The last time we spoke with Vic Armstrong, it was to promote his autobiography The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman: My Life As Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Movie Heroes. But Armstrong doesn't really do stunt work anymore. He transitioned from stunt coordinator to second unit director, which means that he's been the guy responsible for the amazing action scenes in dozens of big Hollywood movies like Thor, Salt and War of the Worlds.
Armstrong's latest second unit director job was on Kenneth Branagh's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, where he helped deliver some of the movie's best scenes, particularly Chris Pine's first fight in the movie. We spoke with Armstrong about the project for its Blu-ray and DVD release this week, and about the challenges of doing original action in blockbuster movies these days, as well his own directorial projects, The Sunday Horse and Left Behind.
Movies.com: When we last talked, you said practical stunt work was making a resurgence. Do you still think that's true?
Vic Armstrong: I think it is, but it's always a case of where it's best used. If you're going to do Spider-Man, and my brother did the last Spider-Man, it has its moments. But, on the other hand, if you're doing Spider-Man, you've got to have him swinging around, and in those cases we do the work and research to show the digital guys how a person would really look when doing that.
In the case of Jack Ryan, you see Chris Pine zooming through New York on a motorcycle, and I do think there's a time and place for everything. There are fads, and people change, but people loved stunts then they loved CGI and now they love stunts again.
Movies.com: How did you define the style of action in this movie before shooting?
Armstrong: Kenneth Branagh and I have a great relationship. I go back with him to Henry the Fifth, and I also did Thor, so we understand each other like a partnership. The first thing is me asking Kenneth what he'd like the action to look like, and we decided he can't look like Jason Bourne. The action in those movies is fantastic, but he can't look like that or James Bond or Indiana Jones, because this is a kid straight out of university. He hasn't had a chance to learn all these tactics and things, but you can understand that maybe he'd know how to ride a motorcycle and weave in and out of traffic. We wanted him to look like a regular lad whose strength is driven by fear and terror. We didn't want it to look like he was a trained assassin.
The next thing we had to figure out was that Nonso is a huge, huge man. He's massive. So we had to figure out a believable way to put the odds in Jack Ryan's favor. That's why he smashes his head on the toilet. Because everyone has been in a bathroom and slipped or cracked their knee into a toilet and felt how hard those things really are. So that's a great equalizer. He can smash his head on it and it may not knock him out, but everyone will accept that it could easily take away at least 50% of his energy. So it's just figuring out little things like that.
Movies.com: When you're coming up with these action beats, do you focus test your ideas and previz to see how people would react?
Armstrong: We do kick it around. We've always got a good crew, and I quiz them. I keep people separate so I get nonbiased answers. I think about it all the time. I'll say "I've always wanted to do this..." and if they say "Oh, I did that three years ago on a show," then I won't do that. The worst thing you want to do is repeat anything. I don't want to repeat what everyone else has done. The hardest thing to do in any movie is be original.
Movies.com: Is there one stunt that you haven't done yet, that keeps getting away from you?
Armstrong: Not really. I remember in the old days thinking "I'd like to see a car do a somersault." These days people do double back somersaults on motorcycles, but I still haven't seen a car do one. It may well have been done. That's a bit gimmicky as well, you'd have to find the right situation for that to happen. It'd probably be a comedy instead of a serious film.
I often think "Wow, that's good. I might use that in a film some day" if I see something in real life, but for the most part everything is determined by the script and how violent or comedic it needs to be. The only way to keep it fresh is to always go script by script.
Movies.com: Have you seen The Raid 2?
Armstrong: I haven't seen it, but I do love that kind of action. I'm a big Ong Bak fan, and I use those stunt guys on all my shows when I'm in or around Thailand and will probably use them on this next thing I'm doing out there. I am a great advocate of Muy Thai in movies, because I think it's the most realistic fighting you can do in a movie. It's very violent but practical way of fighting. Using all your knees and elbows and head as lethal weapons. I am a bit embarrassed to say I still haven't seen The Raid, though.
Movies.com: Since second unit directing is kind of a thankless job, do you ever see someone credit a director with how great a movie's action scenes are and think to yourself, "Well, actually, I did all that stuff."
Armstrong: You wouldn't be human if you didn't think that at times, but everyone in this business knows what I've done so I don't think about it too much. Particularly when I'm with Ken, it is a team effort. Plus, everything is only as good as what's around it. The art department building great breakaways, or the stunt doubles doing the fights. It's not all my ideas. The whole crew can go in to someone like Ken and say, "Well what if we did this..." I have worked on films where it isn't as much a team effort, but even then I've never had problems with knowing who will get the credit.
Movies.com: What's next for you?
Armstrong: Right now I'm directing a movie called The Sunday Horse, which is basically like Rocky on horseback. It's about a young girl who doesn't have any money, and she's a good rider who can't afford to get to the championship level. So she buys a cheap horse to make it into a great horse – she actually buys two – one goes to the Olympics. It's got William Shatner and Ving Rhames and Linda Hamilton, Nikki Reed, so it's a nice cast on that. There's really good stuff on that.
And I'm in postproduction on a movie called Left Behind that I shot last year with Nic Cage, which is about the rapture. That will be out on October 4. I think it's going to be a good movie. It's a religious-themed movie, but it's really just a good story that happens to be religious, which surprisingly seems to be the flavor of the moment right now.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.
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