After a couple minutes on the phone with Vic Armstrong, our conversation was interrupted by some incessant knocking on the door. I checked to see who it was, and of course it wasn’t anyone important. I apologized to Vic, but he took it in stride and said, “If it was a kissogram, you can go and do it.” (If only it was, Vic, if only it was.)
In Steven Spielberg’s introduction to Vic’s memoir, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman (Titan Books), he notes how impressed he is by Vic’s British cool, describing him as casual, easy, and amiable. That comes through in the book. I mentioned in yesterday’s brief look at Vic Armstrong’s career that it reads like you’re hanging out at a pub with him while he tells stories. (That said, the growing-up chapter reminded a little of Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir Boy.) That cool, easygoing attitude really came through while talking to him.
Here’s a man who’s been Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman, and Han Solo; he’s broken bones but insisted on going to work the next day; he’s directed and designed several memorable action sequences. But really, he’s just a cheery, funny, rather normal guy.
Copyright © 2012 Vic Armstrong and Robert Sellers
I actually just finished the book last night and it was a hell of a read.
It read like you were talking to me and just going through all these stories from your life, which was great.
Everybody says that — well, everybody that knows me, anyway — they can hear me telling the stories in the book. [laughs]
Oh yeah? [laughs] One of the things I wanted to ask is what do you think makes a stunt performer?
It’s a lot of things, actually. You have to be a team player, and it’s not just doing one stunt and that’s the end of it. You’ve got to be involved, you have to be imaginative, you have to be able to work with other people. You musn’t be selfish, because sometimes your work is going to involve creating stunts in rehearsals for other stuntmen to perform, things like that. The first criteria is that you’ve got to be absolutely fantastic at one thing in particular, whether it’s horse riding, swords and fencing, rock climbing, motorcycling, skateboarding, parkouring — you’ve got to be better than anybody else in the business at that, and that’s what will get you employed. But then to keep your employment going and for people to want you on the films, as well as your one attribute, you then have to be a team player, you’ve got to be inventive, all those sorts of things, you know?
You mentioned toward the end of the book that since you’ve started, you’ve only really been at home for maybe two weeks at a time. What was your workflow like as you were getting all these jobs?
Oh, it’s tough, you know. I literally went for two or three years where I’d finish on a Saturday, be on a plane on a Sunday, leaving Sunday night and Monday morning, and straight to work. And that can last four or five months. For instance, I did– what did I do? Temple of Doom. I finished Temple of Doom on a Friday night, Saturday morning I flew to Mexico, Sunday I had a meetings on Dune, I shot Dune for about eight or nine weeks, I flew up to California to meet Richard Fliescher about Conan [the Destroyer], came back to finish Dune, went straight into Conan in Mexico City, finished Conan, flew to Heathrow and got a car from Heathrow down to the studio to meet Ridley Scott about some horses for Legend — some white horses. I didn’t even go home. I went back to the airport, met Wendy at the airport [Editor’s note: Wendy is Vic’s wife and a fellow stunt performer], we went to Spain to search for the horses, came back with the horses to England, shot for six months, left over night… I finished at eleven o’clock or twelve o’clock–no, two o’clock in the morning. It had been a long, extended day on Legend, and then seven o’clock the next morning I flew to Rome to do Red Sonja, did four or five months on Red Sonja, and flew from Rome to South America to do The Mission, was down there for six or eight months…
And so on and so forth.
And of course you mention in the book that to keep sane you have to have those big parties with stunt people.
The thing is, you’re not at home. You have to have some sort of life otherwise you’d go absolutely bananas. It’d get to be like being in prison: get up, go to work, leave work, go to hotel, shave, shut your door, go to bed, get up. And we go six or seven days of the week a lot of the time, you know? And the thing is, I always travel with my little crew of people, like my best friends — great workmen, great stunt people, great team players as we discussed earlier — and they’re people you can relax with and you can trust, and we just party together. It’s like, if you’re in England you’d go out to a pub on a Saturday night, you know?
Copyright © 2012 Vic Armstrong and Robert Sellers
We just happen to be up in the Northern Hills in near the poppy fields in Chiang Mai or something, and we go to a fun little bar and blow up the swimming pool. [laughs]
[laughs] And there are those great stories about Oliver Reed–
Just being Oliver Reed.
And that’s true. He really was a larger than life character, you know. He was a wild man, absolutely wild.
