July 18th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Confessions of a French Film Extra (Part Two: Never Wear Velvet to a Burning)

(to recap: I'd been a French knight at the Dauphin's coronation, I'd worn full armour ... now Luc wants me to play an English noble at the burning of Joan of Arc)

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.

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 in the front row. 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.

(next instalment: Mila Jovovitch in her underwear)