Andy & James Armstrong on Amazing Spider-Man 2’s stunts

How do you bring a web-swinging comic book hero to life? We spoke to the stunt coordinators behind The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to find out...

On paper, it looks so graceful, so effortless, and Spider-Man’s swing is surely among the most striking images in comics. But when it came to translating that image to a live-action movie in last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, the process of making Peter Parker’s web-slinging abilities look convincing was anything but effortless.

Determined to bring those movements to life with physical performers rather than computer graphics alone, stunt coordinators Andy and James Armstrong employed an Olympic gymnast and put leading man Andrew Garfield through months of training to achieve the weighty, dramatic swings they wanted. The technique they perfected – which used complicated mechanical rigs to simulate the violent forces that would be required to swing a man between skyscrapers – resulted in some of the 2012 film’s most impressive action moments.

In June, we caught up with the Armstrongs on the set of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which at that point was located in a park located just off New York’s East River. We and a group of fellow writers gathered round as the pair talked us through the challenges of bringing Spider-Man to life, and the Buster Keaton-inspired physical comedy we’ll be seeing in next year’s sequel…

Can you tell us a little bit about the movement of Spider-Man?

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James: Yeah. A lot of it was developed in the last film, and we spent a lot of time working with Andrew [Garfield].

Andy: One of the early briefs on the last film was that Marc [Webb] wanted to do the action a lot more real and grounded in reality – trying to minimise how much CGI was used. We came on first, and I very glibly said that we could definitely make the action more real – that we could do real swings. Several people said they’d tried swings before and in the end we resorted to CG swings.

What we did was brought in an Olympic-level gymnast, and we had him do giant swings, and it sounds obvious, but [we saw] the difference between a real man doing these swings, and a CG character doing them. Speed and force – when you saw a CG character doing a swing, he went down at the same speed as he went up, and when you saw a real Olympic gymnast, the down stroke is really violent and fast; he’d hit the bottom and swing with massive force, then he’s slowing, slowing, slowing, until he gets negative, then he’s going again.

As soon as we saw that, we knew what the aim was. We started building rigs that would swing him through these giant loops that would put him through the same force in reality. So the swings that you saw in the last one were real – it really is a man swinging on a line.

James: It took months, too, to develop them and figure it out. We were banging our head against the wall, seeing if we could achieve what we were hoping to.

Andy: It’s very, very satisfying now that we’ve done it, because we can do it every time.

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Can Andrew do a lot of this stuff as well as the stunt double?

Andy: A lot of it was built around things Andrew could do, because we’d really rather have less of a stunt if it’s something Andrew can do than have some ridiculously extravagant stunt that everyone knows isn’t him. So we tried to do a lot of stuff that he can do himself. He’s a great athlete. We’ve hadhim with a trainer, and he’s applied himself incredibly.

When he first came to us on the first one, he was a young kid with terrible posture and you wouldn’t have believed he was the same man. He showed incredible application with the trainer, who stripped him down to no weight at all and built him back up again with muscle.

The only brief we had on the first film as far as his look was concerned was a picture of Bruce Lee’s torso from about 1960-something, where he was zero body fat, where he was just all sinew and muscle. And that was the aim. That was the preferred look, so that’s what we tried to shape Andrew into. And he really did it. If you look at some of the sequences in the last movie where he’s got his shirt off, he really does have that body, and he has genuine strength so he can do some of these things.

It’s very satisfying to see how much we’ve developed with him to do this stuff. 

The Amazing Spider-Man

Will he be doing more on this movie do you think?

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Andy: It’s about the same. It’s always the same question each time, whether it’s better to have a stunt man or Andrew do it. They have a very close relationship, him and the stuntmen, so we’ll work it out with them. Sometimes there’s danger involved, and it’s better if the stuntmen do it, because if they’re hurt, it’s a sad thing, but we can replace them. But Andrew does a lot of the stuff himself, and even to the point where when I see the movie now, I can’t tell which is the stunt man and which is Andrew.

James: Yeah, you can’t remember.

What was the toughest thing Andrew had to do on this movie?

Andy: A lot of swings, a lot of falls and tumbles, and riding on the side of a truck. Riding on the roof of a police car. A lot of that is really Andrew.

James: There are things that are high, too. There’s a lot of dangerous stuff.

