I was an extra in Les Miserables. In the opening scene, when the convicts are pulling the broken ship into the dock, I was portraying the pivotal role of Convict 4401. Brother in arms with Hugh Jackman; one of the strongest vocalists in the masterpiece that was ‘Look Down’. Sure, the film only ever manages to get the back of my head into the actual movie, but still, I feel that I brought a lot to the…
OK, fine, maybe the movie wouldn’t have fallen to pieces if I had called in sick for those two days of filming, but the personal experience was immense. As someone who would love to become an actor, or at the very least, work with these fantastic set pieces, this was my first look at a potential career. I thought I would share three things that struck me the most when I was working behind the scenes.
NB: As I was an extra in the opening scene, I shall talk intensively about it, hence spoilers. At the same time, it literally is spoilers for the first two minutes, so reading this article will not spoil the film for you in any way.
3 – FILMING TAKES AGES
There’s a saying that film-makers use: a minute of film requires a day of filming. This statement is absolutely true; if anything a little optimistic.
I knew this one already in all fairness, but I thought it would be a good point to share with you readers. The short sequence that I took part in was only about two minutes of running time: a single song and not a long one at that. However, filming took us two days. As you will see from the film, the convicts are mostly submerged up to the waist in water. Freezing cold water.
We did have wetsuits under our clothes, but it was still freezing. And we spent the whole day, from noon to about nine at night, waiting in that cold water. Every now and again, the director, Tom Hooper, would shout action and we would perform the song. Then he would want to change camera angles (a lengthy process), and do it all again. Obviously, when it is a smaller set piece, like two characters talking in an office, this process is a lot quicker. However, in this instance, on a large set, with hundreds of extras and several different camera angles to shoot, it takes time. On day two, we were able to move out of the freezing cold water for the scene where we marched back to our cells. However, it was still a long process as Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe had to get their vocals perfect for the cut that would make it into the film. Also, despite not being in the water, we had to get hosed down, so when we marched back to our cells after working in the docks, we wouldn’t have randomly dried off.
However, despite the tough hours and long waits, there is a sense that you are doing it for an amazing production. Just to be a part of a film like Les Miserables and be able to say “I helped get that film on its feet”, is all the justification you need for standing in the cold for two days.
2 – THE FILM SET LOOKS SO DIFFERENT IN THE CINEMA
One thing that I was excited to see when the film came out was how different my set looked on the big screen. I was told that the actual film would be rainy and stormy, yet when we were filming it, it was the sunniest day imaginable. To get the stormy effect, we used a big rain machine, but obviously more needed to be done. So when I actually saw my scene, I was amazed.
First off: there was no ship, when we were filming. The ship added is CGI, which is mind-blowing for me, as I had been staring at nothing during filming. I was aware this would happen, of course (funny story: at one point, a set director had to pull me to one side, because I was walking through an invisible ship), but it was still shocking to actually see it there. It’s one thing to watch a film and admire the CGI, but when you were a part of the internal machine that is cinema, the change can be astonishing.
1 – THERE IS NOTHING LIKE WATCHING A MASTER ACT UP CLOSE
The thing I was most psyched about, when I heard that I got the part was the fact that I would be acting alongside Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. And let me tell you: if they looked incredible on the big screen, imagine what it was like, when you were five metres away from them. Remember the moment when Javert tells Valjean to turn around and lift the heavy mast, even though he is weary from pulling the ship in? Watching Hugh Jackman do that walk, the stumble from Javert to Valjean, was amazing. It was hard to not be mesmerised by the actor’s talent. He had such control of his environment and his exhaustion was present in the atmosphere. It is hard to describe, but my respect for him went up dramatically (and as regular readers will know, I was already a massive fan).
Russell Crowe was also good. Although Les Miserables doesn’t give him much to do acting wise (he spends most of the film standing tall and looking tough), he definitely has a presence. It was easy to act with him as well; I didn’t struggle at all to get into the mind frame of a prisoner terrified of Javert’s twisted perception of justice.
I would definitely do extra work again. Sadly, most of the work is nearer to London: I just got lucky, because the film crew needed the naval base’s docks in Portsmouth. However, just to be part of a film like Les Miserables, was such an incredible feeling. It is a great line of work to get into. I hope you enjoy the film and can take a moment to think about how much detail has gone into creating the sets (not just mine, although I think a touch of Luke brought a sparkle to the movie).