For our latest 12 Rounds, One Room With A View met up with Charlie Rotherham. The reason we’re speaking to Rotherham is that he is the co-founder of Soldier in Blue, a company that offers what it calls a complete military package to TV and film productions, with advisers to offer guidance on military affairs and historical accuracy, and ex-soldiers for extras. So we sat down with the former military man to talk about the company’s origins via Russell Crowe and Fury, and how they help to provide an authentic emotional connection to the reality of war.
1. What is your background and how did you get into the industry?
I served as an officer in the British Army, The Light Dragoons, for seven-and-a-half years. Soon after I left in 2012, I was preparing to be my best friend’s best man, and that’s when Russell Crowe got involved. When he was 13, my friend had played Russell’s son in Proof of Life, so I decided to be a little bit cheeky and get in touch with Russell via Twitter. I asked if he could give me something for the speech, and he replied and said, “I’m coming to London in a couple of weeks to start Les Misérables. Why don’t we grab a couple of pints?” So Russell comes to London, and I have a few drinks with him, and next thing I know he’s got me on set as an extra!
I quickly realised that out of the 60 “military extras” there were only four of us who had actual military experience. So I spoke to Russell, who introduced me to the director, Tom Hooper, and Xander [Rawlins, co-founder] – who is now my business partner – and we ended up effectively being the military advisers on Les Misérables!
We taught the other extras drill, room clearance and weapon training with the muskets and after Les Misérables, we set up Soldier in Blue, named after the colour of the uniforms in the film. We realised that there was a real opportunity firstly for the film industry – to provide extras who have genuine military experience – but actually, secondly and more importantly to us, there was a great opportunity for soldiers who are leaving the force. A lot of people struggle when they leave the military. There are guys who joined at 18 as soldiers, did 22 years, and then they leave at 40. They’re not at retirement age. They are looking for a second career, which can be a difficult transition, and we provide them with paid work that uses their skills and experiences.
2. What is it about the film world and the nature of the work that is so suitable for ex-service personnel?
Extra and film work is fantastic for those that have just left the forces as it’s maybe a few months’ paid work and it can help whilst they look for a regular job. Also, life on set is very similar to military life. You spend so much time just sat under the gazebo tent talking rubbish and then it’s a sudden mad rush for 20 minutes. It’s rather like being on operations. You spend 99% of your time sitting around and 1% doing something fairly intense. The other great thing about employing soldiers is that they are reliable, they are on time, and very importantly they do not want to be actors. They are there to be in the background, and they don’t go pestering directors and producers.
3. How did you go about building the company, and how does the military world fit in with the filmmaking industry?
You know there is a phrase in the army, which is if you don’t know what you’re doing, get some help – but if you’ve been thrown in the deep end you’ve just got to make it work. I’ve set up a company before so I had an idea about paperwork and company structuring, but we’re effectively running it as a military unit.
On film sets, we’ll provide the 30 extras the production might need, for example, but we’ll also provide someone who acts as a kind of officer to run the action that’s going to be on screen. Herding extras can be like herding cats, but when you have extras who were previously in the military you know you’re going to get a certain level of reliability and discipline.
4. Can you describe the process when you were working with the director to get that balance between realism and cinema in a scene?
Directors generally want to get it tactically correct whilst working artfully. Sometimes real-world tactics are traded off against having something that works in terms of cinematography. Occasionally it has to be inaccurate to look good. There’s a scene in Fury, that if we were going to attack the position in reality versus what’s done in the film, we would have five tanks, spaced out, with one on over-watch covering that position and laying down fire and then you would have another as fire support and have the rest as assault tanks. That is not what the look David Ayer wanted for the scene so that is not what you see. He had five tanks rumbling 39 feet apart, with no fire support against an anti-tank gun. We wouldn’t do that in real life, but it looks great in the film.
5. Considering your military background and your experiences of fighting on the frontline, how do you approach delivering on-screen sequences that do involve combat?
If you’ve been a soldier, you know what to look for. You look at the ground and at the positions, and when there is a battle sequence, you automatically see in your mind how you would go about executing it on-screen.
