Action films are an undervalued form, often dismissed by cineastes and film critics. They aren’t considered “real movies” by the intelligentsia, since so many of them forgo the basics of cinematic storytelling in favor of empty spectacle. Modern action films of the super expensive variety have even become inept in regards to the extravaganza. Modern fight scenes and shoot outs are often a nonsensical clash of sound and fury, lacking anything in the way of coherence. By contrast, lower budget action extravaganzas have become much more adept at delivering the “money shots.” Fights are choreographed, shot and edited in a way that delivers on the thrills while still being understandable to a mass audience.
Larnell Stovall knows all too well the importance of planning, preparation and timing when it comes to action scenes. As perhaps the premiere fight choreographer and stunt coordinator of his day, he has had a hand in crafting some of the most memorable cinematic fisticuffs of recent years. The fact that most of them occurred in straight to DVD sensations like Undisputed III does not diminish their impact. Stovall blends the intricate timing of Hong Kong martial arts cinema with the gritty bar brawling aesthetics of classic Hollywood. The resulting displays are both graceful and wincingly brutal. He has just completed work on the highly anticipated Mortal Kombat Web Series (among other projects) and has decided to give fans some insight into all that his craft entails. When Larnell Stovall lays out a plan, it’s best to pay attention and take notes. Mistakes are not allowed.
Scott Tre: Larnell I’d love it if you would introduce yourself to all of my readers.
Larnell Stovall: Alright, this is Larnell Stovall, stunt coordinator, fight choreographer.
|Larnell Stovall in his element.|
Scott Tre: How did you get into the fields of fight choreography and stunt work?
Larnell Stovall: Stunt work started first. I relocated from New Orleans to Los Angeles in 2000 to pursue stunt work. Whether it be stunt acting, getting shot, hit by a car, or small bit parts here and there. I really didn’t do too much martial arts related, because there really wasn’t that many parts out there for me to do martial arts unless it was just straight low budget independent films. Fight choreography came about due to having a long break, which unfortunately some stunt people have, where I wasn’t working. So I created my own short and starred in it and did my own choreography after not working for like six months. So I had a lot of time to think the idea out. It helped, because that short lead me to be discovered by a few people that didn’t know I was a choreographer and it won seven awards and from there my name started spreading around town amongst my peers that I was a pretty decent choreographer and things kind of took off from there.
Scott Tre: Your fight scenes are complicated and they incorporate long sequences of moves. How long does it take to rehearse those scenes before you shoot them?
Larnell Stovall: It depends on the actor. Most of the time the fight scenes that I create I try to train the actors myself. My goal is to always get them to do a minimum of seven to ten moves before there’s a cut, and usually I try to talk to the directors and whoever I’m working with as well to let them know that the sequence coming up will involve ten moves and then that’s the end of section one. So therefore they know “Okay, let’s try not to cut or make sure we get those ten moves in sequence before we cut. Now to help me keep it consistent to the choreography, when I play this fight scene I try to stick with one smooth camera motion where you might see all ten moves in that same take. Whether it’s all blocks or whether there’s a hit from one side, a hit to the other. I try to make sure there’s only one camera that can capture it. Reason being, if you open up a camera to three cameras on the day you shoot, then you subject yourself to the editor chopping it apart. He may make a cut at move number three, another cut at move number seven, and then a final cut on the tenth move. So now it just became a choppy piece when it should’ve just been one smooth, fluid piece.
|Larnell Stovall on the set of Undisputed III: Redemption|
As far as time frame goes, it depends on talent. You got Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White, then obviously you need no time. You get another actor who may have never done a fight scene before, my goal would probably try to be somewhere between a week to two to make them move the way I need them to move physically with hands. Hands are easier to teach than kicks, but if it involves a kicking sequence or more difficult movement, than anywhere from two weeks to a month.
Scott Tre: It takes great physical skill, endurance and athleticism to create those scenes. How many shots does it take to get a satisfactory sequence?
