We did a couple of techie-orientated lectures on stage fighting, back at Ra-de-da, while the actors did their stage combat training. In tech the arrival of the fight choreographer was always a Big Deal, as invariably they’d only have a couple of hours to spend on the show and, more importantly, we could only ever afford to pay them for that thin amount of time, before the cost of their expertise began to cost more than… say… the set.
One of the choreographers who talked to the techies explained some of the skills required. For a start, he had brown belts or higher in at least six martial arts – anything less than a brown belt was a cause of derision. He had to choreograph not merely to the style of the show (i.e. Batman uses a different martial art from Daredevil etc.) but have the fight reflect the emotion of the piece. Are the fighters full of rage, sorrow, despair? Are they really looking forward to a punch up? Are they showy, practical, do they fight dirty, are they skilled in courtly arts, etc.?
Fight choreographing is, in short, a hugely complicated, professional, skilled job, which a handful of people are highly trained to execute to an incredibly high standard for the enhancement both of your viewing pleasure, and for the telling of the story.
Which makes it a shame that so much is pants.
Some of it is great. As we’ve mentioned the Netflix Daredevil, let’s take this moment to just sing its praises again. Not only is every fight convincing; not only are people hurt; not only does biology factor as a thing; not only does the fight reflect its environment and the state of the characters at the time, but the entire thing evolves. As the characters develop, so does they way they fight, and the emotion they bring. Fight cheorographer – stuntment – cameramen – actors – I salute you all.
That said, a good stage-fight doesn’t have to reflect actual physical realities. The Batman movies would be very different things if, after the first few punches are thrown Bruce Wayne spends the rest of the movie going ‘yeah, I would save Gotham, but I just need to find my teeth and also I can’t talk properly because I’ve got a broken nose’. Everything is bigger; every movement is enhanced and exaggerated for our viewing pleasure.
However. There are some cardinal sins that I just wish we could get over….
- Hitting each other’s weapons. Most medieval stage combat is guilty of this, but it’s also fair to call out things like Game of Thrones and nearly everything the BBC has ever made ever which involves actors and swords. They thrust… they parry… steel clangs on steel… and you know what? The reason it’s feckin’ clanging on steel is because even if you moved your feet now you’d be about a foot and a half out of range from actually hitting the other bugger’s head…
- Spinning. It looks so sexy. It’s so swirly-mc-swirly, particularly if you’ve got a cape or a costume with tassles. It’s so feckin’ stupid that it blows my mind just hit the other guy, will you? Just hit him now in the back which he’s shown to you because I know he’s spinning but come on! Hit him now!
- Body balance. Stage combat can lead to big movements; big movements can lead to prancing around on stage, knees flapping. Flapping knees lead to almost no body balance. No body balance makes it really, really hard for me to believe that you know what you’re doing. It’s a little thing, but you can still look impressive without looking like you’re going to fall over. Which leads to…
- Exotic fighting poses/weapons. There’s a reason why the Stance of the Hunting Lobster is only used by mystic kung-fu masters from the east: it’s feckin’ impossible to use well unless you’re a mystic kung-fu master. Equally, training in nunchuks, exotic bladed weapons and throwing stars, while funky, may not be half so practical in daily life as use of a kitchen knife. Or to put it another way: if your character has a day-job, and only kills monsters in the evening, please arm him/her appropriately with a sensible vocabulary of tools….
- People attacking one at a time. Isn’t it nice the way villains only attack one at a time so that an army of eighty can be destroyed by one? Isn’t it pleasant how, in order to give the good guy a chance to end things honourably, the other good guys will stand back and let them endure a brutal fight to the deal? Indeed it is. Except, that is, in Firefly…
- The one-punch knock-out. I understand that sometimes narrative pace requires that you knock someone out in a single blow – I’ve probably written it that way myself in the past. But if this is going to be a thing, medically implausible as it is, perhaps could we consider arming people with, say, a stun gun? Or a really big stick…? (Again, kudos to Daredevil for having people who are punched, get back up again or end up comatose.)
- Waiting for the Other Bugger. This is particularly a thing you’ll see in battles with bigger, heavier weapons, such as quarterstaff. Knight Errant A will strike Knight Errant B, who will indeed block the blow, and then Errant A will patiently wait for Errant B to strike back and it’s all very rhythmic and lovely and one-two-one-two and also, feckin’ insane. You’ll also find this phenomenon in that other most shameful trait of on-screen fights: waiting for the other guy to prepare. Sure, if your character is of that ilk, if you’ve got a code of honour at play, then fine, let the other guy take his asthma inhaler and draw his sword. But if not, let’s take a lesson from Indiana Jones the day he had food poisoning, and just shoot the guy before trouble can brew, ok?
