Making up the numbers

A low-low-budget Shakespeare film with a cast of hundreds. A recipe for financial disaster? Not if you charge your extras. By Roger Clarke; 'I've spent a life working in lingerie,' one of the extras told me. 'I want to retrace my early career'
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It had the air of an agricultural show with an overlay of Glyndebourne; witness the wicker hampers that came out of the estate car boots at lunchtime. On a nearby ploughed field in the rolling Warwickshire countryside, a medieval battle escarpment had been created with banks of earth and vicious wooden stakes. Film extras in sackcloth milled around. Fires had been lit in the "camp followers" zone on a facing hillside and, near the canopy where Jason Connery was soon to complete his last takes in the title role of Macbeth, a flabby white Sainsbury's chicken was rotating sadly on a spit.

A large tent had been raised near the farmhouse and many of the extras stood around inside in their medieval peasant gear - more Monty Python than Bergman - watching a rough-cut of the film being shown on a small television. The rushes showed the usual cheesy deep-lit images you would expect in any version of Macbeth. But this wasn't Polanski; this was amateur theatrics tricked up by canny TV professionals. And the costumed extras, craning eagerly for glimpses of their own faces on the edit, were all "shareholders".

This version of Macbeth, made by the small Scottish film company Cromwell Productions, raised 90 per cent of its pounds 500,000 financing through charging its extras. Or, as they like to put it, "we sold debenture shares which gave the shareholders a choice if they want to act as extras in the film itself".

Cromwell Productions is run by 35-year-old Bob Carruthers. Between takes, I found Carruthers in the thick of the battlefield, surrounded by battle re-enactment enthusiasts - Scots Hell's Angels in hauberks with sinister glints in their eyes. Carruthers dismisses criticism of the film's controversial financing. Aren't you supposed to pay extras?

"We've been consistently unable to get money from the Scots Arts quangos," he says flatly. "Besides, 10 per cent of the film's budget comes from Grampian TV."

He's quietly resentful of his treatment by the film establishment in Scotland, and of criticism of his methods in the Daily Mail. He tells me that he has nearly resorted to libel actions against "a member of the Scots Arts Council" for blackening his name and sneering at his company's films.

Carruthers' company has always specialised in low-budget yet profitable niche movies for the enthusiast - bloodstained fare for the military nut and the unapologetic Scottish nationalist. Cromwell films come in every colour so long as it's tartan - dramatisations of the lives of Scottish military heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce have gone straight to video and sold very nicely in WH Smith. Carruthers has always managed to get respectable C-list actors on board, and Brian Blessed has been involved in several productions (directing a section of Macbeth with his actor wife as one of the witches). Macbeth is Carruthers' first serious shot at the mainstream.

"I don't understand why some people object," says the director about his scheme to sell pounds 500 shares to 600 members of the public. "We've had no complaints from the shareholders themselves. We survey their opinion at the end of the shoot, and many of them have already expressed a desire to be involved in future projects. The Daily Mail has taken the line that we're exploiting them but it's rubbish."

I talked to the extras and I heard no complaints. They hadn't come to make a good film or make a good investment. They'd come for a modest adventure and some country air. "I don't care if I don't get a return on the share," said a retired nurse / screen wench. "We've had a nice day out and we feel we've done something to help the British film industry."

Paul, 28, a computer programmer from London, has spent the night camping out in a field. "On top of the pounds 500 share I suppose I've spent another pounds 500 on travel and hotels." But he doesn't mind. "I've made so many friends during the shoot," he says, hitching up his shield. "I've just treated it as a holiday."

The extras were mostly middle-class professionals - teachers, doctors and barristers. A few has-been actors also swelled the ranks, keen to get bit-parts without the bother of auditions. "I've spent a life working in lingerie," one told me. "I want to retrace my early career."

The shareholders certainly don't share the cynicism of the professional extra, and this leant a rather touching warmth to the proceedings. Yet they weren't treated nearly as well as a professional extra would expect to be. Peasants watched without demur as lunch was served up in fine style to the crew inside the tent, whereas the great unwashed (who had not packed hampers) were forced to queue outside a burger van. No, they seemed profoundly grateful to be on board a real-life production and no one was going to change their minds on that.

The act of making a good film was hardly the issue; rather it was about making an adequate film that makes money with a trusted, low-key team of like minds. The decision to do Shakespeare was central in the apparent success of Carruthers' scheme; no other subject would have so effectively captured the imagination of Middle England. But why does the world need another Macbeth film?

"I would like to commission original screenplays," says Carruthers, "but it all costs money. And since our access to funding is limited, we are having to build up the company's profitability slowly. We are starting from the bottom and working upwards."

Already Carruthers has his imitators. Another share-option company, Scorpio Productions, commences work this week in Dorset on a version of Hardy's The Scarlet Tunic. Many Macbeth shareholders, pleased with their experience, had bought the pounds 1,000 shares in the Hardy film without realising it was being made by another company.

Carruthers is not impressed by Scorpio, which is not surprising, since they (legally) filched his client database. "They went to Company House, where all our shareholders are listed, ran off a version and mail-shot every one of them."

In the cut-and-thrust world of low-budget film-making, perhaps a new Rank is squaring up to a new Hammer - without the help of a penny from government or the City.