We look at fight choreography and often think it’s just different ways for people to hit and punch each other, but stunt coordinators and fight choreographers put just as much thought and artistry into a fight as a costume designer does into a film’s wardrobe, or a cinematographer does into the film’s shots. Fights themselves can hit you down low, where you feel it in your bones, or can become a dance of mythic proportions that sparks the part of us that marvels at art.
Let’s take two well-choreographed films, Troy and Serenity. Why these two? Brad Pitt and Summer Glau, that’s why. The All-American character actor and the ballet dancer-turned-genre actress both played characters that fought with a sort of preternatural, psychic skill.
Pitt first – an adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad, Troy is a mess of a film. It’s an unintentional masterpiece of trashiness, despite never being all that trashy, in which a Trojan prince kidnaps a Greek princess and sets the two empires to war. It has gorgeous technical elements – I have no idea as to their historical accuracy (I’m guessing there’s not much), but its costume design and make-up remain some of the best ever seen in a sword-and-sandal epic. Troy also boasts Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) as Odysseus, which teased in the minds of millions of fans the barest shred of a hope of a much better movie – The Odyssey starring Sean Bean. Alas, it was not to be.
What Troy did best, however, was fight choreography. It featured Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles, the most famed of all warriors, and Eric Bana as the honorable Trojan prince, Hector. Watch an early battle sequence featuring Achilles:
Stunning, right? Well, everything aside from Pitt’s acting, though I blame director Wolfgang Petersen more for that. At times in Troy, Pitt owns the screen; at other times it seems like he’s still rehearsing. What always delivers is that choreography, though. There are two elements at play here. The first is the Stunt Coordinator – in this case, Simon Crane. You can see his ability to choreograph large battle scenes. It’s his calling card, after all – the man choreographed the massive battles of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. He’s also responsible for the fantastic and complex gun fu of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the incredibly clever sword fights in Stardust. If the Academy gave out Oscars for stunts (which they should), Crane would be the Meryl Streep of stunt coordinators. (Jackie Chan would be Katharine Hepburn; just go with the metaphor).
Crane’s style does have a few interesting nuances. He tends to use extras instead of visual effects, and Troy only employs vast numbers of CGI troops in its biggest battle sequence. This makes Crane’s battles feel more organic, but using college kids playing hooky as your extras has its drawbacks. If you look past Mel Gibson in Braveheart as he gleefully hacks his way through enough Englishmen to fill an Olympic swimming pool, you’ll see numerous instances of extras half-heartedly swinging axes meters away from each other, or spearmen charging each other with their spears held out of the way. You can’t spend your entire budget insuring the extras, after all. It’s a necessary trade-off, and I still prefer organic battles to CGI-heavy ones.
One of Crane’s trademarks is in developing choreography suited to individual actors. Every central character in Troy – Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Menalaus – fights in a different style. All except Patroclus, whose emulation of older cousin Achilles causes Hector to mistake the two and slaughter Patroclus in battle. Cue Achilles riding to the gates of Troy to challenge Hector to a 1-on-1 duel.
These individual choreographies are developed separately from the large-scale battles. This is the second element key to these complex sequences: Crane employs a Sword Master, the excellent Richard Ryan, to develop specific choreography for each actor. Ryan makes a point of Achilles’ preternatural fighting ability. In the Greeks’ beach landing above, there’s a point at which Achilles places his shield upon his back just as an arrow buries itself where his kidney would have been. His choreography for Achilles is filled with moments like these – there’s a sense of either the gods watching out for Achilles or the warrior possessing a sixth sense for unpredictable threats.
When Achilles fights Hector, it’s really more of a ballet on Achilles’ part. He’s already positioned himself for Hector’s next attack before Hector makes it. There’s even a moment when Achilles rests his shield on the back of his neck, an utterly preposterous fighting position. It creates an iconic profile, however, as if Achilles is posing for his statue. Moments later, Achilles deflects a sword blow meant for his neck by spinning around – he’s planned that many moves ahead how Hector will combat him. Achilles is, essentially, fighting psychically. Watch:
Now for Summer Glau – her choreography as River Tam in Serenity is an incredibly close comparison. The style of fighting is completely different, but the effect that’s achieved is similar. In writer-director Joss Whedon’s movie adaptation of the gritty sci-fi show Firefly, River Tam is a character who is powerfully psychic. Summer Glau, the actress who plays her, started out as a ballet dancer. Watch a later scene and compare it with the choreography given Pitt at the end of that beach scene.
The Fight Choreographer for Serenity was Ryan Watson. The style he gives River Tam – while different from Achilles’ – is still based on moves that clear where her opponents’ weapons will be, and is centered around positioning herself in anticipation of how those opponents will move. It’s worth noting that Glau – like Pitt and Bana – performs her own stunts and choreography. Her training as a dancer also allows Whedon to use her in a way Petersen can’t use Pitt in Troy: the entire fight scene is done in one shot. It’s a shorter scene, but you’ll notice Whedon’s tendency for extended takes in the longer Maidenhead fight we’ll watch momentarily.