Andy: Yeah. Last week we had him 46 floors up on the edge of a building, with only a little safety line on him. No matter how much you tell yourself you’re safe or whatever, it still takes a leap of faith to realise that you’re edge of this, and if anyone’s calculated it wrongly… you’d only fall once.

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James: Some people would say no. Some people wouldn’t do it, and that’s fair enough.

Andy: He’s tremendous. He really is the perfect ingredient for an action hero.

James: We’ve built up a good relationship with him now after a few years, where we can look at something, plan it, rehearse it, see if Marc likes it, and say, “We think Andrew can do this.” Then we’ll talk to Andrew about it, and maybe he’s a little unsure, but we’ll reassure him, and it’s good that we have that.

Andy: It’s really good, and the rehearsal facility, the same as we had on the last film, which is out of town, we have a very private place where we can develop all the action. All the fights, any specific stunt, we can develop it there. And Andrew will come out and work with us away from everybody else, and in that way, by the time we come to the set with him with any piece of action, it’s fully rehearsed and plug-and-play. We know how the take off is, we know what the landing is, we know the fights, we know the moves when everybody comes to the set. That’s what we try to do with every piece of action: we make it like a travelling show that works out in front of the camera immediately.

James: Before we shoot, we rehearse every single gag we’re going to perform on camera.

Andy: We’ll have videoed all that, and even edited it and put it to music, so it’s a fully finished article that you can show how it’s going to look, just in a different setting.

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How long does that process take?

James: It depends. Like, tomorrow for example, we’re not needed on set. So we’ll be away looking at a scene that’s coming up in a few days or maybe later on that day, and you’re shooting constantly. Even like this, for example – we rehearsed it in November, and everyone’s agreed on it. Then last night, before we got here, you might want to make some slight tweaks to it, so you apply that game plan to it. It never stops. Even on the last day of filming, I guarantee you we’ll be rehearsing something the day before. 

So Andrew’s been training from the moment he knew he was Spider-Man, but what about all these villains?

Andy: They’ve all had to train. They’ve all had to do the same thing.

But they don’t have so much time to train, do they?

Andy: They don’t, no. They have a much more concentrated schedule when they come into us, but they have come into us every day and worked with us. As well as the physical training, they’ve worked with our fight coordinator, so they’ll work out some of the fights. We can look at the move, look at how they do things, and say, well, this guy’s got a great kick, he looks good doing that, let’s build some of that in to the action. Whatever favours them, whatever they’re good at, we’ll build into the sequence. So you need time with them to do that, so you can find out all these bits that are good.

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So what’s Paul Giamatti’s technique? What’s Jamie Foxx’s technique?

Andy: Paul is really a different one. His is mostly performance stuff in this film, but he’ll eventually become a really interesting character. We really built his stuff around more light-hearted comedy, so we’ve done one scene with him and Andrew on a truck, and it’s a very vintage thing where we use the two stunt doubles for Andrew, as well as Andrew in the same scene. It’s like a slight-of-hand thing where there’s lots of Spider-Men appearing one at a time from different angles. What it plays to is Paul’s fantastic comedy timing and his great ability to work with different things like that.

James: Jamie’s extremely athletic too. He’s got a great ability, and he always underplays it. He thinks he’s below average, and he’s not – he’s above average. A great guy.

Andy: A very, very physical guy. We’ve been lucky with all the cast, really.

James: We have. They’ve really embraced our way of doing things as well, where they’ve done a lot of the action themselves, and if they can’t, they have great stunt doubles that work with them.

Andy: They have a great relationship with their stunt doubles so they can work out how they’re going to move or how the stunt man’s going to hand off to the actor and vice versa.

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James: It becomes about character, and working out what that character may or may not do. 

Does Emma Stone have any physical stuff to do in this film?

Andy: Yeah, she does. A lot more in this film than the last one. She has quite a bit of action to do in this one.

James: A lot of it’s making sure they’re secure and comfortable, and luckily they’ve known us for quite a while now, and know we’re not crazy. If they have any doubts or concerns, they can just take a deep breath and say, okay, I trust these guys. I generally like to think that they’re proud that they’ve done it themselves. Like Dad said earlier, it’s a great feeling, seeing the real person do it.

