Q&A with experienced extra David Rees


28 June 2017

A familiar face at DCA, David Rees has worked on a multitude of Scottish film productions, including Trainspotting 2 and the upcoming Tommy's Honour.

We caught up with David to hear more about his experiences on set...

Hi David, thanks for chatting with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I am 66-years-old, a retired Senior Probation Officer who worked in the Scottish system, as well as those in England and in Wales, and the voluntary sector for 36 years. I am Secretary of Glenrothes Probus club, which takes up a couple of days a week of my time with correspondence to and from guest speakers, drafting and delivering votes of thanks, arranging meetings and AGMs and writing press and website reports of our various activities such as our walking group and talks programme.

"I have been an active film extra since 1996 and have roughly 80 walk-ons..."

I also role-play medical scenarios for St Andrews Medical School students to help promote their communication skills and in the case of clinical role-plays, act as a guinea pig to facilitate their ability to diagnose.

I also exam invigilate at Abertay University, and attend the Senior Citizen Kane Club at DCA whenever I am free. I have been an active film extra since 1996 and have roughly 80 walk-ons to date.

How did you become a film extra? 

I was taking a break from writing an MSc dissertation on Criminal Justice when I read articles post Braveheart about the desirability and feasibility of a Scottish film studio. That debate rolls on and on! I'd also noticed an extra I knew in Dr Finlay's Casebook around that time and fancied the idea. Being too busy at work to be able to learn lines at night I hadn't participated in amateur drama since school, unlike my wife who still performs. But I had roleplayed training events throughout my career and was used to being thrust into a variety of scenarios and roles.

"I also wanted to do something radically different from my day job..." 

I have always been interested in photography, the patient need to get the right shot, or the opportunity for spontaneous composition of shots, and thinking about the angle of shot, light quality etc. I also wanted to do something radically different from my day job and its associated academic study. Going back to the article I'd read about Braveheart there was a footnote ad for Scottish Screen, whom I contacted. I spoke to Camcast, a Fort William based agency and joined them. 

"...12 of us played a film crew that had no idea what it was doing..."

Nothing happened for six months and I feared I had been scammed (it does happen - buyer beware!). I celebrated my MSc success with a family holiday in Florida and came back late September to find my first two jobs waiting for me. One, a pilot BBC comedy The Creatives, where 12 of us played a film crew that had no idea what it was doing. Perfect casting because none of us had a clue! We were all new at the game. I met actor Tom Georgeson and comedienne Sally Phillips, Jack Docherty and Moray Hunter in the exotic overnight location of a Focus DIY store in Carlisle to film overnight.

The following week, still oozing heat from Florida I was called to Duns Castle to play a Royal porter in the Judi Dench film Mrs Brown. I can still hear her laughter. It was a freezing cold October day and the sun didn't shine, the wind howled and the set flooded. During filming I was carrying a packing case to load onto a stagecoach, and I sliced my thumb open on a sharp edge. It was so cold I didn't notice, but the film rushes picked up blood trickling down my hand. Possibly the crew were more worried about me ruining the costume than my hand, but the director shouted cut.

It wasn't until the nurse on set appeared to tend to me that I realised they had cut because I was cut! The nurse thanked me, and I wondered why - it was for the opportunity for her to actually have something to do during a long day. Billy Connolly was patient and supportive and engaging and I became a fan.

Can you tell us about the experience of filming Tommy's Honour?

[Tommy's Honour] was filmed over a six week period August to September 2016, and it rained only once. During location shoots in Falkland, Fife I was asked by the 3rd Assistant Director to burgle a house. In Upper Largo/Drumeldrie, Fife they built a replica of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse in a field, and sprayed another field with artificial snow for a winter scene. It was over 20 degrees at the time. The Fairmont golf course in St Andrews featured as did some of the town. In Lothian, Dunbar golf course and Musselburgh race course were used.

"Jason Connery was an affable gentleman..."