Now, if you’ve ever been in a real fight and you’ve had training, you’ll know that the fight – at least at first – takes place in your head. You seek the strongest position possible and, more importantly, you seek to put your opponent in as disadvantageous a position as possible. If you do a good enough job of that, the fight’s decided before anyone throws a punch. The physical just follows the mental via muscle memory. There is a real element of predicting and guiding your opponent into specific physical and mental positions, setting up your own moves and his reactions.
Both the choreography for Glau and Pitt are unreal extensions beyond this. In Glau’s case, it specifically highlights River’s ability to predict where a blow will land or how a new foe will arrive moments before it happens. In Pitt’s case, it lends Achilles the aura of a god, of a warrior truly blessed by the Fates. In both circumstances, an artificial choreography is created – one that has nothing to do with the willpower and physical reaction of a real fight, but has everything to do with the power of dance to communicate elegance and myth.
All of these choreographies, before they get to the actors, are refined using stunt specialists. Watson’s choreography for Glau was developed with Bridget Riley. She wasn’t originally credited in the production – many stuntpeople often aren’t, despite being key to developing much of the choreography that makes it into the final product. We are lucky enough to have video of Riley’s original blocking for the Maidenhead fight. Please note that Riley is a professional stuntwoman and martial artist, and could beat the living snot out of Brad Pitt and anyone else mentioned in this article in a heartbeat. Except maybe Katharine Hepburn.
The original scene takes advantage of Riley’s extensive martial arts skills, as well as a decent amount of wirework. Each shot is isolated to an individual encounter and stunt.
With Glau, the scene changes. She’s not able to perform some of the moves Riley helped develop, but Glau’s ability as a dancer does allow for the scene to be shot in longer takes than were originally planned. Like Achilles, she avoids attacks in her blind spot through preternatural anticipation. This isn’t an oversight in the choreography – like Simone Crane and Richard Ryan did for Troy, Ryan Watson developed individual choreography for each actor in Serenity. Nathan Fillion’s fight scenes opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor are altogether different. As Captain Mal, Fillion is a scrappy slugger, essentially just doing his best to get one more chance to punch the other guy in the face. He often uses misdirection to do so. As the nameless Operative, Ejiofor keeps everything directly in front of himself – he fights efficiently, letting his opponents’ wrap themselves up. He reacts with precise, cleanly defined motions. Glau is the only one who fights in that preternatural style; it’s a conscious artistic decision. Watch what I mean in the final version of the Maidenhead fight.
So what’s my point, at the end of all of this? It’s that fight scenes aren’t just whether you use Kung Fu or Muay Thai or Krav Maga. Fight scenes can also communicate messages through their art. In Troy, the fight between Achilles and Hector ceases to be real – it becomes representative, a metaphor for the characters of these two men. Achilles is like an animal, circling around his opponent and taking a quick test bite at the beginning, and he is like a god, reacting to Hector’s attacks even as they happen.
Hector, on the other hand, is a man who doesn’t value combat, but does value effort. There’s a moment earlier in the film when Hector betrays the honor of a duel by defending his brother Paris (Orlando Bloom). He doesn’t do so because Paris is his brother; he does so because Paris – despite not being a warrior – still showed up for the duel and put forth his best effort. When Hector later faces Ajax, a warrior twice his size, Hector is victorious not by skill, but because of his effort. He’s clearly outmatched but he doesn’t give up.
In the lead-up to his fight with Achilles, both Hector and the audience know he will not make it out alive. Achilles is an animal. Achilles is a god. Hector is a good man doing his best. The fight choreography isn’t about Hector and Achilles. That choreography is about our constant struggle just to come up even against forces greater than ourselves. It’s about facing nature and fate and knowing that we can never come out on top, but that’s not going to stop us from trying anyway. It’s not because we think we’re better, but rather because the effort itself is honorable, and gives the struggle meaning. Hector is a man going to his death knowing exactly how he’ll face it – as the best version of himself. He is effort, which means nothing to Achilles or to nature or to destiny or to a god, but which carries meaning only to Hector himself.
Fight choreography can communicate as much as a dance, as much as any other form of art can in five minutes. It can give us that same artistic reaction – that same chill up our spines when it suddenly dawns on us what’s being said and the passion behind it – that a beautiful vista in Lord of the Rings can, that a costume from Moulin Rouge can, that an immaculately designed Kubrick set can, that a line from a poem, or a phrase from a song, or an emotion caught in a photograph can.
Fight choreography isn’t just people beating each other up. Stuntwork isn’t just people diving in front of explosions. Fight choreography and stuntwork can be art, and the people behind it think of it as art, communicate in the same way that other artists do. Start to look at these scenes that way, and you’ll start discovering things about film that you never even thought were possible.
Stunt Coordinator – Simon Crane
Sword Master – Richard Ryan
“Achilles” – Brad Pitt
“Hector” – Eric Bana
Fight Choreographer – Ryan Watson
Stunt Development – Bridget Riley
“River Tam” – Summer Glau