Do you find the schedule’s different now that you’re predominantly doing unit directing and action directing as opposed to being a stunt performer?
No, because… Golly, my last real stunt performance was on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that was in the 80s, but I’d only come out of retirement really to do that one because I wanted to finish the trilogy. Didn’t think they’d make another one and wish they hadn’t. [laughs]
So I’d been doing [unit and action direction] years before that. So, no, it hasn’t changed because of my occupation. I think the business has changed a lot. I think it’s computers and emails; everything’s much more instant. The whole business has a different type of feel to it nowadays.
There was that great line in the book where you compared CGI to morphine.
And I think it’s true! You know, everybody says, “You’re absolutely right. It was a great film but had this horrible thing in the middle of it. [laughs] It just took us out of the reality of the show.” It’s so true.
Do you feel there are certain filmmakers who use it right when it comes to doing action?
Oh, absolutely, and [those filmmakers do it so] you don’t even know they’ve used it, which is the wonderful thing. That’s just brilliant. And there are some out there… I think probably because they don’t know how to direct action or do action, the easiest thing is to say, “Oh, we’ll do that at the end, we’ll do that at the end.” You can just get in a room and go, “We’ll have a bike come down the road and have a car cut in front of it. No, don’t like that — let’s have a truck come down the road and a bike will cut in front of it.” It’s all totally CG, whereas if you shoot action on set, you have x-number of hours to shoot your sequence, and x-number of dollars to pay for it, and before you walk away, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got it. And so it takes a whole different set of knowledge to be able to do it for real.
Give me one sec, someone’s at the door. Sorry about that.
So sorry about that!
If it was a kissogram, you can go and do it!
[laughs] I wish it was. It looks like it was some door-to-door sales stuff for an energy service.
I wish it was a kissogram.[laughs]
Or like the pretty neighbor upstairs asking for a cup of sugar, that’d be great. [laughs]
There’s a great anecdote about when you’re filming the destruction of Kryppton in Superman and a cameraman asks you to fall slower.
Were there any other peculiar requests you’ve ever gotten from a film crew when performing a stunt?
Not that I can think of [off the top of my head], but there are millions like that. That was just a quip thrown out there and I just thought that was so bizarre — just hurtling through space as if I had any control over it. But, you know, there are the moments when you do a stunt and you hit the ground and you see the camera operator motion to the DP or to the director, and you hear, “Oh, you need to go again, you missed your mark a little bit.” [And I think,] “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a minute — who missed the mark? That’s where we said we were going to land.” And then it turns out they screwed up the shot, but, you know.
And then you do it two or three times, and after three or four times you go, “Look, guys, what’s happening here? Why aren’t you getting it?” So they say, “No, don’t worry, just give us one more.” And you go, “No, I won’t give you one more. What are you missing? Otherwise you get out there, I’ll look through the lens, and you jump off there and land on your head. I’ll photograph you. You see how easy it is.” [laughs]
You get those sort of things, which really pisses me off.
What’s your approach to creating an action sequence? Early on I believe you you compare it to playing with toys as a child.
It is, it’s like playing cowboys and Indians. When you were a kid you had a basic storyline, no matter what it was. You didn’t just suddenly go, “Okay, I’m going to run down to the corner — shoot me!” There was some thread of storyline, and it keeps going, and you put your toy cars there and whatever. There’s always some little story, no matter how minute or silly it may be. So therefore in a film, you look at the storyline, what’s happening in the movie. It’s not about the cars crashing and hitting the tree. That is a byproduct of something that’s happening in the movie. Or a fight in a bar. People don’t just walk in there and smack a guy in the face. There has to be some lead up or some motivation and some payoff at the end. So you read the script, look at the storyline, look at the characters, look at the location, and usually when I do that, I can look at the location and things will start jumping out and tell me what to do. They’ll just get in my mind. It just evolves like that.
Copyright © 2012 Vic Armstrong and Robert Sellers
Are there any ideas you have that gestate and then wind up in action sequences?
Oh, lots of times. If you look at… ummm, not necessarily things I think about doing at home, because it has to be motivated by the story. When I was doing Entrapment, I had a sequence all worked out, and they wouldn’t let us shoot it. Or was it the other way around? Let me think.
Oh, was it the towers in Kuala Lumpur? [Editor’s note: We’re referring to the Petronas Towers]
I had an idea, but they wouldn’t let us use those towers for the Bond [Tomorrow Never Dies].
