In the summer of 1996 I managed to get a job as an extra in the Cromwell Productions film of Macbeth, starring Jason Connery, Helen Blaxendale, and Hildegard Neil, with my old friend the late John Corvin, cast as King Duncan. It was, for me, a valuable lesson in the art of making a little go a long way, and a realisation that a couple of fields in Warwickshire, shot in a particular way, can be made to look like, well, anywhere.
A large charming Scotsman by the name of Bob Carruthers started the film company in a small suite of offices in Cook’s Alley, in Stratford, which is just around the corner from Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and a million miles away from Hollywood. Over the years Bob has created a body of work that has stood the test of time in terms of integrity, scope, and sheer professionalism. Most of his films are documentaries dealing with historical subjects (including a lot of military history), many of which can still regularly be seen on the Discovery and History channels with virtually his whole output now available on DVD.
Macbeth was to be Bob’s first move into feature films, and an experience that must have aged him considerably, weakened his bank balance, and probably, in the early hours, made him ask the question: Why?
Anyway, the few days I spent on the set dressed as a Scottish soldier (in very itchy sack-cloth and wobbly helmet) were an eye-opener to the intricacies of film making, what seemed to be the despair of a young film director who looked as he might have chewed off more than he could swallow, and the ability of the film’s producer and writer (Bob) to step in at a particularly crucial moment and get the film back on track with the help of chocolate and a very loud voice.
Many of Cromwell Productions films were made on a farm close to the village of Bearley, just a couple of miles north of Stratford. The farm is about a mile up a rough drive and nestles on the top of slight rise that isn’t quite a hill, and is surrounded by a good selection of other natural undulations, plus a couple of woods, a stream, and several ancient farm buildings that were then near to collapse. But it didn’t look anything like Scotland.
The main farmhouse is a beautiful 18th century red brick building, with several outbuildings that were used by the costume and make-up departments.
Several of the fields surrounding the house were marked out for specific scenes in the film, with one field (a particularly rough and grassy one that sloped down to the stream) full of large medieval looking tents that represented the camp of King Duncan’s Army. In front of these tents dozens of bearded artisans made swords and shields, with several scabby women ( the make-up department was very good) cooking meals in huge steaming pots hanging above large fires. Children and assorted livestock ran amok as hundreds of Duncan’s soldiers (me included) drilled, or skulked around as requested, with King Duncan (John Corvin) sitting in front of the most imposing tent drinking wine and discussing military tactics with his generals. And very good John was too.
It took virtually all of one morning for the director, Jeremy Freeston, to get all of this in place and to persaude people like me to talk and laugh, start fights, joke with the women and perhaps steal a kiss or two from the less scabby — in other words create as much movement as possible. We were then told that this scene of campsite bliss was going to be violently attacked by Macbeth’s cavalry who were up for a bit murder, rape, and pillage. It was a big expensive scene that had already cost around five hundred bacon sandwiches for the extras alone, and, as one can imagine, once the extras have gone off to eat and drink the scene is lost for another two hours at least. So, we were told there would be no more meal breaks until the scene had been shot satisfactorily; but each time Jeremy shot the scene (and it had to be photographed from three separate positions, and he only had the one camera) he wasn’t happy with it, so the whole thing had to be set-up again. We were getting hungry and Jeremy seemed to be getting angry. Around five it looked as if the scene would never get onto film. Then Bob Carruthers arrived.
He didn’t arrive on horseback but in a large car (it might have been a Roller I don’t remember), which he parked, rather incongruously, in the middle of Duncan’s camp. It was fairly obvious he wasn’t happy as he made for his exhausted and seemingly downhearted director. Words were exchanged, as were a lot of expressive arm gestures. Afterwards a clear instruction went out to get chocolate for a much needed sugar boost. After the much needed chocolate Bob started shouting out instructions to all and sundry that had us running around like the proverbial blue-arsed flies. And when the cavalry came charging down that field we freaked out completely as we tried to pull our swords to put up a fight, or ran for our lives ( a very wise move as those horses weren’t stopping for anyone), or just screamed and screamed and then ran again for our lives toward and passed, or jumped over the camera, and across the stream, and up the field on the other side of the stream, and into the woods, and down the field on the other side of the woods, still screaming for our silly lives.
“Cut! Brilliant. Now let’s do it again with the camera over there.” Shouted Bob.
And do it again he did, three more times I think, from different angles, with the finished shot a terrifying close-up of horses, and fleeing, screaming nutcases like me.
I guess that’s something a producer has to do at times.
The following day Jeremy had to film a scene were Macbeth and Macduff (or was it Malcolm?) were seen riding towards the camera across a distant field. As soldiers we were lined up to escort them, by foot, to King Duncan. Suddenly Jeremy Freeston looked at me. I naturally I looked over my shoulder.
“Yes, you, soldier. You’re good with horses, I spotted you yesterday.”
“Me? Horses, but I‘ve never…”
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Steve, now listen carefully. When Jason’s horse reaches this point, ” he pointed at the ground about ten yards away, “ I want you to run forward, take the horse by the bridle and hold him steady as Jason dismounts, then hang onto the beast as the camera pans.”
“But I don’t have…”
“Good. That’s clear then?”
Everyone was looking at me.
“Yes, quite clear.”
With that Jeremy called Jason Connery on his radio to get ready, and then shouted:
I watched as the two riders came out of the distant wood and galloped across a newly ploughed field toward the camera that was just off to my right. I watched in dread as the horses and riders approached, my heart pounding in rhythm to their hooves. Eventually the two riders pulled-up exactly at the point Jeremy had pointed to. I was frozen to the spot, couldn’t move. Suddenly someone gave me a mighty shove from behind giving me no option but to run to Connery’s horse and grab the bridle. The son of 007 dismounted and walked toward the soldiers. I could hear the camera whirring as it panned.
“Cut!” Shouted Freeston.
And being the well trained actor it was, my horse, released from duty, turned and dragged me back across the ploughed field to the distant refreshment tent, and a well earned bacon sandwich.
“Nice horse, good horse…”