BLACK BELT MAGAZINE
SCREEN FIGHTING 101
Hollywood Pros Reveal How You Can Go From Martial Artist to Movie Fighter!
By Patrick Vuong and John Kreng
You’ve watched kung fu flicks all your life. You’re a regular at your dojo, maybe even a black belt. Perhaps you’ve taken your lumps trying to re-enact those crazy parkour clips on YouTube. Does that mean you’re ready for a career as a screen fighter, a performer who gets the pleasure of eating on of Tony Jaa’s kicks? Not necessarily.
The attributes you need to succeed in the martial arts/stunt world extend far beyond executing high-flying wushu kicks and graceful aikido rolls. In fact, you don’t even need to be a master. “That is the illusion that the actor’s skill infuses into his or her role to make it convincing,” stunt coordinator John Kreng says. “A screen fighter requires different skills that what we expect from a real-life martial artist.”
Kreng knows what he’s talking about. Aside from earning black belts in tang soo do and te-katana jujitsu, he’s been a screen fighter and stunt coordinator for two decades. Recently, he penned Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue, a comprehensive textbook about stage and screen combat. The book’s 12 chapters explain the intangible aspects of movie fight scenes that a karate studio or acting class just can’t teach you.
Kreng, who fought Jet Li three times as three different characters in 1989’s The Master, says that even though the best stunt fighters usually aren’t grandmasters, they must be capable in at least two martial arts. “The more diverse you’re training, the better because you never know what will be asked of you,” Kreng says. “Back in the 1970s and 80s, you were able to get away with being proficient in one style, but not today. The demands and expectations on a screen fighter and fight choreographer are much higher than back then.”
So what are the best systems to learn for the silver screen? “I used to think that there were only certain styles that would look good on film, but Steven Seagal stylized aikido, made Above the Law and blew that concept put of the water,” Kreng says. “So there is no [single best style]. You have to be proficient in different styles-or at least understand [different] techniques, their applications in real life and how you could stylize them to work on-screen.”
Stunt-fighters-in-training should combine a soft style such as aikido with a hard style such as kenpo, says Keith Vitali, a veteran filmmaker, actor and fight choreographer. “When I did a fight scene with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in Wheels on meals, I needed to be able to deliver quick, soft-style techniques to keep up with the Asian type of screen fighting,” says Vitali, a Black Belt Hall of Fame member and former karate champion. “Just imagine if my response to the director before fighting Jackie Chan was: I can’t do that, can all of you change your style of fighting? Yeah, right! I would have been fired instantly.”
Kreng suggests that rookies sign up for stunt workshops and theatrical combat classes to get an edge. “Even better, take mime classes in which in which movement and action are stressed to communicate with the audience,” he adds. “You will be limiting yourself and your job opportunities drastically if you do not know how to act.”
The next step in your stunt-fighting schooling is doing your homework. Study as many movie battles as possible and become a fight-film connoisseur, Kreng says. “Watch what everyone else is doing and think about what you might do differently in each situation. Study camera angles that make a fight scene pop on-screen and what makes it look flat. Know what techniques are effective on-screen, what are not and what needs to be stylized or exaggerated for the technique to read on film.”
Kreng also recommends watching fight scenes without sound so you can study the camera angles and edit points without audio distractions. Next, compare silent Hong Kong screen scraps with muted American movie battles – the aesthetic differences will become more apparent, he says.
Watching amateur clips posted on Web sites like YouTube can teach you valuable lessons, he says. “A good majority of them do not tell a story their choreography. They are all afflicted with a disease called ‘cool-movie-itis.’ There needs to be a reason for the fight, even if it is a short film. This is what distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs.”
Kreng’s Fight Choreography explains that every on-screen conflict-much like a screenplay-consists of a three-act structure: beginning (cause of the first attack), middle (battle) and end (finishing blow). “A choreographed fight should be looked at as a nonverbal narrative that advances the story,” he says. “The techniques used, the intent behind them and how each character reacts to each strike should be looked at much like lines of dialogue.”
Most stunt coordinators acknowledge that there’s only so much you can learn from books and DVDs. Eventually, you’ll have to move from the theoretical to the experimental. “Get a video camera and experiment with some people who want to help,” Kreng says, “Challenge yourself and give yourself different scenarios and styles of fights. Most important, do not fall in love with your choreography because that does not leave room for change and you will not grow from it.”
James Lew, a stunt coordinator who’s fought everyone from Chuck Norris to Jean-Claude Van Damme, says that once you’ve pinned down your best choreography, burn a one-minute demo of your best movies on a DVD. Showcase your entire arsenal of hit reactions, falls, strikes and blocks. Be sure to show emotions. “It’s very important to perfect your performance with all the emotional content and truth of a real fight situation,” says Lew, who staged the fight choreography for 2008’s Get Smart. “I look for technical skills, but just as critical is seeing the martial spirit in your eyes and soul.”
Even with a flawless demo reel, you can ruin your chance at nabbing that first stunt-fighting gig if you talk like a clueless amateur. A rookie screen fighter who doesn’t know the difference between “centerline” and “crossing the line” is like a med student who doesn’t a scalpel from a stethoscope.
So here’s a look at the basic stunt-fighting hierarchy, according to Kreng, starting at the top of the totem pole:
Second-unit director: The person in charge of filming action sequences; handles the technical aspects of lighting and setting up the action scenes with the stunt coordinator; often a former stunt coordinator.
Stunt coordinator: The person who heads the stunt department; hires all stunt personnel and answers to the producer and director.
Fight coordinator: The person who comes onto a project when a stunt coordinator doesn’t specialize in fight choreography or doesn’t have the time to set up the fights; also known as a fight choreographer.
