V for Vendetta

A three-day diary

Tuesday, May 31st-------------------------------------------------

500 extras actors from the Casting Collective , London, gather at the Methodist Church adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, London. We have already been assigned our role as either a V person [a rebel follower of "V" himself, to be played by Hugo Weaving] or a soldier defender of the government [and therefore, the Houses of Parliament]. We are told it is a 3 night shoot, the dynamic of which involves 200 V's initially, who walk purposefully towards parliament. They will, over the 3 nights, swell to 350 Vs as the agency employs more. All of the soldiers are men; and the Vs are both men and women. We range in ages from 22 to 52 {though the soldiers are generally the younger, it seems}.

The Vs will start at Trafalgar Square, and sweep down in a fast walk to Parliament Square. The movement, down the thoroughfare that is WHITEHALL, takes 3 minutes in real time. So, including the immediate "assault" on the railings/walls of parliament, the producers want to shoot, with their 3 cameras, 4minutes to 4minutes 30 seconds of final-edit footage of the scene.

This first night, the shoot doesn’t begin 'til 2 am. The producers have permission from Westminster police to shoot on the 3 nights ONLY between Midnight, and 5AM. We're told it has has taken months of applications to get this permission. The crew don’t appreciably know it yet, but they are to get 3 of the best nights possible weather-wise to shoot what they've planned. Nevertheless, it is 2am before the cameras are ready to roll this first night. It is the first "part" of the move of the Vs from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall thoroughfare. We soldiers amass at barriers set up at the mouth of Whitehall, line abreast, in formation. The element of the script for the 3 nights hinges on this: we are soldiers, 200 strong, armed to the teeth....but will, on a “climb down” command from our General, lower our weapons at the last moment to allow the Vs to sweep down towards their destination unharmed. The Vs will flow through the ranks of us soldiers, jostling us as they go. We have to simply stand there looking ahead, through our Darth Vader style helmets, allowing it.

The 1st A.D. Terry Needham shouts "effects", and a truck begins to roll around Trafalgar Square. Two men on the back spray water all over the road, and onto he barriers we soldiers are standing at. They keep it low so as not to splash our uniforms. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle wants nice reflections to add to the "noir" of it all, and will be delighted to have control over this basic effect, and not the heavens themselves opening with a pouring deluge.

Needham calls for final checks over his two-way, then shouts 'Action', and the Vs emerge from behind the Lions and Nelson's Column, Traflagar Square, all shadows and masks, billowing capes and purpose. Eight assistant ADs have stopped London's night traffic for 3 minutes to allow this. They head towards us, we're poised to shoot...then "Weapons Down!" comes the late order. The V's climb barriers we are behind and jump past us. We don’t turn to look. All Vs are unarmed.

There are sited 3 Arriflex 35mm cameras on this shoot, plus a roving one on SteadyCam; Director James McTeigue instructs 1st AD Needham to get us all to do it again after the 3 cameras have been placed in different positions; mainly behind the Vs this time. This is done, and with retakes etc. we go the 3 hours to 5AM, then disband for the night. The Vs [those who can] run as fast as possible to the changing arena at Methodist Church. First in the queue gets changed, gets home! We soldiers take it easy going back for two reasons; our ankle boots allow for just marching with little ease. Secondly, we have priority over the Vs for the changing facilities. Our complex-compared-to-V-capes gear, and it's expense, mean they want the soldiers changed and gone first. Us soldiers are not just a little delighted about this.

Wednesday June 1st-------------------------------------------------

We all collect at 9pm again tonight at the changing area, Methodist Church. As last night, we are then bussed [some walk] down to the dining and armoury area for dinner at 10pm. This dining area is in a building in the middle of Whitehall thoroughfare, opposite the entrance of the heavily guarded Downing Street entrance where Tony Blair and family reside. After dinner, the soldiers go to the downstairs area where senior armourer Tommy Dunne hands out our imitation rifles. These guns are plastic and rubber replicas with no mechanisms, and are nothing compared to what Tommy Dunne really works with in his job. However, reality, and the perception of reality, being exactly the same thing when it comes to weapons {especially opposite Downing Street}, the armoury is insistent on at least 10 major rules regarding handling these replicas.

