King Arthur Section.

The Extra Bits

By Michael Fitzgerald

There is a sharp bend on the outskirts of Ballymore-Eustace in Co. Wicklow which takes you up to the local football ground and beyond. It looks like somebody just sliced their way through a hill, piling up mounds of earth behind an old “Joinery” that bears the fading name “R.J. O’Rourke”. For nearly four months in 2003 this bend took me right back to the ninth century.

It was on this bend that the nerves jangled on many a morning that summer while it was still dark and the world still slept. This bend led to a huge portable village surrounded by a wall at least 20 feet high and a mile long made of wood, fibreglass and canvas. This was the headquarters of “King Arthur” the movie.

On the fourth of July 2003 while America and Hollywood celebrated “Independence Day”, I was in a warehouse in Sandyford in Dublin being fitted out as a Saxon Warrior. At fifty one years of age I had made two timely decisions the previous March. I had given up cigarettes and I had grown my first ever beard. Both were to stand me in good stead almost from the beginning. I guess it's the age where you start making changes in your life, it could be anything from spending more time with your family or making sure you have more time to play foxybingo. It doesn't matter if what you choose to do is purely selfish, what matters is that you are happy and your life is fulfilled.

There were hundreds of costumes in that warehouse, fur and suede and leather. I was given at least four layers of clothing plus a cloak and a tin helmet. The costumes had come from Italy where they are stored on a permanent basis and lovingly cared for until they are released for another epic.

I was told that indeed they had seen many epics. Believe it or not they had actually been used in “Ben Hur” in 1959, “Cleopatra” in 1963, “Gladiator” in 2000 and were being used in a movie Mel Gibson was making on the Crucifixion. This of course became “The Passion of the Christ”. But July 4th, 2003 will remain in my memory forever when I discovered I was probably wearing a costume that was used in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.

All Saxon warriors started “King Arthur” with six days of “Bootcamp”. Starting on the 16th of July it was six full days of marching, learning sword manoeuvres and shield formations. They wanted us to resemble an army and they pushed us until we either did just that or we fell off and went back through the bend to reality.

Now my life is never straightforward and due to prior commitments (one a dental appointment), I could only do four days out of six. On the Wednesday I was on another film called “Laws of Attraction” playing drums behind Pierse Brosnan and Julianne Moore as they sang an impromptu version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”.

I got to “Arthur” on the Thursday which just happened to be the wettest day of the year.

For hours we marched in our own clothes up the hills of Ballymore-Eustace and down again through nettles and thistles and mud startling numerous frogs whose lives would never be the same again. I mean first they witness a huge wooden wall being built right around their world and now they are subjected to hundreds of bearded fools marching with black rubbish sacks over their clothes to keep out the rain.

King ArthurWe made holes in the bags for our arms and our heads and we really did look like a moving skip. I expected to be picked up by the County Council at any moment. To complete a mind boggling week I had four back teeth taken out on the Friday and was back marching on Monday morning after getting out of bed at 4.15 a.m. This would be in or around my normal getting up time for the whole movie.

The Saxon army was divided into eight companies. Seven and Eight would be doing most of the front-line work. I was in Company Seven. Most of my company were made up of wonderful re-enactors who had been in many films and pageants. They were extremely helpful to rookies like myself.

Re-enactors are people who demonstrate life from certain periods in history. They dress in costumes of the day and re-enact famous battles. Many are skilled sword fighters and archers and regularly do pageants up and down the country. There were many Irish and Scottish re-enactors on “King Arthur” who were the ideal teachers on how to fall and parry blows and generally keep yourself in one piece

But in spite of all the help I was having a lot of problems with the sword fighting. It frustrated me. We had also been told that at the end of the six days those who didn’t shape up would be moved down the ranks. I had only done four days. One of the re-enactors told me to grit my teeth. I told him I just had four taken out. In that case, he told me, God was on my side. He was right, I made it.

In early August 2003 eight companies of Saxons many with mobile phones concealed in their boots, faced a mile long wooden wall with a large gate in the middle. From behind the wall at a given signal for the cameras came thick black smoke. Thick black smoke was to be a feature of the shoot and on one occasions it descended on the village of Ballymore-Eustace like a fog.

We stood at least a quarter of a mile away and with shields, swords and spears (or in my case a bloody flag) we had to rush the gates for as many times as it took to get it right.

Before the charge they did a camera shot of all the companies from the back. To keep the line they ran a roll of dead straight blue string between two polls and backed us against it. When they took the string away they had a shot of 200 men in a perfect line. Then we charged and all hell broke loose.

King ArthurThere were cameras everywhere. Cameramen dressed as Saxons ran beside us with concealed cameras filming our every grimace. As well as all the equipment we had to look out for potholes and other hazards. If you twisted your ankle you could be gone for the rest of the movie.

After the first charge there were more mobile phones lying in the field then dead bodies. We did at least six “quarter of a mile” takes. Giving up cigarettes was a good move while being fifty-one years of age was something I had to live with. In fact during this period I became 52 and it was nice to celebrate up a hill in a silly costume.

