EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Vic Armstrong, "The World's Greatest Stuntman"
Vic Armstrong has worked in the film industry for over three decades, and regardless of whether it's his work as a stuntman, stunt coordinator or director, one need only think of their favourite action movie and you can just about guarantee that Vic worked on it. Whether it's doubling for the likes of Christopher Reeve, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford or working alongside directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Irving Kirshner, the story of "The World's Greatest Stuntman" is a truly fascinating one. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to talk to Vic and ask him about some of the many projects he's tackled over the years, as well as hearing his fascinating insights into the stunt industry and much more. A big thank you to Titan Books' Tom green for setting up the interview and to Vic himself for taking the time to answer my questions.
The True Adventures Of The World's Greatest Stuntman is released in all good book stores this month, and in this fascinating interview, Vic Armstrong talks in huge detail about his work in Superman, Indiana Jones, The Amazing Spider-Man, Akira and much, much more.
Can you tell our readers what they should expect from The True Adventures Of The World's Greatest Stuntman?
Basically, it’s my life story from 1965 up until this year. The paperback has got another chapter in it which brings it right up to date with The Amazing Spider-Man, so it covers my life and all my travels and anecdotes and the people I’ve met. There are lots of photographs and it gives you an insight into the life of a stuntman.
After so many years of working behind the scenes, how does it feel to put yourself in the spotlight by releasing an autobiography?
I didn’t like it to tell you the truth. I was very, very trepidatious about it going out. The title I thought was a bit pretentious [Laughs]. The bloody publishers put “The World’s Greatest” on it, but they’ve got to sell books I suppose! I was nervous about it really, because I thought, ‘Who the heck wants to read about it anyway?’ Then I started thinking, ‘Well, if I’ve got descendants coming along behind me, it would be nice for them to see what the old man did,’ you know? It will give them an insight into what happened and so I thought it’s a rather nice legacy to leave behind; a record of your working life.
Looking back, what would you say was the best film you worked on?
I’ve had fun on films that have never seen the light of day. Raiders of the Lost Arc was a great film to work on I must say. Mexico was fantastic location, swimming with the kids and everything else. Air America was great fun, flying all around Thailand in huge choppers and having them at our disposal night and day. I’ve got happy memories of most of them. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a fantastic film. To live in Switzerland and be paid a fortune and to have every ski pass you could want to ski on. We lived in a gorgeous place and it was a fantastic moment.
What was the most dangerous stunt you’ve ever done?
That’s always a difficult question because they’re all dangerous when you’re lining them up and if something goes wrong, then they can be really dangerous. But going in, with your nerves going…I did a hundred foot fall on The Final Conflict which involved throwing myself of a viaduct. I think there’s a picture in the book. You know you’re going to be falling a hundred feet and that you’re going to be doing 65/70 miles per hour when you hit the airbag, so you better be in the correct position. At the same time when you’re falling, you have to look like somebody who has just come off a horse, not a swan diver. And you know when you hit the airbag at whatever speed it is, if you can imagine the G-Force on your body, you better make sure that you’re in the right position having acted out the fall and everything. That gets your nerves going. The jump onto the tank was tricky in The Last Crusade because I knew what was involved. There was the galloping horse you have to run straight with, and I stand up on the saddle and you have to trust the horse not to swerve either way or you’ll fall under the tank! Once you’ve achieved it, you think, ‘Oh, well that wasn’t too bad!’ I’m more nervous now watching my kids do it. My son Scott, on The Green Hornet, he had to do a crash on a big stunt truck which was on fire, drive that into a bus at 65 miles per hour through the front of the bus, out of the roof and somersault down the road on fire. That terrifies me. My brother did a crash in it and so did my nephews. That gets me more worried than when I was doing it I think.
When you put on the costumes of characters like Superman and Indiana Jones, does it help to get into character?
You automatically do, that’s a part of your job. We’re not actors but at the same time you are acting. If you’re dying, you have to die in a certain way. If you’re falling, you have to do something that’s motivated. It’s not just you jumping off a building, there has to be a certain body attitude which tells a story. In fights, you have to generate storytelling. So, yeah, you have to be in character. You have to move like the actors, therefore you’ve got to look like the actor, you wear their clothes and it’s amazing what wearing the clothes does to you mentally. It transforms you. You do have to be in character, it’s not just the case of putting the suit on and running around doing what you want. It’s very specified the stuff that you have to do.
How does working as a second unit director compare to being a stuntman?
It’s a natural progression really. I love the creativity of every stage of my career. Being a stuntman, you’ve got to be creative in using your talents to interpret the part you’re doing in the movie or for the person you’re doubling. And then of course, when you come to a stunt co-ordinator, you’re creative there in creating stunts, dreaming them up, breaking them down, how you’re going to perform them, actually employing the people to perform them, rehearsing them…and then you work out how it will be shot. Then, as an action unit director, a second unit director, you do all of those jobs. You dream up stunts, you employ people, and then I get to photograph it as well and edit it. So, it’s a tremendously creative process, but it has been just a progression really of my work. Learning and just moving forwards and forwards.
