You’re in the theater watching the summer blockbuster of your choice. The A-list celebrities are giving an incredible performance. Just as the film reaches its climax, the main character accomplishes some impossible task of physical ability, overcoming insurmountable odds and solidifying their place as one of Hollywood’s great heroes. Credits roll, maybe applause, opinions start to whisper around the room. If it’s a Marvel movie, we’re all sitting patiently for another seven minutes to wait for the Easter Egg.
This is a shared experience that we’ve all likely had. The excitement of watching an action film come to its thrilling climax while the Dolby Digital shakes the bolts loose beneath plush cushions in our well-worn seats. How do these scenes come to fruition, though? Surely we’re an educated enough movie audience to understand it wasn’t actually that A-list actor (typically) who lit himself on fire and got thrown through a window, but how do those scenes really make it to the screen?
With work. Lots and lots of work, by people who will likely never get the recognition they deserve: stunt people.
This year, there were several major controversies surrounding the Oscars: diversity and recognition were at the heart of many Oscar discussions. One less obvious discrepancy, however, is a decided lack of recognition for Stunt Professionals by the Academy.
Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards. While the movie contains an approximate 50 minutes of action scenes (explicitly action, being generous here…), the movie won awards for make-up, editing, sound design, and more.
Well, maybe we’re a little biased at CombatCon, but we think the industry of artistic violence at large needs more representation at a conversational level from the people who love these films, whether as fans or participants.
We reached out to some of the instructors from this year’s CombatCon and asked them for an interesting, unusual, or exciting story from their experience working in the stunt industry, to try and give you a glimpse behind the curtain.
Anthony De Longis has an incredibly respectable resume, including training bullwhip for Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns. You can also recognize him as the gentleman fighting one-on-one with Jet Li with swords in the tournament in 2006’s Fearless. De Longis will be speaking and instructing at this year’s CombatCon.
“I’m being honored at the National Martial Arts History Museum in Burbank, CA this year, which is an incredible honor to receive. I’ve done some pretty incredible things both in stunt work and in martial arts,” said De Longis, “but I’m not sure I ever expected an honor like this. I recently directed the independent film DUKE, where I was wearing both the Director and Co-Writer hats for the production. It’s important for fans and aspiring stunt people to remember that the coordination of action and stunts on screen builds a large part of the same skill set that is required for directing – lots of stunt coordinators end up being 2nd Unit Directors later on, especially on projects that are very action heavy, thanks to the leadership, attention to detail, and exceptionally challenging work that goes into choreographing and coordinating action on screen.”
Bob Goodwin sent a story with a bit of a word of caution for up-and-coming stunt and fight professionals. Goodwin trained Christian Bale for “Batman Begins”, and Robert Downey Jr and Jamey Foxx for The Soloist, among the other credits and accomplishments of his 40-plus years as a martial artist and sword master.
“Be wary when you hear the description of your stunt begin with ‘It’s only’. For me the most memorable one of these was ‘only’ running & diving through a window opening in “Andrew Jackson” for The History Channel,” Goodwin explains. “The opening was 30′ wide and 24′ high, handmade glass, locked in place, with a fence post outside I had to avoid to the left while airborne, to land on the crash pad. I didn’t break the glass and got it in three takes. It’s never ‘only’ a stunt.”
Jared Kirby shared an experience that shows the reality of filming in the “perfect” location, and the double-duty that is often pulled on smaller productions. Kirby is the President of CombatCon and is an instructor at the Martinez Academy of Arms and a stage and screen combat instructor/director in New York City.
“When shooting on location there are always a lot of variables that will make shooting the fight scene anywhere from difficult to downright dangerous. Occasionally these surprises have nothing to do with the actual fighting, though.
One time I showed up on location to shoot the fight scene and found that we would be taking a canoe to get to the small island where we were shooting. That’s not a problem, although I haven’t been in a canoe for many, many years. My assistant had never been in one at all. We made it over just fine and shot the fight all day. We wrapped right around dusk and started cleaning up the location before we lost all daylight.
When it was time to head back, my assistant and I ended up in a canoe, with the cameras and all the footage we shot that day. As we pushed off, my assistant was too high in the canoe and it started rocking back and forth. We were barely able to right the motion before sinking the canoe. For a moment, the shoot flashed before my eyes as I tried to imagine what we would do if we lost everything to the bottom of a river. Luckily we made it back no wetter than when we had started, but it was certainly an unexpected trip in order to shoot a fight scene.”
Luke LaFontaine works as a 2nd unit director, stunt coordinator, choreographer, swordmaster, and stuntman in the movie industry. With 25 years of professional experience, his work can be seen in The Adventures of Tin Tin, Green Hornet, Iron Man, Beowulf, Serenity, Master & Commander, and much more. LaFontaine shared a close call from working on Master and Commander with Russel Crowe.
“In the climatic under-deck battle, I was the second stunt guy to come at Russell Crow,” LaFontaine explains. “He parried my cut and kicked me back into the stairs, killed another guy, then turned to finish me. When he thrust at me, his sword slid up my arm with the point missing my skin and sliding under both straps of my elbow pad. Russell whispered to me ‘Sorry mate, I think I got ya.’ To which I replied ‘No, you’re all good,’ and promptly fell over and died.”
Dr. John Lennox has trained in various forms of combat for over 34 years. Currently a Fight Director with Art of Combat and honorary Fight Director with the Australian Stage Combat Association, he has taught combat for stage and screen at Indiana University/Purdue- Ft. Wayne, Lansing Community College, Huntington University, Jackson Community College, Centenary College and Wayne State University. Lennox’s story comes to us from a recent project, working with a very open-minded director which comes with a lot of benefits, and a lot of responsibility.
“I have been fortunate enough to be working on a web series that has been guaranteed distribution for the past few seasons. The director loves my work and will allow me to do any stunt I want to do and will find a way to incorporate it into the story. How often does that happen? Total freedom to challenge both myself and my stunt performers. Here is a fire stunt I performed. I jerk in this shot because I am supposedly shot by fire bolts from a crossbow that set me on fire. This will happen in post. This is shot from one of my students on their phone, so it is not the best quality, but you can see how even smaller productions will let you push boundaries if you’ve got the right people involved.”
All of these stunt industry gurus will be featured instructors and panelists at CombatCon 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 8-10. If you’re interested in entering the stunt and combat entertainment industry, have an acting background you want to expand, or are looking to translate your martial arts (Eastern or Western) into the variety of action media available, this event is a great way to get started or keep going down that path.