Extra Relish: My On-Set adventure with Michael Collins

Micaheal Collins crowd


In the summer of 1995, the cry went out for unpaid volunteers to pad out the crowd scenes for Neil Jordan’s epic drama Michael Collins. Thousands heeded the call, and I, dear reader, was one of them.

On leave from work for a few days in early August, I idly flicked through the local morning newspaper. “Liam Neeson needs you for Michael Collins!” screamed the headline on page 3. Ireland’s largest ever film set, comprising authentic early 20th century Dublin streets, and the shelled and burned out ruin of the General Post Office (GPO), site of the 1916 Easter Rising, had been built on the site of an old Dublin workhouse.

Extras were needed for crowd scenes there, especially the emotive and passionate speeches from Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman) and Michael Collins (Liam Neeson); each arguing for and against the treaty with Britain that would be, in Collins’ words, “a stepping stone to a united Ireland”.  Whether you were het up with who was “wrong ” or “right”, or simply interested in the period, this was a golden  opportunity to take part in a recreation of Irish history on an epic scale, and do some star spotting at the same time. Unfortunately, the Warner Brothers film was on a tight budget of $25 million, and the thousands of extras required could not be paid, but this was a lark, a bit of craic. So, my friend Lindsay and I took the train the next day to Dublin.

If we weren’t going to be paid it was unlikely we would be fed, so we fuelled up in McDonalds before sharing a taxi with some other history makers to the set. We were easy to spot, wearing dark clothing as requested, and dunchers, on one of the warmest days of the summer.

On the site, a massive queue lay ahead. The costume department were on hand to bulk out the extras costumes with a large selection of coats and hats, but many people had made an incredibly realistic effort to blend in with the professional extras in the foreground. People were very keen to aid the authenticity of the piece. This was before CGI could replicate and multiply people to fill out the screen, a technique used in the Coliseum scenes in Gladiator.

michael collins set 7

The filmmakers asked for 2,000 people, but between 4,000 and 5,000 turned up, although many had to be turned away because they were not properly dressed.  As we slowly wound our way past security (“No trainers!”) we could see a camera crew filming the line. This turned out to be the arts programme The South Bank Show, which covered the making of the film, and the attendant story around it, the historical background and contemporary repercussions. Frustratingly, we were out of shot.

In an interview with the director of photography Chris Menges in Sight & Sound, he said of the unpaid extras:

I don’t see this as a cinema of exploitation but one of participation and devotion. I always said you’re a wise person if you work on location and not in a studio, not because there are not great designers, but because real locations may pose particular problems but they also bring huge curiosities. There’s nothing more fascinating than filming in a real place that’s been developed and built over many years, through many minds- it gives a patina, a feeling.”

Once on the set, there was time to admire the incredibly realistic buildings, vehicles, trams and props, right down to the fake horse dung on the cobbles. It seems on film sets, as in the army, the motto is “hurry up and wait.” Shepherded down one of the streets, we waited and waited while director Neil Jordan and his A.D  discussed the set up. We were told via loudhailer that this was when Collins returns to Dublin after treaty negotiations with Lloyd George in London, and is swamped by admiring hordes. Cannily we scoped the camera positions and manoeuvered onto a window ledge. The interior of the building was plaster board and plywood, but the glass looked real enough. We were conscious of losing our balance and falling through. Others were even more daring, scaling the fake period lamposts, until advised by the crew to get down for safety’s sake.

Meanwhile, Neeson and what looked like Julia Roberts, who played Kitty Kiernan, the object of affection for Collins and best friend Harry Boland, could just be seen observing the proceedings. Then we were ready to roll, and, as Neeson and company came out of one of the buildings and were swallowed up by the professionally dressed extras, we hoi-polloi duly shouted, stamped, waved and yelled. This was repeated before another shot was done with a vintage car driving from the other end of the street towards us, again cheering like mad.


A long set up was then required for the main scenes of the day, the speeches from a large wooden podium outside the GPO, which actually happened in real life. The GPO recreation was incredible, it was frankly bizarre standing in front of the ruined husk of a building we had recently passed on our way to there.We never actually got to do a crowd scene listening to Neeson’s speech, as the day went on so long, and we had to get our train. Quite a few others left early in the evening too. I am not sure if Neeson did actually do a speech on the main set, there certainly wasn’t one in the finished film. Instead, Neeson as Collins made speeches in rural towns, and in the Republic Parliament session.

Alan Rickman’s speech as De Valera was his very first scene of the film, and as Neil Jordan told us to his wry chuckle, he was nervous of performing with a largely non-professional crowd. Placards and flags were distributed and I made sure to get a flag, all the better to roughly identify later where I was standing when watching the completed work. As Alan Rickman got his blood up in character, waving a copy of the treaty and damning it, the crowd went mad, booing and cheering. After the first run through, Jordan explained that this was an anti-treaty rally, therefore could the majority of the crowd cheer in favour of De Valera? This got a big laugh. Even so many years on from the event, people around us still had strong feelings.  Next time, as Rickman repeated De Valera’s chilling warning that if the treaty was accepted “The Volunteers will have to wade through Irish blood,” Lindsay, (who is Canadian!) yelled “Aye, your blood, you bastard!” Others cheered and booed, some called “Let the man speak!” I waved my flag like mad, it was quite an atmosphere. Meanwhile smoke machines tried to give the impression this was a cold day, and not the middle of a heat wave. With each new set-up and take, we shuffled closer to the various overhead crane cameras, determined to maximise our brief exposure. We need not have bothered, it is impossible to distinguish us in the vast throng.

Alan Rickman signing autographs on location

Alan Rickman signing autographs on location

After filming was completed, the set was allowed to stand for a few months and curious visitors were allowed on to it for one week to vicariously experience the tumultuous events that shaped the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Many locals brought ageing parents and grandparents who would have lived through the events portrayed there. There was talk of preserving it for posterity but there were no politicians around that summer break with the wit to do so, and it was dismantled. Perhaps that is a good thing. Who needs a permanent “Troubles theme park”?


The Irish Film Censor Seamus Smith took the unprecedented view that this often violent film deserved a PG certificate upon release in 1996, stating that such was the historical significance he wished “to make the film available to the widest possible Irish cinema audience”.

Michael Collins’s production, release and critical reception marked the 75th anniversary of the Irish Free State, later to become The Irish Republic. It also acted as a prism for the tricky ongoing political negotiations around the IRA ceasefire of 1994-96. 1996 was also a more happy anniversary, the centenary of the Lumiere Brothers first ever motion picture (actually first shown in December 1895). To mark this event, 40 film directors had been asked to make a one-minute silent film using the restored original camera used by the Lumiere Brothers.

John Boorman was one of the directors asked. He chose to do his on the very same set of Michael Collins that I stood on, as I discovered researching this piece for footage (Neil Jordan had made a behind the scenes documentary on his Excalibur set in 1981). I like to think that we both took part in a little piece of history within a few days of each other on the same film set. Here is his silent short, which you can also see in my piece on his daughter’s film about the director, Me And Me Dad.



Originally posted 2013-03-28 07:25:18. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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