I’ve been desperate to interview a stunt coordinator since watching Mad Max 2 a few months ago and scrolling through the IMDb trivia – I came across this:
“The tanker roll stunt at the end of the chase was deemed so dangerous, that the stunt driver was not allowed to eat any food twelve hours before they shot, in the likely event that he could be rushed into surgery”
Horrified, yet incredibly intrigued about the work that goes into stunts I was grateful to be passed Jude Poyer’s details from Mike Leeder as THE person to speak to. Jude’s recent work includes Gareth Evan’s APOSTLE and Ip Man 4 with Donnie Yen (UK shoot) and his IMDb listings show a whopping 120 stunt credits.
In Mike’s interview we touched upon the lack of recognition by the Oscar’s in this area and I was interested to hear Jude’s thoughts on this subject too.
Was stunt work always your main ambition?
Jude: Films are something I’ve loved since early childhood. Growing up, I had two passions: movies & martial arts. At school I enjoyed doing stage plays and was interested in literature and storytelling. In my teens, I wanted to act. At 18, I headed to Hong Kong, hoping to work as an action actor & to learn from the filmmakers there. I’ve done some acting roles, but much prefer stunt work. Quite apart from my being limited in acting ability, I enjoy stunt work more as it can be more varied. Over the course of a TV series or movie shoot, an actor will likely play just one part. A stunt performer however, might play a variety of parts & perform a wide range of stunts.
Obviously, there are similarities between acting & stunts. An actor might enjoy breaking down the script and working out their character’s progression through the story. As a stunt coordinator you also break down the script, and consider how each stunt, fight or bit of action serves the story, represents the characters & how it fits in with the bigger picture.
To be honest, I think a reason why some people aspire to acting, or part of the reason why some do is to be the centre of attention, to get validation through attention and applause. Stunt performers might want/get that to a lesser degree… But these days I don’t crave that sort of attention. Some stunt people are kind of wannabee stars or love attention, but a lot are quite happy to be anonymous. They enjoy the work and the results, but don’t need all eyes on them.
Jude: It’s hard to answer that question for you, as I haven’t been based in Hong Kong for almost 15 years. So I can’t talk about opportunities there with any real knowledge of how things are presently. What I assume still stands is that in Hong Kong the film industry is quite accessible. In Hong Kong, back in ’96, if you had a British passport you could live and work there. In theory, you could step off a plane at Kai Tak airport and within a week find yourself acting or performing fight scenes with a famous actor on movie or TV show.
The UK industry was and is (although these days perhaps to a lesser extent) much harder to enter. Getting work on an ultra low budget independent film might be easy, but to work on bigger fare, not so much. Over here we have unions, insurance requirements, and Health & Safety legislation. Major broadcasters have lists of “Approved Contractors” stating which stunt people they will hire. So it can take more time and effort to be seen as competent to work in stunts, and to get opportunities to do so.
For the record, I’m a fan of Health & Safety training and practices. It’s not some Daily Mail– style “Fun Police” scenario. H&S helps make the business of stunts more safe and professional. What I’m not a fan of is restrictive practices and “closed shops”. I think Health & Safety has been used by some in the stunt business as a weapon to help keep outsiders and new blood “out” of the industry. This is usually just about money, and not about wanting what’s best for our film sets.
One thing I liked about Hong Kong was there was no “closed shop” mentality. You weren’t considered a professional stuntman because of some certificates.
Rather, you were a professional stuntman when you got hired by a professional stunt coordinator. Some might think having no barriers to performing stunts would lead to a Wild West scenario, with crazy cowboys. I’ve heard anecdotally that can happen in India, but in Hong Kong, the stunt cords/action directors didn’t treat performers as cannon fodder. You only worked if you were up to the task. One veteran stunt guy told me “Your skill is your safety”. Those amazing falling stunts in Hong Kong movies, where the guys turn in the air and bounce off things on the way to the ground – that’s not a kamikaze act. Those guys were high level acrobats (often Beijing Opera trained), and masters of knowing where they are in the air, masters of body control.
So in Hong Kong, it seemed the only bar to performing stunts would be a lack of ability. If you were up to it, you worked. If not, there was someone else better to take your place. I think having lots of potential stunt people in the field is a good thing. It forces those in the field to maintain their skills and standards, and to improve.
