Arrow: James Bamford on how stunt work prepared him for directing

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Still from Arrow season 6 sizzle reel, image via The CW/official CW YouTube

With Arrow season 6 off the ground, Culturess had the chance to interview James Bamford about masterminding the show’s most thrilling action sequences.

Like the vigilante at its center, Arrow has navigated its share of ups and downs over the years. A tentatively promising debut season paved the way for a magnificent sophomore season, which preceded an extended period of fumbling and stumbling. Then, just when all hope seemed lost, it roped us back in with a harrowing fifth season that brought Oliver’s journey full circle.

Yet, throughout this emotional and creative roller-coaster ride, one constant remained: the action was superb. Despite having a relatively microscopic budget, the original “Berlanti-verse” show puts big-screen blockbusters to shame, churning out intricate yet dynamic set pieces every week, from shootouts to motorcycle chases to old-fashioned knife duels. Credit James Bamford. Along with an ace team, the veteran stunt performer and coordinator established Arrow’s gritty yet elegant fight style. In season 4, he made his directorial debut with the episode “Brotherhood.” Needless to say, it went well; Bamford has helmed five episodes since — the season 6 premiere, “Fallout,” among them.

During the lead-up to season 6, we corresponded with Bamford, who is currently shooting this year’s epic Berlanti-verse crossover. He discussed his career, the logistics of setting up an action scene, and the relationship between real and fictional violence. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Before getting to Arrow, I want to dive a little into your career as a whole. I know that you started out as a stunt performer before getting into stunt coordination. What first attracted you to this kind of work? Were stunts something that always interested you?

I was interested in being a stuntman since I was a child. My father and I would watch television shows, such as Charlie’s Angels, Six Million Dollar Man, and The Fall Guy. I’d ask, “How does he/she do that Dad?” To which his reply was, “That’s a stuntman/woman, son.” We watched Muhammad Ali fight and speak in many interviews together. Later, by 7 years old, I was introduced to Kung Fu films from Hong Kong, as my mother worked for a cable vision company and we had access to international signals. Eventually, my uncles took me to the drive-in theater, which was playing Enter the Dragon starting Bruce Lee — and that sealed my fate. That was the “last straw”, as it were. That got me started training in the martial arts and eventually led to developing the skills necessary in becoming a stuntman.

How did you get into stunt work professionally? What kind of training and qualifications did it require?

I started training in martial arts at a very early age, and the martial arts… got me in the door of becoming a full-fledged stuntman. After I was initially hired as a fight double/choreographer for Michael Dudikoff, I was taken under the wing by many a talented and experienced stunt performer and taught the ropes — high falls, fire, driving, all the skills necessary to becoming a utility working stuntman. As I had been an actor early in life in community theatre, this added to my skills, as performance ability is also necessary to complete your platform in stunts. Acting is a big part of stunt doubling, or any stunt role.

After beginning as a performer, it was clear to me that one must study the camera and those controlling [it] on set to fully understand what being a solid stunt professional is about. It’s what being a solid filmmaker is about. The camera is the key. If you don’t understand it, you don’t understand the process. In my over 70,000 hours on film sets, I’ve studied under not only some world class stunt coordinators, but cinematographers, directors, and producers. If you didn’t learn something in all that time and experience on a film set, you simply weren’t paying attention. I paid attention. The information and experience I’ve gained is invaluable and not taught in any theory at any school. It’s been used and tested right in front of my eyes – proven methods, proven techniques.

Throughout your career, you’ve doubled various actors, such as Matthew Fox and Benico del Toro. As a double, how closely do you work with the actors? Do you focus purely on the physicality of the action or do you try to “get into character”?

I always looked at stunt doubling as being part of the character that the actor has created. I would study the actor’s movement and mannerisms until I could really get inside his head. Being a good stuntman isn’t just about being able to perform athletically, but about being able to perform and be a performer. When I doubled David Duchovny on The X-Files, I was often brought in just to run if David wasn’t available to shoot, as my ability to mimic his every subtle movement was well-known.

As a stunt performer, it’s your [job] to take over as the character when the actor isn’t on screen. You have to continue in the construction of what the actor has already established or built. You are the character. This follows through to becoming a stunt coordinator or fight coordinator as well, when giving direction and getting a performance from your actors. The essence of the character is in every foundation of the action performance. It extends into every movement and nuance. This ability to direct actors… is a large part of becoming a director and transferring all the skills and experience learned over the years into what often is a natural progression of a stunt coordinator.

What’s the difference between stunt and fight coordination? It sounds like a basic question, but like a lot of behind-the-scenes elements, most people aren’t familiar with stunt work. I hoped you could shed a little light on that.

Fight coordinators plan the physical choreography for any given fight sequence and may request a wire stunt, etc., within the fight sequence which the stunt coordinator would be responsible for arranging. The stunt coordinators are responsible for all stunts, including fights on a show, whereas the fight coordinator is only responsible for the fights. Unless the role is duo, as I was, being both a stunt coordinator and a fight coordinator simultaneously. Having a separate fight coordinator allows the stunt coordinator to concentrate his/her energies on other duties and leave the fight coordinator to his area of expertise. Thus, time management is effectively distributed and quality control is much tighter.

