Vic Armstrong, World's Greatest Stuntman, Talks Indiana Jones, Starship Troopers, The Amazing Spider-Man And a Whole Lot More

Vic Armstrong, World's Greatest Stuntman, Talks Indiana Jones, Starship Troopers, The Amazing Spider-Man And a Whole Lot More

May 17, 2011

The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman, My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Movie Heroes by Vic Armstrong hits book stores everywhere today. If you consider yourself a film geek of any kind, it's an absolute must read. It's filled with unbelievable gems and insights about some of the most popular and influential movies ever made, but the craziest thing about Armstrong's book is that even most film geeks will look at it and go, "Who is Vic Armstrong?"

It'd certainly be understandable if you have no idea who Vic is or what he's done for cinema and the movies you love. That's because people like Vic are the unsung heroes of the film industry. As a stunt man, stunt coordinator, and second unit director, Vic rarely gets the spotlight. His job is to take the hits, jump off of the cliffs and figure out the hard stuff in order make the stars and the directors look good. And when it comes to this, no one does it better than Vic, the man who is the hidden reason we love kickass action/adventure movies.

Vic has worked on everything from You Only Live Twice to Superman to Indiana Jones; from Conan the Destroyer to Total Recall to a Mission: Impossible 3 version co-starring Scarlett Johansson (the Joe Carnahan-directed film was ultimately scrapped, but a picture of Tom Cruise and Johansson jumping off a building is included below). Most recently, he was the second unit director (AKA "the action director") on Salt, The Green Hornet, Thor and the upcoming reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. He tells incredible stories about all these films and a whole lot more in his book, but if you're still not convinced you need to hear these stories, perhaps our chat below will help do the trick. Are the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials based on your life? After reading the book, I'd assume they could be.

Vic Armstrong: [laughs] That's very funny because that commercial, that guy's son is my video assist! He told me that and I just laughed, those commercials are brilliant! I don't know if I'm the most interesting, but I've been the luckiest, maybe put it that way.

When people discover that you're a stunt man/stunt coordinator, do you find that they have a NASCAR mentality? That all they want to talk about are the crashes and the things that went wrong?

Oh, absolutely, and it drives me mad. It's like talking to a golfer and saying, "Okay, you've just become World Champ, you're the best in the business. What was your worst round?" Or, like you said, talking to a race car driver and saying, "Okay, what races didn't you finish? Which one did you really fuck up on?"

Yes, accidents do happen, I've had a few over the year and I've seen them happen. But I've also seen accidents happen on the freeway, and even Michael Schumacher, who is the best race car driver in the world, gets into accidents. It goes with the territory. But you're always aware of that when you set up to do a stunt; that it could be done better. But those people are just armchair soccer players. Anyone says they can do it better when they're just sitting there watching.

In some ways it's the same when you're setting up a stunt. I do imagine people are watching us with a NASCAR attitude going, "Oh, what if they mess up?" They hope nothing goes wrong, but they're secretly hoping it will, or hoping you'll fail. It's a strange thing. We're not bravados, we're not daredevils. We have an ability and we use that ability. We also rely on a whole team of people as well to help that ability, whether it's set construction or camera operators or costume people or visual effects people erasing stuff you shouldn't see. But at the end of the day the moment of truth comes, and when they yell action, it's up to you.

An actor can walk in a room and have to say "Good morning" and end up saying "Morning good" and the director goes, "Don't worry, just do it again." But with a stunt, you've got a huge amount resting on it. Probably four or five cars are gonna crash and if one of you is just off your mark, if one of you screw up – not necessarily get hurt, but just screw up – you've wasted thousands and thousands of dollars and hours if not days of preparation and it's just like, "Oh, God, we've got to do it again."

An actor who has been talking all his life can mumble his words up and there's no pressure on that. It's a funny old thing.

This may be a leading, ego-feeding question, but in your honest opinion is there a tougher job or department on set than the stunt department?

I think what I wouldn't want to be is a focus puller.

Yeah, that is a perfect call. Even a millimeter off and they can ruin a shot.

Oh, man, and the bigger the star... It's obviously not their fault, it's your fault. Things like that...a camera operator on the stunt, imagine being him. He's got to follow you all the way down the stunt then back up again and if he can't keep pace, it's all his fault. We double and get insurance by having three or four cameras on things, but they must go through hell. My heart is in my mouth whenever I watch dailies, they must be going through it every bloody lunch time when they nip in and see the footage.

