In the buildup to the release of Spectre, ORWAV sat down with legendary stunt master Vic Armstrong, who has appeared in and even partly directed over a dozen of 007’s onscreen adventures. He is truly an icon of modern filmmaking and has performed in several famous roles including James Bond, Indiana Jones and Superman.
You started your career working with horses, like many other stunt professionals. What is it about working with horses that has such a natural progression into stunt work?
If you’re a horseman, you’re used to being very practical, especially because you have a living animal whose welfare and wellbeing you are responsible for. You have two things to deal with [the horse and the rider]. It’s a great grounding for the business and it also keeps your feet firmly on the ground. It’s not like a car where you point it in the right direction, give it enough gas and check the ramp is positioned correctly; it’ll go where it’s supposed to go, though things can go wrong. With a horse, it’s another mentality, it’s not a human being, and it doesn’t understand what you’re trying to make it do. Even on Sunday Horse, I used to tell the camera crew “Don’t swing the boom over the horse’s head!” – because while you know it’s only a boom, the horse thinks it’s some attacking object. They don’t read the script either. You leave it for them overnight and they don’t read it… they’re irresponsible like that, horses.
Can you describe the progression from your horse stunt work into becoming a stunt coordinator?
It’s a case of logic; you become quite a logical person with horses. You look at a stunt and you think “OK, they want me to jump off the Eiffel Tower, on fire, land on this bicycle, and ride down the Champs-Élysées.” That can’t happen for real, so you start dissecting it and you have to have a certain vision, like a director, to see what the shot would look like. Not only do you have to be able to say “No, I can’t do that,” but you also have to advise on something else you can do and why that would work, as well as be able to explain how to photograph it properly. I’ve always been able to see how I can break stunts down into sequences, so it was a natural progression to end up coordinating.
You place a great emphasis on performing stunts to make them appear as realistic as possible, and not to make them appear sort of staged and rehearsed. How do you approach making a stunt simultaneously safe and yet still believable onscreen?
The main thing is having confidence in your ability, but the whole thing about stunting is how it looks. It has to be part of the story, not just somebody doing a swan dive out of a helicopter. In the late ’60s, I performed a stunt on Figures in a Landscape, in which I had to fall out of a helicopter. I just had a padded kapok life vest that I put under the flight suit to cushion the impact, so the fall would only knock the wind out of me when I landed. The safest position when you land on something is on your back as your body bends that way. I was playing someone sitting in a helicopter, and got shot and fell out, so I had to come out like a sack of shit. I collapsed in the seat and flopped out the side of the helicopter. It’s not the falling that hurts, it’s the stopping – and you can fall 2000 feet, so long as you take another few hundred feet to slow down and stop. I picked a very steep slope in the Sierra Nevadas, which was dust and gravel and rock. The idea was to hit the slope and keep moving. It’s just a case of thinking it all through and the strategy and committing to it and doing it.
You’ve performed stunts in the role of many famous characters, from Indiana Jones to James Bond and Superman, though profess in your biography not to be a good actor. How do you approach doing stunts and movements and shots as a character and still make yourself believable onscreen?
Subconsciously, I’m comfortable doing physical action. Talking onscreen? I’m hopeless. I’ve tried it, I can’t do it. This last film I directed, Sunday Horse, the little girl in it is nine years old, she’s only been acting for a year, but her delivery was fantastic. She was just a natural and I wasn’t a natural for acting. Maybe because I’d played so much Cowboys and Indians as a kid, I could physically do all those moves [of the character] and the personality of the actor. They move differently. I can just switch on and do that, the same as good actors can switch on and say lines of dialogue with all the right emphasis and emotions.
If you had one piece of advice for someone who was looking at getting into the industry as a stunt performer, what would that be?
Without doubt, take your specialty, whether it be origami, high diving, horse riding, motorcycling, skateboarding, karate, and become the best at it of anybody else around because that’s your ticket onto set. Like myself I got on through horses, but I realised very quickly that I wasn’t going to earn a living doing horse stunts all the time. There are and were very few horse jobs, in England certainly. I got lucky and got on the ‘Scottish Play’, Mary Queen of Scots, and Young Winston. I did do a lot of horse pictures, but in between you need to learn how to sword fence, how to fight, how to drive safely and efficiently. But that’s up to you to learn those other skills.
In your early years, you learnt a lot of your other skills from your friends in the stunt community, like boxing and motorbike riding. Is that community feeling still part of the industry? Is there that closeness with personal relationships interweaving with the professional ones?
I think it’s changed quite a bit now. There’s so much competition. When I started there were 30-40 guys maximum and you knew your little group of friends that you would always work with on the same films together. You’d cross paths much more often. You would accept that some people are high-fall men, like Alf Joint was a great high-fall man, and he taught me falling and I taught him riding, but we never got to the same standard as the other. Alf was a good swordsman and he taught me sword fencing. Every stuntman is a competitor for the other guy, but at the same time you gravitated towards people that you knew and had an affinity with and you saw each other much more regularly. Nowadays, there are so many people in the business and a lot of people have the same qualifications. There are a huge amount of gymnasts and divers and incredible athletes in the business now. It’s changed the whole nature of the industry. As a director and coordinator, it’s incredible now; you can find anybody to do anything. They’re so talented. Especially in England, we’ve got some of the best in the world.