Moving on to Arrow, when the show began, you were a fight coordinator/choreographer and stunt coordinator along with J.J. Makaro. What did your role entail? What was your relationship with J.J. like?

I trained the actors/stunt performers in martial arts, choreographed the fights, and advised directors on shooting styles for the fights. I also covered set when other stunts were being performed. I went where we needed, depending on the schedule. I have worked with J.J. for many years on and off, and we work well together. I had just come off a film when Arrow was starting and jumped at the chance to be on the ground floor of something we all knew would be special.

What was it about Arrow that attracted you to the project?

I was shooting a feature in Havana, Cuba and received a very distorted phone call with a description of the lead character [Oliver Queen] and his possible abilities: an Olympic athlete on many levels, world class parkour, world class fighter/combat abilities, including an uncanny skill in archery. Dark, Batman-like themes. An uncompromising vigilante who will stop at nothing to administer justice. This first description had me hooked. It sounded like something I would watch.

Arrow has a very specific action style that’s both complex and grounded in realism. What went into developing that style? How did it evolve as the show progressed?

I just went with my gut instincts as to what I thought I should be developing. In the beginning, the director and producers really gave us a lot of trust and space to play with. There were a few simple rules to live by: be able to explain what’s transpiring on screen as it relates to the story and remain as grounded as possible within our own mythology we’ve created on the show. As the show processed, we introduced meta-humans, etc., so things can get a little fantastical. We endeavor to remain grounded within the framework we are given to play upon. We have opened up new avenues of shooting and elevated the action to new levels.

What is the process of designing action sequences like? For example, how detailed are the scripts in regards to action? Do you tailor the action to the editing and cinematography, or is it the other way around?

First step in designing any action sequence is to read the script and attend meetings with the director, writers, stunt department, art department, VFX, SPFX departments. Discuss what the director’s [and] producers’ visions are. Brainstorm ideas, come to an agreement on those ideas. All involved leave and begin physically preparing the concept that was discussed in the previous prep meetings and engage in several other mini-meetings along the way to solidify and expand the first discussion’s ideas.

Sometimes the scripts’ description of the action is very detailed, and the end result is identical to it. [Like] The Matrix. Take a read of that script and compare to the screen’s final product; those folks knew exactly what they wanted from day 1. On Arrow, the writers are quite open to collaboration on ideas to elevate, expand, improve the action in any way and trust that the stunt department has the experience and creativity to help in that manner.

A stunt coordinator must understand the camera and its process. If a sequence isn’t shot [or] edited correctly, it loses all of its intent in design, all of its impact. Even if a sequence is shot in an amazingly epic visual fashion, it can still be completely destroyed in the editing room by an inexperienced editor who isn’t comfortable with action. Editing action is a skill in itself… and unfortunately it’s not a skill that everyone possesses out there in film land. Quite often on an action savvy show, the action designer is very involved in the editing process at the request of the director, to his/her benefit. Not having an understanding of the flow, or techniques involved in the sequence can turn a beautifully crafted sequence into a chopped up bag of banjo chips.

People enjoy action scenes because they look cool from a visual standpoint. However, there are also practical concerns involved, such as the safety of the performers. How do you balance style versus practicality?

Experience gives you the tools to devise sequences that are not only visually appealing, but safe to perform. There is always a risk. If there wasn’t a risk, there wouldn’t be stunt performers. Anybody could do it, but there is a risk. People can sit safely behind their screens and enjoy the show, but stunt performers actually feel the pain and out that in the screen. There is a 100% injury rate in the stunt section of the industry.

Stunt performers are an elite group for a good reason. It’s not for everybody. It takes a very special type of person to do this for a living day in, day out. In an age when many people are content to sit behind their keyboard and insult people they’ve never met because they are safe and protected, stunt performers are out there risking their safety and sometimes their lives, for those same people who have insulted them or the show they work on. A true stunt performer is a true hero. The combination of bravery and skill involved is rare.

How often do the actors on Arrow perform their own stunts? I know Stephen Amell does many of them, but what about the others? Do you think it’s good for actors to do stunts themselves? Or do you think it does a disservice to professional stuntmen/women?

I incorporate an actor into a stunt sequence based on their natural ability and time they devote into training/rehearsal. It’s simply much like a baseball team: if you don’t come to practice, you end up on the bench. We can’t afford the safety concerns with a performer/actor who’s… not prepared 100%. Stephen Amell is an athletic phenomenon. Aside from attending many weeks of training with myself at the beginning of the pilot for Arrow, he has a natural disposition for picking up, remembering choreography. He can learn a short fight in 5-10 minutes and perform it safely with intensity. I welcome actors who add to the quality of the process, as Stephen does. We consider him captain of the Arrow stunt team.