Friday, June 3, 2011

An interview with Vic Armstrong, the world's most prolific stuntman

By Pete Roche
Stuntman Vic Armstrong has worked with every JAMES BOND actor, doubled for INDIANA JONES, and taught dozens of Hollywood’s top stars how to ride horses and drive getaway cars.  He’s Steven Spielberg’s favorite fall guy—and today he still keeps busy directing bang-‘em up action sequences for tomorrow's blockbusters. 
Now available from Titan Books, The True Adventures Of The World’s Greatest Stuntman is Armstrong’s official daredevil diary.  It’s a compelling 350-page look back at the making of the magic (complete with photos) and profile of the risk-taking Englishman whose stunts authenticated some of the greatest screen heroes of our time.

The Cleveland Movie Blog checked in with Mr. Armstrong by phone during what was supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation for the assistant director.  He had lots to share about his years making the jumps and taking the punches that still thrill audiences, and his take on old-school practical magic vs. today’s computer-generated shortcuts.
CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: How’s the production coming in New York with the new Spider-Man film?
VIC: It’s all finished—done and dusted.  It’s great.  Going to be a big movie.

CMB: I hear under your expertise, the new SPIDER-MAN will be less CG-reliant and use more practical magic.
VIC: That’s what we’re hoping for.  My brother Andy and the rest of the Armstrong team—sons, nephews, everybody—we all worked on it.  Brother Andy’s been creating some new flying methods.  So you’ll see much more, physically.  Part of it will be CG because it’s not a “real” movie, obviously.  But all the body movements will be for real.  I’ve already seen quite a bit on You Tube of Spider-Man flying down 12th Avenue and what have you.

CMB: We’re looking forward to that, although I know it will be a year or so.  But obviously the reason we’re calling is to talk about the book, The World’s Greatest Stuntman.  What inspired you—gave you the idea to put all your stories into a book?
VIC: I never really wanted to write a book, but people were always sort of talking, “Oh—let’s do a book about the stunts,” the injuries, all that sort of old-fashioned nonsense.  I wasn’t sure, because there are injuries—and an injury is a failure to me.  But I met [collaborator] Robert Sellers, and he suggesting jotting down all the memories and anecdotes of the films and things as they evolved.  So I thought, well, let’s give it a go, and over five or six years we put it down.  All from memory.  And it just sort of evolved, really.

CMB: It surveys your entire career, all the way up to THOR and SPIDER-MAN, but starts with your boyhood, working on horses with your father in Farnham. 
VIC: Yeah, horses are my main thing.  I always wanted to be a steeplechase jockey and it was horses that got me in the business.  Owe it all to horses; that’s what started me off.

CMB: Later in the book, I noticed your affinity for animals in general.  You discussed some mistreatment of sharks on the production for the James Bond film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, and you also helped rid the industry of toe-taps on horses, training them to fall instead of forcing it with wires.
VIC: Yeah, right—toe tappers had been around for years and years, and I wondered if there was a way to just teach them to do it.  It takes time, and if they won’t do it they won’t do it.  It’s an accepted method nowadays; I didn’t invent it but was taught by various people. 

CMB: You met Donald Sutherland on the production of BEAR ISLAND, and in the book you mention the watch he gave you with your inscribed motto about always putting your left boot on first.  Do you still have that watch?
VIC: I do; I’m wearing it now and have worn it ever since!  Yeah, I’m a superstitious person and it’s my lucky watch.  I was always superstitious about putting my left boot on first.  I tried it the other way a couple times and it didn’t work out—so I always put the left one on first. 

CMB: Was there a difference for you on SUPERMAN when they brought in director Richard Lester to replace Richard Donner?     
VIC:  Dick Donner was just phenomenal.  A character.  And the first two SUPERMAN films, we shot them together like we were making one movie, but it was really two.  So we filmed for like eleven months, then shut down and went off to do something else.  And later I got a call to come back; Richard Lester had come on and was filming some stuff of the [villains] from Krypton coming down and wrecking the town.  I did the [downtown Metropolis] fight with the manhole cover being thrown, and being tossed into the Marlboro truck.  Things like that.  But I’ve got to say I like the way it finished up.  Dick Donner is just an incredible…visionary filmmaker.  I think those two films proved that fact. 

CMB: Sure, and he went on in the eighties to great success with the LETHAL WEAPON series.
VIC: Yeah, they’re brilliant—and that’s totally his style.  They’re big and expensive—but inventive—and they have humor.  Just a wonderful director, I think. 