Larnell Stovall: It sometimes winning the lottery with that one because sometimes you may hop in there with two people who know what they are doing, but the camera guy may be a second slow or a second late or too fast etc. where it didn’t look the way it should look so I have to ask for it to be done again. It can take anywhere from three takes to ten takes and then there’s always that great opportunity where you may get it on the first and second take which is always great because it means you’re having an efficient day. The more your day continues to run smooth, the more shots you can get in, or the more angles you can attempt on these fight scenes, which gives you better coverage in post.
Scott Tre: Have any of your actor’s stunt teams fallen out during shooting from exhaustion?
Larnell Stovall: Actually no, because you always get breaks. Whether it’s resetting/changing the chip or card in the camera or simply someone needs a water break or refuel on some Gatorade or whatever. So no one has ever been pushed that hard. I mean, I do push hard to get as much as I can because nine times out of ten I’m normally told “Okay you only have six hours to shoot this fight” and I’m like “Okay, cool. Six hours, I can make that work.” Then for whatever reason, six hours turns into two hours. So then I’m forced to make a miracle at the end of the day, and that usually leads to me chopping the fight or not getting as many takes as I want in per section, but I gotta get to the end of the fight. So I’m constantly pushing, pushing, pushing. So there might be a section at the end of the day where I was kind of happy with, but at least we got it and didn’t have to chop the fight.
There’s other times when I’m going to have to chop the fight to a two section fight or a four section fight because we only have two hours left. This means the guys are going to have to be in great shape because they are constantly going to keep being pushed. Or the actor needs to be mentally tough and stick through this because I’m trying to make him look good. So he can’t get pampered, so he can’t check his phone. He can’t go get a latte. He’s got to constantly stay in front of the camera and take very quick breaks so we can finish the sequence.
Scott Tre: How long would it take a novice to get action hero ready?
Larnell Stovall: That depends on the script. Let’s say the script calls for him to be an assassin. Assassins are easy to train, because they do things very quickly. Whether it’s how they prep their gun, how they prep their poisons, how they attack, they attack smoothly, they attack quickly and efficiently. They try not to get into multiple hand exchanges. They try to go for the one shot kill or snuff somebody out real fast. Now concerning the whole martial arts era, where you’re going to have a big one on one fight or it’s a lot of kicking and punching…if you want to take a novice, like, someone who’s never done martial arts before? That depends whether they were a track star, whether they played hockey, whether they played baseball. I usually take into account other people’s past physical activities, because it usually helps me find something that I can relate to and get the training process for them going a little smoother. If they were a baseball player they know how to swing a bat. Now if you take a bat and only swing it with one arm, that’s usually a swing downwards and then back upwards. Take the bat out your hand then make a fist. Swing that same arm downwards, then upwards. You just kind of did a slanted uppercut, which is a powerful punch on film. So then they go “Oh, okay.” So they get it.
So I take whatever asset they have of physical activity from the past and try to make them relate. If it’s basketball, I try to make that footwork. Going side to side and dribbling the ball. The same thing with parry and hand techniques while moving your feet side to side so that way you don’t get too confused. Then from there we just keep adding on and it just becomes a domino effect of them learning faster and faster until I feel they’re ready for real choreography. So this process can take anywhere from a week up to a month before I would think they’re decent or at least ready for me to show the director the progress we’ve made. But if I have a short amount of time, then I condense the choreography to something that this actor has to catch on real quick with because a lot of lower budgets don’t give you time for rehearsal. So therefore the choreography cannot be too intricate. Or you’re going to be dependent on a stunt double, but then on some of the lower budgets they can’t afford a stunt double. So now you have to make the fight what I call more gritty and actor friendly. Where it’s more head butts, elbows, choking, slamming somebody around, physical stuff that the actor should be able to do himself.
Scott Tre: What’s been your worst accident on set?