You’ve worked in the UK and the US as well as around the world. Is there a notable difference between the American and British stunt industries?
They’re becoming very similar. In England, it was a lot different. America has the Screen Actors Guild that was very strong. The lunch hours were paid for, and their royalties were very strictly monitored, and guys in America didn’t work half as much as we did but earned more money through their residuals. But nowadays in England, we’ve got a much more regulated business and there are residuals coming in and it’s become very similar to America. There’s very little difference.
In your honest opinion, what is the state of the stunt industry?
It’s a very healthy place, it has always been a great industry to be part of. It depends of course which chair you’re looking at it from, a producer’s chair or a stuntman’s chair. As a producer or a director, it’s incredible because you’ve got this massive amount of people to choose from. As a stuntman, it means you’ve got an awful amount of competition! The money is really exceptionally good nowadays. It’s all regulated, there’s no undercutting. There’s a lot of work in England at the moment because of the various tax incentives they’ve got; everybody is working, which is great – but if the work falls off, then it becomes tough because there’s an awful lot of people going for the same jobs. But at the moment, it’s incredibly robust and healthy.
You mention in your biography that during the 1960s and ’70s there was an ‘aristocracy’ on set. How does working on a modern film set compare? And how has the film set environment and hierarchy developed over your career?
I think it’s just like modern living has changed. If you look at the television in the ’60s and ’70s, The Beatles and everybody would be playing in suits and ties. Nowadays you see people going to royal premieres in raggedy jeans and t-shirts. The whole style and aesthetics of life has changed. On a film set, it was quite like the army. You had the directors, like the generals, and it worked its way down. There was a lot of respect and in the very early days, even focus pullers and cameramen had to be on set in a collar and tie. Nowadays, it’s much more laid-back and relaxed. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s a lot of people coming into the business that haven’t been through the apprenticeship of working their way up. I think discipline is probably slacker on set. Except on sets with really tough directors and then people have to toe the line and do the job properly.
There is an obvious progression from stunt performer to stunt coordinator, but how did you approach learning how to direct? How does it compare to your previous roles in the industry? What was the biggest challenge to overcome in learning to direct?
It’s all very similar, it’s just a natural progression. Even when I started as a stunt coordinator, I was putting all the pieces together and deciding how it was going to be glued together with a view to what the end result would be. That’s what it is with directing a film: it’s putting all the performances together and having a view of how it’s going to come out at the end. You can’t just shoot and hopefully you’ll have something at the end. It’s all politics. Even the stuntman has politics dealing with the stunt coordinator; the stunt coordinator has politics dealing with the production manager. As a director, you’re dealing with the producers! It’s about being able to stand there and be positive and confident about what you’re going to shoot. You get that confidence from being a stunt coordinator when you’re risking people’s lives. If you can be confident about that, you can certainly be confident about standing there, telling an actor how to play a part for example. I get everything rehearsed well in advance. The one big stunt I had on Sunday Horse, I had a stuntman rehearsing it for a week in advance and it worked perfectly. We did it in one take and moved on.
Over your career, you’ve pretty much done every stunt that there is possible to do – but in your own opinion, what stunt is the most dangerous stunt you’ve undertaken?
They’re all dangerous, until you’ve done it. Once you’ve achieved it then it seems less dangerous! I did a 100 foot fall on The Final Conflict – the horse had to rear up and throw me off. That was pretty scary. It was obviously not too dangerous as I did it and walked away from it and other people have done higher ones! It’s the simple ones that are dangerous. I broke my leg doing a horse fall, and dislocated an ankle hitting another horse coming the other way. Those are the ones that hurt you. The bigger stunts you tend to take much more care and attention over. I punched myself in the face and knocked myself out [on The Green Jersey]. All I was worried about was the falling and hitting the ground [off the horse after hitting a tree] and of course it was the moment of impact that did the damage and the fall to the ground was incidental!
Over your entire career, and the roles you have played and the stunts you have done, what is it about stunt work that has kept you in the industry for so long? What is it that excites you and has propelled you to where you are today?
I think the creativity of it. Each script that you get is a new challenge, and more often than not in my case it has been a new challenge in another country. I’ve worked in 65 countries around the world. I’m off to Thailand on Sunday for a quick week’s scout on a movie. It’s the excitement of the new challenge, of trying to overcome the challenge and achieve something. Just wanting to do it one more time, I just want to do one more really good one. I like this story or I like this action or I like this stunt. It never really gets boring. I just enjoy working, I enjoy the money, I enjoy what it gives me, and I do like the sense of achievement. It’s a very competitive business and to be offered all these jobs makes you feel very successful and very good. It’s a nice feeling.