I happen to think that Jedis are pretty cool. That’s a pretty radical opinion, I’m aware, but, hey, that’s just the kind of guy I am. If you’ve got a similar taste for these totemic do-gooders, chances are you’ve enjoyed some of Nick Gillard’s excellent work. The fights he orchestrated for Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III have been rendered in eye-searing HD on newly minted Blu-rays, which came out on 12th September.
Gillard has been involved in the franchise from the start, graduating from stunt double during the original trilogy, to full-blown stunt coordinator on Episodes I to III. The mind behind every precisely planned lightsaber swish, he spent three months with Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor, schooling them in the art of Jedi combat. All of which has led him to me: a floppy-haired nerd with a dictaphone. He’s going to teach me how to fight.
Mercifully, Nick turns out to be a friendly guy. He cheerily guides me through a routine from the climactic battle between Obi Wan and Anakin, complimenting me on how fast I’m getting to grips with the fight.
Still, there’s grit behind that amiable exterior, which I discover as I inadvertently slip the word sensei into conversation. “I hate that,” he says, contorting his face in disgust. “Americans always say that.”
“Will you be my sensei?” he continues, in a mocking transatlantic drawl. “Rubbish!” I decide to keep my martial arts hoodoo to myself.
“What I hate is the rules,” he tells me later, when I ask him about how he devised his version of lightsaber combat. “I’m from Brighton and I know about fighting. Fighting is about winning. So don’t fight unless you have to and if you have to, win.”
Still, there’s real thought behind the anarchy. “Loads of different people have to do [lightsaber fighting],” he says. “You go with the way the person moves and you adapt the sword to that.” I ask if he’s trying to reflect a character’s personality through the way they do battle. “It’s how it must be,” he confirms, “otherwise it’s just a fight.”
After some jousting, we settle down to chat about his early life. Gillard ran away from military school at age 12 to join the circus as a trick rider. “The only reason I got the gig was that the circus guy had three daughters and wanted a son,” he says.
His work with the circus ended at 18, when a glimpse of Hollywood changed his life forever. The troupe was called in to do stunt work on The Thief Of Bagdad. “For us it was a walk in the park, but we earned more money than we got paid in a year.” The die was cast, and soon enough, Nick was under the wing of legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong.
Some time later, he became the permanent stunt double for Tom Cruise. “I was in his contract, so I just went wherever he went,” he says with a shrug. Doesn’t Tom Cruise do all his own stunts? “He didn’t have to then,” Nick says with a grin, “because he had such a good stunt double.” It was a cushy position, but it lacked the excitement he was searching for. “It was a safe job,” he recalls ruefully, “and if you do stunts, it’s not just about the challenge of a job, it’s about the challenge of everything.”
He eventually landed on the doorstep of George Lucas, just as the Star Wars creator was gathering talent for his new trilogy. Lucas has a reputation as a secretive individual, and I asked Nick if there was a hush-hush Star Wars briefing given to new recruits. “He’s much more free than that,” says Gillard, waving away the idea. “I think he realizes that we all own it.” I suggest that Star Wars is a lot more collaborative than the popular perception would have us believe. “I think you’re absolutely right,” Nick replies. “George hires the right people,” he says. “People who care as much as he does.”
Nick tells me that he and the Star Wars actors usually arrive on set three months before Lucas, to film fight scenes on a blue screen. These are then cut up and sent off to Skywalker Ranch for the boss’s approval. I asked how specific George’s comments are. “He’ll say, ‘change that, it looks wanky,’” Nick replies, before adding with a chortle, “wanky is one of his favourite words.”
I was curious to learn how Gillard works the Force into his fight scenes, but he confessed that, “I don’t like it that much. I think: why wouldn’t you just use it all the time?” Despite this disdain for Jedi mind tricks, Gillard clearly appreciates Star Wars’ more spiritual elements – preferably understood through the lens of a good dust up. “Anger doesn’t have a place in a fight,” he tells me. “Ultimately, you’ll lose if you’re aggressive.”
Gillard also revealed a rating system used by Lucas and himself to define a Jedi’s relative skill, and how it reflects the difference between light and dark.
“There’s up to eight levels. Yoda is an eight, Mace Windu is an eight, Obi is a seven, but if you miss a level, it’s a bit like taking drugs to get enlightenment.” Anakin is the perfect example of messing with the established system. “I’ve got him down as an eight or nine, which doesn’t really exist,” says Gillard, before explaining that by turning to the Dark Side, Anakin skipped some essential steps. “It’s only a writing tool,” he says, “but it gives you the edge over it just being a fight.”
Our time is almost up, but there’s just long enough to pontificate on the essence of a stuntman. “I’m trying to point out that fear isn’t really fear, it’s just focus,” says Nick. “Like if someone has a crash. They’ll tell you in infinite detail something that happened in two seconds. So it feels like fear, but it’s just focus.” That’s very profound, I tell him. Quietness descends as he looks me in the eye and says, “Time doesn’t exist, and that’s the reason I became I stuntman.”
For a moment I believe him, until I spot a glint in his eye, and his face cracks into a gigantic guffaw.