Larnell Stovall: I haven’t had many bad ones. I think the worst one happened recently, and this was just so weird. A stunt guy got elbowed in the nose real bad. What made it such a weird incident and not just something that normally happened was we did probably six takes already of this same sequence of a fight. One person made one change without my knowing it. They made one change. They told the stunt guy do one extra thing before he takes the elbow. That one extra thing that the stunt guy was told to do decreased the distance of what I established in the choreography already. With that distance being decreased, that five to ten inch gap that was just there, now became closed. And the stunt guy? Bam! Broken nose. So needless to say, safety is always my main priority on set. But when it’s outside of your hands and someone makes a decision without you knowing about it then it leads to accidents like that. Other than that I’ve never had an accident on set before this, ever.
Scott Tre: In a lot of recent action films that are fight heavy, like Flashpoint for instance, the blows thrown in the fight scenes seem to actually connect, especially the blows to the face and the head. How do stunt teams achieve that effect without seriously injuring one another?
Larnell Stovall: Well, most of the time we go with the mouth guard technique, where we put a mouth guard in and sometimes make it colored to the teeth. Or if we can’t do that we keep the mouth closed. And sometimes you just sack up and take the hit without the mouth guard and you shoot it in slow motion and make sure that the camera sees what’s happening. You shoot it from two or three different cameras or you let your director know ahead of time “Hey, one of the boys is going to buck up and take this hit, so let’s make it money. I want a tight shot, I want a medium shot, then I want a long one. I want every angle to make sure we see that there’s some contact going on here.” Sometimes we put cotton balls inside of their jaw but not too stuffed where you can’t tell to soften the blow a little. With that being said, it’s not that their being punched 100 percent. They’re probably being punched somewhere between 20 to 30 percent, where the punch may start out fast but then the power is eased up on as it makes contact.
Now if you shoot in slow motion, you can always ramp that speed up and make it look like the person swung as fast as they could. But then because you’re in tight you can also see the impact and really feel like “Oh shit that must’ve hurt,” which is the whole point of us taking any little contact in the face at least. But when you’re talking body shots, you can’t really fake a body shot. You have to hit the body. I train them not to try to break somebodies ribs, but you can still throw a punch and use your twitch muscles and make it look faster than what it was to deliver power. So therefore you didn’t hurt the guy, it just looks like you did which is all the illusion of film fighting.
Scott Tre: Lots of action sequences in today’s films are shot and edited in a manner that makes them incomprehensible. They make it hard to follow and understand the action. Why is that?
Larnell Stovall: I am still trying to figure that out myself, to be honest. I can’t really say where it truly started, but I want to say it’s probably been within the last seven years there’s the whole dynamic of the “shaky cam” as we call it, which is people’s excuse for fight scenes in real life or “this movie is representing the real world” or it should be hectic or it should be frantic. It should feel like you don’t know where you are. To me it ruins the point of great choreography. You could still have a brutal action sequence but yet see what’s going on. A guy should not throw an elbow, a hook punch, a head butt, or he’s choking a guy and the camera’s shaking so much the only part you saw was that he choked the guy. But now he’s bleeding from his nose or he has a busted lip and you don’t know how it happened.
I totally disagree with that technique, because when we sit down and put our hard work on screen, we want it to be seen. We spend weeks and hours a day, sometimes months choreographing sequences that we want the audience to enjoy. And when they can’t enjoy it, it’s not that we failed. We’re not in control of the camera. We’re not in control of the director. We can suggest. We can hint at certain things, but at the end of the day we have a job to do. I did my job, I choreographed a fight scene. How it’s shot, how it’s edited, unfortunately we lose a lot of power on that. But sometimes that power remains on low budget films because they need the action to sell the product because they don’t have all the gimmicks and bells and whistles and great trailers that are changing every two months to keep the audience hyped about this movie. So therefore the action is at the forefront of what’s presented to try to make it sell so you can purchase that DVD or Bluray. But Hollywood? I guess their motto is if it’s not broke they’re not gonna fix it. That means that the movies where the shaky cam has been predominantly used, unfortunately they’ve made money. So when something makes money, they just keep that machine rolling. They feel like “Oh, it worked in this movie and the action was great, blah blah blah” and they couldn’t find a reason to do it. I don’t know what’s going to change that factor, what’s going to put a stop to it. Because nine times out of ten, audiences still are supporting it for whatever reason. But then sometimes you don’t know its shaky cam until you get in there and it’s too late. They already have your twelve or fifteen bucks.
