“When our Officer Commanding asked us if we wanted to be an extra in the next film during a morning brief, nobody put their hands up. We all thought it must be a wind-up. It took him most of the day to convince us that he really did know someone who was looking for a body of men to mill around in the background and do what they were told.”
Who better to engage as extras to film an intergalactic air battle than those who do it as their day job?
The production crew of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story did just that, recruiting actors from the British forces whose CVs include flying attack helicopter missions over hostile territory.
Although they’re sworn to secrecy, Julie Knox has spoken exclusively to some of those involved…
They may not be classically trained, but in some ways they’re a natural choice. Members of the Army Air Corps aren’t easily star-struck: they had Prince Harry as a colleague until recently. So when personnel were given the opportunity to take leave from their Apache squadron and re-deploy to the film set, they used their summer stand-down to fulfil boyhood dreams: getting to grips with the Death Star, waving around a light sabre, and seeing Princess Leia close up. Well, perhaps those dreams are still the stuff of science fiction and fantasy…
Scenes for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story were shot in Top Secret conditions at Cardington in Bedfordshire, a location which has its own military ties. It’s formerly an airship station, where the largest British aircraft ever constructed - the ill-fated R101 - was housed in gigantic sheds (aficionados bristle if you call them ‘hangars’). Later, as RAF Cardington, the site was where Second World War barrage balloons were developed.
An R101 (Picture: JohnBarrie)
Cardington’s sheds are legendary. Stretching for 250 metres, (the length of 2 football pitches) they’ve been used as movie sets for some time. Batman and Pirates of the Caribbean have been shot there, and the Star Wars cast are hardly aliens to the place. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill filmed a number of scenes for Episode IV: A New Hope, in Cardington's Shed One in 1976.
That was a long time ago. But at a flying station not so far, far away - Wattisham - a dozen real-life soldiers, from seasoned Majors to junior Air Troopers, got the call-up to go into battle with the Storm Troopers.
But squaddies are a sceptical lot. The offer seemed too good to be true, initially. “All the guys on our squadron are massive Star Wars fans”, my source (who has to remain nameless) explained,
There are, in fact, a couple of bespoke acting agencies, specialising in sourcing regular and retired personnel for the entertainment industry. Filmmakers are also after expertise, to ensure dialogue or equipment appears authentic on screen.
In all, 40 current and former members of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force were taken on for Star Wars Rogue One; after the Soldier in Blue talent agency appealed for helicopter and jet pilots between the ages of 25 and 55.
They were almost typecast. Flyboys and instructors, ammunition loaders and groundies became X-wing pilots, ground crew and Marines.
A joint British/American ground grew in the first Gulf War, working on a SEPECAT Jaguar GR1 instead of an X-Wing
The MoD doesn’t object to service people taking on such roles in their spare time, provided their chain of command is happy it won’t interfere with their real job’s duties. The actor also needs to declare extra earnings for tax. As they’re already bound by the Official Secrets Act, keeping the plot under wraps should be a breeze.
Of course, the script is a closely-guarded secret. Non-disclosure agreements were mandatory, and all phones and cameras had to be locked up off-set. Tall fences were erected around Cardington’s perimeter and all performers covered their costumes with black cloaks anytime they stepped outdoors, even to nip to the loo.
The canteen arrangements were strict too: extras were warned not to approach the stars in their caravan or trailer area; nor the rest of the cast and crew higher up the food chain. The servicepeople found it fascinating, and funny. They could also relate to it:
“That sort of thing is normal for us”, says my source, “it’s just like the officers’ mess versus the other cookhouses.”
But the experience is giving the military members of the Jedi fraternity something to dine out on during this Star Wars season, and doubtless for light years to come.