Jason Connery was an affable gentleman who, like Danny Boyle in Trainspotting 2, engaged with us, laughed with us at our mistakes and took us along with his evident enthusiasm for the story and his ability to get the best out of people. The crew, cast and extras (sorry can't avoid the word) bonded. It was a pleasure to go into work. On days when hundreds of extras were on set, us 50 stalwarts got very territorial and protective of 'our project'. This was a busy period as I was also filming BBC's Secret Agent over in Hopetoun, BBC's Murder in Edinburgh/Penicuik, and Outlander on location and at the Cumbernauld studio, and also BBC 3's The Clique. At the end of this six-month period I was drained, particularly after the pre-Culloden stormy shoot which took six days.

Tommy's Honour portrays the father-son relationship between the founders of modern golf. Jason Connery felt there were some parallels both with his relationship with his famous Dad, and also with his son Dashiel. The latter was on set as a runner, driving equipment around set and making sure we were kept cool in the heat, bringing us lots of water on set. We got to know him well as 'Dot Dot' - as in dot dot dash. He and some of the crew stayed in the Holiday Inn along the road from me in Glenrothes during the shoot.

"It was a joy and pleasure to work on this film..."

It was a joy and pleasure to work on this film and many of us extras went to the opening night of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016 where it was the opening film. Jason Connery introduced the film and went out of his way to thank the extras, and of course we cheered him to the rafters for taking the trouble to acknowledge us. Believe me it is not always like that!

Accidents on set? Yes. A field is sprayed with fake snow. The director is halfway through advising us to tread cautiously to avoid rabbit - aaaaarghhh!  HOLES! Too late. A keen extra has jumped the cue for action and sped off over the snow, snagged his foot in a rabbit hole and fallen in glorious slow-motion onto his face. There was a pregnant pause - we notice the crew laughing quietly as they view the playback - we join their laughter which erupts around set and provides a needed break in the tension.

The next day Jason Connery approaches our group and asks "Is stuntman Bob here today?" He is, and he is gently but purposefully taken aside to the nurse and two minders to ensure he comes to no more harm, and doesn't hold up the production. Yet, he does. His foot is heavily bandaged and he limps the few hundred yards back to base at lunch time. While limping over the greens he manages to collide with a golf buggy, and down he goes again. Not satisfied with his amateur stunt work he fails to spot a second golf buggy approaching from behind and it collides with his other foot. We never saw him again on set, though I did meet up with him on Outlander weeks later and he was still dining out on the story.

Did you get to meet any of the main actors?

Yes, every day. The lovely Ophelia Lovibond, Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan and Ian Pirie. There were 41 cast members altogether, but usually we were grouped with the main cast who freely engaged with us. The golden rule of being an extra is that you do not engage with the cast. It is after all their workplace and they need to concentrate. It was different on this film because we were fully used between scenes to cement our role as rival group supporters. We never found out if this was by accident or design. Neither Jack Lowden nor Peter Mullan could play golf, but they soon remedied that. Between takes they practiced and practiced and became gentlemanly competitors, often sinking shots off camera that took ages to replicate once the cameras were rolling. We were willing spectators throughout, cheering them on as if actually filming. I imagine the director got his money's worth from us as these impromptu rehearsals must have helped things along.

"There were 41 cast members altogether, but usually we were grouped with the main cast who freely engaged with us."

What didn't help things along was the wind at Dunbar, which uplifted a canopy sheltering cameras and crew and gathered speed as it flew apace downhill, seeking us out like a cruise missile, scattering a hundred extras in all directions like skittles. Nobody was hurt, so we stopped and laughed at our good fortune.

Jack Lowden greeted us every morning as did a cheery Peter Mullan. Often he'd come up behind you and pat you on the back. I'd met him very briefly on Sunshine on Leith. On set he always had a story and some of his old school chums were extras. I'd not long since seen Sunset Song and was fearful of the character I might encounter. Even a seasoned extra can forget that actors never entirely possess the personality of the characters they play.

