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Film Independent Wed 9.30.2020

Detail Oriented: Character-Driven Action Choreography with Darrin Prescott (Part One)

Movies are a mosaic of moving parts. But we don’t always see which parts, or who’s moving them. In Detail Oriented, Su Fang Tham explores some of the more specialized areas—and career paths—related to film production.

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With over 20 years in the business, stunt coordinator and second unit director Darrin Prescott has worked on some of the most thrilling action films in recent memory—including Black Panther, Ford vs Ferrari and the John Wick franchise. His work on 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum scored him a SAG award for Outstanding Stunt Ensemble.

Getting his start in the business alongside fellow stunt performers-turned-filmmakers Chad Stahelski (John Wick) and David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) on the Matrix films in the early 2000s, Prescott’s approach to action choreography always comes back to one simple rule: it must be motivated by story and character.

Working with Stahelski and Leitch’s action design company 87eleven, Prescott favors practical action over CGI enhancements, capturing as much material as possible in-camera, while also eschewing the quick-cuts and shakycam that have saturated action cinema in the 21st century. Today, in Part One of our two-part conversation, Prescott takes us behind the current state of stunt safety, why the “analog” way of shooting in-camera is actually easier, and much more.

 

STUNT SAFETY AND CHOREOGRAPHY

Darrin Prescott doubles for Agent Smith, right. Keanu Reeves’ stunt double Chad Stahelski, left. (Source: teamprescott.net)

To start, what is your take on the evolution of action choreography and stunt safety over the past 20 years?

Prescott: The bar is so high now. Personally, I would be intimidated to try and be a stuntman now. The audience expects superb action on every film, regardless of the budget. In every meeting I go to the request is always, “We want something that’s never been seen before,” and it’s tough.

You say this, even though you worked on the Matrix sequels? The intensity and complexity of the martial arts choreography in those films were cutting edge, and when you watch them now it’s still mind-blowing.

Prescott: I was an Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) double and Chad [Stahelski] was the double for Keanu [Reeves]. What we could do back then is nothing compared to what stunt professionals do now, and are constantly asked to deliver. I don’t think I would make the cut now. Back then you had to do everything—fight, drive, motorcycles. Now, [stunt performers] specialize in fighting or driving, etc. So you’re getting world champions in one specialty. And I think that’s what the audience demands.

How well has the industry done when it comes to stunt safety?

Prescott: For the number of films produced across the industry, the numbers of accidents that have unfortunately occurred are very small, relatively speaking. When an accident happens, the media sometimes either doesn’t have the full story or tends to blow it out of proportion. It’s a terrible blow to our profession. Everyone’s doing the best they can to ensure safety. The talent is as high as we’ve ever seen, but the demand for performance keeps pushing the envelope. Audience expectations are so high, but we’re not taking into account the resources—is it a $200 million film, $2 million indie or a TV series? Did the crew have three days to prep and shoot or four months to train? No matter what, people will compare whatever it is to the getaway car chase in Baby Driver or the fights in Bourne, it all gets judged on the same level. 

In terms of what 87eleven has been able to do for action films, what is the secret sauce when it comes to designing innovative action choreography?

Prescott: Chad and Dave tend to focus on fight scenes and I handle the car sequences. Even as stunt guys, we always approached it with an eye towards story and tone. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked for a cannon roll just because it’s cool, but there’s no reason for the car to flip in that moment. Depending on the tone of the story, we have an idea of what action fits the story, and what wouldn’t. Whether it’s a Marvel film or Wick, everything starts with story—you design action around that.

In the last few years, many films have tried to emulate the John Wick style of shooting action with wide shots and in-camera.

Prescott: It’s tempting, but that’s not always what’s best for your film. Again, it goes back to story. Why would you let the action or the camera dictate your story? The story should dictate everything else—how the camera moves, lens sizes, location, lighting. Everything. For example, in the first John Wick, Chad and Dave wanted a great car chase. But we were shooting in New York, which is not only incredibly expensive, but also restrictive as far as what we could do in the city. That’s when we came up with “car-fu.” It always goes back to story: What is John Wick about? This is a guy who fights using everything he has around him, so why wouldn’t he use his car as a weapon?

Do you get a lot of requests now to deliver John Wick level fights?

Prescott: Yeah. But that means your actors will need to train for four months straight so they’ll know the choreography. There were no tricks [in John Wick], it’s just Keanu fighting, because he trained every day for months. So if you’re ready for that level of commitment, I’m on board! I prefer not to cut away from the actor; I’d like nothing better than to show the actor in the scene as much as possible. Filmmakers will come to me and say, “We want [the actor] to do all of the driving in this chase sequence.” That’s great—let’s start training him for the next six months. “Erm, no, we shoot in two days.” There’s no way to get that with limited prep and training.

Is it harder trying to capture full action sequences in-camera?

Prescott: It’s actually easier when we go to shoot, because we’ve trained for weeks or months beforehand. I just park the camera, Keanu does the whole fight, and that’s it. No cuts, no shooting around anything. If I can let Keanu go and beat up five guys while I sit there with the camera, it’s easier because I’m not worrying about cuts. But it’s not easier for him.

I’m surprised it’s actually easier.

Prescott: It depends on what it is. I don’t like to cut a lot. With fast cuts, I feel like you’re hiding things. Sometimes I’ll intentionally shoot only what I want, because I don’t want [the editors] to overcut. On Drive, there’s a scene where Ryan Gosling spins the car around and his car crashes behind Christina Hendricks’. I only shot the car spinning in one angle because I knew that was the shot I wanted. So it becomes harder in that respect, I have to get it all in that one camera. Usually we shoot multiple cameras to give ourselves more options, but if you’re willing to live by the shot you want, then you commit to it.

What would you say to someone trying to break into the stunt business?

Prescott: Train as much as you can, in as many fields as possible. Nowadays stunt people are incredibly specialized, which is great. So you’ll have stunt drivers who are former racecar drivers, but now go and learn how to fight, because after drifting a corner I may need you to get out of the car and throw a punch. Or, if you’re a martial arts expert, go learn how to drive. Buy a drift car and learn how to drift. I’d like to see us get back to the days when stunt people are more well-rounded and can fight, drive and handle motorcycle stunts.

 

For a deep dive into specific scenes in the John Wick series, check back for Part Two of my conversation with Darrin Prescott, coming tomorrow.

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(Header: Darrin Prescott directing action on X-Men: The Last Stand)

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