Scott Tre: Do you think that filmmaking tools such as the “shaky cam” and CGI have made action filmmakers lazier when coordinating and putting together these action sequences?
Larnell Stovall: Maybe not in the sense of lazy, but maybe a little too dependent. Here’s the best way I can sum that up. When you deal with a hundred million dollar film, you’re taking meetings and you’re delivering your choreography, or your pre-vis or your training actors. For me, if I’m on one of those type of films, which that time probably will come soon enough, I will try to be honest with the actor ahead of time that as much hard work as we’re putting into you, let’s be a team in this together. I want to make sure the audience sees all the hard work you’re putting into it. So you want the actor to have your back as well when he gets on screen so he may just say ‘hey man let me look at that playback, I want to see myself.” Giving very slight hints like “Please don’t shake the camera. Please don’t cut out this sequence too soon. Please don’t chop it apart.” So when I train my actors I try to develop a relationship with them, and show them the prelims and show them how good they look. Why would you want to change how good they look when it’s time to roll the big expensive cameras, where there’s a hundred man crew around all doing to same job trying to make sure this film looks great.
So with the CGI factor though, we really can’t do anything about that as stunt guys. If the movie has a lot of CGI then you work with them. You try to find where the stunt goes from live-action to CGI. You become a team. Some CGI helps us. Most of the time, we cannot do a ratchet or a fire with a car flipping over our head. But we might want to do the ratchet (a camera move) or the car flipping, but maybe not the fire mixed in between that. So they step in, deliver this grand big explosion of CGI fire, thus enabling us stunt guys to remain safe, which at the end of the day is a top priority. So they do go hand in hand but by no means do I ever agree on “shaky-cam.” Now, I do understand that the camera needs to move during the action. It can’t just sit there, but there needs to be a creative way where you move it, where the audience enjoys it and feels involved with the fight, but yet they were able to see everything that happened too. You just have to find that balance.
Scott Tre: Over the past decade, fight choreography seemed to have evolved considerably with things like parkour (free running) and some of the films you’ve worked on like Undisputed III and Blood & Bone, what lead to this evolution? Are the stunt people in today’s films that much better than the working say, 30 or 40 years ago?
|The immortal Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon|
Larnell Stovall: That’s just evolution period. There’s a new generation of guys…a new generation of directors, filmmakers, just creativity all around. You can sit back and watch movies from the 70’s and some hold up. God knows we all love Bruce Lee. We love his movements, we love his intensity. We love that passion he brought to everything. He was a leader, he was a trendsetter. With saying that, some people still don’t have that charisma. But today, they may compensate charisma for flashy moves. Bruce didn’t do too many flashy moves. He would just hardcore gritty and brutal with his stuff, so with me I look at what Bruce did and say to myself “Okay, we’ve got to find a way to keep that type of brutality, that lead hero invincibility he portrayed.” But yet he was vulnerable enough to get hits and give it back.
So this generation, we all emulate somebody. We all emulate something we’ve seen or we go “When I get my chance, I’m gonna do it this way.” But then there’s other people who’ve done it and we just simply say “I just want to be as good as that.” So with each choreographer we just go to that place that makes us passionate about what we’re doing. Whether we look at Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and whatever they’ve done, it’s different from what we try to do. Because filming in Asia is totally different. Sometimes they dedicate more time to the action. Sometimes the people over there are just more consistent with the way films should be shot with martial arts sequences.
