Turned up to a film set on Sunday as a “runner” which is movie parlance for “general dog’s body”. Imagine my surprise when I ended up being in the film.
Awaiting the arrival of a large bunch of extras in the little village of Lighthorne, the assistant director, whom I’d met all of five minutes beforehand, was sorting out the shot list for the day. We were waiting for the sermon to finish in the church where we were scheduled to be filming and the AD understandably didn’t want to waste time sitting around outside.
Since we had some external scenes to shoot, including one in which a coffin is brought up the path to the church, and I happened to have my suit in the car, I was asked to become “Paul Bearer” for the day. Upgrade!
First job was to work out how to carry the damn thing and look convincing. Many practice takes had the four of us novices trying to keep step with one another so the coffin didn’t wallow around on our shoulders like a lop-sided donkey. And, somewhat shamefully, we had to Google where to put our hands.
The camera was above us, which suited me fine since nobody would see my face. So after we’d nailed that take I comforted myself that my acting career was thankfully over, as we moved into the church for some close-up shots of the principal actors. I reverted to my runner and very-amateur-photographer role, albeit still in my suit on a stifling hot day.
After lunch, the extras arrived and we had to film the coffin arriving. Not only was my acting career definitely not over, I realised as the director of photography was setting up the shots that I was going to be directly facing the camera. It involved a steadicam operator walking backwards in front of us impromptu pallbearers as we solemnly marched the box down the church aisle, navigated the steps (narrowly avoiding tipping the flowers off the top of the coffin) and put it in its resting place on top of two B&Q A-frames bought and assembled that morning, which were disguised by a heavy curtain. Did I mention it’s a low-budget feature?
Now, my instructions were clear. Walk slowly, in step with the others, with a neutral expression, and under no circumstances was I to look at the camera. Not even a glance or a glimmer of recognition. Given the gravity of the request, I presumed that failure to follow that rule was much the same outcome as going back in time and giving your past self a wedgie.
As I found, deliberately not looking at a camera barely feet from your face is actually much more difficult than it sounds, especially when trying to retain peripheral vision for gestures from the AD and director, situated behind said camera. I have a newfound respect for proper actors now. And two hours after we were scheduled to finish shooting, a much sweatier version of me had to be filmed humping the coffin back out of the church.
Being on set was a wonderful experience as I got to see the amount of graft that goes into what seems the simplest of scenes on paper. And I’m very much looking forward to the film itself being released late next year, though I shall certainly close my eyes for the forty-five seconds I’m visible.