For over 40 years, Andy Armstrong has worked on a huge array of stunts and action sequences in TV and film. From directing 1,000s of extras in Stargate to a full body burn in Danny DeVito’s Hoffa, Armstrong’s experiences as a stuntman, stunt coordinator and unit director have taken him all over the world.
The brother of Vic Armstrong, the stunt coordinator and director who famously doubled for Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies, Andy Armstrong’s career began when he doubled for Sir John Mills on the 1970s TV series, The Zoo Gang. That early job jumpstarted a life in filmmaking which has taken in three James Bond movies, 90s action (Total Recall, Universal Soldier) and superhero movies (The Green Hornet, Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man).
Those 40 years of filmmaking experience are the pillar of Armstrong’s book, the Action Movie Maker’s Handbook. Intended as a reference for those thinking of starting a career in stunts or action unit directing, it also offers a valuable insight for those outside the industry, too. The book reveals the range of talents required to bring an effective action scene to the screen – organisation, storytelling, an understanding of engineering and physics – and how much input a coordinator and unit director has on how those sequences will look in the final film.
We caught up with Andy Armstrong via telephone to talk about his book and some of the highlights in his career so far. Read on for his thoughts on creating the action sequences in Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man, his hilarious behind-the-scenes memories from the 80s cult classic, Highlander, and what went wrong on the 2004 Catwoman movie…
Your book gave me a new appreciation for what second unit directors and stunt coordinators do. I didn’t realise how much design work you do when it comes to action scenes, for example.
Yeah, it is true that a lot of people don’t realise how much development goes into action. Especially nowadays, it’s such a complex business. That becomes a huge part of it – the technicalities of it and the storytelling part of it. Some things might look great, but when you put them all together they don’t necessarily work for that movie. A lot of what I’ve made a living doing is really creating action that is appropriate for the movie. Because the wrong type of action is just like the wrong costume or the wrong actor or something – it just takes you out of the film.
You get a lot of movies that actually have too much action in them. Then what happens is, you can’t appreciate it. It’s like a feast where the starter is such a huge meal that you don’t even want the main course because you’re full. That’s like so many action movies – they’d actually benefit from having some of the action taken out of them. I’m always fascinated when you see an audience in an action movie.
When I feel there’s too much action in a movie, or it goes on for too long, I always look around in a cinema. It’s interesting to see people chatting to each other or doing something else. You should never have that in an action movie. Action should be like sex or violence – you want to be left just wanting a bit more. That gets forgotten in a lot of movies, which are just relentless. Stuff going on the whole time.
What happens then is that, when it comes to something special for the third act, some fantastic fight or something, you can’t raise the bar enough, because the bar’s been high all the way through the movie. It’s a weird thing.
They have to build, action scenes.
They do have to build, absolutely. That’s why I do that little graph in the book, which is something I do in every movie, just to work out how much action there should be and where it should go and, on a scale of one to 10, how big it is. It’s funny how crude that looks, and yet if you compare it to any of the really great action movies, they’ll fit that graph. There’ll be something at the opening, there’ll be something happening at the end of the first act and into the second act, and there’ll be bits and pieces happening in the second act and then a big third act finale. Whether it’s a movie made in the 60s or now, that formula of action still becomes the sweet spot.
A lot of these superhero movies, there’s some fantastic action going on, but by the end of the movie, nobody cares. You have nowhere to go with it.
Some of them are very long as well.
Far too long. Far, far too long. You’re absolutely right. I think any movie, past two hours, has got to be either incredibly spectacular or it’s an ego-fest for the filmmakers. Keeping somebody in a seat for more than two hours – you’d better have a really good tale to tell. And I don’t think many of these modern ones do – they just have lots of stuff in them.
So what films have impressed you recently in terms of action?
Kingsman, definitely. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, a really good take on it. I loved that it was Colin Firth and not a traditional action hero that’s covered in muscles and torn t-shirts and things. And for the same reasons, really, I love the Taken series of movies with Liam Neeson. I loved them, particularly because they’re grounded in reality, or set just above reality. Obviously, Kingsman you go more above reality, but they’re still grounded with real gravity and real people. It’s a bit hypocritical, because I’ve made a great living doing some superhero movies, but they’re not more favourite movies by any chance. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on them, but the movies I love aren’t even action, really. I haven’t seen the third Taken, I need to get that, but I thought the first two Takens were really very cool.
I quite liked both the RED films. I was going to do the second one of those, because the guy who directed the second one is a friend of mine. So I’d have liked to have done that, but they wanted to go with the person they used on the first film. Dean Parisot is a very good friend of mine, I did Galaxy Quest with him. That’s one of my favourites.
But a lot of movies I’ve seen lately, I’ve been underwhelmed by some of them. It’s funny. I like tight little movies. I think it’s a shame we’ve not had more John Frankenheimers making things like Ronin, you know. Great action but well placed – the right action in the right place. Again, grounded in reality, real people.
Do you think stunts go through trends? Obviously, you’ve recently been doing a lot of wire work on superhero movies lately.