This second night, the filming begins at 1AM. It takes place just outside our dining building, just up a few yards from Downing Street security gate. The Vs have moved on down Whitehall, and meet more blockades and soldiers. It is us soldiers again, "cheated" back down the thoroughfare....but we can't be recognized because we are all, as last night, covered with Darth Vader style helmets. Again, the scene is this position's captain ordering Weapons Down. James McTeigue films the Vs moving through us again. They climb over our imitation concrete road barriers. {It's a little awkward for even some of the younger Vs to climb over, as they are all wearing full-length full-cover-around-knees black capes}. At one point during angles-and-retakes, McTeigue orders an Arriflex 35 placed low on a tripod right behind me, facing back and across the soldiers second line-across. Immediately in front of me is one of the movable barriers [imitation concrete, though still heavy].

I tell this camera's operator Roddy I'll I won't move, or allow the oncoming Vs to jostle the camera. This works out fine. Until McTeigue, as is the plan, orders the three other cameras to shoot the same scene from the Vs viewpoints. Now, this involves turning the barriers around 180 because the director doesn’t want the final film to show that these barriers have a step moulded onto them to help the Vs get an initial leg up onto them! As the order comes to turn the, I step 3 or 4yards away from my barrier. There are scene movers to do that job, even though some over zealous amongst us have helped them do this... what happens next is sheer idiocy. Two or three of the boisterous soldiers amongst us "swivel" rather than carefully 3-point-turn my barrier 180degrees, as required...but they smack the lens of the camera I was protecting! A shout of "WWOOOOOWWWW!" goes up from Roddy, and the film-loader. But it's too late...

With the dawn coming quickly at 4.45am, the dark blue sky giving way to a faint azure, Terry Needham calls it a night. Again the Vs run to the changing area down off Parliament Square, capes flying. Some one should be filming this!

Thursday, June 2nd-------------------------------------------------

Call-times for the Vs and soldiers have now been refined to 3 times: 8.30pm, 9,00pm, and 9.30pm. This is to take into account that tonight's climactic scene incorporates about 150 more Vs. I'm on at 9.30, change as quickly as the uniform will allow, and make my way on foot the 500 yards to the designated dining/armoury building for dinner. I'm just 100yards into my walk when I see that the camera placements are now down here at Parliament Square, in readiness for the epic wide shots of all the Vs marching on Parliament Buildings, their intent being to storm the railings, walls and any other impediments in their quest to blow them up. As I pass two riggers, i hear one ask, "Is that Euan Blair?" .."looks like him, alright" says the other. It seems Tony Blair's son has come out of his house to watch a Hollywood movie being made just outside his front door this fine evening. As you do!

I make my on up to the Dining Hall; outside the front door are soldiers and Vs, standing around in the gated area at the entrance sharing cigarettes and stories, the scene looking for all the world like a masquerade summer soiree. Inside, I see mainly soldier extras strewn post-dinner all over the floor of the the armoury lobby. They know there'll be time enough in a few houses to be standing and marching in these boots.... I continue on up to the hall and opt for the white rice and chicken tonight. Afterwards, I go down and join some of the others in the soiree outside. I meet a English teacher, Nick, who spent ten years in Athens teaching English; Jonathan, a would be actor, who doesn’t care about doing extras work even though it's apparently frowned upon for some reason, if you want "to be taken seriously as an actor" in the U.K. I tell him that agents in the USA nearly insist on would be actors doing a year or so as an extra on set, just to get set-smart, learn how ADs are, etc. Jon nods, and knows anyway that he'll not be seen behind our futuristic face-mask helmets....

The call comes at 1am for all soldiers to troop down to Parliament Square for the set up of shots. Down at the square, facing Big Ben, we see that a lone protester, a man called Brian Haw, has not been moved by Westminster Police, who are 30 strong tonight. Haw has been keeping a 24/7 vigil for the past four years outside the British Parliament in protest at the Blair/Bush coalition, and sanctions, against Iraq. His placards and banners are many; and whatever you think about his politics, he's giving the D.P. Adrian Biddle headaches in trying to get expansive field of view coverage for this V assault set of shots. Haw gets little sleep most nights; tonight he'll get none.