We all flatter ourselves and think we've got the tough job, but you've got to look laterally and think, "Oh, those poor people are under just as much pressure, just in a different way."

That's something I've often thought about when it comes to assigning credit for great achievements in front of the camera. Take for example a TV show with someone like Bear Grylls. He climbs a mountain and does something insane and people go crazy for him doing that, and I'm just thinking, "Well, the cameraman just did all of that with a damned camera on his shoulder."

[Laughs] Exactly! You're looking at Bear, but I'm imagining what's behind the lens that we're not seeing.

A few months ago I spoke with Johnny Martin, who did all the car stunts for Drive Angry, and I asked him if there was any unspeakable stunt that you should never do. And he said there wasn't because you can always find a way to do it. Is that something you agree with or if there is somewhere that you draw the line?

No, I agree with Johnny. There's nothing that can't be done. We're not into one-off spectacles, stunt shows if you like. What we do is an integral part of the script, like a character or a line of dialogue. I was talking to Marc Webb the other day and said, "It's tough to do second unit because we're shooting one sequence on our own where we're trying to get the audience to understand every single piece of information, but you're doing it in mime. No dialogue, no exposition, it just has to make sense; you have to get that story and keep the flow going." He was shocked, "Yeah, yeah, you're right. I never thought of it that way."

As far as the stunt goes, I wouldn't want to approach it if it was that dangerous. I wouldn't want to do it that way, I'd do it a different way. You want the audience to think you did it the dangerous way, because that's the art of what we do. We just fool people into thinking what they see is real. We like to do it as real as we can so we can put our hands on our heart and say, "Yes, he actually did that." But nothing is worth risking life and limb over.

What you guys do is, to me at least, the epitome of movie magic. You make the incredible credible.

Yeah, and that's why I love Raiders [of the Lost Ark] so much. You see Harrison and you believe he's in there doing. Same for Bond. You see Pierce [Brosnan] going in a boat and you believe he's right in it. You just have to wake up in the morning, figure out how to do it, make sure everything is ready, the film's all dialed in, and then make sure you can do it again. The goal isn't to go for 'Hold your breath and hope moments', it's to design stunts you can reset and do again while at the same time it looks real.

What has been your most rewarding stunt role?

As a stunt man, I'd have to say it's Indy. [Indiana Jones] is such a dream for a stuntman and I had such fun doing it. It was a period I loved, the '40s. The clothes... I could live in those clothes: baggy pants, big boots, nice old shirt and a hat. It was just great.

It was hard work, though. You'd come home exhausted and you never know if the movie you just did is going to be a hit or not. Even when it was Indy, you just never know. But I enjoyed Raiders because it was tough, hard work and I thought it would be a good, but you think that about all your films. It's like you're kid's drawings-- they're all beautiful in your mind.

It wasn't until I went to the cast and crew screening that I knew how good it was. We all took our kids and toward the end of it, I looked around and all these kids were on their chairs screaming, "Go, Indy!" And I thought, "Oh, there's something here."

So when you cut to take two on Temple of Doom, you go in there knowing you've got a fighting chance of it being a good movie, especially since it's the same ingredients, same crew. First thing we did on it was jumping out the nightclub in Macao, then we went out to Sri Lanka and did the rope bridge and you know you've got something good going on. By the time you get to the third movie, it's just bliss. So, yeah, Indy is the epitome for me.

You mention in the book that you didn't take on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because of a disagreement on the approach. Can you elaborate on that?

Basically at the time it just didn't work out. It would take a lot of juggling on my part to do it and so it just didn't work out. I was unhappy, because I love Lucas and I love Spielberg and I love Harrison, and it would have been great, but some things just don't work out. You can't do all of them all of the time, unfortunately. I've had a lot of big movies recently that I've had to pass on because of commitments and timing just not lining up.

Do you have any biggest regret films? Not necessarily one you couldn't do, but one you started on only to have it end up getting canned?

My biggest regret was probably turning down The Fugitive with Harrison. He called me at home and I was offered a movie to direct, which would have been the second Greystoke [The Legend of Tarzan]. I'd got a contract already done and dusted, and Harrison phoned me and said, "Let's do it." And I wanted to, but I just couldn't, so I turned it down. And then Greystokes just evaporated into the African morning. I was really disappointed over that.