What has it been like to actually work with your family in recent years?
It’s fabulous because they’re the people you can trust and you can rely on and you know their ability. They’ve grown up with you and you know everything they can do and they’re so inventive. We have creative arguments, but you know what they’re recommending is for the good of their movie, not personal reasons. It’s quite interesting working with your family against people who aren’t family. But at the same time, it’s nerve wracking putting them in very, very dangerous situations. It’s terrifying.
Do you have regrets when it comes to any projects you decided not to work on?
Yeah, there are films all the way down the line, especially things like The Fugitive. Harrison phoned me at home and begged me to to do it, and I turned it down because I was going to direct the second Greystokes, which never got made, at least not until several years later which was terrible. I regret that.
What other projects have you got coming up?
I was going to do one called The Great Wall in China, but that went away so I’m just negotiating on another at the moment. One I just read the script for which is a fabulous action story so I’m hoping that will come up. It’s very, very quiet this year. It’s as queiet as it’s ever been – it’s amazing.
Something I’m sure our readers would like to know is what it was like to work with Christopher Reeve on Superman?
That was great. When we did Superman, that was a big, big movie in the 70s. That was massive. Dick [Richard] Donner was a larger than life director and we thought big. We still had budget restraints, you always do no matter how big your movie is, but it was great being able to think outside the box and just know that Dick Donner was just going to back you all the way with any ideas or any suggestions if they were good for the movie. It was great, and Chris had done nothing before that movie. Me and stunt coordinator Alf Joint, my partner on the movie, trained Chris and got him fit, worked his body, taught him all the tricks and things we knew about Superman and he brought his own flair to it. I think he really was a stunning Superman.
What was it like to work with Indiana Jones and Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones trilogy?
I loved it, I just loved it. I loved the clothes, the period, the action, everything about it I just adore. You can put that hat on, the baggy shirt, the baggy trousers, the nice old boots, you can lie down in the dust, nobody worries about you getting your clothes dirty and it’s so conformable. They’re easy to move in, they’re easy to fight in and as I say, I loved the period anyway. Harrison is terrific and we just got it right, you know? Some things, it’s fate how they happen in history, and those films just came along and they raised the bar for action, they raised the bar for what people expect to see. Realism is tongue in cheek, it was James Bond humorous, but at the same time a wonderful swashbuckling era. All the stars aligned at the right moment if you like. I was at my physical peak, so that was a wonderful thing. I couldn’t do it now and I couldn’t have done it before, so everything worked out just right. Harrison was perfect for the part…it just worked out fabulously.
Can you talk about what it was like to work on the James Bond franchise?
Well, that was great. As a young stuntman, it was a fantastic achievement to be able to get on a Bond film. I’ve still got American friends who would kill to get on a Bond film who have never been on one. It was a wonderful honour to be working them as a stuntman, and then I’m also very proud of the fact that I’ve gone full circle to directing great sequences on Bond movies like Die Another Day (the boat chase or the chase on the ice) or Tomorrow Never Dies (the motorcycle through Bangkok or the remote controlled BMW through the car park) and stuff like that. Huge, expensive sequences which I’ve been totally responsible for. I’m very proud to have made that huge transition from being just a £65 a week stuntman to being in charge of all that money and storytelling for Bond. I’m very, very proud of that.
One of your most recent projects was The Amazing Spider-Man. What exactly did your work on the film involve?
"I’m going to LA for the premiere on the 28th June. With [The Amazing] Spider-Man, it was exciting because it’s not just dreaming up crazy stunts and things and then sticking them all in a computer and having somebody do it for you. The producers and director wanted to have a much more realistic approach to it. They felt that the first three were starting to become very, very computer looking and a little bit unreal. As you know, I did Superman I and II, which is the other end of the scale of course. So, we worked very closely with my brother who was the stunt coordinator on it, and there were in fact eight Armstrong’s working on Spider-Man. My nephew James, my nephew Jess, my son Scott, my brother Andy, my daughter Georgie, my son-in-law John and my daughter Nina. A whole gang of us."
"It was great to work and rehearse and make Spider-Man move because Spider-Man is different from Superman or Iron Man – he actually flies on webs. So, we went back to basics and actually related it to Tarzan. His momentum in the jungle is changing from a diagonal direction from vine to vine, which gets the momentum going and that’s how he progresses through. That’s basically when you think about it what Spider-Man is doing. He’s doing it off webs off his wrists, but you still have to have the motivation to propel him along, you know? So we went back to basics and built some stunning rigs, some really unusual rigs, and got him flying like that."