CMB: Then of course you went on to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with Steven Spielberg.  You were one of several stunt men there, but you had a special place in the INDIANA JONES trilogy because of your resemblance to Harrison Ford.  So that’s you being chased by the boulder in the Hovitos temple?
VIC: They did a lot of stuff in the studio, because I joined them later on.  But that’s me diving out at the end, into the jungle.  That stuff with the boulder coming down at the end, they’d shot in Kauai.  The rest of that part was Martin Grace.  But the thing with these movies is, we’re all little cogs in a big machine.  There were several doubles for Indy, like Terry Leonard [who performed the dragged-under-the-truck bit].  There was myself and Martin Grace.  It’s a job we do, and you’re a double—so you’re a faceless person, really.  What did help was I had more of a resemblance to Harrison, so they could shoot on me that much closer than the others, maybe.  But they deserve as much credit as I do.  We’re all part of a moviemaking process. 

CMB: But your role expanded a little more in TEMPLE OF DOOM, because Harrison injured his back riding those elephants…
VIC: Harrison had had a problem with his back, I think from his days as a carpenter.  I don’t know how he originally got it.  But we certainly aggravated it in Sri Lanka with him riding the elephant.  They med-evac’d him out to America to do some revolutionary surgery on him.  So we were a bit stuck; obviously Indy’s in a large part of the movie and we couldn’t just shoot around him.  Luckily, Steven said, “Vic’s a great double, so let’s shoot on him.”  There was a photo double as well as a stunt double, in those days. 

CMB:  Were you allowed to keep any of the props or wardrobe?
VIC: Oh, yeah—I’ve got my Indy shirt and stuff, yeah.

CMB: And when KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL came along, did you have any input on that one?
VIC: No, it just didn’t work out.  The eighteen years had come and gone, and we’d just got out of sync, I guess. 

CMB: You’ve got your sons and nephews involved in the business with Team Armstrong, now that they’re grown—and of course there’s your brother, Andy.  When you’re watching from the sides as assistant director or coordinator, do you worry as much—if not more—for their safety than you did when it was you?
VIC: I’m completely terrified for them.  Can’t show it, of course—I’ve got to be calm and stoic.  But yes, I get terrified.  But with their experience, they’re better than me at it.  Every detail is thought out, worked out, and rehearsed between myself and Andy and the team.  But to answer your question, yes—I do worry more for them than I did myself.

CMB: Do you have any favorite stunts or sequences from the James Bond pictures?
VIC: Yes, I’m proud of all my contributions to the Bonds, starting back in ’65.  I was a $120-per week stuntman back then, and went on to becoming the action director on the Pierce ones.  I’m proud of that ninja sequence from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, because that’s all for real; what you see is what happens.  Then, on the ones I directed, I’m very proud of the car chase on ice [DIE ANOTHER DAY].  It’s a beautiful car chase; we wanted it to go to classical music.  It’s a great sequence that had to be invented.  What do you do?  Two cars on a flat lake—how do you make it exciting?  You get two equally-matched people.  You use the environment as another character.  Big, sweeping helicopter shots and colors.  I’m very proud of the boat chase on the Thames [THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH].  That was a pretty knock-‘em-dead boat chase.  I do love the remote control BMW car in TOMORROW NEVER DIES.  Barbara Broccoli thought we were completely mad.  But it turned out to be a real fun chase.  The thing is, to get enough drama, enough originality.  And still combine it with humor.  Those are all ingredients you need for Bond. 

CMB: Are there any directors you’d like to work with?
VIC: I’d have liked to work with John Huston.  Missed working with him on UNDER THE VOLCANO, and just missed being able to do THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.  He made me feel like a schoolboy, reading his book [laughs].  He’d worked with Errol Flynn and David Niven and all those greats over the years.  Sounded like he worked the more “romantic” part of Hollywood.

CMB: Being someone watching from the audience, stunt work strikes me as being a lot of athleticism, imagination, and science.  Do you ever feel people sometimes take for granted what goes on behind the scenes?
VIC: I think hopefully my book sets a little bit of it straight.  You realize how much practicality is in there.  And I think sadly nowadays people are getting their minds slightly warped by video games, where they’re not actually real.  But the quality is so good you tend to think they’re real.  The line between fantasy and reality gets a bit blurred.  I think that the public…they do love a good action film where they feel the hero is in danger, and is a real person.  I think subconsciously they really relate to that.

CMB: You raise a good point there.  A lot of the big action movies now are superhero movies—which I love.  But unlike regular people, superheroes like a Hugh Jackman-Wolverine are nearly invincible.  Whereas with “everyman” heroes like Indy or James Bond or John McClane, the audience sympathizes with the peril, identifies with their vulnerability.
VIC: Absolutely; you relate to them.  You can’t really relate to a superhero—but you can relate to our heroes, as super as they are.  You take their truth, their reality, and you stretch it 10-15%.


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