"Even a seasoned extra can forget that actors never entirely posses the personality of the characters they play."

One day I shared lunch with fellow extra Dave, who asked me if I'd travelled far. I explained I was from nearby Glenrothes, and he revealed he was from far off Chicago. I asked him what he did and how he was involved as an extra. "I'm one of the financial backers and the producer invited me on set" he said. We chatted amicably for an hour, including a conversation about my late step-mother-in-law's brother who at one time was Sean Connery's agent. That, as they say, is another story.

We're sure you have lots of inside stories from the many productions you've worked on - can you share one with us?

I have many anecdotes. The film The Debt Collector, starring Billy Connolly, was filmed in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, doubling as an Edinburgh location. The sacrilege of such a thing. In one scene, I play an art critic awaiting Connolly's character's art exhibit premiere. His character has discovered his sculpting talent (which he developed as a coping strategy) while serving a prison sentence for knifing victims of his protection racket. The arresting officer Ken Stott appears with a knife and starts slashing the artefacts in a fit of vengeance. Lots of oohs and aahs and protective utterances on our part, especially as nobody told us this was going to happen - when a guy with a knife shot through the door in our direction we were not acting!

"When a guy with a knife shot through the door in our direction we were not acting!"

The time is 2pm, and we're waiting to shoot. I was on the road at 5am and have been waiting on the call to go upstairs to set since 7am. I am putting this mildly - I am very saddle sore. Mr Connolly arrives in a room full of approximately 100 extras, and as he makes his way over the crowd silently parts as if it's the Red Sea. He seems to hate this, and comes over to chat. He says "I've been here since 7 and I cannae feel my pants."

I think to myself and then reply "It's funny you should say that. I've been here since 7am too, after a 5am start and I can't feel my pants either. In fact, I'm so sore down there I think they've disappeared up the crack in my ----, and they don't seem to want to put in a repeat performance." There was a moment's silence from him and he looking back in my direction once or twice as he moved away.

"I'm still a fan, but I'll never know if I broke one of the golden rules of being an extra."

This left me thinking maybe he thought I spoke to him that way because he thought that I thought he thinks that way. Then I gave up that thought on the basis that I hadn't thought anything of the kind - I was simply bored and trying to pass the time of day with someone who had taken the trouble to talk to me. I'm still a fan, but I'll never know if I broke one of the golden rules of being an extra.

Do you have any advice for those keen to work as film extras?

"If you think 'I'm really an actor and I'm only here till something better comes along' then don't be an extra."

If you can't leave your ego at the door, don't be an extra. There are now thousands of extras in Scotland and probably too many competing agencies. If you go out of your way, as some sadly do, to disobey instructions and directions because you think you know better, you will quickly be found out and put off set. Examples of this kind of disruption include moving props, deliberately placing yourself in front of camera, failing to remove jewellery in costume dramas, talking over the director and disturbing cast or crew (unless invited into the conversation as on Tommy's Honour).

"...remember you are merely human furniture on set."

Take any thanks offered gracefully - Danny Boyle thanked me on Trainspotting 2 in person, as he does with all extras when he can. If you think 'I'm really an actor and I'm only here till something better comes along' then don't be an extra. You'll be found out and other extras will soon reduce your ego to the correct setting. Don't carry a CV/portfolio around with you, as you'll just annoy everyone. Every extra has a story but try not to tell everyone how wonderful you were in whatever you've been in; the film was not after all about you - you had a miniscule role in it.

Turn up, follow instructions, engage, be patient while waiting, take a book and your music, above all embrace the experience, have fun and enjoy it, but remember you are merely human furniture on set.

Tommy's Honour screens from Fri 7 - Thu 20 July, with our Senior Citizen Kane Club screening on Thu 13 July, where David will be joining us and introducing the film - we're sure the stories he's told us so far are just the tip of the iceberg!

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