"They’re big swooping swings diagonally, and then he goes to the top of the arc, he changes his direction onto the other wrist, then he swings down and up again. When he’s going through the bottom of that arc going down, he’s pulling three and a half G’s, so when he gets to the top of it and flicks the other arm out to change to the next web he’s weightless and that is what we all decided was what was missing in the other movies. The forces on the body and the way it stretches out under three and a half G's. Now he gets weightless and then it comes back up again, and you see those flexes and all the things you subconsciously look for but are not getting in the computer generated version."
What was Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man) like to work with?
"Andrew was brilliant. My brother is a tough taskmaster, and Andrew came and we had a big, big warehouse in Culver City and we had all our rehearsal equipment set up there – the flying rigs, the climbing rigs, the falling rigs and our big trucks are in there with all the rigging stuff. Andrew came along and he’s a very down to Earth English actor. He wanted to get his hands dirty, didn’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else and he became one of the stuntmen. We taught him what they know and what they could do. Some of them can perform things better than him so they would do those particular shots in the movie – the parkour and a bit of the skateboarding and different bits and pieces – but Andrew worked absolutely flat out as a stuntman and trained from the basics so he did an awful lot on his own. He was great."
Have you heard anything about returning to work on the sequel?
"No, I’d like to know! [Laughs] I’d like to do the sequel I must say."
In the book, you mention that you were going to be working on the remake of Akira. Have you heard anything since production was put on hold?
No, sadly they haven’t come back to me because that would have been a great movie. Some great action and some really exciting motorcycle chases. We were going to think outside the box. When you look at what Red Bull and all these motorcycle competitions achieve these days, you could really, really come up with something special.
HIS THOUGHTS ON THE STUNT INDUSTRY
With an increase in visual effects, do you think there is still room for practical stunts in films?
I think there’s always going to be room for stunt people. In fact, The Amazing Spider-Man is proving that as well. I also did Thor and The Green Hornet, which are visual effect pictures, but we still had a massive amount of stunt people on it. A computer has to be told what a body is going to do when it does a certain thing, and people used to say they’re going to get a library of stuntmen and they’ll just paint a different colour shirt on him and have him falling backwards off a building, forwards off a palm tree. It doesn’t work like that. Every bit of action you do is unique. So, maybe you do have a computer like on Titanic where people fell forty feet and the computers took over and generated another 150 feet for them to fall. It took over from the humans, but used their attitudes and everything else. So, you always need the human I think, to tell the computer what to do and I don’t think they’ll ever have a library of it because each film and each shot is individual and a director wants his piece of a movie to be his piece, not something out of a library which has been seen before. This is why when they build huge, fantastic sets they destroy them straight away. People say, ‘What a waste, we could use that for another movie,’ but that’s the very reason they destroy them. They don’t want anyone else to use them, you know? Your brain is an incredible computer and if something’s out of kilter, it’ll go ‘Beep, Beep, Beep, that’s wrong’ even though you don’t know what it is, it’s moving against realism and you can tell. Computers can enhance things and they’re wonderful tools for us. When I did Superman we were flying on piano wires. Nowadays you fly on wires which are as thick as your finger. They hold tons and tons of weight and never break so there’s room for it all in the business.
What would you say to anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps and work in the stunt industry?
It’s very, very difficult now. In England, you have to be a member of the Stunt Register which is a part of Equity and there are seven or eight desiplines that you have to be up to a silver award standard at. Fencing, horse riding, car driving, fighting, gymnastics, all sorts of things. And then, once you’ve done all that (which takes about two years to get all your qualifications) then you’ve got to go out and start getting the work. My advice would be that if you have a speciality, which you really are a specialist at, whether it’s high diving or sword fencing or motorclycle riding – concentrate on that discipline and that’s what you’re going to be employed for. You’re not going to be employed because you’re average at all these other things you have to learn, which I think is a bit silly personally. Just concentrate on whatever your specialist attribute is because that’s what somebody like myself is going to recognise. It’s tough because the competition is huge out there at the moment. There’s not the films either. Stunt work has become very, very publicised,, so therefore lots of kids know about it and it sounds like a fun job, which it is – you read the book and can see it is a fun job. There’s an amazing amount of people doing it now and the work has gone down a little bit and there’s just not the amount of work for everybody. So I’d say, it’s tough, just make sure you really want to do it.
The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman from Titan Books is on sale now and you can check out my review of the book here on CBM later this month - it's a fantastic read. You can also learn more about Vic and his work by visiting his official website, VicArmstrong.com.
Think you don’t know Vic Armstrong? You’ve seen his work in countless films. He’s been stunt double for James Bond and Indiana Jones, and he’s directed action scenes for 3 Bond movies, Mission Impossible 3 and Thor, to name but a few.He’s got a lot of amazing stories to tell, and they’re all here in this acclaimed memoir, now updated with Vic’s work on The Amazing Spider-Man!
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