That’s what it was.
So I said, “Okay, we’ll go to Hong Kong.” I saw these banners on buildings advertising businesses but at the same time were covering up building work, and actually I came up with the idea on the Bond film where they jump off and fly down and rip the banners. And then, the next movie or two movies down the line, I got offered Entrapment, and they said, “Where do you think we should have the monetary center of the world?” And I said, “Well, Kuala Lumpur is so fantastic. The architecture is so phenomenal.” Okay, good idea, so we flew out there, we start looking, and that’s when I then used an idea that I couldn’t use on Bond and used it on Entrapment, but we revamped it somewhat. You get flip-flopped around with those sorts of ideas, but I don’t normally have something and try to fit it into a movie, it’s normally motivated by the movie.
There’s this part in the book where you talk about learning to choreograph fights from Bob Simmons. What goes into making a good fight?
A good fight… Again, you have to work out what starts the fight, you have to work out how it ends up, and you look at your location, your set. You think, “Okay, this is what we’ve got, how can we add to it to make it bigger and better?” What style of fighting is it going to be? How violent is it going to be? It is one guy stronger, the other stronger, are they both the same power? You start working out the moves. I’ve got a film now that I’m just reading for that’s got a lot of good hand-to-hand fighting, modern-day stuff. A little bit like From Russia with Love in the train carriage.
That sort of stuff is fabulous, right?
And that’s a good example. You look at the one in From Russia with Love. Bob Simmons did that one, you know. It’s very tight, intense, closely shot, because it’s confined in a railway carriage, and the garrot is the wire in the watch, and things like that. You get your storyline, something motivates it. The watch is the key thing in the scene in From Russian with Love, plus the fact they’re in that tiny railway carriage, that sets the tone, if you life — two people in a confined area. And then you work that out, then you’ve got to work out how to shoot it. How you can do it with stuntmen and where the actors can go into it and out of it. It takes a lot of brain power.
Yeah, we worked very closely with Marc Webb, the director, and Avi Arad, the producer, and everybody. They came to me and my brother [Andy], who’s working on it as well as another stunt coordinator, and said, “Look, we want to try and make it more about physical flying that computerized flying,” and Andy and I had been talking about that anyway, and we said absolutely, that’s how we’re going to do it. So we started rehearsing different ways of how he’s going to fly — not fly, but how he’s going to motivate his way along while hanging on to webs. We sort of equated it with Tarzan, if you like: Tarzan would grab one vine, fly diagonally away from it, sweeping down which gives him the momentum, and then at the height he would change to another vine when he’s weightless and sweep down in another direction. That propels him along. And we worked out a system for Spider-Man where he would sweep down on his downward arc, and he’d be pulling three-and-a-half Gs as he goes to the bottom of that thing, and then he gets to the top and he’s literally weightless, and then he fires another web and goes off in another direction, and repeats the same process. And that’s what we wanted to show to the audience, that weight transfer, those three-and-a-half Gs pulling on your body, straightening your legs out near the bottom, and coming to the top he bends his knees and comes off again, you know? And you see his arms straighten out. That’s what they didn’t have in the other ones, because it’s just a computer flying along, you know?
Exactly. And it looks so cartoony.
So once we’ve planned that, then you have to start working out, “Okay, how are we going to photograph this,” because he’s whoosing by at a great speed. So we developed different cranes and different flying rigs, and we actually photograph him and follow him and capture it. Each one has its own little wrinkle which you have to try and work out, which is what makes them all original.
Was there a particular action sequence in The Amazing Spider-Man that was challenging or memorable for you?
It’s one I like a lot, actually. There’s one where he flies up through New York. We shot down on 12th Avenue between 130th and 136th Street — it’s around where The Cotton Club used to be and still is. We shot it across six blocks, which was pretty sensational. We got 100 cars, and we were doing it all for real, it’s great. And you know CG’s going to enhance stuff in it, obviously, because you can’t go up 200 hundred feet — or a hundred, I suppose — in the air; you can’t light that, you know, that’s where CG helps you out and gives you the big scale. But we actually flew him six blocks. It’s just fantastic. There’s a wonderful fight in there as well between Denis Leary and the cops and Spider-Man. He does some great acrobatic moves in there, and we had some great athletes working in the fights with Andrew Garfield.