A raised platform is set up on the Whitehall corner of Parliament Square. Here the Character "Parliament General" speaks to camera as 10 klieg lights throw beams onto the surrounding old edifices of this historic square. The Vs are massed at Whitehall, the south side of the square mouth, and Millbank. There are at least 140 Vs in each of these attack parties. Three lines of soldiers are positioned opposite side of the road to the protester's placards. Biddle wants to shoot around and over him. As the cameras are set up to James McTeigue's liking, I get a coffee and chat with the genial Roddy, the camera operator from last night. I learn from him that last night's bang on his Arriflex cost relatively big bucks: A screw-mount ring housing that holds the lens' adjustable glare-blinds on has been cracked, and the housing costs $2,800. I mention insurance, and he tells me that insurance couldn't be got for the cameras, for whatever reason. I can't believe this, but Roddy shrugs his shoulders and says the Wachowski brothers will have to factor it into the cost of the film. It could indeed have been worse; I tell Roddy that a Panaflex 35mm camera was ruined for good up at Pinewood studios a good few months previously. It appears that the camera was left locked off at a tilt angle...over a vat of imitation liquid chocolate on the set of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". It toppled in, of course. It, and a morning's worth of footage.... {this made some of the daily papers in England next day}.

Andy and Larry Wachowski stand off to the back of the platform near us, where busy Terry Needham is on a ladder finalising an interaction between Parliament General and another commander. They are worried about the Vs and what they intend to do. It has been speculated earlier that director McTeigue would like to have a forward-line phalanx of athletic Vs run at barriers from at least the Whitehall end, and vault up on one foot, then jump down the other side, like a flying line of Riverdance dancers! But it's decided that such a thing should have been thought of earlier, as it comes under stunts, and 20 or 30 extras cant be expected in flowing capes to do it without choreography {and no personal insurance against broken ankles}...the idea, however dynamic, is reluctantly dropped.

Euan Blair appears around the place as the night continues, and someone says he's working as a runner on this film. I am to learn later this to be true; the executive producer Joel Silver has employed Blair junior, in order to expedite permission from Downing Street and Westminster Police to use this sensitive part of London as a battleground. A brilliant stroke; as, in fact, British director Richard Curtis had failed to get permission two years previously to film at Downing Street/Whitehall for his film "Love, Actually". The ultimate irony here is that there wouldn't have been anything more dangerous on that set than the crew's sausage rolls...

I get a pleasant surprise at having guessed a good would-be "V". I speculate that Hugo Weaving, while a good menacing figure, isn't British, and lament this fact to Roddy. I tell him I think James Purefoy, or Adrian Paul, would be better. Roddy tells me that Purefoy was in fact the original "V", and indeed began the shoot in Berlin; but he ws fired for not being "V" enough for the character! Hugo Weaving got the call from old friends the Wachowski’s from their Matrix films collaborations, and as with James Bond, Guy Fawkes alter ego "V" is played by anyone but an Englishman!

As the set up continues, the traffic duty ADs have it all to do. The light's good, let's go: Stop the traffic of Westminster Bridge! And along Millbank . . . and South approach of Parliament Square! This is done 3 or 4 times . . . but still the order for the massed columns of Vs to descend in 3 speckled clouds on the ramparts of Parliament Building doesn't come. Terry Neddham is holding off for some reason. Everyone is quietly apprehensive about it happening: this is the scene of scenes in this whole vignette. Time is moving towards a low azure blue dawn again, and this will not match with the sweeping march down Whitehall of the two previous nights. It's frustrating, but the call comes, after 6 major night traffic halts, to stop for the night. I speculate with others we'll all be called back for tonight, now Friday by 5 hours. I have a Todd Rundgren/Joe Jackson gig to attend in Leicester City that night, but would let the tickets go if needs be....

As it transpires, the call from Casting Collective doesn’t come. I call them, tell them the main shot wasn’t achieved, and they are then surprised not to have been asked to ask us all back. It seems James McTeigue had only 3 nights to do it in; the weather was fine, but some how that last mass assault shot wasn’t achieved. Maybe the traffic massing, or Brian Haw, or the devil’s messing with the detail. . . . All in a night's stumble for even the best of directors.

© Eoin G Jennings, June 2005
Used with permission