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Robin Hood – Steve Ralphs interview

Robin Hood

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEVE Ralphs, known in Hollywood circles as ‘the bow and arrow man’, talks about some of the challenges of making Sir Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, and flying out to Australia to train Russell Crowe in archery.

He also hints at the possibility of a Robin Hood sequel and explains why he always encourages a spirit of competitiveness on-set whenever he is training any Hollywood leading man or woman (including Keira Knightley). Robin Hood is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, September 20.

Q. First of all, what did you think of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood?
Steve Ralphs: I loved it and it was a great experience to be able to work on. But that’s what some people don’t seem to realise when they dismiss a film as ‘rubbish’. It can be a year of your life and you put your heart and soul into these things.

Q. How is Sir Ridley to work with?
Steve Ralphs: I think the man’s a complete genius. I’ve worked with him on a few films now [Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven]… and you hear about the guy and his reputation but working with him is something different. What he’s very good at is he creates this entire world. He’s a bit of a visionary in that respect. It’s all in his head, what he wants to see, because he’s done his homework and his research. He has created a world that he can then put his actors into and that, in turn, gives the actors so much more to work with. And it shows.

Q. So what were your responsibilities on Robin Hood?
Steve Ralphs: I was responsible for all the archery and the bows and arrows. It’s Robin Hood, so obviously it’s about archery. So, whenever you see the archery, there’s a little bit of me.

Q. And how long were you a part of the process?
Steve Ralphs: I had roughly a nine month involvement, if not more. I became involved right back when we had the original script called Nottingham. Simon Atherton, one of Hollywood’s most famous armourers, rang me and said we’re doing Robin Hood, are you interested? Well, of course I was! Then Russell [Crowe] got involved at grass roots level as producer. The story then slowly changed and it was decided that we didn’t want to do another men in tights story, or a Prince of Thieves. We wanted to do something different, otherwise there would be no point.

So, we looked for this different angle. Once that was decided, I then have to go and meet with the art department and people like that, and they ask which period are you setting this fictional character in? Did he exist?

And so, there are all these different discussions taking place at the same time. Everyone is touching base. It becomes a big machine… like an ant colony. People come in and out of it. For instance, Simon and I will meet about which type of arrows we’re going to be using, and what type of feathers [on the arrows], and whether they would really have existed. There is research going on all the time while the other departments, such as the special effects, are doing their bits as well. And this was huge. I mean, you also have to remember we had 500 extras that need to be coached.

People often said to me after the film came out: “Oh, you don’t look very brown for having been in Australia [coaching Russell Crowe]…” But that was two years ago. The scene in the film where we’re on the beach, for instance, took four to six weeks to actually film… and that’s not counting the two weeks the guys were there setting up beforehand, or the four-week clear up that took place afterwards. A 10 second sequence in one of these films can take between 15 and 20 hours to film and edit. I always get very protective of any film when I see how much work goes into it, especially when people glibly dismiss any film as rubbish. I’m like: “OK, you raise the funds and you go and make it then.”

This was a very intense shoot as well. Some people can be working for anywhere between 14 and 18 hours a day. We’d sometimes be dragging the extras out of their beds at 3am… and all the guys in the armoury have to be there before them to put on their costumes and stuff. It really is a long old day. But that’s not to say there aren’t benefits of course! We get paid and there’s tremendous job satisfaction. But quite often people can forget just how much work goes on behind the scenes.

Q. So how historically accurate is this Robin Hood?
Steve Ralphs: Well, you have to chase down first of all where Robin Hood comes from. The reason I do archery and do my job is that when I was five-years-old I was given a copy of The Adventures of Robin Hood and immediately thought: “This is the guy for me.” There’s the classic English thing of supporting the guy who can distinguishes right from wrong, and of backing the underdog. Whether he did exist or not is open to speculation… there are countless players who could have been him and who have since been proved weren’t.

But for me, Robin Hood is an attitude that reflects fighting against injustice and a free spirit. And it depends how much of that attitude you have in you as to how much you believe [in the legend]. Crowe has a shed-load of that attitude… that’s his persona. We watched all the old films and TV things, and while I have to admit to liking Errol Flynn, I also really liked the Sean Connery one [Robin & Marion] because it showed him as a man of the world, who was a bit cheesed off with everything and caught up in the circumstances of his time. And that’s what this Robin Hood is… it’s about a man who is caught up in a set of circumstances and the things that happen to him. It’s almost Shakespearean… like Julius Caesar. This film works on many levels, and it draws you in, so that hopefully by the end you’ll want to see more.

