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Story Principles and Fight Scenes

February 12, 2015

DeanKick The weekend just gone, Emily (my frequent collaborator and long-suffering AD) and I drove up to Birmingham to meet stunt performer and actor Dean Williams and actress Francesca White and work on some choreography for our latest short film. I’ve been writing and rewriting the script for the film since about September last year and we’ve been in a tortoise-esque pre-production for the last few months or so.

The film is an action comedy about a female assassin (played by Francesca) and, lest people say we don’t challenge ourselves, in its 15-20 minute runtime we have two somewhat ambitious action sequences. There’s a big gun battle at the end of the film and in the middle, a one on one fight scene in a pub bathroom. And it was the latter we went up to Birmingham to block out and work on.

Although both Emily and myself had shot action before, we wanted this to be better and more complicated than what we’d done previously- and this meant getting a professional stunt performer involved. Besides, all the people I used to shoot fight scenes with are not the 19 year old Jackie Chan and Jackass-inspired headcases that we used to be. So a professional headcase was needed! Dean was actually a recommendation of Francesca and because he can fight, fall and choreograph as well as being a decent screen actor, he was coming on board as a one-stop fighter/actor/co-ordinator shop. He was working on the prep for a feature film whilst we were up there, casting and training actors (it’s a pretty cool film called Enter the Cage and you can follow its progress here), so we had to grab him and Francesca when we could.

Which left Emily and I with a bit of time to plan out how the action scenes would work from a narrative standpoint. “Narrative standpoint?” I hear you repeat, “but surely fight scenes are just kicky-punchy-flippy-off-the-wall-that’s-so-cool kinda scenes?” Not really, dear conveniently mistaken reader, (although some films really don’t help dispel this stigma) so allow me to explain…

Contrary to what a lot of filmmakers and amateur stunt teams think, fight scenes aren’t just about the fighting. They obey the same rules and satisfy the same criteria as any other scene or sequence in the movie- they serve the story. They need to advance the plot, develop the characters, add depth to the world or contribute to the big picture or preferably all four. If an action scene doesn’t do one or more of these things, then it should be cut. I’ve talked about my four elements of storytelling before but the ideas apply to every part of a film, from a standard dialogue scene to a car chase. Fight scenes need to have a narrative through-line just like any other scene. Since fight scenes are very much like dialogue sequences with back and forth exchanges, confrontations and submissions (both literally and figuratively!), most of a fight’s narrative is centred around the characters.

As an example, let’s have a look at the end fight scene from the Van Damme magnum opus Kickboxer. For those who haven’t seen the film (or those whose therapists have convinced them to block it and most of the 80s out), JCVD plays Kurt, a martial artist bent on revenge after his kickboxer brother is paralysed by Muay Thai bad guy Tong Po. Now, the final fight could just be Van Damme kicking six bales of hay out of Michel Qissi, but there’s actually a bit more to it from a narrative perspective. Not a lot more, obviously- this is a Van Damme film not something by David Mamet, but still…

Before the bout, Kurt and Tong Po wrap their hands and dip them in broken glass to add a bit more jeopardy to the proceedings (because elbows to the face aren’t intimidating enough). Kurt is also told beforehand that he needs to let Tong Po “punish” and beat him or his brother will be killed. This affects Kurt’s attitude and thus the choreography of the beginning of the fight, with Kurt trying to avoid harming Tong Po without taking too much damage himself. Inevitably, Kurt takes a lot more damage than he dishes out in this first part, giving the fight the typical “good guy loses until he makes a comeback” curve. This comeback comes when Kurt’s brother escapes his captors and appears ringside. Kurt realises his brother’s safe and he doesn’t need to hold back any more. But the filmmakers also use this for a character moment- now that he can fight back, Kurt decides to remove his glass-covered-wraps (although why when the rest of the fight is primarily his feet smashing against Tong Po’s face is anybody’s guess!), showing that he has a sense of restraint and morality. He’ll happily beat Tong Po but he doesn’t want to kill him. The next few minutes are pretty much the JCVD kicking showcase you come to expect from these sorts of movies set to some 80s ethnic power rock. While the whole sequence is quite simplistic, the little narrative nods affect the choreography and allow for character moments.

"Character Moment"

“Character Moment”

Our fight scene was to be a bit more complex than Kickboxer- from both a story and choreography standpoint- although saying that is hardly difficult. Our assassin, Cleo, would follow her target into the bathroom and try to kill him from behind with a knife. He spots her and resists, forcing her to change her game plan. She attacks with the knife, he disarms her and sends her flying with a flashy jumping kick. Now both she and the audience know that her target is a lot more skilled than originally thought. Cleo can’t hope to match him in strength or power, so she has to fight smart. She uses the environment around them to injure or destabilise him, targeting his legs (so he can’t kick, move or stand properly) then one of his eyes (affecting his depth perception) before taking an opportunity and finishing him.

The above narrative helped divide the choreography into sections, each with its own story progression and methodology behind the styles and techniques used. These sections make the fight easier to choreograph and perform as well as making it easier to shoot. But the big thing is the story progression of the whole fight. What it reveals about the characters- Cleo’s tactical thinking, her target’s pride and OCD- and what it adds to the story as a whole.

When you’re shooting an action film, there’s usually the decision to either cast an actor and teach them how to fight (at best you get Zhang Ziyi or Keanu Reeves, at worst you get Ben Affleck) or cast a martial artist and try to teach them how to act (historically, there usually isn’t a “best” in this scenario, only a lot of worsts!), but we got lucky with our casting. Francesca is fast developing a reputation as a gung-ho action actress, game to do all these fight scenes and learn martial arts and stunts. It was part of the reason why we cast her. She also has a background in dance and is pretty flexible, making it easy for her to remember choreography and perform what would otherwise be difficult-for-a-beginner kicking techniques. As a martial artist myself, I know there’s a big difference between looking like you can do a spinning hook kick and actually being able to do a spinning hook kick, but the broader our performers’ skillsets the more chance we have of getting a really cool fight at the end of it. Which is why it was great to get Dean on board. Dean is a veteran of the martial arts and stunt world and has a range of styles and techniques at his disposal, which made for interesting and varied choreography. He’s also an actor, so the little character moments in the choreography will add an extra dimension to what could just have been two performers wailing on each other for a couple of minutes.

It was a long day and we had to steal Dean and Francesca when we could, but I’m glad we did. It’s helped me get a handle on what we can do with the fight and what it could look like (filming some walkthroughs in an actual bathroom helped!) as well as bolstering Dean’s character with some detail work you wouldn’t normally see. Next step is to do a whole day of training and run-throughs to really work out the choreography and block out the camera moves as well. From that we can put together a blocking tape so we can be much more efficient when it comes to shooting- we’ll only have a day to shoot this scene so the more prep time, the better.

It was also good to meet some of the cast and crew of Enter the Cage and see the way they’re approaching the action for the film. Special thanks to Dean and the director Kevin for letting us gatecrash their party!

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