Andy: The more that the actor can do, the better it is. It does take a leap of faith for most of them, because they’re either high up or on a cable, and it’s okay to be told it’s safe, but it’s another thing to leap off knowing you’ve only got a little tiny line behind you, and hoping it’s going to be safe. Our relationship with them does become very close on that level, because there has to be a lot of faith in each other.

Did you bring a lot of fighting styles for Andrew?

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Andy: No, pretty much the same. We tried to keep a lot of the same style. We introduced a little bit of the Mexican, nacho libre stuff last time, and we’re trying to keep his stuff pretty real-time and real life, really. Just a powerful guy, nothing too fancy.

Is there anything fans can expect, action-wise, that we didn’t get in the last film?

Andy: I can’t say who with, but there’s a lot more one-on-one fight action in this one, with Spider-Man fighting bad guys, absolutely.

You guys have done so many movies. What you do is hard and dangerous at times. How do these Spider-Man films compare with your other work?

James: There are times when you roll camera that someone could get killed, to be honest. You’re planning and rehearsal is what led it to be a calculated risk, so when all that ends, you feel terrific to know you did it safely, that the planning worked.

Andy: No matter how many movies you do, every one is different. Certainly, the flying in Spider-Man was a whole new challenge. It’s also a challenge, in a movie like this, to make the action big and exciting, but still fun, light-hearted and something kids can watch – it isn’t beheading people. It’s tough to have big-scale action that’s still fun, that the family can watch.

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James: And not taking itself too seriously. This film is very light-hearted and fun. I have two little children, and they love it. They live for Spider-Man.

Andy: There’s more stuff in this movie that’s Buster Keaton, more physical stunts in-camera. Andrew has impeccable timing, so he’s the perfect candidate to do physical humour. When it works really well, even on the set, it’s very funny. It’s cool to be able to do that sort of stuff.

Does filming on the streets of New York make your job more difficult?

Andy: It’s more of a challenge. But it adds something. It’s more satisfying when it all works, but it is a challenge. It’s a huge city, and a city that never stops. People aren’t going to stop for a film crew no matter how big it is. And you can see how huge this thing is when it moves – it’s like a village, really. It’s very tough. But fun. 

Is there more action than the last movie?

Andy: There is more than the last movie. Different sorts of action, but more of it.

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James: We’ve been working every single day on something, which isn’t always the way. On movies this scale, shooting this many days, on a regular movie you might have chunks of time where you’re not busy or you’re preparing, but we’ve had to do something every day. Even if it’s a small scene that isn’t action-based per se, there may be some element to it that requires planning.

Andy: It’s the kind of action you don’t normally see in a Spider-Man movie as well. There’s a big vehicle chase, there’s a couple of fights without Spider-Man involved. There are big action sequences that would fit in a James Bond movie or a Bourne movie; they’re big, modern action movie scenes.

Were you inspired by the musical at all?

Andy: I deliberately haven’t seen the musical. To do things live is a very different thing, so it’s a conscious effort on our part not to see it, because we have our flavour, and what we’ve tried to do is stay more loyal to the feeling of things in the comic books, and try to concentrate on the body language and the stature which are similar to the iconic frames of reference in the comic. But I’m impressed they can do that show every night.

James: I’ve seen it, and it’s great. There are some great things in it. They’ve done a huge amount, but they’re trapped within the confines of a theatre, so we’re lucky that we can get bigger and better than that. We’re not limited to this small space.

Andy: We have the luxury of being able to only show you the bit we want you to see, which is the key thing. We can show perfection for that little bit – it doesn’t matter if it was terrible at the beginning and the end; if the bit in the middle was fantastic, that’s what you use in the movie.

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With there being so many action movies, is it difficult to make something fresh and surprising for the audience?

Andy: It’s tough. It’s very, very tough. One of the things we’re doing here is to go for things that are very old-fashioned, really. But they’re so old-fashioned, there’s a whole generation or two of audiences that haven’t seen them – that’s why we’ve gone back to Buster Keaton and even action beats from 70s movies, because there’s a whole generation that will watch this movie and haven’t seen that stuff. In the end, there’s very little that’s new – it’s all about recycling.

It’s tough to do something bigger and better than the last movie or whatever’s coming out, but in the end you have to do what’s right for the movie. You have to do what’s right for that character in that scene.

Andy and James Armstrong, thank you very much.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens on the 14th April in the UK.

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