In 1998 Luc Besson came to Normandy looking for peasants for his film, Joan of Arc. Naturally I applied. I already had the clothes. All I needed was a photo. Off I rushed to the photo booth in town where, concentrating hard on not blinking, I thought myself into the role of peasant number eleven. Then sent the resulting picture off to the film company.
Next day, the phone rang. Did I want to be a noble? Naturally my first thought was that, at last, the Queen had recognised my services to small furry animals … but no, even better, it was Luc Besson’s casting director. They wanted me to be a knight. In full armour!
There is only ever one answer to a request like that – even when followed up with, ‘it will mean a haircut.’ Besides, my command of the French language was such that I translated only those words I wanted to hear – and all I heard was ‘dress up in armour’ and ‘Oscars.’
The haircut, however, was a shock. They only had two styles – the Henry V and the Friar Tuck. Both decidedly more cut than hair. And as a person whose ears hadn’t been seen in public since the sixties, I had more to lose than most. Including my beard which went from wild and bushy to battle-hardened stubble.
Suddenly, I was Christo d’Ouilly, veteran of the Hundred Year’s War. And I wasn’t alone. Half the male population of the small town of Sées sported Henry V haircuts. For a month it looked as though the town had been overrun by escaped mental patients straight out of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.’
But wearing armour was brilliant. I was dressed from helmed head to pointy toe in shiny metal. And for make up, I had the option of scars or fleabites – because I was worth it.
Lunch, however, was a shock. I hadn’t contemplated the mechanics of eating in full armour but as I lowered myself onto the refectory bench I discovered rule number one. ‘Don’t sit down without first grasping the hilt of your sword and angling it forward.’ Otherwise, as I found out, the tip of your sword hits the floor and the pommel flies up and catches you under the chin.
And as for eating, I couldn’t get the food from plate to mouth. My arm would lock with the food dangling some six inches in front of my face. Maybe the armour was ill fitting, maybe the articulation left something to be desired, maybe they had longer forks in those days. But I did solve the problem, somewhat inelegantly, by grasping the fork at its base and craning my neck forward in sudden food-crazed strikes. Christo d’Ouilly was not a man to be messed with.
As for the acting, the whole day was spent filming the coronation of the Dauphin in Sées Cathedral. The main actors were in the front pews; then came three rows of nobles in velvet and wimples; then us armour-clad, scarred and flea-bitten warriors; then a slide down the social scale to the throng of peasants – even more flea-bitten – at the back.
As Luc Besson told us – at nine o’clock the Dauphin will enter the cathedral and by seven he’ll reach the altar. No performance enhancing drugs in the 1420s. Ten hours of filming then ended with three minutes of cheering the newly-crowned king as flower petals cascaded from ceiling galleries. And as the shouts of vive le roi began to die down, a single voice rang out from the host of armoured warriors – ‘God save Henry the Sixth!’
Strangely that piece was cut.
And even stranger – just as my hair was growing back – I was called back by the studio. They were looking for another noble – yes, I’m type cast – this time they saw me as an English noble at the capture and burning of Joan. Was I available?
This time the scenes were going to be shot at Luc Besson’s house. Naturally his house was a little different from yours and mine – for one it had the ruins of a small monastery in the back garden. And it was a château. And its grounds were patrolled by mounted security guards. And the heads of three captured paparazzi were impaled on spikes over the front gate.
Well, perhaps not the last item but the film crew had built a city gate, castle wall and a medieval street next to the monastery courtyard. The workmanship was superb. Even close up the beams looked like real oak beams and not plastic. (see the picture above)
But the mud was real mud. The weather had been appalling. It was December and when it wasn’t freezing, it was drizzling. A thousand feet had churned the courtyard into mud and everyone was wearing Wellington boots. Which looked odd. There I was in rich burgundy velvet, gold chains and green tights – something I hadn’t worn since the seventies – and Wellington boots. No shots below the knees one presumed.
Gradually the courtyard filled up. First they built the wooden pyre then they arranged banks of extras around it. I was in the third row of nobles, standing on the steps in front of the bank of seats for the dukes and princesses. Now, the goal of every film extra is to get his face in front of the camera. The closer the better. And I soon realised I was standing behind an old hand. He tapped the shoulder of the noble in front of him and told him that the assistant director had asked him to move to the end of the row. Being a green noble he obeyed and the master tactician slipped forward and took his place on the front step. I followed taking the vacated place in the second row. Who else could we fool? What about that John Malkovich bloke? Did he look like he’d fall for the ‘Luc Besson wants you back at the house’ ploy?
Unfortunately not. And I soon found out that standing nearer Joan’s funeral pyre was not a good idea.
It was cold and wet, we’d been standing around for hours. Our clothes were soaked through. And suddenly two enormous gas barbecue-lighter cum flamethrowers were brought out to light the pile of wood. It was very impressive. Soon the fire was roaring and engulfed the very life-like dummy of Joan of Arc.
I was about 15 feet from the pyre and the heat was becoming uncomfortable. If a camera hadn’t been trained on me, I’d have moved back. But it was. A great big camera barely four feet away. And if no one else was moving neither was I. A determination that wavered as soon as Joan of Arc’s shift took off and hovered on an updraft of air some twenty feet above the pyre. The shift was a mass of flame and slowly disintegrating sending burning fragments floating towards the ground.