How did you get your family involved in the stunt business? Was it just matter of you being so involved in film?
Yeah, exactly that. You know, my brother was just a kid who couldn’t find out what to do and loved racing cars and bikes. I was in the south of France, and we needed a production runner, and we got him on the plane and he was down there that day, and it changed his life. And then my other kid just got into it. My wife was doing it before I met her, and her father was doing it. But my kids and my bother’s, my nephews, I guess it can’t help but rub off on you sitting around the kitchen table hearing us discuss how we’re going to do helicopter crashes and big shoot’em outs with missiles firing. They kind of listen in and think, “Oh, this would be cool.” And they came along everywhere around the world, they’ve flown around the world with me, you know. And I guess it’s a natural progression. They’ve spent all their lives, if you like, doing an apprenticeship, ready for the day when they’re old enough to do action and stunts. And they’ve all got their own talents. One daughter’s a champion show jumper with horses and stuff, and she’s a brilliant actress. And my other daughter’s a great rider and a fantastic driver. And my two sons studied special effects, so they’re great engineers and riggers, apart from being excellent drivers and stuntmen. And my brother’s always been a car man and inventive. They’ve all got their own specialties, and it just sort of evolved. It’s really quite funny.
And you’re also a recent grandfather– Or, was it your first grandchild that was born recently?
Second one. She’s my first granddaughter. And I’ve got a grandson who’s just turned nine. Bought his first go-kart the other week, so he’s doing donuts. [laughs]
[laughs] Congratulations. Do you think they might be enticed by the business as well?
I would be very surprised if they weren’t somewhere down the line. Whether I’ll be around to see it, God knows. [laughs]
Do you remember what the last ever stunt you performed was? Was it in Last Crusade? Was there anything after that?
Yeah. I did everything, obviously, all the Indy stuff on Last Crusade, and then that was it. And then over the years, a great friend of mine, a Yorkshire lad, Roy Alon, who started with us on A Bridge Too Far — actually we started off on the TV series The Avengers, and then I got him on A Bridge Too Far and we went on to become stunt coordinators. He was from the North of England, and we run a lot of TV shows up north, so he called me and said, “Look, I’m doing a Touch of Frost. I’ve got an eight-wheel gravel truck. You want to come up and drive it with me and nearly crash?” I said, “Yeah, it’d be great!” I figured I’d just go up there drive a gravel truck and smash into him or something, but I’d really be up there for the dinner and evening out, just for talking about old times, really. I used to go and do that, or I’d go up and do Peak Practice. I got a hundred feet out of a cable car [doubling] John Rhys-Davies. They put a fat suit on me and loaded me in so I could have a heart attack in this cable car. I went up there for the fun of it, you know? [Editor’s note: Unfortunately the recording is muffled in the last half of this response. What’s printed is my best reconstruction using memory, the relevant section in the book about Roy Alon and Touch of Frost, and a synopsis of a Peak Practice episode.]
No. It was going to do Akira— it’s a bit of a funny period in the film business at the moment. I was going to do Akira, a Japanese anime film. I started on it, went up to Canada, and that went into rewrites and budget problems. So I finished on that, came home. Then I was going to China for a huge film, and that went away — budget problems on it. And I’m just talking about films at the moment, but nothing I can talk about to anybody else. It’s been quite good because I’ve been home seeing my granddaughter, and get a lot of stuff done around the farm.
Are there any chances that you’ll be directing more television or a full feature?
Umm, actually, at seven o’clock I have a conference call with an actress in LA about a [possible] feature to direct. A really nice little storyline. That’s the one I’d desperately like to do.
I’d like to do that, yes, it would be lovely. A really nice story. We’re going to keep our fingers crossed on that one, but I’ll put it on the website if it comes off. [laughs] The hardest past, we’ve done casting. Nobody’s worth has been foreign until they’ve done something, and of course, when they’ve done anything, bloody agents want the world for them, you know? [Editor’s note: Recording quality was a bit spotty for this sentence, so this is my best attempt to reconstruct it.]
It’s a catch-22. It’s so funny.
Copyright © 2012 Vic Armstrong and Robert Sellers
Is it an action picture or would you get to work more with actors on this one?
