I was talking to a guy I think you know, Sam Hargrave, who also went from stunt coordination to directing “Extraction,” and he said, “Action is character.” Do you agree?
I’ll go you one better: I think action is a part of character. Action is a characterization in another way … How you portray action or how they do it is a part of characterization. I’ll give you the easiest example, which is Jackie [Chan]. Through action, his choreography, he can be, “Am I scared? Am I nervous? Do I not want to hurt you? Am I passive? Am I active? Am I angry?” The way he choreographs his fights, when he’s coming after you, you see anger or rage. When he’s going, “No, no, no, no,” there’s hesitancy. [When] he’s trying to juggle a vase at the same time, there’s comedy. You can learn a lot by watching him.
Unfortunately, too many times in Western cinema, the acting stops because you have to do a car chase. Yes, it may be cool action, it may be a good one or it may be anything like that, but what did you learn? What did you see? Hopefully, when you see Donnie and Hiroyuki, there’s a hesitancy. Hiroyuki is like, “Please don’t do this.” There’s a broken friendship, there’s a fellowship there and so much sorrow having to do this. Hopefully, because of the choices they make during the action, you learn something about character. You use action as that reflective space to show something that you didn’t want to say, but you wanted to prove or show.
What do you think has given you a leg up in terms of moving from the world of stunt coordination and second-unit directing to full-on directing?
What’s the old adage? “If you don’t know what you don’t know, how are you supposed to know what to learn?” I caught onto that a little sooner than most. Don’t get me wrong — after 10 years of being an action director and working with some pretty incredible directors and dealing with some of the greatest action cast and stuntmen and all that stuff, you come with a certain degree of … confidence, we’ll call it, but arrogance would be closer to the term. You’re like, “How hard can first unit be?” Well, it’s really different. [Stunt coordinators are] craftsmen. We execute a sequence and we try to bring our own little creative input into the action design. But having to conceive a story and tell a story and say something, that’s the real artistry, isn’t it?
Very early on, when my co-director at the time — Dave Leitch — and I were doing the first “John Wick,” we came in with a massive amount of stunt action and choreography knowledge. Whether we had been VFX supervisors or production designers and cinematographers, there’s another adage: You always fall to the level of your training instead of rising to the level of your expectations. We expect to just know things, but you really fall to what we’ve already been trained to do, which is be craftsman and deal with the action. The sooner you realize that you are short in some areas — like you haven’t told stories before, even though you think you have — you realize that.