On the flip side of that, do you have a biggest surprise? Something you thought would be mundane work that end up being far more satisfying?

Charlie's Angels. Definitely Charlie's Angels-- the first one. That turned out to be a good little movie. You're never sure when you're shooting these movies, and I'd seen a few people and told them I was off to do Charlie's Angels and they'd go, "Eh, it's not much of a script." And that was being polite! But I said, "Hey, I get to work with three gorgeous girls, what's not to like about it?" I'll stay in LA with them for six months, sure.

And we shot the movie and did a good job of it. People didn't know what it would be like, because you don't. Then I went to Morocco, and was doing Four Feathers. I had three or four thousand people out in the field charging up and down killing each other, so I couldn't go to the premiere. I had tickets for the premiere in London, though, so I let my wife and daughter go thinking it was a girly film and they'd like it. She called back and said it was great entertainment, really rollicking fun. And I said, "Really?" I eventually did see it and couldn't help but agree.

It's been amazing for me to read how many movies that you were involved with that shaped me as a young film geek. In particular, and I'm not kissing ass here, your crucial involvement with my favorite film of all time: Starship Troopers.

[Laughs] Oh, really? I'm so glad to hear that!

A couple years ago, the night before I had eye surgery, just in case I went blind, I made sure the last movie I watched before the operation was Starship Troopers.


The spectacle level on that movie, the action, the integration of the practical work with the CGI-- I don't think it's been matched in the decade-plus since then.

I am so happy to hear you picked up on that. I am so proud of that movie. Paul Verhoeven is a great friend of mine, though I didn't know him before doing Total Recall. But we got along great on that, so I did Starship. And I've got a lovely poster at home hanging in my gym of Starship Troopers, and he's written all over it in pen saying, "Vic, you weren't my second unit director, you were my co-director on this."

I'm so proud of that movie. We put so much thought into the process of how we did that movie, because we didn't want to just do all digital characters-- and Paul wouldn't do that, anyway. I went up to San Francisco to see Phil Tippet, the visual effects guy. I stayed at his house for three days just watching their process because I wanted to know exactly what they would be doing when I sent film back to them.

By then Paul had total confidence in me. On Total Recall he didn't want a second unit director, but I was forced upon him and obviously I grew on him. By the end of it I had five monitors and Rachel Ticotin and Arnie Schwarzenegger and everybody on my set shooting with me, so he had total confidence in me at that point. But on Robocop, he had three second units, fired them all and ended up doing it himself. So I'd worked my way into his confidence.

On Starship Troopers, he'd be in South Dakota and I'd be in Wyoming, then we'd swap states. I'd start stuff, and finish what he started and he'd go back and finish what I started. Then we worked together in the studio...

We went through great detail on every single thing we wanted in the movie. We talked endlessly with the visual effects people on what they needed. And of course in those days it wasn't as advanced as it is now. If you wanted a bug going through your leg, you had to get your camera blocked off and everything else. So what we did have was total interaction. We'd measure the bug and block out where he'd be and how many steps he'd take and where he'd hit the wall and how he'd hit this guy and where the blood go and how the slash would be. Every minute detail. It was terribly hard work.

For every shot we'd have to do a Phil Tippet shot, because you'd have a guy on set with you who is responsible to Phil, who brings the footage back to him, and so if there's anything wrong in the shot's effects set up, he gets the blame. That poor fella was between a rock and a hard place because we'd say, "Okay, we'll do the Phil Tippet version, and then we're gonna do the Paul and Vic version." And that version had all the cameras moving, people running, dust kicking up in the air; all these elements. And invariably they'd use the Paul and Vic version, and I think that's what makes it so organic and realistic.

You've obviously been making movies in the decade-plus since Starship Troopers, would you agree that it's the last benchmark that, on such a large scale, hits the perfect harmony between practical and CGI?

I think you're 100% right! What else is out there? Name another movie that has that scale that doesn't have everything [blue screen'ed] on.

Exactly, I can't. And maybe this is just me being naive, but studios don't make that kind of a commitment anymore, do they? You couldn't make Starship Troopers today. No one would have the balls to touch it.

No, no, they absolutely wouldn't. But you need a powerful, confident director like Paul to stand up. And he loves confrontation, he loves to meet them head on and say, "No, fuck you! I want this!" He got what he wanted. He's a real old time director who got what he wanted by believing in it and fighting for it. And he was even greater than most, because whatever I did, he'd back me to the hilt. He has balls to the wall.

