ActionFest, the all action movie film festival, gathered experts in fight choreography for their third annual festival in Asheville, N.C. Choreographer J.J. Perry (Haywire, Safe, the upcoming Django Unchained) was awarded Fight Director of the Year, Haywire star Gina Carano won the “Chick” Norris Best Female Action Star Award, and MMA champ Cung Le got Rising Action Star. The three spoke on a panel called “Whapp! The Art of Fight on Film” to illuminate for the fans what makes those on screen battles so cool.
The three panelists singled out 10 ways action movies can be better if they follow their advice. Perry had the most to say since his job is designing the fights, but the fighters themselves chimed in with a few good tips too.
1. Hit ‘em for real – Sorry, folks, the days of camera tricks are over. Now we can tell if you’re faking it, so J.J. Perry stages his fights with fighters actually connecting at 80% strength, at least for body blows. “You can’t really smack too many people in the face,” Perry conceded. “After take two and they start to swell you get in trouble with continuity. So my take on it is the more impact the better. That’s why I like going below the neck hard. That’s my take on it. Not everybody will agree with me on it but I think that sense of realism is important. I don't think Tom Cruise is going to let you punch him in the face. I don't know, I haven’t asked him.”
2. Give stuntmen respect and they’ll make better movies – The Oscars don’t even have a category for stunt coordinators. If the film community respected the behind-the-scenes talent, they’d do even better work. Actionfest honors stuntmen. So does Gina Carano: “I think a big part of that too is really appreciating the action guys and women and men that are putting the hard work into these films,” she said. “They’re such humble people and such selfless people that aren’t going to sit there and say, ‘We need an award, we need to be recognized.’ The fact is that the more recognition of what they do, the more they get paid, the more they’re able to incorporate their dreams and their ideas and the more people listen. So the more people are listening to these people who are putting these fight scenes together, the better these films are going to get.”
3. Learn how to hit – You’d think this would be simple, but it turns out many A-list Hollywood stars don’t actually know how to throw a punch. Perry wouldn’t call anybody out, but if you hire him he’ll make you look good. “You’d think you’re a dude, you can throw a punch but not all the time,” Perry said. “Especially after they told you, ‘Oh yeah, I boxed’ and then they get in there and it’s like they’re hammering a nail in. That’s always a big tell for me. Also the way that someone looks when they’re not fighting. When they’re moving around the fight, their posture is a big tell for me. I can see right away who hasn’t fought before [and] who has fought before.”
4. Stop shaking the damn camera – Ever since the Bourne movies, the new style is to shake the camera a lot so it looks “real.” Even The Hunger Games did it. You kids may not know this, but clearly seeing what the incredible performers can do is pretty cool too. “If you have the players that can do the action, why hide it?” Perry said. “Let them absorb it. Let them absorb what’s happening. Let them feel it.”
5. Get it right in rehearsal first – Hong Kong movies tend to have the most elaborate fight scenes, but even they make mistakes sometimes. Cung Le recalled a mishap on the set of Bodyguards and Assassins, with martial arts legend and action director Donnie Yen. “His stunt guy is supposed to roll his shoulder and they’re expecting me to hit the guy in the shoulder,” Le said. “So we rehearsed it about three or four times but I didn’t go raaar and get the facial [expression.] When the cameras went action, I went raaar, jumped up and the guy went whoa. He opened up his chin, I hit him on the chin when I landed and he was asleep. Donnie comes over, shakes the guy and says, ‘Cung, not your fault.’ The guy wakes up and Donnie starts yelling at him in Chinese. I’m like, ‘Why are you yelling at him?’ Sends him home and got another stunt guy, we shoot it over.”
6. Hire real martial artists for action movies - We love Matt Damon as Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, but if you want to see a real martial artist at work you’ll have to check out indie movies. If you haven’t heard of Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White, do yourself a favor and watch Ninja, Undisputed II and III and Blood and Bone! “The studios have a formula that they’re comfortable with, where they know if we get this guy, we shoot it like this, it’ll make this much money,” Perry said. “That’s why indie films are a better outlet for that sort of thing.”
7. Audiences: Free your mind – Audiences themselves bear some of the responsibility for what they get to see. Don’t just demand the same actors in every action movie. Open your minds to performers from other realms too. That’s what real MMA fighter Gina Carano says. “I don’t want to take anything away from actors,” Carano said. “I don’t think just anybody can do it. I believe if you like watching an actor, a singer, a fighter, usually for me it’s because [of] a creative thing, an artful thing is coming out of them. I think if people start relaxing and letting people creatively express themselves more in different areas, I think we’re going to see more mixed martial artists, we’ll see more crossover. People have to be willing to let go of that in their head because an athlete is somebody that people get emotionally attached to for who they are and then you see them playing a character and that’s not them. As fans of the people we like to watch, we have to learn to let them go and let them creatively express themselves in whatever avenue they want to. I think that’s going to be a huge movement.”
8. Hire an expert in action just for the action – In Hollywood the director is king. In Asia, home of some of the most kick-ass action movies, they have action directors who specifically handle the set pieces. Perry thinks they have the right idea. “When the action scene comes up in Asia, the director gets up, walks away and that chair stays open,” Perry said. “The action director sits in that chair and they direct the action. There’s no gray area there. The action director’s job is to direct the action. The director’s job is to direct the dialogue. That’s not the way it works here. The pros and cons on that I’ll leave for you to determine yourself.”
9. Tell a story – Conventional wisdom is that a great fight scene has to be integral to the story, but there’s more to it than that. The fight itself has to tell a mini story, and you do that with camera, the cuts and with the shape of the screen itself. “I think the real fight choreography is the guys who can direct the fight,” Perry said. “Where does the camera go, and editing. Why do you do this, where did you come from and where are you going? How to put that all in context of the story. Now, what are we watching the movies on? The rectangle. Four walls, four corners. How you fill that frame with interesting shapes and rhythms determines how your choreography’s going to translate. Moves are moves. Anybody who does martial arts or wrestling, they can choreograph a fight. How do you capture that and put it on film and make it look cool? That’s what I’m still working on. It’s an ongoing school.”
10. Listen to Gina’s idea and hire a screenwriter, stat! – Looking ahead to her future movie career, Gina Carano suggested an amazing idea. She may have been joking, but somebody needs to start writing this script immediately. “I’d really love to have a movie where I’m teaching a really nerdy kid how to defend himself and then he just ends up kicking ass, a comedy or something,” Carano said. “Just like I’d teach anybody, you start out slow and you show ‘em what you know.”