep away from all speaking parts. If asked, I’d feign ignorance, or pretend to be deaf. I was an actor after all.
I buckled myself into my costume – waistcoat, frock coat, knee length trousers, stockings, frilled shirt and cravat – and queued for make-up and coiffure. I had dirt brushed into my costume to show the privations us poor aristocrats had to go through. But, unlike my role in Joan of Arc, the make-up artist didn’t offer me the option of facial scars or fleabites – prison hygiene having come a long way since the 15C.
I strolled back to the abbey and found a veritable forest of paper being clutched in sweaty palms by the assorted bewigged and begowned gentlefolk. There was a box by the door with a note informing each extra to take a page and memorize it.
I cursed the fickleness of my brain. How come I could understand every word of something I didn’t want to know and fail so miserably with the rest! I rummaged in the box, looking for a page with nothing on it – an early version of John Cage’s 4’33″ perhaps, or a page of ouis. Neither was there.
As I cursed the loquacity of French cinema – why couldn’t this have been an action film! – the call came for the first shoot and I hurried off.
The cameras were set up in the refectory, a superb vaulted cavern – the ceiling supported by two rows of arching stone pillars running the entire length of the ground floor. In the foreground, tables and benches had been laid for breakfast. There were nine of them. I headed for the one at the back behind a pillar and tried to look as inconspicuous as I could. Today was a day to hide in the background.
My attempt at anonymity lasted ten seconds. The assistant director grabbed me and physically escorted me to another table.
He sat me at a window table at the far end. I was on my own. Was this punishment? Had I been sent to the bad extra’s table? The more I looked around, the less likely that appeared. The table was laid with very authentic looking pewter plates, assorted silver cutlery, period wineglasses and bottles. And… some of the plates had a card in front of them – with names on. There was one card opposite me, one next to me and another three to my right. I looked at the other tables. There were no other cards anywhere else in the room. And why were all the cameras pointing at me?
I soon discovered that the whole day’s shoot was to be a series of conversations between the three leading players over a meal. I was sat next to Isilde, the leading lady, the Marquis de Sade sat next to her, and her father sat opposite me.
The first shot was a general one – taken down the table from my right – to show conversation and general hubbub. From what I could gather the director wanted us to mime conversation for four minutes. This sounded easy. And for the first thirty seconds it was. I was paired with a girl opposite and we mimed and smiled quite happily. Then I ran out of French. I could feel my eyes glazing over as I searched for something to fill in the next three and a half minutes. I mouthed like a goldfish – a very animated goldfish. I could see the growing look of panic in the girl opposite as she tried to respond. Two minutes down and my arms started waving; polite conversation had been replaced by semaphore. I windmilled; I reached for the wine bottle, I waved that too…
I was told to tone it down. An actor from the silent movie days could not have hammed it up more. If I had been allowed to keep my moustache, I’d have twirled it.
Next take, I was cool, suave and resting my elbows on the table. Then my hands started swiveling from the wrist and…
Third take, I was practically sat on my hands but my eyebrows had started moving up and down like a bad Groucho Marx impression.
They wisely moved on to the next scene. And the next course – soup. This was a godsend for me. At last I had something I could do with my hands. I could punctuate my frenetic miming with a slurp of wine and a spoonful of potage.
That was until the cameras moved to my left. They were shooting a close-up of the main actors and I was between them and the camera – or at least my outstretched hand and soup spoon were. Imagine the scene – busy refectory meal, camera closes in on the face of the Marquis de Sade, soup spoon lunges into shot, blocks out nose, dialogue continues, soup spoon returns, slurp.
The director came over and confiscated my spoon.
After a break for lunch and a fortifying glass of wine or two we returned. Filming can be tiring. The days are long (twelve hours plus) and much of it is filled by sitting around waiting. I noticed the actor sitting opposite me – Jean Pierre Cassell, an actor of mature years and a legend of French cinema – had his eyes closed. He looked asleep. And the director was preparing for the next scene. He’d asked for silence. He was pointing the camera directly at Jean Pierre…
Some people are natural ‘look the other way and walk on by’ people. I’m not. I’m someone who can’t see a problem without trying to fix it. Perhaps if I gave him a gentle kick under the table? After all, I’d been his stand-in yesterday. Wasn’t it my duty to look out for him?
But… what if was misconstrued? Extra plays footsy with famous actor during Marquis de Sade film. The extra with the scene-stealing soup spoon.
As I hesitated, the seconds ticked down. Kick or not to kick. ‘Moteur,’ shouted the director. ‘Moteur demandé,’ echoed the assistant director (no one says ‘action’ on a French film set) The camera whirred into action and, in that instant, Jean Pierre’s head sprang up and he went straight into his lines – word perfect, one take. I was stunned. I was convinced he’d been asleep. As he finished the scene, he glanced my way and I’m sure he winked.
The finale to the days shooting was the sound take. First they recorded about five minutes of general background hubbub by asking all the extras to chat. Then came the individual snatches of conversation that they were going to overlay on top. The assistant director asked for a show of hands for those people who had been given lines to speak. My hand stayed firmly fixed to the bench – no windmilling this time.
Relief flowed over me. I’d escaped. I could relax.
I watched the sound team follow the assistant director around the tables, taping each person’s lines. Then they came to my table and, suddenly, the rules changed. The extra next to me was halfway through his first line when the assistant director had an idea. “Why not read your lines to him,” he said, pointing at me. Fair enough, I thought, I can handle that, so I sat and watched as my neighbor spoke his lines to me. As soon as he stopped, the director thrust the microphone in front of my mouth, “And now you reply.”
I totally froze. I couldn’t even manage a ‘oui’. All I could think of was why, why me? And as for French – every word had fled, even pourquoi. I had no idea what had been said to me. I had no idea what was expected of me. I spluttered. I shrugged. I could feel my eyes bulging in their sockets.
But I couldn’t speak. I was a silent film actor cruelly transported out of his medium. And not a caption in sight.
I still find it incredible that for the entire eight days I worked on Sade that only one person was ever asked to improvise lines. Me. The only non-French speaker on set. Twice.
Oh well, c’est la vie.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
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