Screen fighter: A specialized stunt performer who appears on-screen as an attacker or stunt double; different from a stuntman, who performs his own stunts.
If you’ve studied and trained hard, it’s time to graduate to the “reel world.” Unlike an actor who wants to be an action star, stunt performers don’t have agents to get them roles. Hey have to chase after gigs themselves. The job hunt starts with having a solid resume, an 8×10 head shot and a short demo DVD. Kreng encourages people to include on their five-minute demo reel non-martial arts skills – such as car stunts, motorbike riding or skateboarding when possible.
At a recent panel on action movies, stunt coordinator Will Leong urged aspiring stunt players not to lie on their resumes or exaggerate their talents. “Don’t tell the stunt coordinator you can do (a specific stunt) and then wait until the moment you get on the set and the cameras are ready and you can’t do it,” he said. Leong, whose credits The Matrix Reloaded and the upcoming Tekken, says you’ll effectively blacklist yourself if you’re dishonest because word spread through the stunt community.
Keep your resume accurate, your headshot presentable and your demo professional looking. Then “hustle the set.” Find out where an action movie is being filmed and ask to meet the stunt coordinator. Of course, that’s easier said than done. If you are lucky enough to get past the gatekeepers and actually meet him, consider it a job interview. “You really need to have your act together because stunt coordinators will remember you, “Kreng says, you usually have one shot at meeting them and showing them what you’ve got.”
Sometimes there might be a casting call for screen fighters. Vitali recommends coming with something in addition to your resume, DVD and head shot: “Bring a friend you have rehearsed with,” he says. “I’ve seen this work so many times versus just showing up and asking the casting director what they want to see.”
You’ve done it. You’ve beaten the odds and secured your first screen-fighting role. Now what? Arrive on the set early with the fight choreography memorized and your stunt pads and gear in hand. Lew recommends. “This is not like clocking into work at a factory and walking through the doors at exactly 8 a.m.,” he says. “Get to the set at least 15 minutes earlier than your call time, ‘on time’ is late in my book. Sometimes the director might want a walk-through right at call time before you get into wardrobe and makeup. The stunt or fight coordinator would need you there to do this walk-through.”
Prior to filming, the stunt coordinator will tell you what you’ll do while you prep for the scene, Kreng says. Use this time to become a sponge. “Keep a low profile and learn as much as possible by watching others. If you are doubling an actor, you need to learn to imitate how the actor moves [while] walking, sitting, standing, etc.” There is a good chance that you won’t receive a screenplay to study, so Vitali offers some no-nonsense advice: “Keep you mouth shut at all times, stay out of the way of the busy crew and when your time comes, know where your mark is, perform your moves exactly as the coordinator wants and make the star shine with your great reactions. Simple, isn’t it?
The reality is that it’s extremely difficult to break into Hollywood, Kreng says. Think about it: screen fighters regularly put their lives at risk. If you were in their shoes, would you want to work with a novice who had yet paid their dues? “Stunt coordinators have a regular set of stunt people they use all the time, and they would rather use someone they know as opposed to one they are not sure of,” Kreng says.
Leong has managed to parlay his nationally ranked karate-tournament record into a screen fighting career, but it took him months of knocking on doors, handing out resumes and shaking before he got his first stunt role.
For stuntwomen April Weeden-Washington, the path to success was much longer, over 10 years to get her first big break. Since then, she’s stunt-doubled for everyone from Halle Berry to Jennifer Lopez and is known for her precision driving, horseback riding and screen fighting. “You have to believe in yourself, have a strong faith base and believe you can climb to the top of the mountain, there wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t in a dojo or driving on the track.”
A screen fighting career is hard to obtain and perhaps even harder to maintain. The pay can be great, almost $800 for a day’s work is the minimum if you’re a member of the Screen Actors Guild, but it’s also sporadic. Plus, the hours are seldom nine to five; late night filming, weekend shoots and commuting are constant, and they can wreak havoc on your personal life. And let’s not forget that a screen fighter’s life, let alone his livelihood is at risk any time he participates in a big scene. “For the money we get it’s clear we’re doing it for the love,” Weeden-Washington says. END
5 Commandments for Screen-Fighting Rookies
Nothing screams “poseur” like an amateur who hasn’t done his research. While that adage applies to almost all fields, it’s especially true in the martial arts/stunt world of movies and television. If you want to become a screen fighter, follow these five guidelines that fight coordinator John Kreng has identified:
Tell a Story – In real life, a martial artist fights for self-preservation, but in films and on television, it’s to entertain and advance the story through combat. You have to show the audience your intent, struggle and reactions nonverbally.
Learn New Moves – A screen fighter needs more than a handful of techniques in his arsenal. “When real martial artists get their shot for a lead in a film, they get insecure and do what they know best,” Kreng says. “It ends up being really boring after the first two fights. Each fight should be different and better than the one that preceded it. Having a trademark move from film to film is the mark of a huge ego. Bruce Lee never had a signature move, so why should you?”
Telegraph – Martial artists are taught to hide their intent and mask their moves. “In film, it is the complete opposite,” Kreng says. “You have to throw a technique so the camera can see it in order to be effective.” If the audience can’t see your techniques, how will they know you’re any good?
Show Emotion – Acting like an unfeeling robot will get you nowhere. “You can have the greatest martial artists in the world on-screen performing some of the most difficult techniques known to man,” Kreng says, “but if he or she does not have any charisma or cannot communicate feelings and emotions while making it look natural, it’s no good.”
Study Movie Physics – Aspiring screen fighters must understand why ineffective self-defense moves can be dazzling on-screen. “The reason for throwing a technique [in movies] is much different than in real life,” Kreng says.