The courtyard of the decommissioned hospital/orphanage near San Marco where we were dressed, made up, and retained until time to go to the set. I have no idea how many pictures the other extras took while hanging around. There wasn’t much else to do.
Helpful signs were everywhere, and scrupulously obeyed, as you can see. The center sign says “For security reasons, this door must always be closed.”
Perhaps you missed this recent bulletin from “Entertainment Weekly”:
The previously announced, highly anticipated drama from The Weinstein Company about the adventures of Marco Polo has begun production for Netflix.
The show, which will have a 10-episode first season and premiere on Netflix in late 2014, will follow the famed explorer’s journey as it takes him to the center of a brutal war in 13th century China, “a world replete with exotic martial arts, political skullduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue,” according to the press release.
What it didn’t mention, but which was relatively reliably reported by a cast member, is that the production will cost 120 million dollars, the most expensive TV series in the history of Marcos, Polos, and any number of fabulous khans. When you hear somebody say, “After Venice, we’re going to spend five months in Malaysia,” you begin to get an idea of where some of the money is going. Ditto when you hear that the cast and a batch of the crew are staying at a multi-star hotel whose cheapest room is called “Deluxe” and costs $750 per night. Perhaps they were bunking 18 people per room, like sweatshop immigrants.
But I like our no-star hovel. I could get room service there, too, if I really wanted it.
The world to be depicted will also be replete with scenes staged in Venice two weeks ago, which were made even more replete by Lino and me as extras. As was the case two years ago with the still-MIA film “Effie Gray,” we were engaged to row some old boats and give some credible watery backdrop to whatever was happening on center stage, or street or square.
First, they dressed us. (Note: This is not Pippo — see below). Then they put makeup on our faces or hands. Then they put makeup on the costumes. She had a bag full of dust which she tapped on various spots, when she wasn’t streaking dirt-like colors or otherwise distressing our garb. I know the fabric is supposed to look worn, but I am skeptical that people, even in that soap-challenged era, would have liked walking around dusty and streaked. But it might have been a class thing. We were near the bottom of the social scale, where everybody knows we don’t care about being clean, or healthy, or knowing that the earth isn’t the center of the solar system.
To be an extra essentially means either moving (walking, running, rowing) or standing still. You might be called on to fake conversations or other normal activities (conversations, I mean — I don’t mean faking them is normal) for a few seconds at a time. I wouldn’t call it acting, but the real actors with lines to speak were faking just as much as we were, when you think about it.
Lino got in a few extra days of work before filming began because somebody needed to teach young Marco Polo (played by a certain Lorenzo Richelmy) how to row in the Venetian way. He says Lorenzo was not only a good sport but not a bad beginner. This is high praise, considering that a ferocious bora (northeast wind) was blowing all week. Not the best weather for learning how to do anything except hold onto your hat.
Here’s what’s fun: The costumes make you look like something from the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event that’s been dug up from under a dead tree. Ditto the make-up. And it’s extreme fun to get up at 3:30 AM to be ready for makeup at 5:00. After which you do nothing for hours.
It was 6:00 AM. I don’t think I need to say anything more.
They put no makeup on my face at all, but the makeup people put their hearts into making my hands look like I’d been trying to excavate Tulamba.
It’s also fun to try to climb around in a big heavy boat, and even row it, when you’re swaddled in three layers of fabric, plus a long piece of cloth on your head which falls everywhere, especially in front of your face, when you’re trying to do real work. I still have green-gray and dark-brown bruises all over my legs from encounters with wood, stone, wickerwork, and other things that got in my way when I had to get from here to there while also fighting with my personal drapery. I felt as if I’d been wrapped in Miss Ellen’s portieres, before they were made into dresses.
It was less dramatic, but also less interesting, to spend an hour or two out of the boat, joining a small group required to walk over a small bridge, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it….
But I’m happy. At times in my life I’ve been paid very little to work really hard. To be paid (also very little) to do scarcely anything, and even to do nothing, seems like an excellent way to spend some of my time. In my normal life, I don’t get to stand still and do nothing for any reason, and I certainly don’t get paid for it.
So thank you, Marco Polo, Harvey Weinstein, and all the ships at sea. I can’t wait for the next chance to play dress-up and do nothing. At 3:30 AM.
Apparently every period film requires a market scene. As far as I could tell, the market served only as a funky setting through which young Marco had to run at top speed. That’s all I saw. No horses or cars in pursuit, which usually are required to decimate the market. So we pretended to buy things and he ran. All that setting-up was just for that. If you ever see this opus, please tell me we were TOTALLY CREDIBLE.
While all the marketing and running was going on in the campo, Lino was awaiting his assorted cues in the canal. That is not his hair, by the way, but a wig.
There was plenty of downtime to go around. We occasionally stopped to let boats or people pass, but the sun was shining, so I don’t think anybody cared very much.
What’s really interesting about this scene isn’t the boat — though of course it’s excellent — but the wooden wall stretching above it. That was installed in order to conceal the modern wrought-iron railing. They covered drainpipes, windows, boats, lamps. You don’t think Venice is so modern until you try to make it look like it was 700 years ago.
Another day, another market — this time, masses of cargo piled up on a small dock near the Punta della Dogana. The activity was hectic, to create the atmosphere of the port of Venice (at the time, the number one port in Europe) in full swing. The white-bearded man isn’t just any old walk-on. His name is Benito “Pippo” Garbisa, and he is the oldest lifeguard in Italy, still showing up at the beach on the Lido every summer. He has saved more people than anyone could count (though I suppose he knows exactly how many he’s pulled from the drink). He started his work in 1949 at the beachside operation belonging to his family, and which everyone still calls “Garbisa” even though it’s got a different owner and name now. For his exceptional achievements, he has been awarded both a silver and a bronze national medal for “civic valor.” He has two medals from the Carnegie Foundation, and is an official Cavalier of the Republic of Italy. To sum up, one heck of an extra to have in the mob. Or, now that I think about it, I wonder if he was a costumed security agent.
Lino, Antonella Mainardi, and I rowed this ponderous hulk of a caorlina to the “port” for our moment of glory: being the centerpiece of loading/unloading action, plus actually rowing away as the cameras turned, while exchanging loud comments with some extras on the dock. Happily, we only had to do that scene once; the boat must weigh 157 tons, even being so lightly loaded. By the time they were finished with the scene, the boat was full. Full, that is, of things designed to damage my legs.
“Il Nuovo Trionfo,” the only trabacolo still floating, was the perfect vessel for giving that ocean-going vibe. That and its sails, which were crucially important for blocking out the 21st century just beyond.
This is what “backstage” looked like, in the meantime. This is only part of the panoply of technicians and equipment of every sort. Just think, even boring movies require much of the same level of labor. Gad.
Two days later, we were on the night shift, rowing a slightly smaller boat which we rigged with two masts and sails to conceal the reality lurking even in the smallest canals. If anyone might wonder why a boat would be moored in a canal with its sails up, I will have to arrest them on a charge of “unwilling suspension of disbelief.”
For some reason, we looked relatively more human later in the day.
Not to brag or anything, but I think I look like a genuine mammal here. It was impressive progress from Day One.
The boats and their people (us) clocked out at about 10:00 PM and made it into the canteen just in time to eat some hot food. Out in the campo, the lighting was already blazing for the next scenes, which we were told would continue till 4:00 AM. Seeing light this bright surrounded by darkness gave me a strange sensation, but part of it was admiration for whoever invented this apparatus to simulate daylight. If I’d stayed under it, I might even have started to grow.