Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Big Picture in a Small Village

Filming started last week, and the estate is teeming with people in neon yellow vests with radios, and extras in costume drinking coffee out of paper cups. The cast and crew put in 13-hour days, a lot of which appears to be waiting. Artistic merit and red carpet appearances aside, making a film seems to be a tedious process.

I don't see many movies and my tastes are narrow. I only make the effort to go to the cinema for Woody Allen and zombie films (if Woody made a zombie film, I would be his target demographic) and I probably won't see this one until it comes on TV. I did read the book. The first year I moved to Dorset I read all of Thomas Hardy's books. As an American, I appreciated living among the hundred-plus year old villages, churches and buildings that I could read about in his stories. My bank is in the building that belonged to the Mayor of Casterbridge, I can still eat at the Black Bull Hotel, and I regularly walk my dogs on footpaths through all his village settings.

I particularly liked Far from the Madding Crowd for its heroine Bathesheba, bucking convention and becoming a shepherdess to run a farm that she inherits. She's self-reliant both in spirit and financially, and Thomas Hardy makes the bold assertion throughout the novel that her suitors and marriage are the biggest threats to her independence. "Amen, sister." I thought when I read it.

My literary criticism aside, it's been interesting to watch the process of filming this story unfold. Filming is simply a business like any other. It requires huge amounts of infrastructure and coordination, from feeding people to moving people to building backgrounds. I can appreciate the set building from my museum days, as I remember time spent researching, designing, and labouring to create a single museum exhibition, often over a year. The process is a lot quicker with films. A whole village has been erected - complete with cottage, sheepwash, farmyard, thatched grain stores, and church - in under a month.
Grain stores in progress, made from round bales covered in thatch, with plaster mushroom "supports"

Most of these sets have been built in the main courtyard at the big house. Then one day, the 19th century arrived on the back of a lorry-

There must be a props department somewhere, where film companies just order set dressing for the time period required. Horse carts, barrels, wooden sheep hurdles, and woven crates turned up.

There's also a Base Camp for the film staff with a huge tent, motor homes, people carriers, and a double-decker bus being used as a dining hall. It sprung up like a crop of barley in a farmer's field. All the lights are on when I'm on my way to first lambing checks at 4 am. The crew keep farmer's hours.

Our house, far left and the base camp. The dogs are more interested in what the grazing cows left behind overnight.

Sadly, my fifteen minutes of fame passed me by. The actress was game for going into sheep wash herself, albeit with a stuffed sheep, so I wasn't needed to "double". To be fair, it must be easier for editing to make fake sheep seem real than to make me look like a Hollywood size zero in my 20s. The actor was not so outdoorsy, and a male shepherd was found at the last minute to get in the wash to do the cold and heavy lifting in the actor's place.

Another tick in the self-reliance box for Bathsheba, then.

My chickens have made the cut, and I drop them off to Gill the animal wrangler after my lambing checks. They asked for all brown hens, but I didn't have enough Rhode Island Red-type layers so I threw a couple of young meat chickens in there, and no one noticed. My future chicken dinners are earning a crust before they go under a crust.

When Gill's on another site filming, I look after a small flock of geese and Cromwell the goat, all regular film industry extras. They're used to handling so they're quiet, and I fit them in among my daily chores. All the animal work means there's still something extra to put in the bank, without long days in a cold bath - a blessing in disguise for me during a busier-than-usual lambing period. But, it's not such good dinner conversation as being the shepherdess double. "Always the goat handler, never the sheep wash babe." That's a saying, right?

Apparently, Cromwell the goat worked with Angelina Jolie. He doesn't do autographs, just pellets.

Mike gets occasional calls from various assistants to answer relevant game keeping questions. He's been summoned to show the actress the technique used to dispatch a rabbit. Not a live rabbit. No rabbits were hurt in the making of this film, of course. She simply wanted her scene to look accurate. I think Mike used a tea towel for demonstration purposes. (Incidentally, tea towels also make good chickens.)

Other than that, seeing how films are made is sort of like seeing how sausages are made. Personally, I don't want to know what goes into either, I just want to consume and enjoy. And with no story to tell of "the time I doubled for that actress" I will just have to be satisfied with being my own Bathsheba, and washing my own sheep. Incidentally, we're having bunny biryani for dinner tonight - one I shot, dispatched, and butchered myself in late spring, when it was fat on good weather and good grass. I hope Thomas Hardy would be proud of me.

Lambing update: Six ewes have lambed, and there are seven yet to lamb. Even with a few tricky births and to-be-expected baby illnesses, we've not lost any more lambs. As of this morning, there are nine healthy lambs. 


B Annunziello said...

I continue to enjoy your descriptions of life in rural England. This juxtaposition/collision of 'Hollywood' life and the farm was so enjoyable! Keep writing and post lamb pics!

Maria said...

Really enjoyed this post. Very funny to think of the 19th century arriving on the back of a lorry.
But mainly - woo! and brilliant! for the lambing update.

Seester said...

Do you have to take the goat to Pilates?