Oh, absolutely. It’s kind of gone in a tight full circle, because a few years ago action went fully CG, and then the brief we were given when we did the first Amazing Spider-Man is that they want to get away from that feel, to go more gravity based, more reality. That’s what we spent a lot of time doing on that first Spider-Man is the way he jumps around. I based it on real physics.
Some of the stuff on the first Amazing Spider-Man I’m really very, very proud of. We filmed some groundbreaking rig systems and high-powered winches that moved around so there was a proper organic travel when Spider-Man jumps around. It’s funny, because when I agreed to do the movie, that was the brief – they want to make Spider-Man’s movement much more realistic. I said, “Yes, absolutely, we can do it.” But when I came out of the meeting, I have to be honest – I had no idea how the hell we were going to do that.
We did a lot of testing. They were good enough to give us a lot of time to test. One of the things I did was bring in an Olympic gymnast, and I had him swing from three bars, from one bar to the next bar to the next bar, doing giant swings on them. I videoed it, because I knew that something on the original [Sam Raimi] Spider-Man didn’t look right. It sounds really obvious in the end, because your eye goes straight to it, but when I brought the gymnast in, I realised that when you see a human swinging, their downward swing is really violent. It gets faster, faster, faster until it nearly pulls the arms out of the sockets, and then as they swing up it gets slower, slower, slower until they get negative. Then they grab the next bar and it happens again. It’s the massive variation in velocity that made me realise, “I get it. That’s what’s real.” Then you can tell it’s a real guy. When you see Spider-Man and his speed is the same going down as it is going up, even though you haven’t analysed it in your mind, you know that it’s not right. It’s like the five-legged horse syndrome: if you saw one standing in a field, even though you’ve never seen one in your life, you’d know that it’s not something from nature.
It’s something I spend a lot of time doing, making things organic and real. In the book you’ve see a lot of reference to Buster Keaton and things, because I like to go back to that. When you’ve seen something done for real, then you can make anything as fantastic as you want. But you have to know where the baseline is, where real is, before you start doing something too spectacular. Or what will happen is, even though an audience has never seen an athlete on giant bars, or a guy swinging on a spider web, they’ll know instinctively that it looks wrong. We’re conditioned to do that – no matter how realistic a dummy in a shop window is, we know as humans that it isn’t a real person. Animals know all that – they can spot their own species, they can spot other species and know what they are.
It’s why, with a superhero movie, especially, I like to do a bible beforehand, so that you can have a reference. How strong is Spider-Man? Can he throw cars or push a building over? Can he just pick up a sofa? You have to have a yardstick of what people can do. Otherwise it’s all over the place. We’ve seen those movies, where the power of the superheroes [varies]. One minute he gets knocked out by someone in a bar, the next he’s pushing a house over.
It has to have some kind of internal logic, doesn’t it.
It has to have some kind of logic, no matter how mad that logic is, it has to be consistent. We had it on Thor: how powerful is Thor? How much can he do with a hammer? What happens when the hammer really hits something? You have to have all these mad conversations at the beginning of the movie. If you see someone punch through a building, it’s tough to then see that same person slap someone in their face without tearing their head off. You need a yardstick to go to.
I was interested to read what you said about Catwoman, and the idea you had for the big fight.
Yeah, that was a classic case. In the end I was proved right. The movie could have been fantastic. Halle Berry – in the outfit, she could stop traffic. And she was such a perfect choice for Catwoman – she had all the abilities. The movement down, the whole thing. It was such a waste, because the script got crappier and crappier. There was a rewrite every week or so. Each one was worse than the last one. It was like someone was drinking and writing worse and worse versions of it. I feel sorry for Halle as well – I don’t think it did her career any good. She’s such a trooper anyway.
It’s funny, I remember when I saw the first TV commercial for the movie, and I’d been a bit depressed – I don’t like leaving movies. I remember coming out, and you always have that second thought as to whether you should have left it or not. But I’m quite strict about only doing good stuff. The interesting thing is, I fought to get the motorcycle sequence in there, and the directors and the producers – none of them wanted it. The moment I saw that first commercial, and it was nearly all motorcycle. I remember shouting at the screen that I was absolutely right. You know when they put that in the trailer that it’s the only good thing in the movie! It’s very funny.
Why do you think that happens sometimes in these big Hollywood films, where you get this death spiral of script rewrites? You hear about it quite a lot.
Oh, God knows. If you could answer that I think you’d be a gazillionaire. A lot of these rewrites just get worse and worse. It’s like cooking, putting this and that in, until you’ve got this inedible bowl of crap that’s like the vision you originally set out to make. That happens so often. I think part of it happens in the main studio system because a lot of films get made by committee. That happens a lot. It didn’t happen with some of the greats of the 50s, 60s and 70s, because some of those people were tyrannical, but the movies they made had a personal identity to them.