Script aside, since it has a magnificent level of violence in it, does Starship Troopers feel so unique because you guys had to try so hard to innovate and get all of the logistics figured out ahead of time? I imagine today people are just lazier. That the preemptive answer is, "Oh, we'll just do it in post."

You hit it right on the head. That's what drives me mad about CG. It's a wonderful, wonderful tool to use and play with. Like I said to somebody else today, morphine is an incredible drug, but only if you really need it. If you abuse it, it's a killer, and bad CG can kill a movie.

I think even good CG can hold a movie back. And I hope you don't take offense to this-

No, no.

-but I think about something like Thor and the Asgard design. There's so much that I imagine about Asgard that was practical, that were real sets that were augmented and extended with CGI. But – and you addressed this kind of thing in your book, when you said that people just assumed that the seemingly impossible things you and Tom Cruise really did on Mission: Impossible 3 were CGI because people assume everything is CGI these days. When things are too meticulous, people just assume it's CGI, and when it gets like that, it just kind of washes over you.

In my sheer ignorance, much of Asgard could have been more real than it seemed, a lot of the work with the Frost Giants could have been more practical than I imagined, but I as a viewer am taken out by assuming everything is just animated.

I haven't seen it yet, but I have read some of the comments about it - I missed the premiere because I've been in New York working on Spider-Man - but that is a problem. You're going to get kids who have grown up on video games who think that's the benchmark. So when they see bad CG in a movie, they go, "Oh, that's alright, it looks as good as it does in a video game." So when you do do something for real, everything should look like it was down for real, but then they go, "Oh, that couldn't have been real, it must have been more CG."

We are paying a price for a lot of it, but I do think it'll go around full circle, that we'll start doing more practical again. I hope so, at least.

When it comes to The Amazing Spider-Man, how much of it do you imagine is practical and how much of it is CGI?

Our whole approach on this is to go practical. There's already a lot of stuff in the papers and videos on YouTube of him flying, you know. That's what we aim for. Avi Arad, the producer, came to us when we finished this big flying sequence, which we did in three days, a huge amount of flying-- 50, 60 cars and trucks, swinging in and around the tops of them, all for real. Avi said to us, "Oh my God, this is exactly what you promised us! This is what it says on the box!"

And you can see the difference. He's pulling like 2 to 2.5 Gs. We put a G-meter on him in the rehearsal for when he goes through the bottom of one of these swings and pulls up to do the next one. You see the body straighten out, you see all of his muscles; you don't see him swinging with his arms bent holding onto it, it's real. You stretch out when you've got three or four hundred pounds pulling on your wrist with that kind of g-force. All of that's done real, it's just what we're doing.

The whole approach of Spidey is to do as much as we can. Of course there will be some CG, we're in the 21st century, you know. It's just a case of getting the right mixture.

You mention in your book that you've taken a different approach to what Sam Raimi took, of how he climbs buildings and slings around and what not.

The approach is purely that he's doing more of it for real. So every time you see him climbing, he's lifting 65% of his own body weight, so those look like real moves. He's climbing real things. Sure, we may add another 30 floors below him, but that's what we do; it's what we did in Titanic. But what he is doing, it's the real movement.

And Andrew Garfield is old school, an almost Daniel Day Lewis approach to life-- you have to really feel the things to feel them as an actor. Or Bob De Niro in The Mission, up to his neck in armor, he wanted to feel the real weight of it. Andrew Garfield knows it's a movie, but he wants to feel as much realness as he can get, which is going to counteract the surrealness of it.

I'm glad to hear that. As you may or may not agree, the last Spider-Man went a bit over the edge.

[laughs] Tell me about it.

And that's just the style that seems to have stuck with the latest round of superhero movies. In particular, on the horizon we have Green Lantern, which, for as fun as it looks, is looking so increasingly ridiculous it might as well be animated. It's nice to hear there is a superhero movie on the horizon that will be a bit more grounded.

It takes a brave approach away from everybody. We have to show our case to the studio and they have to buy into it. On paper it looks more expensive because you're doing it on a shooting day and it sounds cheaper to them to just say, "We'll do it in post." I'd love to see the numbers added up when you get to post. It'll cost you $100 grand to do it live, whereas it'll cost $400 grand to do it in post. Nothing's free. You have to present your case and fight in your corner, as it were.

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