- The Hidden Blade. This is most successfully deployed when you’ve been (almost) mortally injured by a guy with a sword, who is now violating the rule above (Waiting For The Other Bugger) and taking too long to kill you. At which point – stabby mc stabby with that hidden dagger you were keeping up your left nostril, please!
- Women who don’t know how to punch. We’ve all seen it. A psychopathic man is strangling a woman because of his sexual lust (you’ll see a lot of women being strangled in sexual lust on TV – and you won’t see it because as a society we’re hung up on the sexualisation of violence against women, oh no, it’s just that it’s a better story that way oh yes oh boy oh my) and the woman beats against his shoulder with her little fist. Against his shoulder. Team: the time has come to learn how to gouge eyes. I know it’s a different story that’s being told if that’s where we’re going, but frankly, I think it’s a narrative problem we should learn to deal with. Let’s see if as storytellers we can overcome the dilemma of what to do about a woman gouging a guy’s eyes out in self-defense rather than, say, beating feebly against his manly chest.
- The Man Who Feels No Pain. He’s seven foot tall, he’s built like a brick wall, you try and fight him, but nothing makes a difference. Or to put it another way: guys, for such situations was improvised weaponry invented…
- Grabbing the blade of the sword with your bare hand. Um. You’re grabbing a sword with your bare hand. How is this even a thing? How are we even talking about this?!
- Broken bones. Remember the moment when the Hero is trapped in a deadly elbow lock by the evil villain? Remember how, at that terrible second of pain and horror, he sees the Pitiful Damsel in Distress and recalls how she’s going to suffer if he doesn’t do something? At which point there’ll invariably be a bit of acrobatics and he’ll rise to the occasion and hit people most mightily, despite the fact that before he lacked motivation (which, curiously, might also have been an implied act of sexual violence against a woman just saying) he couldn’t escape because of how he had a broken collarbone? Moral of the story: it’s perfectly easy to fight with a broken arm, so long as you’ve got motivation.
- Breaking the bottle at the wrong end. If you’re gonna smash a bottle, guys, please hold it at the base. (Also: don’t smash bottles.)
- Holding guns too close to your target. I know it’s dramatic, but too many villains are too easily disarmed because they held the weapon too close, and just once I’d like to see a minion give himself five or six foot of lee-way, please…
- Quadruple backwards backflips for no apparent reason. Because sometimes, guys, it’s easier to run away than it is to somersault five times through the crowd.
- Lack of environmental awareness. If you are in a forest being chased by someone with a really big weapon, maybe try and put some trees between you and him? Equally, if you’re fighting in a really tight alley for your life, maybe consider turning that handy brick wall into a blunt-force object….?
- Bad acting. Guys. You can do it. You can slap each other without missing by three feet. You can. Keep trying. You’ll make it. I believe in you!!
Don’t get me wrong – I love a good, silly stage-fight. I think a shout-out should probably go to Kill Bill – which takes huge delight in the daftness and silliness of its epic pt.1 fight sequence. But you know what Kill Bill does? It has flying, mad acrobatics, epic minions being cut down in droves, but it also actually doesn’t violate the rules above. Sure, there’s a bit of exotic weaponry, but the warriors involved know exactly how to use it and have been trained in its use for years. Many people die – other live, brutally injured and bleeding out, but still alive.
In other words: I love a good fight. I really do. And a spectacular, ridiculous, absurd, wonderful bit of choreography can be as daft and spectacular as you want, and still not be pants.
Footnote: I also have a friend who’s learning to be a stuntwoman. If you want to take a moment to consider how much training goes into these things, she can hold her breath for over three minutes under water while swimming an assault course, she’s got certificates in trampolining and acrobatics (for the art of falling off things), is a champion boxer, a race-winning BMX rider, a medieval swordswoman, a skilled horsewoman and still has many more certificates to go. All of this training is self-funded (she’s a tree surgeon too, did I mention?) and the only part of it that pays anything is the +60 hours of camera time she has to clock in as an extra before she’ll be considered for the role of stuntwoman. In short: she’s one of the most awesome, incredible human beings I know, who absolutely makes things better.