The real benefit to the film is conveying the experiences to actors: the emotions, the sensations. With Fury, the most important thing for us wasn’t so much the day-to-day tasks of weapon handling or tank driving, but what no one else could do, except us, which was talk to a bunch of actors and tell them what it feels like when you are being shot at for the first time.
In Fury it was important to show how the tank crew interacts like a little family. You and the crew become close-knit and you know everything about each other. There’s no rank in the tank, but you still have to know the boundaries. It’s not a popularity contest. You have to make some difficult decisions and you need to keep yourself slightly removed from that – so we tried to convey that atmosphere in the film.
6. What was the impact on the actors of having veterans and ex-armed forces on set?
On set one day, we had a British Second World War veteran who drove and fought in a tank from D-Day to the end of the war. He could talk about what it’s like to be in a tank battle, to be shelled, and the experience of living in a tank for days on end. He was sitting with the actors and having lunch with all these guys and he was asked, “How do you feel about killing Germans?” To which he responded, “The Germans killed my brother… ” and it is that kind of candid honesty which would really make people pay attention.
He lived a quiet post-war life then he comes on set and suddenly he is talking to Brad Pitt, though he didn’t know who Brad was. It was great. It has given him a new lease of life. These conversations add a huge amount to the production through the actors’ increased performance value. It is infinitely more valuable than anything we could add by making sure the actors hold and fire a rifle correctly.
7. How do you go about sourcing the weapons and vehicles?
The two key tanks, Fury and the Tiger, were from private collectors, and they were driven by the guys who provided them. Meanwhile our experts were inside the tanks, firing the guns and moving the weaponry and keeping it running. There’s a running joke in Fury where the characters keep saying it’s the best job they ever had, and that was what we kept saying too. It was kind of ridiculous. We worked for four months in the tank; doing assimilated firing with pyrotechnics and explosions going off and thrashing tanks around Devon, all whilst getting paid. It was fantastic.
8. When you are putting your extras and experts on the screen, what is the most important thing to ensure is correct? And what is the most important thing for filmmakers to get right about the military world?
You can always tell if a production has a military adviser or not when it comes to uniforms on screen. I remember watching something from the BBC last year featuring these characters who were meant to be Guardsmen. Guardsmen are known around the world for being absolutely rigid in terms of their uniform and drill. In the show, the main character walked out of his flat, in uniform, with a beret on like Frank Spencer.
9. How have you found working with directors?
There’s no fixed method of running a film production, so every director operates differently. Directors’ styles are not just what you see stylistically on film, but their style of actually running the set. Some are very chancy and like to improvise, some like to marshal things from the top down. We just try to work out how best to fit into the production and how everyone operates, so that as an adviser, we can do our job right straight away.
10. Are there any parallels between the military world and the film-set world?
It’s the scale of the operation and how you fit into it. With our guys, because they have experience of working in large-scale operations with lots of moving parts, they know who they really need to listen to, what to do, when to do it and how to follow instructions.
11. What’s the next step for Soldier in Blue?
For the company, there are all sorts of areas where we could grow. Our average employee’s skill-set is highly valuable, even for the simple stuff like driving. There is no one other than stunt drivers who have more driving qualifications than soldiers. They are qualified to drive anything including vans, 16-tonne trucks, tanks, motorbikes and plenty more.
What we enjoyed doing is getting guys on set to work with people of a similar background. It gave these guys something to focus on. Leaving the forces is hard, because you lose that community, but with Soldier in Blue, we can give ex-forces members a sense of belonging to something familiar. We can provide something similar to the world that they know, and use their skills and experiences. That is doing something genuinely good. Our goal is not about making more and more money. It is about providing something of genuine worth to the service and ex-service personnel.
I risked a lot setting up this company, and I think it is worth it because it touches the lives of a huge amount of men and women and families. A lot of companies have a corporate social responsibility policy, doing something for the society and community in which they operate, but it’s something that the film industry hasn’t done.
That’s a really easy question to answer. Anyone who has got a military number or is related to someone in the military can sign up on the website.