Just to contextualize – I say all that stuff believing I’m possibly the worst stuntman to have ever worked in Hong Kong! I got a lot of opportunities because of my ethnicity – there weren’t so many white guys out there. So when a fighting westerner was needed, I had a decent chance of getting hired. A Chinese person of my skill level would likely have not stood a chance with there being so many more, better Chinese performers.Apostle and Ip Man 4 with Donnie Yen (UK shoot), can you share your experiences working on these movies?
Jude: Those are two very different jobs and experiences. “Apostle” was Gareth’s first movie after his Indonesian ones. It was filmed in Wales and was not a martial arts action movie. But Gareth still wanted what action there was to have the level of intensity & creativity that the “Raid” movies had. So I worked with him in prep (with some of my regular team) in designing the action & choreographing the fights. Then during shooting I was the fight coordinator.
Working with Gareth is unlike working with any western director I’ve worked with. He is, essentially, an Asian filmmaker, who shoots fights very similar to how it’s done in Asia. So every shot, camera move and edit point is motivated & planned for. In the west, too often directors will just shoot a load of coverage – different shots of the fight, and later an editor will assemble it. Very rarely do I think the latter approach is the way to go – especially with one-on-one fights. Shooting his way, the Hong Kong way, in montage, can be a more time consuming and a more meticulous method, BUT I think the results of fights shot that way are almost always much more satisfying to the audience.
On “Apostle”, the approach was to have the characters fight in a way which was befitting of the characters, setting, and story. So we wanted the fight moments to be thrilling, but never too “martial arty”. In terms of tone, the choreography had to serve the story and characters. For instance there was one fight (which was not used in the final cut) where when we were choreographing, I would say to my stunt guys “It needs to look more shit – don’t use your good hand to do that punch, use your other hand.” If an action looked pretty with the performers turning in one direction, I’d ask them to turn the other way. It was about the choreography being appropriate to the mood.
I love how Gareth and director of photography Matt Flannery think up and capture certain shots. We did a flashback scene, supposedly Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. The camera was on a Technocrane, moving forwards whilst simultaneously rotating 180 degrees from upside down. It looked incredible. It’s very inspiring to work with filmmakers who can conjure up such images in their minds.
“Ip Man 4” was a very different beast, but also a wonderful experience. Whereas on “Apostle”, I was involved in the design of the action, and the choreography of the fights, teaching the actors etc, on “Ip Man” I did none of that. It wasn’t my job. Master Yuen Woo-ping was the action director and he had his team of stunt/fight people from Hong Kong & China to do the creative work. As some of the film was shot in the UK, I was brought in as the UK stunt coordinator. That involved making sure that what we did was consistent with UK Health & Safety practices and satisfied the UK insurers – so writing risk assessments, method statements and so on. I also found the performers to appear in a fight scene with Donnie Yen. As the film is not released, I cannot give more details than that about the scene – but I can say that your average British actor or stunt person would not have been right. So I drew up a shortlist of people, and arranged some action auditions, from which the Hong Kong crew selected the performers.
As I speak Cantonese, and have experience with, and understand the Hong Kong way of shooting, I suppose you can say I was often a bridge between the Hong Kong & UK crew members, and the Hong Kong stunt team & the British performers – translating to the guys what Master Yuen’s notes were, sometimes demonstrating to them.
The way I look at “Ip Man 4” is that I was getting paid to do the paperwork & the admin. Otherwise, it would seem I was getting paid to be on set and observe, learn from and talk with one of the greatest, most influential action directors in cinema history, Master Yuen Woo-ping. I’ve been a fan of him and his work for many, many years and I still am. So in my mind I was paid for the paperwork and the rest was for free!
Jude: As a performer, it’s good to have a range of skills. It’s not enough to just be good at one thing. So while you can specialize in, for example, fighting, you will be more useful to stunt coordinators if you can also do high falls, or have rigging skills. If you are only good in a car or on a horse, you will only be brought in to do those jobs. Some people can make a living from being excellent at just one thing, but most stunties have a few strings to their bow.
