Saturday, 28 July 2012

Steven Spielberg and Me

          Living broke in a small mountain village in Andalucia, I was always on the lookout for a way to make a few pesetas. So when my wife saw a news item that said Steven Spielberg was hiring extras for a film, her ambitions for my future as a star of the silver screen went into overdrive.

          The story said that the famous director had been in Granada, hiring members of “la raza Arriana” (Arian race) to appear as Nazi soldiers in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
          “I’m forty,” I grumbled. “Too old for soldiering.”

          “Chicken,” was all she said.
          The next morning we drove our creaking old Seat over the highest mountain pass in mainland Spain to the somnolent town of Guadix, where the railway station had been transformed into Isfahan. It was six a.m. and there was no one on the lot except a few lighting engineers and a guard, who told me that the shoot’s headquarters was in a motel a mile away.

          “Well, that’s that, then,” I told my wife. “Pity we came all this way.”
          “Drive,” was all she said.

          A throng had gathered at the motel.  It was roped off with yellow tape and patrolled by some useful-looking security men.  Barbara pushed me forward to the tape, where a guard looked at me and wagged his finger, windscreen wiper-style.
          “Say you’re in the film,” Barbara hissed behind me.  I did.

          “Where were you hired?” asked the guard, I thought reasonably.
          “Say Granada,” Barbara growled, finger on my fifth vertebra. She was the ventriloquist.  I was the dummy. I did, and to my astonishment, the guard said, “You’re late. Better get to wardrobe.”

          I was the last Nazi to turn up. The other ten were all blond young Germans, already dressed in Afrikakorps uniforms and carrying rifles. I sat down in a chair in front of a mirror, where a Hollywood makeup artist named Fiona gave me a despairing once-over.
          “How long have you had that beard, Sweetie?” she asked.

          “Twelve years,” I replied.
          “You sure you want to lose it? They’re only paying 90 quid a day for this, you know.”

          In ten minutes I was clean shaven and dressed. I had been given a sergeant’s uniform, perhaps befitting my age.  My lower face, long protected from sunlight by my beard, had to be sprayed tan. I was the last to leave.  Someone shoved a submachine gun into my hands. I went out the door and saw Barbara, who was leaning over the rope, trying to catch a glimpse of me.  I walked over. She looked past me, and I realised that my wife of 16 years didn’t recognise me.
          I was hustled onto a bus and we headed for the lot. There were three buses, all packed with costumed extras. Most of these were Andalucian gypsies, wearing Iranian peasant clothes.  As I got on, I felt hostile eyes following me. A man next to an empty seat was reluctant to let me pass. I hung on as we jolted over the rutted road, wondering why my usual good nature was letting me down.

          I found out when we were herded into two groups at the lot. I was with the other Nazis, who were laughing and aiming their guns at each other.  Their average age was probably 19. They spoke to each other in German. I later learned that some of them were on holiday from Dusseldorf or somewhere, and didn’t speak Spanish.  They ignored me. The gypsies stared rudely at us, and it began to dawn on me that Nazis would be as unattractive to them as to Jews, because they shared the same fate in the ovens of Dachau.
          The rail station car park had been covered with sand.  Palm trees in pots cast a little shade from the combination of Spanish sun and the magnesium lamps on towers every few yards. Everywhere out of shot, fat cables crossed the ground, making it easy for someone in combat boots to pratfall. Big trucks with Lucasfilm painted on the side crowded the entrance. A wall had been built between the station and a row of buildings next door. It was cracked and ancient-looking. Two camels stood beside it, unmoving.  No one told me what to do, so I stood as near the shade as possible and looked official, still worried that I would be unmasked as an imposter. A throng of onlookers stood on the other side of a rope.  One of them was Barbara, who had made her way from the motel on foot. I smiled in her direction but she waved me back toward the work.

          Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies were on the set, huddled in folding chairs near a large van. Body doubles for each were lounging with the lighting crew. We seemed to be waiting for something. Then Spielberg arrived. He got out of a Land Rover he was driving with a boy of ten or twelve. I guessed that this was his son, going to work on Saturday with his dad. He had a ball cap on his head and sported a trimmed beard. As he neared the actors, he glanced around the lot.  His eyes rested on me for a moment.  I thought my time as an extra was about to end, but he moved on.
          Things moved slowly. A harassed-looking man with two clipboards herded us Nazis into two groups and told us to walk up and down and peer at the gypsies, who had apparently been instructed to be a crowd in a market. I walked up and down, peering and walking for an Oscar. The gypsies’ expressions were more hostile still. One guy spat near my boots.  I was taller than he was. An impulse to hit him ambushed me from somewhere in my psyche.

          The lunch trailer opened its awning and we were told to break. We queued up and the gypsies broke line.  They sneered at us. They took two meals each and got back into the queue, from where they would begin to sneak upstream. By one o’clock I was feeling like a member of the master race. I swaggered as I walked.  When a gypsy glared, I glared back.
          It took a while to realise what was happening to me—and to them.  We were being driven into role, by the uniforms and the guns.  The other Nazis were really scary; they acted like real ones, and I wondered just how deeply all this fascism was actually buried.

          After lunch I strutted through my role. Spielberg was buried beneath a black cloth on a camera, which I later learned was a TV monitor synchronised to the main film cameras, so that he could see exactly how the shot was framed. We walked up and down, peering.  I didn’t know if I was being filmed or not. A Mercedes pulled up. Sean Connery got out of the back seat and Spielberg and he talked for a moment. I strutted as near as I could get away with, but couldn’t hear anything. Connery drove away.
          About four o’clock, six of us Nazis were instructed to stand near a palm tree placed beside the faux wall. A tall young German was told to pull on the tree.  When he did, a doorway opened to reveal a truck parked behind it.  We did that for an hour or so until the clipboard guy waved us away.

          At five, we were herded onto the buses again and driven back to the motel.  Relations with the gypsy/Iranians had deteriorated. Two of us Nazis sat in the very back, radiating threat, while the gypsy/Iranians swore at us. We turned in our uniforms and queued at a window for our pesetas.  Some of the inferior race tried to collect their wages twice. We of the master race were outraged.
          As I drove us home, I heard myself talking about the gypsies in a way that unsettled my liberal soul.  Barbara scowled. By bedtime that night, I had recovered enough to launch into a philosophical lecture about how external things like uniforms and role play could be responsible for turning a good person bad.  She didn’t reply.  I reckon she must have gone to sleep. When I switched off the light, I was wondering whether I would go back the next day. 

Of course I did. Ninety pounds was a month’s wages in that village.

Postscript: Don’t look for me in the scene in Isfahan where Denholm Elliot is kidnapped, chucked through a wall and bundled into a Nazi truck. There really is something called the “cutting room floor”.


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