It’s an acting piece. You know, I do like dealing with acting. I did a Young Indiana Jones which is one of the most fun things I ever did. What I don’t want to do is a crash and burn thing — they’re a dime a dozen and not worth it. I’d much rather do a $20 million second unit on a big film than a $5 million crash and burn. This is actually a good story. It starts off as a relationship movie and then halfway through it kicks into a bit of a surreal [picture], and a little bit about God. It’s quite an interesting story. [laughs]
You’ve got some really good relationships in it, and you’d finish watching it and go, “Hmm, that makes me think a bit,” which is nice.
Tom Cruise does a lot of his own stunts. How do you determine which actors or actresses are able to pull off stunts and which actors and actresses have to be doubled?
It’s a big thing nowadays. Tom, having worked with him as many times as I have, I know he’s certainly capable of doing it, and I designed everything for him to do. And the great beauty of working with somebody like Tom is he’s got the ability, he’s got the courage, but we also have CG, so I can put him on big cables, get great harnesses made, have safety airbags. You know, you can take a lot more precautions than we could in the old days. You can hide things. So it’s something you approach the subject with and, you know, you wouldn’t actually want to use him if he’s going to hit the ground on a galloping horse and do a saddle fall. You wouldn’t want to do that because whatever happens, you’re going to hit the ground at 25 miles per hour and you stand a good chance of busting yourself up. That why I always say stuntwork on horses is the most underpaid ever. So you be judicious about what your actors can do. On Mission: Impossible III, he did everything on that, because it was that sort of action: it took courage, it took driving capability, it took aerial awareness when we’re dropping over the sides of buildings and things. And we literally designed it all for him. Harrison Ford is another one who can handle nearly everything that his back can take. Of course, he’s old, he’s like me as well now, and you wouldn’t want to do too much physical, physical stuff. But Tom’s at an age where he can still run like a demon. And then you go into Thor. Thor was great. Chris Hemsworth was fantastic. You’d get him stuck in whatever you wanted to do — flying in the air, fighting. And the things is, you rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and everything is pretty well locked down provided that everyone acts professionally and does everything on time and doesn’t get over excited, it can all be done by anybody. Then again, if you get a guy or an actress that you feel is a little bit too left-footed, then you wouldn’t want to put them in that situation, because unless they’re 100 percent up for it and keen and want to do it, they’re not going to do it. They’re going to be holding back a little bit, whereas an actor still has to think like a stuntman and commit totally. It’s a case of judging it on a personal basis, a one-to-one basis.
Do you still ride horses a lot? I know that was your main passion growing up, especially with your father.
Yeah, it was. I’ve got 25 stables here. I don’t ride anywhere near as much as I could do and should do, but I do love it, though. It’s a fantastic exercise. It’s something that made me what I am today and got me in the business. My world still revolves around horses: got a big stable yard for my daughter’s horses and my wife’s, we’ve got a big riding arena up, and I bought in America a little horse farm in Simi Valley, there’s horses out there. So yeah, still a big part of it. I don’t physically ride as much as I should but would like to. [laughs]
Is that because of injuries or lack of time?
It’s something else, really. My type of horses aren’t the competition horses my daughter and my wife have. My friend down the road, he’s got some nice Andalusian horses, I like riding them, and we ride around the property. But, funny, I spend more time riding on the track than anything else. [laughs] It’s something to do around the place.
You know, I mentioned injuries. What toll has injury taken on you over time? You’ve had some particularly nasty ones.
I’m not bad. Considering the years and the amount of movies, not bad at all. Broken a shin… And most of the injuries were delivered by horses– I think all the accidents, actually. I broke a shin, I’ve broken an arm, and a rib, and a shoulder, nose a few times, but nothing really debilitating. [a beat] I fell off the roof and broke some vertebrae.
That was working at home! [laughs]
It does hold you up a little bit. The worst one, probably, was my knee, that I did on Last Crusade. Hyperextended it, and completely bent it the wrong way. That still gives me [troubles], but it’s tendons and things like that, and much worse than bone breaks, because bones do tend to heal pretty well. Tendons never go back to being the same once they do stretch.
What’s remarkable, though, is that you have such a strong work ethic and just want to continue and get through it even after you’ve been injured.
Yeah, that always driven me. My wife calls me the Energizer Bunny. [laughs]
You can’t stop me. I just keep going, and going, and going until it’s done and finished. I don’t know what it is — overachieving or what. I don’t know what it is, but when you do something, you do it, and that’s the end of the story.