Also, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding different aspects of the film-making process. Learn about lenses, aspect ratios, shutter angles and frame rates. Learn about Visual FX. Understanding the camera and VFX will make you a better stunt performer or coordinator. These are the tools of the trade.
I quoted the stunt trivia from the film Mad Max 2 from IMDb. What are the major changes in the industry over the years that’s worth highlighting?
Jude: I think technology can and does make stuntwork safer. I’m not typically a fan of VFX heavy action scenes, which can look like a cross between a cartoon and a video game. But I am a fan of VFX. VFX makes painting out safety ropes/wires quick and easy. VFX can disguise crash mats, or put an actor’s face on a stunt double’s body. VFX can make a shot involving a gun possible, where to do it in-camera, with blanks, would be unacceptably dangerous. So I’m encouraged by the development in VFX over the last two decades. I’m not such a fan of VFX used poorly, to the max. It can take the organic, real feeling out of action sequences. VFX is not a magic wand, it’s a tool which needs to be used prudently.
It’s a great time to be a movie consumer, as you have so much content within easy access. In the ’80s, you might catch a film in the cinema, or on VHS. You might see the odd action TV show. Now audiences have so much choice. So many channels, so much streaming, on demand etc. And they can view it on big 4K displays. They can repeat it, can pause it and scrutinize it. So for action filmmakers, stunt coordinators & choreographers you cannot get away with “meat and potatoes” or “any old rope” action. You have to deliver better, more creative, more engaging action than ever.
It’s funny, I see a lot of action following gimmicks or trends, such as “the actor didn’t use a double” or “it takes place in one, unbroken shot”. MOST of the time, in my humble opinion, those action scenes aren’t a patch on what Sammo Hung delivered back in the ’80s. Most gun battles aren’t as exciting as the action in “Hard Boiled”…
Jude: That’s a “how long is a piece of string?” question. There are so many variables. Usually, the budget which can be allocated towards a stunt or action sequence ultimately dictates how much time, energy, people and resources are allocated on it. For instance, for a daytime TV soap opera, a one minute one-on-one fight might be choreographed, rehearsed and shot in under a day. A one-on-one fight for a major studio film might be choreographed and rehearsed for over a month, and then filmed for more than a week.
Do you have to psyche yourself up to perform or is it just natural?
Jude: I can only speak from personal experience. Sometimes, for certain stunts, then yes, you need to take a moment to mentally prepare, focus on what needs doing, and deal with your fears. At other times, it can be possible to just do it. It really depends on the circumstances, and the stunt required.
Do you still feel the adrenaline rush, or has that subsided over the years?
Jude: I’m not and have never been an “adrenaline junkie”. Most stunties would say they aren’t either. That’s not to say we don’t sometimes experience thrills or relief at well executed stunts. As a stunt coordinator, I feel great responsibility asking someone to do something potentially hazardous. So there’s no adrenaline rush there. I do everything reasonable to minimize the risks, and might hope for a stunt which, while it looks spectacular, was planned, prepped and executed in an almost banal, thrill-free way.
Is there any stunt that’s been performed that you would personally refuse?
Of course. Plenty. Stunt people are not cannon fodder or dare devils. Stunt people should only perform what suits their skills and abilities. I remember working on a movie with an amazing motorbike stuntman, he could back-flip his bike at height. If I attempted that, I’d probably die. He saw a video of me performing a full body burn and said “I’d never do that!”
So, yes I’d only do what I feel is within my ability – pushing myself at times of course, but not stepping outside it.
Should there be a Stunt category at the Oscars?
Of course there should. It seems almost every other department gets recognized – from costume, make up, sound, visual effects and so on. Stunts are an integral part of many Oscar contenders and winners – Dunkirk, Braveheart, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator etc. So why not? Well the entertainment industry is very political. While we are at it, we should ask why “Into The Badlands” didn’t even get a nomination in the Emmy’s Best Stunt category?
Jude, thank you for taking the time to answer these Q’, may I wish you all the best with Ip Man 4 plus the many other projects listed in IMDb!
Stunt, Wire & Fight Coordinator Showreel: https://vimeo.com/124225476
Stunt Performer Showreel: https://vimeo.com/162122583
Mike Leeder interview