As to where a lot of DP’s over here are learning how to shoot action. They know how to shoot acting great, but they’re still in the process of learning how to capture action sequences. Directors are still learning that over here as to where Hong Kong and overseas, they’ve made it an art for many years. You don’t have to teach them where to hold a camera, where to throw a punch, what’s the best angle to cover this? Fight choreographers over here, we have to wear two and three hats sometimes. We have to be the fight choreographer. We have to be the trainer. Then we have to communicate with our DP and tell him sometimes where the best angles are for this difficult sequence that’s coming up. It’s not insulting anybody’s intelligence, it’s just if we created a fight, sometimes we may know the best angle of where the camera should be to capture it for the audience. But today everything’s evolving. People are more tech savvy. Fight choreographers are camera guys as well. They know the angles, the lenses. They know where things should be to make the director’s job even easier in case he’s not a director who came from an action background. So, things will continue to evolve and ten years from now some kid is going to pass us up with even better ideas than what we thought were great years ago.
Scott Tre: Given all the advances and iconic figures you just mentioned, is it possible for someone like you to continue to raise the bar as far as fight choreography and stunt work is concerned? Has the ceiling been reached?
Larnell Stovall: No, not at all. I can’t even imagine how high that ceiling is. That’s just speaking for me personally. Sometimes there’s scripts that I’m waiting on that I hope I’m challenged or I hope there’s free reign to add something to a sequence that’s never been seen before. Undisputed III, for me, was like a dream come true. For one, you had a great actor and martial artist in like a Scott Adkins. Isaac Florentine, who is a very generous director in the sense of suggestions which I do appreciate. He allowed me to suggest certain people for certain parts. I was able to bring out a great martial artist. And then everybody agreed on Marko Zaror as the main bad guy so I basically had a who’s who of talent to highlight their specific skills. Now in the script there’s no specific thing, moves or story points or whatever, that needed to happen. It just said “They fight,” so most of the fight scenes you see in Undisputed III, they came from me being creative. We threw in some moments, someone getting their leg broken, someone changing their momentum in the fight because they were getting dominated or switching styles. So for me that was a playground of creativity.from Ong Bak and who’s
|Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror in Undisputed III:Redemption|
You usually don’t have that kind of opportunity because most of the time the writers have something specific they’ve written. You follow along with that and do your best to make it more creative than what was even on the page. Now as far as what’s next? I have some ideas. I won’t give them out right now, because I hope to put those on screen at some time. If there was somebody reading what I was saying then all of a sudden it’s done before I did it. So I hope I have that opportunity to do it real soon. I think you’ll be seeing some new stuff from me real soon that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been combined on film that way. I hope to combine it real soon.
Scott Tre: Do you plan on moving on to acting, writing, and directing, or are you content being behind the scenes?
Larnell Stovall: I’ve done a bit of everything so far. I’ve written a little and I’ve acted on the screen. I’ve enjoyed being behind the scenes. Who knows? There might be that time where I feel like I want to get back in front of the camera or there might be a small cool part with a fight scene where if I’m the fight choreographer where I’ll be like: “Well, I’ll just do this part as well,” whether it’s because it’s convenient, whether it’s because it’s cool, it depends on the situation.
I’m not much of a writer, but I do have ideas. I could just come up with a good synopsis or treatment. Get it going and deliver it to a writer. But I do have some things pending that are about to come to life real soon that either will be financed or I’m in the process of seeking the budgets for it. Right now, for fight choreography I feel like I have a long way to go. I feel like I have a lot to give to this industry. It’s given me a career that I truly enjoy. I do, regardless of the headaches or the politics or the things we all face no matter what job you’re on. But with this job, at least at the end of the day I get to sit back in the movie theater or pop in a DVD or Bluray and enjoy the final product and go “Wow!” That came from me and it’s a feeling that can’t replaced. But I don’t live in the past I live for the next one. I live for the next thing, the next challenge, the next script, the next idea to hopefully create history. I want to do ten Undisputed III’s, not necessarily ten or eight movies. But a list of movies where you can say Larnell Stovall delivered. He’s building a fight legacy. That’s what I want at the end of the day. Not just count how many movies I’ve done. But how many movies the world remembered and truly enjoyed what God given talents I have that allow me to create good fight choreography for film.