I forgot about the camera. I was waiting for the first person to scream and break rank. I was going to be right behind them. No one moved. Couldn’t they see the danger? The air was filled with burning cloth. And smoke. Suddenly there was smoke everywhere rising up from the nobles. And from me! My costume was smoking! Still no one panicked. I started beating my chest, in a I’m-not-really-panicking-but-can’t-anyone-see-my-costume’s-on-fire! sort of way. And then realised. It wasn’t smoke, it was steam from our wet costumes.
They cut much of that scene from the film – probably because by the end there was more steam coming from the extras than from the pyre. But somewhere on a cutting room floor is an Oscar winning performance of an English noble, distraught at poor Joan’s fate, beating his breast in despair.
Maybe it was luck, maybe it was my manic breast beating but I was selected as one of six extras to be called back the next day for a close-up. They needed a block of 6 extras (two rows of three with me front and centre) to fill the foreground in front of the Duke of Bedford and a histrionic French princess.
This was my moment. I could feel it. I’d listened to Michael Caine. Film acting is all about the face. And my face was ready to act. Subtlety was the key. No histrionics, no arm-waving, just bags of subtlety.
And an eyebrow lift or two.
I barely slept that night as I ran through my game plan. I’d start quizzical, turning slightly to my right for the Roger Moore left eyebrow lift. And then back, a look of shock, a touch of horror, a steely gaze of determination. And then, just as the air was thick with smoke and burning undergarments, I’d turn to the left and hit the camera with my piece de resistance – the right eyebrow lift. Luc Besson would inhale through his teeth. Roger Moore and The Rock would fall to their knees. For verily an ambi-browed thespian was in their midst.
Then disaster struck. One of the six extras had missed the 5:00 am bus from Sees. The one who was supposed to be standing next to me. They delayed shooting waiting for him to turn up. I stood in the muddy courtyard watching the cameras being set up. A make-up girl patted anti-dazzle powder onto my forehead and a coiffeur preened my right eyebrow. Still he didn’t show.
Luc Besson looked at his watch. Maybe they should cut a row and just go with three extras.
Nooooo! We could do it with five. I could fill two spaces. Subtle Stevie Wonder-esque head shifts. No one would notice.
Luc Besson had no vision. And I had no close-up. I watched instead as three poker-faced extras stared at the camera. Not one eyebrow lifted. And in the background a black-clad French princess screamed and arm-waved and complained about being cold. I could have done her role too. I can wear black.
Which brings me to Milla Jovovich’s underwear. Now, as a rule I’m pretty good at spotting famous actors; I can identify anyone who’s appeared on Star Trek from forty paces – including the Cardassians. But my record on Joan of Arc was appalling. I stood within three feet of Milla Jovovich for about a minute, being nudged by the extra behind me – isn’t that the actress from The Fifth Element? “No,” I confidently replied. “Nothing like her.”
The same went for John Malkovich. When asked if I knew who he was I replied that I was sure I’d seen him in an English soap. The only actor I thought I recognised was Timothy West but as I told the noble next to me. “It can’t be him, he’s dead.” Which would have been news to Mr. West who was indeed playing the part of the Archbishop.
But, recognise her or not, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Milla Jovovich. During the long day spent filming in the cathedral she’d kept the children – a dozen eleven year-old choristers – amused during the scene breaks by playing with them. And keeping a dozen bored kids amused for ten hours in a dusty cathedral is no easy task. And she even came back after shooting to ask why so many extras were being kept hanging around in the cathedral an hour after filming had stopped. We were being searched. The film company, paranoid about pictures getting out, were searching all seven hundred extras for cameras and recorders as we filed very slowly through the single exit. I watched from a few feet away as she argued with the security staff. She actually cared.
But it was her performance on that last day of shooting that impressed people the most. It was freezing and the two hundred or so extras had come prepared. After a long day the day before standing around in freezing rain, we’d packed our extra vests and socks. But Joan of Arc was only allowed a thin shift.
And there was no heated trailer for her to repair to during scene breaks. All she had was a coal brazier at one end of the courtyard where her dresser would throw a blanket over her and try to rub some heat back into her body.
The hours went by. The Archbishop gave her the chance to repent from several camera angles. Her judges debated, the crowd remonstrated. And then four burly English captains dragged her kicking and screaming through the mud to the castle gates. For five takes.
In between each take Milla was taken to the brazier. I was wearing four layers of thick clothing and was still freezing. My hands were numb. I watched from a few feet away as Milla shivered in that thin, wet, cotton shift. I could hear her teeth chattering.
When she came out for the fifth take – shivering, white-faced and uncomplaining – two hundred extras spontaneously applauded. If she’d have asked the crowd to storm the castle and free her we’d have gone.
On a final note I did notice some tension that day between Milla and Luc Besson. Later I found out that their relationship had been going through a sticky patch during the shooting of the film. Whether having your husband pay four large men to drag you across a freezing courtyard in your underwear five times is grounds for divorce, I do not know. But I suspect it would not be wise to try this at home.
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 .
Recently released from Book View Press: International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!
Coming soon: Nous Sommes Anglais – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.