Actor Joseph Deacon tells us about his experience as a WWII soldier on the set of Christopher Nolan's upcoming epic Dunkirk. There was a lot of walking, a lot of smoking and, despite the war-time setting, a lot of biscuits.
There are some times in your life when you just have to stop and take stock of what you have just done.
Well, that’s what I did as I was walking down Weymouth Harbour, towards the Pavilion where my Dad was patiently waiting in his car to pick me up. He would be waiting a bit longer, as I was covered in fake oil, dirt, and dust and clothed in World War Two military uniform, which after wearing for 12 hours can become quite bothersome. As I strolled I could see curious locals walking past with bemused looks on their faces, as if I and the other three hundred men behind me had just arrived from some epic stag do. But this was no stag do. This was a filming day for Christopher Nolan on his latest film DUNKIRK.
Speaking of taking stock, as I finally lit that long-awaited post-wrap cigarette, a memory popped up into my head. A childhood memory of my Dad placing my seven year old self in front of the television, eagerly putting the VHS into the video player (yes this was that long ago) and proudly saying “watch this”. All of a sudden I was transfixed by the moody and ominous introduction of the Universal Studios logo, Hans Zimmer’s haunting soundtrack and the soul-capturing image of one word floating through the dark brown mist “Gladiator”.
Within seconds of Russell Crowe appearing, my Dad would grab me and point to the bottom right hand corner of the screen, to a lonely soldier gallantly standing upright with a Roman Eagle standard towering over him - to which my Dad said “there I am”. Not only due to seeing my own father on screen, but through the sheer dynamic, dramatic and damn spectacle of the first ten minutes of Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic, I knew from that moment on I didn’t want to be a dinosaur anymore. I wanted to be an Actor.
After three years at University and then having to turn down a place at a Drama School in London, (because hey, I’m working class and this is the real world, money doesn’t grow on trees) I decided to grab whatever opportunity I can to get experience in film acting, because experience is education. After a few months of doing short films, and kitchen porting to pay the rent, I found myself in a dry period; until I received a text from one of my casting companies, asking if I would be interested in taking part in Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk as an extra. To which you think, “Does a bear poop in the woods?”
So after weeks of preparing location, accommodation and finance, I found myself with my Dad driving in the car down to spend a week in Weymouth, and a day on a Hollywood film set. When that filming day came, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.
Call time was at 2pm at Weymouth Pavilion. As I arrived I could see crowds of men waiting outside the building, some with that same look of nervousness, others with a slight sense of calmness and excitement. I would say that I was probably caught between the two. I had been on film sets before, but none as big or prestigious and as expensive as this. As I wandered through the crowd I found the familiar face of someone I had met at the costume fitting the week before in Swanage. Although I regrettably can’t remember his name, I was grateful for his company. As we were all fitted with our costumes and smothered in fake oil and dirt, the two of us would find others that we had the pleasure of meeting the week before. It was from then that we would spend the next six hours conversing, smoking, eating biscuits and drinking coffee whilst we waited for dinner and our call time for shooting.
At around 6pm we were called for dinner. It was while in this queue, patiently shuffling towards the promise of either curry or chilli, I was stricken down with a case of Starstroke. Quietly and peacefully pacing past the queue would be none other than Mark Rylance, the BFG himself. After imagining what I would say to him if the opportunity ever arose, I could not prepare myself for the moment he would actually walk past me. As I lifted my hand to lightly wave and say hello, I found myself saluting him and with a crackling voice saying “howdy”, to which Mr. Rylance politely replied “Alright?” in the most impeccable Dorset accent. If only he would’ve turned around to see me with my head in my hands in complete embarrassment afterwards.
We were eventually called to our location at the harbour at around 8pm. This was where we would spend the next six hours walking up and down in formation whilst the main actors did their parts. I was very surprised to find that despite the massive set, crew and amount of time put into it, the scene we shot only consisted of three lines exchanged between Mark Rylance and a young British actor whose name escapes me.
As I observed the crew and main actors I was extremely impressed and encouraged by the calm atmosphere that they projected on to us. Among the actors was Cillian Murphy, who I would say is one of the most disciplined and professional actors I have ever seen. He didn’t even have a line in the scene; his job was to walk from one spot to the other, however, even though he would repeat the same movement in silence for nearly 6 hours straight with no break, I didn’t hear him complain or moan once. In fact I didn’t really hear him say anything.
Throughout the whole shooting period there was one man who always stayed in control, that was Mr Christopher Nolan. He presented himself with a quiet authority which won the respect of the crew and I. Not once did he raise his voice, even while changing a camera lens when a fellow extra turned to him and asked “do I have enough time for a piss?”.
To which I heard him reply, “That’s not a decision another man makes”.
After six hours of waiting and another six hours of walking up and down in character, we wrapped at 2:30am. As much as I was tired after that twelve hour shift and my eyes pretty much constantly blinking trying to contain my contact lenses, I can honestly say that I never found myself bored for one minute on that set. You may think that walking up and down for six hours would be the most boring thing in the world, but when you’re surrounded by a number of extremely talented producers, directors, directors of photography and members of costume department that are dedicated to detail and completely loyal to the director’s vision; you can’t help but feel encouraged and blessed to be a part of it.
No matter how small your role is.
Dunkirk is released in cinemas July 2017.
You can follow Joseph on Twitter: @Joseph_93Deacon