Robin Hood's armorer Simon Atherton talks about working with these 12th Century weapons
Simon Atherton has been working in the movie business for the past 20 years as a crew member that often gets overlooked: the armorer. Yes, the man with the guns, or the swords or whatever weapons each film needs. Simon Atherton brought his weapon expertise to the new Ridley Scott movie Robin Hood, which was just released on DVD and Blu-ray September 21. I had a chance to speak with Simon Atherton about his work on the movie and here's what he had to say:
First off, could you talk a bit about how you got into being an armorer for the film industry?
Simon Atherton: Yeah. I was 16 years old, I wasn't very good at school and I was given an apprenticeship as a gunsmith. I did that, studied for six years and when I left, I was then wondering what to do. I was given the name and address of a company in London that did all the guns for the film industry, so I went and joined them.
With Robin Hood being a period piece, is that more of a challenge for you, or more fun, as opposed to a modern-day piece?
Simon Atherton: It's quite funny, you know, it is a challenge, but it's quite fun. When you're doing a gun film, let's say something like Black Hawk Down, you wish you were working on a sword film. And then when you start working on a sword film, you think, 'God, this isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be.' You kind of go between the two. With a gun film, you've got all of the problems with guns that you don't have with swords. Trying to send swords into Morocco is as easy as trying to send M-16's. There's always a challenge with each film. One person might want steel and one person might just want rubber. The good thing about Robin Hood was that we used bamboo. I don't know if you ever noticed, but a lot of the blades in the fight sequences were made of bamboo, which was a first for us.
I talked to Stephen Ralphs, the archery coach on the film, and he said he made the bows for the movie. Could you talk a bit about working with him and what he brought to the production?
Simon Atherton: Yeah, whenever we do a film with bows and arrows in it, we'll give Stephen a ring. He made the bows for Braveheart. I've known him a very long time, so when we want some seriously good-looking bows, we'll go to him. Stephen is great and he comes and teaches the actors as well, gives them archery lessons.
It seemed this film was really going away from the over-abundance of CGI. They built all these amazing, huge sets for the film. For you, how does that aspect of realism help your job as a whole?
Simon Atherton: When you do a movie with Ridley Scott, he does try to take you into that period in time. He has an eye for detail and he won't accept second-best. If you mention certain things, certain ways that people tie strings onto the bows, or that they wax the strings, he'll have that in there. He'll have all of that going on in the background. He might not make a feature about it, but he'll document it and have all that in there. We have to bring all those tools to the set, those period tools. It's good fun, really good fun.
Can you talk about the research you went into, in selecting the weapons for the movie?
Simon Atherton: What you have to remember about Robin Hood is it was at the end of Kingdom Of Heaven, with King Richard going off on the crusade. Then we start Robin Hood with him having returned. A lot of research we had done already. We had done the research into the weapons, but what we hadn't researched was back in England while the Crusades were going on. We were a good way ahead with our research and we were off to the British museums and libraries. At the beginning of the film, I went through about 20 to 30 books, anything I could get my hands on.
In that research, what fascinated you the most about the weaponry of this era?
Simon Atherton: The weapons really didn't fascinate me, but what did fascinate me was how they worked on them. Today, we use modern machines and a lot of the swords we built for the film were done by computer-controlled machines. What fascinates me is how these craftsmen, all the way back, made these items. There's no way we could make it the same way as they made it, because we'd probably have two or three films made by the end of this film. That's what fascinates me, the tools and the craftsmanship. Even how they made the scabbards and how they hung the scabbards. Once we made a sword and a belt, we'd start running around the workshop, to see if we could climb the stairs with the belt, to see if the sword would trip you up. It was fascinating to figure all of that out. You have a director that asks if you can make the sword 10 inches longer, you can't because it wouldn't work, the guy falls over. People think they can reinvent the wheel sometimes in a film. 'Let's make a sword 10 feet long and put it on his back.' Then you think, 'Well, how does he draw it? He can't put it's back.' They went through that on Braveheart. It was a nightmare.
Yeah, the swords were pretty big on that one. I can see where you're coming from.
Simon Atherton: The thing is, if you had a big sword in that period, you put it on someone else's back. Your page followed you around, carrying your sword, and whenever you got into battle, you turned around and you pulled it off your page's back.
I see you're also working on John Carter of Mars, which a lot of people are looking forward to. Is there anything you can share about that production?
Simon Atherton: That was fascinating. We finished that about five months ago. That was another one that was an eye-opener, in making weapons, because we had to dream up weapons that people hadn't really seen before. We didn't go too futuristic... I mean, you'll see when the film comes out, what we did. The weapons were fun to make on that one.
Were you going off the books a lot or was it more of your imagination?
Simon Atherton: It was a mixture. There isn't much I can say about that.
Is there anything else that you're looking to jump on board with that you can share with us?
Just to wrap up, what would you say to someone who might not have seen in theaters about why they should pick up the new DVD?
Simon Atherton: It's the first half of another film. I think it's great that it's telling a new story of Robin Hood. We haven't gone off and copied another Robin Hood story. That was a fascinating thing to do.
Well, that's about all the time I have, Simon. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with any future projects.