Then came the rush through the gates which was filmed on a different day. The gates were open and billowed smoke. On “action” we charged for all we were worth through the gates and into the smoke. However nobody told us there was a large stone in the middle of the entrance which had held the gates together. Many tripped. One re-enactor was trampled by half the army and lucky for him he knew how to fall and emerged with only a cut knee. But at long last we were through the damn gates. It had taken a week to run up a hill.

Inside the walls was a whole new ball game. This was where the Saxons themselves came under attack from King Arthur’s Knights and a nasty little tribe of warriors called “Woads”. The “woads” were a group of men and women all painted blue. They were a make-up artist’s dream. Visually they looked magnificent with the women all delightfully clad in animal skins.

This was where I was teamed up with one of the “woads”, Robbie, who was to be my fight partner for the rest of the movie. My sword fighting surprised even me. It was quite simple really, if I didn’t duck and dive at the right times I would be very sore. Oddly I also got my first injury at this stage. A large French stuntman slipped and fell backwards onto my leg as I lay dead, almost killing me. I was on painkillers for two weeks.

Also inside the walls there was a large trench about a hundred yards long. There were pipes running through the length of the trench and at a given signal they sent flames shooting into the air for the whole 100 yards burying us all in more smoke.

There was one sequence where a gang of us fought between the flames on one side and a speeding horseman on the other side. The gap was about 12 feet. You didn’t move, you stood and fought. We did this about six times until we got it right.

It was basically the same fight every day from different angles. Kiera Knightly and Ray Winstone and Clive Owen were in with us at different intervals. They were friendly but apparently the movie was running behind schedule so pleasantries were kept at a minimum. I could swordfight in my sleep and I frequently did. My diary entry of September the first says it all.

“We have spent the whole morning rehearsing to die. I am now a corpse with an itchy bum. We were lines of hardened warriors sprinkled with stuntmen facing the cameras at noon and on a command some of us fell. The horsemen galloped between the gaps that contained the stuntmen except on a couple of occasions when they picked the wrong gaps. Once I looked up from beneath my shield and saw a horse’s arse passing overhead complete with tail and legs.

Horses pass at breakneck speeds and it is a comfort that the man in front of me is rather large because when the arrows hit us (added later on by special effects) I can die quite neatly behind him. It is also good to die in the first wave because those still standing have to run after the bloody horses and fight the stunt riders.

On another occasion a horse farted in mid air as it passed over the ranks sounding like a cross between a frightened elephant seal and an e-flat accordion. The sight of numerous laughing corpses was almost Pythonesque”.

Away from the mad world of flying horses and smoke one of the favourite topics of conversation was beards. It would seem that the Santa Claus market in Dublin for Christmas 2003 was about to be cornered by men with real beards. From Saxon to Santa seemed like a logical progression for our grey haired brethren.

It also seemed that people with beards were waving to one another all over Dublin whether they were on the movie or not. I shook hands with three bearded Finnish tourists one Saturday in Henry Street mistaking them for “Arthur” stuntmen. They informed me that Ireland was indeed a friendly place and the Irish women had lovely eyes.

You had to pity the guys with false beards though. These meticulously shaped pieces of hair were stuck on painstakingly every day after breakfast. They were told that if they lost these “real hair” moustaches and beards, the cost would be deducted from their pay cheques. This probably explained why their faces never moved while they spoke making them look like they had botox injections.

Through September and October the whole thing gathered pace. I did one shift starting at 4.30 p.m. on a Monday evening and finished at 1 p.m. on the Tuesday. I went home and after a few fitful hours sleep I was back up at 4.15 a.m. on the Wednesday.

In the middle of it all I got my second injury. A real “peach” this one. I had got so used to being killed and lying down for a half an hour at a time under my shield that I got to bringing in a little radio with earphones and while I lay on the periphery of a battle I was actually listening to dodgy pop music.

The perpetrator of the injury was one of the blue woads, a “Mister Magoo” like character who tended to creep up on you in the middle of a skirmish and startle you, usually by threatening to decapitate you with his wooden swords. He also used the “stanislavski” method of making sure that all grounded Saxons were dead. In other words he kicked us for real even though he was just a speck lost in smoke on the corner of your cinema screen.

He bruised my ribs with a kick as I blissfully listened to the Radio. I was on painkillers again for two more weeks. Ever after, he was like Moses as his movement around the battlefield had a constantly parting red sea of people mumbling “Oh no its him”.

In early October we were treated to controlled explosions in our midst or “Fire in the Hole” as they are called. On one occasion two of us were taken out of the line and replaced by two stuntmen who were wearing special clothing designed to go on fire.

The two of us retreated to a tent from where the numerous cameras were controlled. There was a bank of T.V. screens each one showing a different shot. The two stuntmen communicated with their co-ordinators by radio and the fire personnel were there to put the flames out as soon as the shot was over. The whole thing was meticulously planned. I watched it on one of the screens in the tent and as one of the stuntmen had replaced me in the line you could say it was me who was burning out there.

On Thursday October the seventh we descended in full costume on the County Wicklow village of “Hollywood”. Nearly every Saxon brought a camera that day and there was no “Hollywood” sign in the village that wasn’t used as a photo-op to show the kids. Passing tourists also had a field day.