John Boorman doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a great moviemaker and every movie he makes is a John Boorman movie. You look at Excalibur, you look at Deliverance, you look at Hope And Glory, they’re all different, you can like them or not like them, but they have a real authority and identity to them. What happens in a studio system is you have a lot of junior executives and they all want to put a comment in there, they all want to use this actor or that actress. In the end, for right or wrong, a film has to have one real author. If it doesn’t… there’s the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. That’s what happens to movies. There are so many people in different areas in the studio that want to keep their fingers in the pie.
The big thing about studios is, most studio executives are all eventually going to get fired or run another studio or something. The rule of thumb is, most studio executives want to be just attached to a movie enough that if it’s a huge success they can say they were or part of it, and they can point out the bits they changed or suggested or whatever. And if it’s a Catwoman, they can distance themselves from it as if it were a disease. That’s a real thing – a fine line executives work. Because you can get the blame for a picture that you may have had nothing to do with in some ways, you had no say in it if you were a studio executive, necessarily, and you can also get lots of praise and lots of awards and a million-dollar job at another studio because you’re considered to be the guy or girl that brought this or that movie to the studio and it made $300m. It’s a funny game, that.
In the end, who knows what’s going to be successful? Who’d have thought movies like Fast & Furious would still be successful?
Yeah, there’s gonna be eight or nine of them.
It’s incredible. Vic [Armstrong] and I were offered, I guess it was three or four, and then they made a change with the action team and they’ve had the same action team since. But we’d just started Thor so we turned it down. It’s funny because they went off and did more and more of those Fast & Furious films and we did the two Spider-Mans and Season Of The Witch and some other things. I think in the end we kind of made the right choice. I’m proud of the stuff I’ve done.
When you think of how advanced the look of Highlander was – Russell invented that look. The very long lenses, the very wide lenses. Fantastic cuts between things. It’s absolutely timeless. I watched it again recently. It’s as good now as it was when we made it. And it’s a beautiful looking movie.
I’m really proud of the stuff I’ve done on it. It’s amazing to think it’s 30 years [old]. There’s a lot of funny stories about Highlander. When they hired Sean Connery first of all as Ramirez, it’s funny because it’s a Scotsman playing a Spaniard and a Frenchman playing a Scotsman! The funny thing is, Peter Davis and Bill Panzer, the producers, cast Connery – and the movie’s called Highlander, so Connery thought he was playing the Highlander!
He got some huge fee, and then they let him know that he’s playing Ramirez, this Spanish guy. He went, “Oh fine”, but his fee was the same – he got about a million dollars for however many weeks he was on the movie. And then Christopher Lambert, who’d only done Greystoke before, as far as English-speaking movies went, they cast him and hadn’t met him. Apparently, when they did Greystoke, he learned his lines parrot fashion – he just learned the line he had to speak. He couldn’t speak English. But he’s such a lovely guy.
When they first met him and he answered “Yes” to every question, they realised he didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. [Laughs] They were in a bar or restaurant, and Peter Davis and Bill Panzer both came outside, and they left him at the table, and said, “He can’t fucking speak English!” And they’d already cast him! The deal was done! It was fantastic, you know?
It just shows you. He was so charismatic in that movie. He learned English during the movie and was brilliant.
He’s also incredibly short-sighted, Christophe. I did some really cool sword fight sequences with him. He couldn’t see the sword! Incredible. His muscle memory and ability to be taught a fight with his glasses on, and then take is glasses off and then shoot was absolutely astounding. I’ve never met anyone like it. He never missed a beat, and yet he couldn’t see – he couldn’t see which end of the sword he had a hold of.
You look at those sword fights, and he’s better than most stuntmen doing them. Yet he could hardly see his opponent, let alone the sword. Fascinating.
Clancy Brown, who played the villain, he’s still a friend. He was fantastic. A couple of funny things happened on that, I think they’re in the book. We were doing some car action in New York, and I had cameras on the front of the Cadillac. The Cadillac was my choice – originally it was written as a big four-wheel drive. I wanted something classically American that would slide around.
When we were towing it through town with the cameras on for the close-ups of the two actors, Clancy’s there with his slit throat with the safety pins in it and all that, and I would jump off the back of the camera car when we got to a decent bit of road or bridge or something, and I’d turn all the cameras on.
At one point, I was turning the cameras on and the cop who was helping us – or supposed to be helping us in a typical sort of New York, aggressive cop way, said, “If you get off the camera car again, I’m going to arrest you.”
Now, meanwhile, the cameras are rolling. I’m not really arguing with the cop, but I’m a bit pissed off to say the least. So I got back on the camera car. But while I’m doing that, Clancy, just dicking around, was [sings] “New York, New York!” And that was just him playing around. It was actually in response to me arguing with a New York cop, really.
Anyway, Russell, when he was putting the chase together, loved that little moment. He’d done all the Queen videos, and that’s when Queen came in and saw it, and they loved it. So that’s when they re-recorded their version of New York, New York and it became a hit record for Queen.
It started as a mild confrontation between me and a rather aggressive New York cop! [Laughs] Whenever I see Clancy, we still laugh about it. It wasn’t in the script or anything, it was just one of those things.
Andy Armstrong, thank you very much!
Action Movie Maker’s Handbook is available from Amazon now.