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24 September 2014
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Rome on BBC TWO

Rome - this autumn on BBC TWO

Two-week boot camp run by a former British Royal Marine turns actors into legionaries for Rome


With a focus on presenting life in ancient Rome as authentically as possible, the executive producers of Rome sent actors who would wear a military uniform to a two-week boot camp to learn how to be a soldier - merely donning the costume wasn't enough.


To that end, Billy Budd, a former British Royal Marine of 15 years, joined the crew as the military advisor.


After leaving the Royal Marines, Budd began working in feature films with Captain Dale Dye, the military advisor on Saving Private Ryan - a relationship that brought Budd to HBO as one of Dye's team for the Emmy-winning mini-series Band of Brothers.


More recently, Budd advised the productions of Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven.


For Rome, Budd chose 55 Italian extras to attend his two-week boot camp, and 43 completed it.


"Military training for actors and extras is important on these sorts of productions because portraying a soldier is about more than putting on a costume," says Budd.


"In fact, it's not a costume, it's a uniform. And out of respect for the people who wore the uniform in real life, the actors ought to be worthy of wearing it, by conducting themselves as soldiers.


"That means learning discipline, proper weapons handling, marching, bonding with your fellow men and learning how to carry yourself.


"On this production in particular, it was important to make sure they understood that they weren't just working on a fantastic show for big companies called the BBC and HBO.


"It's more about the fact that they were getting a chance to do something that most of their ancestors had done, and it was their duty to portray their own ancestors correctly."


The camp lasted for two weeks in July 2004, and the emphasis was on living like the ancients did from the start.


The men were given notice not to bring mobile phones, cameras, personal stereos, or modern electronics of any kind.


On the first day, Budd marched them down to a field next to a lake, assigned ten men to a tent, and gave them one chance to give up any contraband mobile phones - anyone caught with one after that would be sent home.


Five phones came forward, and five men were punished with push-ups, but Budd made it clear that, "they controlled the volume of my voice, because this is not about me shouting. This is about following orders and learning discipline, and it's entirely up to them how loud I get."


A typical day at camp began at around 5.00am, with an hour of physical training before 20 minutes for breakfast.


Then they put on their uniforms and broke into three groups, working on weapons techniques, manoeuvres, marching and military posture.


Lunch was 40 minutes, followed by more group work, physical training and aspects of camp building and dismantling. After dinner, they had a brief dip in the lake for a wash, without soap.


In the evenings around the campfire, Budd went over their progress for the day, answered questions and talked to them about, "The spirit of the soldier. Try to imagine what it must have been like to have 12,000 men and a sea of tents, and be preparing for battle in the morning.


"And think how much you rely on the man next to you to watch your back - and you watch his."


Lights out was at 9.00pm, followed by sentry duty and occasional night manoeuvres.


Budd instituted a reward system so that the best five-man team of the day would have a glass of wine with dinner and a two-minute phone call home with his emergency phone.


After a few days, the men really started bonding together. "They start to realise they can do things they never thought they could do. The quiet one shows leadership potential, something clicks for the one with two left feet and his marching becomes spot-on.


"Then they start to feel the rewards of all the hard work, the sense of pride and accomplishment, and that's all part of a bearing that comes across on-screen."


One of the biggest challenges of the camp was the heat - it was nearly 100°F every day, so at first the men wore their gear for just a few hours at a time while their bodies acclimatised. A paramedic and nurse were on-site the entire time.


"We weren't there to physically or mentally destroy them," says Budd, "so we made sure everyone had plenty of water.


"Some of them got so enthusiastic that when they got injured or twisted an ankle they still tried to march, so we had to make them sit out for a couple of days to heal. We don't want anyone toughing through an injury and making it worse."


The discipline learned in boot camp carried over to the set because, "it's not just about creating people who can march in-step and look like soldiers. It's also about how they perform for the production.


"I'm not going to waste any director's time because this large group of extras arrives and bomb-bursts on set. We turn up at call time, march them from costumes to props to the set, and one of my guys stays with them the whole time. They act like soldiers as soon as they're in the gates at Cinecittà."


At boot camp, swordmaster Giorgio Antonioni taught them authentic Roman Army fighting techniques, and later choreographed the fights for the filming.


Says Antonioni: "In cinema and television we are telling a story when we plan choreography. It's very important to involve the audience and communicate, through motion, the character's personality.


"For example, Pullo is a private legionary, with a young man's fiery nature but not much technique. He's very aggressive, whereas Vorenus is the professional soldier par excellence, so all of his actions are very focussed, very technical and very cold-blooded.


"We trained for about a month with each of the actors before filming.


"It was very important to teach them authentic techniques, because usually you see one soldier swinging his sword in wide arcs, taking on several opponents at once, and that's not at all how the Romans fought.


"That's a barbarian way of fighting, and it's why the barbarians were conquered.


"The 'Roman Wall' was known and feared throughout the ancient world - the impenetrable line of shields the front lines formed when fighting.


"They stood extremely closely, shoulder to shoulder, and made straight thrusts above and below the shields with their swords or pikes. No wild swings. This meant there could be three or four Romans fighting in the same space taken up by one Gaul.


"Also, sound signals were very important. Every 30 to 40 seconds an officer would blow a whistle, and the front line would fall to the back, leaving the next line to take up the fighting. This way the soldiers were always well-rested and had fresh weapons.


"Different fighting patterns were signaled by different sounds, so they could change tactics in an instant. Each soldier carried a badge indicating his exact position within the ranks, so if he died, a soldier would take the badge to the reserves and the replacement would know exactly what position he needed to cover and where."


Military training was a valuable experience for the actors. "It took a bunch of people and made a homogeneous group of us," says Ray Stevenson.


"The packs are real, you're wearing chain mail, you've got a bloody heavy shield and sword and knife and brass helmet in all the heat, marching with these horrible sandals.


"But you learn it and do it just like the soldiers did, and it's a valuable lesson - they went through all this and did it for years, so we go through it for a few weeks. And I got to know a terrific bunch of guys.


"Just walking around Rome on weekends I'll hear 'Ciao, Pullo!' from across the street, and there's some guy in jeans, and of course it's one of the legionaries."


"Billy Budd's great," agrees Kevin McKidd. "He's enthusiastic and good at his job, but very sensitive to the story that's being told. It's not just about 'a solider would do this'.


"He gets into the journey your character's on, and how to use all the military stuff to make the characters more real. So our performances come across as more dyed-in-the-wool, as it should be."


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