Though, as it turned out, we could only speak on Memorial Day, stunt co-ordinator Doug Coleman was gracious enough to take a few minutes to chat with me last week.
Below you can read what he had to say about the detailed, specific and precise action he devised for Gangster Squad, as well as some early details on the stunts in Akiva Goldsman’s directorial debut, A Winter’s Tale, and Michael Mann’s rather secretive new cyber-thriller.
I’ve been doing stunts since I was very, very young. I have also directed action, directed second unit but on Gangster Squad I was hired to be the stunt co-ordinator, to design all the action, fights and chases, to keep everybody safe and the keep everybody looking cool.
Doing stunts is always fun, but it’s also always about creating stunts for the characters and for the story. Understanding character and story is the biggest factor in all of filmmaking. What led me into working second unit was that I would work hand in hand with the vision of any director, to tell the same story through my action. I wanted to be more involved in storytelling with action.
Gangster Squad is a period movie so the important thing, talking about the characters, is that they have to look period, they have to look like they were coming from the 40s in their behaviour, in their fighting skills, in the way they control their weapons and guns and their movement. I helped by training the actors to fight.
Josh Brolin’s character, for example, came from Camp X, somewhere similar to the Navy Seals of today, a miliary branch back in the 40s. So he had grappling moves, he had judo moves. Plus, his character was a Los Angeles policeman so he had the skill sets they trained for back in that day.
Sean Penn’s character, Mickey Cohen, was a boxer back in the 40s. It’s not the boxing we see today, not the crisp punches but big power punches, old style stances.
So developing the fights, I had to make sure these guys had those distinct looks. It wasn’t just fighting, they were coming in with those skills, unique from one another. That was important to me, and that’s what I mean when I say I helped with their characters.
There’s a lot of room for creativity but I don’t think I really cheated much on Gangster Squad. I tried to stay as real to the period as I possibly could. I’m sure there are many directors who do cheat, though.
Style was very, very important to [director] Ruben [Fleischer], he had a distinct style in mind. I remember he was researching every film from that genre, he was looking at behaviour and getting as much information as he possibly could, and I think the picked from a lot of different films.
I think screen direction is very important, I think continuity is very important, I think the script notes and all of that play a big, big part in helping the editor put a scene together. Whenever I design a fight I make sure the editor gets all of my notes so he understands, when he gets all of the material, shot out of sync, he has a better chance of putting it together to meet my vision.
Every film has a different set of circumstances so we’ve worked with animatics, we’ve worked with storyboards, we’ve worked with video demonstrations. What I like to do is get the script, break it down and then rehearse with stunt doubles, physically have guys out there moving and rehearsing around the environment in which it’s really going to take place. I’ll start videotaping and cutting it together, start playing with it in order to achieve something I can show to the director. It’s after that I bring the actors in and start their rehearsal process and I’ll videotape that and play it back so they can see where they’re shining and where their movements aren’t quite so good.
I’m a proud member of the Academy, I’ve been voting for fifteen years. There are guys who are trying to get a Stunt Co-ordinator category in there and it may or may not happen, but I haven’t jumped on that bandwagon at all. If it happens, I think it would be wonderful, if it doesn’t… also wonderful.
Action is exciting, it’s usually fast paced, it gets your heart going and you sit and shovel down popcorn without knowing it because you’re watching cool stuff but, to me, it’s so important that it’s about the characters and sequence. There’s a lot of people out there who like to go to the cinema for action’s sake, see the chases, see the cars turn over, but for me, it’s essential for the action to fit the story.
I’m working right now with Michael Mann on a project, an untitled thriller about cyberspace. We’ll go overseas in a couple of weeks to start shooting. I’m the stunt co-ordinator – Michael Mann doesn’t really do a lot of second unit, but there will be a little bit shot with splinter units. We’re going to hit every facet of stunt work from fire to water to cars in this film. It’s a big one.
Last year I was involved in a project called Winter’s Tale with Will Smith and Colin Farrell and I think it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful film. You have to have the right people to work with horses and Colin Farrell, luckily, is a very good horseman.
My daughter was the double for the female lead and she’s a nationally ranked horse jump champion and has been around horses all her life. In this film she doubled for Jennifer Connelly and Jessica Brown-Findlay.
My family has done stunts, my wife acts and does stunts all the time, my daughter is acting and doing stunts. My job is to make sure we’ve eliminated all of the risks but watching your daughter do something dangerous – watching anybody do anything dangerous, whether it’s family, an actor or another stunt person – I make sure that it’s really set up safely.
Thanks again to Coleman for speaking to me.
Mann’s film will feature Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Christian Borle and Holt McCallany, all of them very possibly on fire, underwater and in crashing cars.
Gangster Squad is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now. Coleman did some fine work and I hope he’s proud of his part in it.