Close by, a grassy area between jagged rocks was covered with fake snow and ice so that it resembled a frozen lake. It was being covered constantly by snow machines and looked so real you could almost feel the cold whereas in the village the sun shone on a remarkably warm October day.

We died again of course but not before we had to simulate an unfortunate army standing on breaking ice. This involved swaying bodies and falling bodies. I fell on a crossbow and damaged my ribs again.

When we got back to base though there were rumours that all good things were coming to an end. Half of the Saxons were to be let go. It was as quick as that. I was in company seven which was kept on along with company eight.

The last days on “King Arthur” in Ireland were the most productive and hair-raising. On the twentieth of October we marched through a burning village in Glenmalure. This village was built to be burnt and was all tinderwood and hey. It was meant to be your average evening’s pillaging for a Saxon. It was one of the hardest shots of the whole film and had to be done in one take. Thankfully it was. The heat was so intense that half of my face stung for a day afterwards.

On the ninth of October the great wall which was the bane of our lives was being dismantled and wardrobe were moving costumes back to Italy. There was a rumour that some of us would end up with the film in Pinewood Studios in London. I would believe that when I saw it. But you could see that the circus was leaving town.

On the fifth of November I heard I was going to London so for me these were the last three days of the IRISH shoot. They were also rather annoying. We were up on Turlough Hill and the wind was so bad you could almost lean against it and doze off.

My shield blew at least 200 feet down the hill while I struggled with a sandwich. I had to crawl down to get it and as I finally got back to the top my cape blew off and was heading towards Wexford when it became entangled in one of the many dummy corpses that were dotting the hill. Somebody’s fake moustache flew by me as well just like a little bird and for all I know is probably nesting somewhere near Avoca.

Then in the howling wind the powers that be cried “Cut, it’s a wrap”. What can you say. Not long after that the transport is ready to take you to Dublin. It’s always the same. Everybody trying to say goodbye and you can’t find the people that you know you won’t see again.

It’s the same rush as the first day because the transport always leaves on time. All you can do is get aboard and watch people scurrying away. As you leave the site for the last time you notice the wall is almost gone, nearly a memory. “Two night shifts and there will be nothing here”, says the Driver. Only a few of us are going to London.

Pinewood Studios is about the same distance from London as Ardmore is from Dublin. About five minutes away from the Studio there is a manor guesthouse run by the Brigittine Sisters, an order founded by St. Brigitta of Sweden. It was here that two of us, three Scots and the catering crew were berthed for our last four days on “King Arthur”.

The lake from Hollywood in Co. Wicklow was replicated in a carpark in Pinewood. It was a wooden structure covered in the obligatory fake snow except this time there was water underneath. The structure was also designed in such a way that on “action” parts of it split and jutted up like real fractured ice and stuntmen fell into the water. The rest of us swayed and fell just like in Hollywood in Wicklow except this time my ribs stayed away from loitering crossbows.

The nuns in the manor were all from the Punjab in India and gave us all the impression that they needed no sleep at all. We left at about 5.30 in the morning for the studio and they greeted us smiling as if they were half way through a day’s work and when we came back at about 7.30 p.m. in the evening it looked like they were about to start another one.

Me and a Saxon colleague, Jeremy Lord, were the only Irish warriors in the carpark along with our Scottish brethren from Company eight. The rest were English and had not been through the burning trenches or controlled explosions or farting horses or bewildered frogs. To them it was a four day job. To us it had almost been a lifetime.

There was one special day in the four in which myself and Jeremy did what they call “Motion Capture”. This was done in a studio about a mile away from Pinewood.

The idea of “Motion Capture” is that the two performers do stunts like marching, attacking, running, sword-fighting and of course dying which are captured on computer.

To capture it the performers wear tight laytex suits with reflective markers. The studio is surrounded with 18 infra red cameras that see only those markers. Essentially the cameras capture the performers’ actions not their images.

The computer would be filling out the “King Arthur” battlefield with several thousand digital extras of which I was many. In reality there could be a thousand variations of me on screen killing, in essence, a thousand variations of myself. If I were to be black about this I would be a mass grave all on my own.

After the eight hour stint was over I stepped outside the studio and found a sleeping giant. One of my childhood heroes had been cowering under the stairs as we went through our paces. A perfectly preserved “Dalek” from the great days of “Doctor Who” had been watching my every move. He was actually about five foot seven inches tall and was controlled from the inside. This one, I was assured, had given Tom Baker a good run for his money.

Then, one last day in the carpark and we were truly “wrapped”. After a last goodbye to the Scots in company eight we went back to the nuns to prepare for the trek home.

At fifty-two this was my first and last epic as an extra and re-enactor. Soon after I got full actor’s equity. In fact I wonder will “King Arthur” be one of the last great epics to be filmed? I have appeared in it as both man and graphic. No man has died so many times with so many different bodies. But as suddenly as it started it was over and I was flying back to reality on a rainy Sunday in November.

Damian Duff was on the plane. Ireland were playing Canada that Tuesday. It was the 21st century and I couldn’t wait for a haircut. I decided to keep the beard at least until I had to film in a century where beards were not essential.