People always complain when Hollywood messes with history, but when we said with this we were going to make it as close to historical circumstance as possible, people then said they didn’t like that. They kept asking: “Where’s all the men in tights? Where’s the Sheriff of Nottingham?” But that’s all legend and we didn’t set out to make that. What I like about this Robin Hood is that it’s similar to Gladiator… it’s the Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott team, which is brilliant. When people got to the end of Gladiator, everybody wanted to see more. And that’s what a lot of the people who have seen this one have asked me: will there be more? And that’s what we wanted to achieve.

Q. Will there be a sequel?
Steve Ralphs: Well, that was the idea. Russell Crowe went on Jonathan Ross and was asked the very same thing. And Crowe said: “Well, if you look at that last scene, it’s Ridley and me on our knees saying ‘please let us make another one’.” It sets it up. Rather than showing how Robin and his merry men saved the day and provided for everyone, this tells you how this guy becomes an outlaw. It shows the political situation, and how things were changing at that time. Nobody was a free man, but you could be free in spirit and that’s what this film shows. It introduces all of the main characters – from Robin to Marion to Little John and Friar Tuck – and says now you can build on that in the next film. So, bring it on! It would be a privilege to work on another one, just as it was a privilege to work on this one.

Q. How good an archer is Russell?
Steve Ralphs: Brilliant. He’s very competitive and very dedicated and I realised that from day one. Initially, he had a guy who gave him a grounding in Australia but they were using a different style of bow, which came from a different period, and so Russell realised that wasn’t going to work for him. So, I went out to Australia with a couple of stunt guys and straight away we knew he was going to literally be Robin Hood. He knew that in order to convince in the role he had got to be a pretty good archer, and he didn’t want to do the CGI thing or rely on wires. He said that if Ridley said to him to shoot that pheasant over there, he needed to be able to shoot that pheasant. And then when the merry men got involved, it became a competition.

But I liked to encourage that, too. I worked on King Arthur with Keira Knightley, Ray Stevenson, Mads Mikkelsen and Ioan Gruffudd and got them all going by suggesting each one was better than the other [laughs]. In fact, Keira was actually better than any of them! But everyone on Robin Hood wanted to be the best shot. Russell is light years ahead, of course, because his background is very sporty anyway… he’s very competitive and he realises that it’s like playing a musical instrument, which he does too. Hence, if you put in an hour a day, you’re only going to be an hour better at the end of it. But if you spend four hours a day, then… There were some days when we’d shoot from breakfast at 7am, until lunch, and then all afternoon. We’d literally be shooting all day.

Q. Having spent so much time with Russell, do you feel the press have it in for him?
Steve Ralphs: I do. I met him for the first time on Gladiator, of course, so I knew he was a good guy going into Robin Hood. But if you spent a couple of days with the guy, you’ll soon realise that he’s exactly the same as you or I, with the same worries and concerns as us. For example, he invited me on a bicycle ride… I hadn’t ridden a bike in years but I thought it would be fine and when I asked how far it would be, he said 10km. I thought that would be OK. But we ended up cycling 37km! I had cramp in both legs [laughs] and it was exhausting. But then we went for a drink and went to a pub in Cobs Harbour, I think.

When we went in, I did think: “Ooh this could be tricky…” Especially as we were all exhausted… but we sat down and guys kept coming over to talk to Russell, but he sat down and talked to them and accepted them. There’s a side to this guy the press don’t see, and it’s not a false side, or a facade – this is the real guy. I’ve fallen into the same trap of course, thinking something about someone because of what I’ve read about them. But then I’ve met them and thought: “Damn, they’re really nice!” [laughs].

Q. You come from a long line of Ralphs dating back to Medieval England. So, who’s the most famous you’ve found in your research?
Steve Ralphs: Well, there’s my father’s cousin, who is Sir Lincoln Ralphs, who was the Chief Education Officer for Norfolk [and the founding father of Wymondham College], and Mick Ralphs, who is the guitarist for the band, Bad Company. He’s one of us! I think looking further back, we’re mostly a bunch of rogues and rascals and quite a few of us were sent to America rather than Australia! That said, there was one who was sent to Australia for stealing a hankie, of all things. People say they can trace their ancestry back to the Battle of Hastings, but you can’t because records don’t exist that far back. But I always say that we came here three days after the Battle of Hastings to do the plumbing, because we were all cowards [laughs]! That seems to keep people quiet afterwards.

Read our review of Robin Hood

Read our interview with Mark Strong

Robin Hood: The Director’s Cut is released on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday, September 20, 2010