Scott Tre: You worked on Mortal Kombat: Rebirth and the upcoming Mortal Kombat Web series. Can you give us an idea of what to expect from this series as far as the fight scenes are concerned?
Larnell Stovall: Well I will say this. I’m very pleased with the fights. With anything I would have liked to have more time with the fights. Some fights had to be cut because of time. We were on a very, very tight schedule. I mean the schedule we were on literally should have been doubled. I will have to give props to the director Kevin because he performed well under that pressure. We all learned some lessons at the end of the day in terms of how to move faster, how to condense things. What’s necessary, what’s not necessary. Then the actors, they did an awesome job. Some actors had little to no time for any training. Some people had only hours to learn their choreography. Some people might have been fortunate to have a day or two. But overall I think the world is going to enjoy the vision of Mortal Kombat.
I am definitely very blessed and privileged to breathe new life into that franchise so I definitely consider it to be an honor to be a choreographer of what will be the way Mortal Kombat will be seen from this point on: Gritty, real, with the fantasy elements that definitely will lead to a feature film within the next year. I think the audience is going to be very surprised. I’m very pleased with the fights, but of course as a fight choreographer you can be happy with your product but you will never reach perfection. There’s always going to be something you wish could have been stronger, faster. If you had more time it could have been covered better. That’s just an artist picking apart his art. You can be happy with the final product and pleased with it, but you always look for how it could have been done better, more efficient, more brutal. But at the end of the day as long as the fans are happy I’m good with that.
Scott Tre: What is the greatest fight scene ever filmed in your opinion? What’s one fight scene you keep in your head whenever you’re coordinating a fight?
Larnell Stovall: It’s not that I keep a scene in my head but if I had to have a reference I’d say okay that’s definitely a level you’d like to get to as far as having a final product when you deal with your fight scenes. I would definitely have to say it’s one of Donnie Yen’s fights. It’s SPL (Sha Po Lang), the alley fight. It was between him and Wu-Jing. The American name for it is Kill Zone. If I’m right they had a week to film that fight or maybe just a few days. You had a fight scene that literally didn’t look like a fight scene. That’s what impressed me the most. The rhythms, the timing, the brutality, I mean it was just amazing. For one, the hits looked real, two, they didn’t look like they were acting.
To me that’s what it’s about. When you can make a fight scene look so natural that you forget it’s a fight scene. You wonder were the hits real. This is me speaking as a choreographer, a guy that knows camera angles, that knows how they trick you into believing that a fight was real. But the fight choreography in there was just beautiful. It’s something that I definitely aim for. That next level where people want to question you about the fight and dig into how did you come up with that? Those are the type of things that I aim for, where people want to know where was your mind, how did you come up with this creativity, because they want to watch it over and over. That’s always a goal I try to aim for.
I see what Hollywood is doing nowadays with the comic books and the extra CGI in the big hundred million dollar movies, but for me, I can relate more to natural talent and natural action on screen where it’s not so enhanced. That fight definitely stands out to me.
Scott Tre: In closing, do you have any upcoming projects you want to mention?
Larnell Stovall: I have a bunch of things coming up. Currently I am about to start Medallion with Nicholas Cage. It’s not really fight heavy or martial arts heavy. There are a few fight scenes in there. I’ll do the best I can to make Nic look good and hopefully he’s game to try a few new things. But I’m excited about doing Universal Soldier: A New Dimension. I can’t say who’s going to star in it right now but it’s somebody I’ve worked with. If everything works out, it will definitely surprise a lot of people. The action is very heavy. It’s a lot of fight action, a lot of shoot outs, a lot of brutal killing here and there. It’s basically a play land for a fight choreographer. That’ll probably be my next big one... I’m really proud of what we were able to put into it. John Hymes is a great director. We’ve been having great meetings and I got a good feeling this is going to surprise a lot of people. I also hope to choreograph Black Panther, the Daredevil reboot and possibly The Last Dragon Remake in the near future.
|"No mistakes allowed."|