Brutality and passion : Creating the world of the Warrior Queen
[Britain is] a small island -- cold, damp --
the food's appalling, the wine's undrinkable, it's always raining.
The people have always been incurably warlike
and now, under Boudica, they're ten times worse.
Commanding Roman general in Britain during Boudica's reign
Warrior Queen finds screenwriter Andrew Davies and star Alex Kingston together again. Their first collaboration was Moll Flanders, which aired on Masterpiece Theatre in 1996. "Moll was mischievous, sexy, and provocative," says Warrior Queen executive producer Gub Neal. "Now, [more than] five years down the line, Alex seemed to have an edge and a maturity that was perfect for the part of the Warrior Queen, a natural and powerful leader at her physical and mental peak."
The reteaming makes perfect sense to Neal. "There are self-evident parallels in the stories in that there are strong female leads -- one a mature woman and the other a young girl -- and plenty of visual scope. But," he continues, "the book Moll Flanders has a thin story line, so Andrew, quite rightly, took liberties with the story. With Boudica, we have only a passage in Tacitus and a legend that has grown from that. There was plenty of scope for him."
Also logical: Recreating first-century Britain in 21st-century Romania. Plans were made early on to shoot Warrior Queen in the Eastern European country. "By filming in Eastern Europe," Neal explains, "we knew we would be able to build big sets on a restricted budget, and afford a larger number of extras."
But there were other attractions as well: "Romania is still a rural culture," Neal says. "They hunt and live off the land, and in many ways, the countryside has changed very little over the centuries. Certainly the combination of geography and agriculture was perfect for us to recreate first-century England."
Producer Matthew Bird agrees: "In addition to the obvious financial advantages of filming in Romania, the landscape was perfect. In Britain, it would be really difficult to get away from flight paths, the distant hum of main roads or motorways, and strings of electricity pylons across the countryside. We've dug up so much over the centuries, and our landscape has changed beyond all recognition."
Not so in Romania. "Romania, by contrast, is relatively untouched by obvious signs of modern technology," says Bird. "Also, the countryside around Bucharest is full of deciduous trees and is very flat, so it was a perfect double for the East Anglian setting. The area is also rich in primeval swampland where we could build our Iceni village."
Filming took place over a total of seven weeks, with a few weeks' break in December, and was carefully built around Kingston's busy filming schedule for the television program ER. Her responsibilities to ER left very little room for flexibility. As a result, much of the shoot was spent in subzero temperatures, and at one point filming was held up by heavy snowfall which lasted for two days.
(Warrior Queen's cast and crew weren't alone in battling the elements of the harsh Romanian winter. Production of Warrior Queen coincided with that of Anthony Minghella's big-budget feature film Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, in which the country doubles as the Civil War-era American South. At the same time, Billy Zane was starring in the thriller Vlad, as the eponymous impaler tormenting American students in his mountain homeland.)
For Warrior Queen, massive plains had to be transformed into Roman encampments. "We took just a dozen or so key crew with us to Romania," producer Bird says, "mainly the heads of departments, so we made full use of local labor and materials." The fields and swamps of first-century Colchester and the Norfolk Broads were reproduced. A causeway, just wide enough for a fast-moving chariot and horses, was constructed, while the Iceni houses were built from authentic reeds.
"The swampland was really only accessible by boat, so our main priority was to get the causeway flown in and constructed," says Bird. "After that, working there was much easier, although there were the inevitable language problems and simple logistical problems to be sorted out -- would there be hot water, electricity?"
Production designer Ben Scott had another challenge on his hands. "The Roman camps were to be built on a large area of farmland," he explains. "In Britain, we would probably have found ourselves dealing with just one farmer. However, here in Romania, there were some 20 farmers, strip-farming with a horse and plough, each owning small areas of the land. We soon found ourselves in very complicated negotiations with several landlords. In the end, we asked for the help of the local mayor, who brought the negotiations to an end and just told them what the deal was."
The Iceni village was built in a secluded and unspoiled game reserve owned by the local forestry commission. Scott and his team sought advice on village design from an expert at the British Museum. The houses were constructed from solid timber frames and thatch. Domed tents fashioned from animal skins were surrounded by glorious shields, terracotta cooking pots, and pens that housed ancient breeds of sheep, goats, ducks, and chickens -- not to mention the severed heads from ritual human sacrifices that were displayed in all their gory detail on sharpened sticks scattered through the marshes. When filming ended, the production team left the village standing for Romanian visitors to the remote area.
Boudica's chariot, pulled by apparently imperturbable horses, was based on one on display in the British Museum, with accommodations made for stunts. The stunt scenes were coordinated by Tom Delmar, whose long and impressive list of credits spans two decades and includes work as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on films such as Snatch and Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones. On the set of Warrior Queen, Delmar managed a team of 65 stuntmen who doubled for the actors as well as 22 horses trained not to flinch in the face of twirling swords or licking flames, and to play dead at a given signal.
On each battle-scene day, more than 700 extras crowded the set, their numbers consisting of locals in shields and helmets, wild wigs and war paint. Makeup designer Marella Shearer had a great many wigs to glue on, as most of the extras had severe, cropped hair. But she found herself less dependent than usual on rogue and mascara. "The Icenis spent months on end out on the road," she says, "so Boudica's makeup and those of her followers consisted mainly of baby oil, barrier grease, and dirt."
Actor Hugo Speer (Dervalloc) was most fascinated watching the horses at work. "My double was astounding. With one tiny little tweak of the mane, the horse would 'drop dead,' leaping back to its feet as soon as it heard the word 'Cut!'" One horse in particular, a former show jumper named Richard, struck Speer's fancy: "By the time I got to ride him, he was some 24 years old and unflappable even in the thick of the battle scenes. He just didn't flinch, even when a fire was lit right in front of his face. He also seemed to understand the rehearsal process really well. ... It was great fun. I completely forgot my lack of experience in the exhilaration of the moment."
Speer found not just the moment, but the entire experience of acting the part of an accomplished warrior, exhilarating. "This role seemed to fulfill every boy's childhood dream -- the idea of riding a horse at full pelt, twirling a sword above your head, covered in war paint, emitting blood-curdling screams, warriors streaming up the hill behind you. ... In addition to riding and brandishing a sword, I had to remember my dialogue as well!"
Executive producer Neal reflected on the project as a whole: "For the production team out in Romania -- dealing with the people, dealing with the problems -- the job was tough, but that was offset by the fact that you don't get to work on material like this every day." And, he adds, "Alex [Kingston] is bloody brilliant and one of the few actresses who could have played the role with conviction."
More about the making of Warrior Queen from Alex Kingston and Andrew Davies
Essays + Interviews:
Brutality and passion | Alex Kingston and Andrew Davies
The legend of Boudica
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who/Cast + Credits | Russell Baker
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