Darren Le Fevre is an independent stunt performer, coordinator and fight choreographer. We caught up with Darren to discuss the indie industry, fight stunts, Van Damme and Tom Paton’s two latest movies Black Site and Stairs.
Hello Darren, Thanks for talking to us today. We’re very interested to hear about your stunt work on indie films. How did you first get involved in Stunt work?
That’s an interesting question with a bit of a back story I’ll need to condense. I have 40 years of martial arts experience as both student & Instructor. Most martial art exponents of my generation took inspiration from movie icon Bruce Lee. In my twenties, all I wanted was to go to Hong Kong and make Kung Fu movies. My family are all 'Eastenders', with 3 generations of us serving as London Fire Fighters back to World War II, which Is a tradition I kind of fell into. I’d served around 8 years in the Brigade, when I had the chance to screen test for one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movies, The Quest, back in the early 90’s. Regrettably, I allowed family and peer pressure to stop me pursuing the dream. Quite bizarrely, I found out later that, Van Damme had used me for character ideas in both Sudden Death and Legionnaire - but that's another story!
Fast forward 25 years, and having become reasonably well known on the UK Martial Arts scene as an Instructor and writer for the martial arts press, I started receiving messages about getting involved in a few indie projects. Strange as it sounds, it was as though fate was calling me back in this direction. As soon as the Fire Service contract was up, within a few months I was straight onto a movie set for what I considered unfinished business. I started off as an independent performer on a stunt team gradually learning and increasing my stunt knowledge based on my fight related skill-set, as well as taking on any related SA roles along the way. A few years and productions later, as well as still performing, I’ve now moved into fight choreography and coordinating ground related stunts as well as taking on small acting roles from time to time.
You’ve recently worked on feature films Black Site, working with Fight Choreographer/Stunt Coordinator Mark Johnston, and Stairs, where you had total control of stunts, action sequences and fight choreography. Can you tell us about the stunt work you did on each one?
Both movies involved various stunts, with Black Site being the more fight-stunt based production. It has a far more “martial art” feel to it including several multiple-attacker styled scenes and some classical Japanese swordplay. This gives the fight scenes a far more theatrical flavour than the fights in Stairs. We also shot two Jerk-Back stunts, where a performer wearing a specially designed harness/vest is literally jerked through the air with a line or wire, to simulate the effects of a strike or explosion etc. For the actors and performers, the scenes presented all the usual logistics of basic fight choreography, selling punches, kicks, strikes, falls etc and the safe use of a various array of prop weapons. For the stunt performers, it mainly involved taking a lot of heavy falls, onto concrete. Pre-production, all the actors involved in the fight scenes where given relevant fight training and fight choreography rehearsals at Southend Combat Academy, one of the leading full time martial arts facilities in the south east where I am based.
Having built a good rapport with director Tom Paton and DOP George Burt over the course of the production, Spencer Collings and myself were approached to return and co-coordinate the stunts and fight choreography. Spencer and I became good friends after working together as stunt performers on a couple of previous projects. We are both self-protection coaches with a lot of experience teaching combatives, close-quarters and hand-to-hand combat which Tom wanted for the movie. Spencer is also ex-forces, an experienced horseman with over 25 years as an advanced rider and has several credits with some of the large production companies including HBO and Disney. Prior to production, Spencer successfully cast for a role in the movie, so the main coordinator role passed to myself. Having Spencer embedded in the cast however, proved to be a masterstroke during production!
Stairs in comparison is a completely different beast, with Tom taking things to an entirely new level. Being essentially a horror movie with a war theme, it’s far more action packed and stunt heavy production, which required an entirely different approach and presented its own unique challenges. It was an on-location shoot for the entire movie, so all the action and stunt sequences required prior consideration and planning for any post production effects to be added. The fight scenes have a far more visceral approach which is very brutal and creates a much darker and edge-of-your-seat intensity. All the main cast members where given training in firearms, tactical movement, military protocols, tactical knife fighting and appropriate fight choreography, commensurate with their roles pre-production.
What are the biggest rewards and the toughest challenges you’ve faced in your stunt work?
For me, it’s having the opportunity to meet and work with such amazing people and seeing the fruit of your labour come together in that final edit. Tom basically gave me free reign to write and storyboard the fight choreography for Stairs. When it came to shoot the scenes, Tom, George and myself worked really closely on set with them working their magic with the direction and camera work and myself making any tweaks to the choreography as was necessary. Having this close working relationship is really important as the creative process is something I believe you have to “feel” as much as see, so building a rapport, particularly with the Director and DOP is essential. It’s when you have those moments on set that all the actors & stunt performers know they’ve just nailed a scene and you see that in the Director and crew’s reaction. And we had plenty of those!
This is then mirrored by the audience reaction once the movie hits the big screen. Nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve created the Director’s vision for the movie. A close second has to be the learning experience you take away from each production. Every movie presents an opportunity to learn, develop and keep pushing yourself to excel. There are no limits to creativity. To quote Bruce Lee, “There are only plateaus, and you must push beyond.”
The toughest challenges? That’s a difficult one to answer honestly. Independent productions are entirely unique and each presents its own challenges. Having worked with Tom on his last two movies, both presented different logistical problems, purely in terms of environment.
Black Site was shot almost entirely on location in Drakelow Tunnels, Worcestershire, a derelict underground military facility built during the cold war. The tunnel complex spans just over 3.5 miles, has a constant temperature of 6 degrees centigrade, regardless of time of year and there is no electricity, so everything had to be run off generators using miles of cable. Very cold and very dark, and I mean pitch black, if there was a power-outage, which was inevitable from time to time. Winter clothing and a torches where essential kit. Scene changes involved the crew having to break down the set, load everything into vans, drive to the next location then re-run power cables. The logistics of continually moving and working in total darkness, presented enough issues for the cast & crew, before you even consider the stunts. Each time you left the tunnels you where hit by a sudden 20 degree temperature rise due to the hot August weather outside. Everything was extremes.
In total contrast, all the stair scenes for Stairs, where shot on a large, enclosed and very claustrophobic concrete staircase in London, at the peak of last years August heat-wave. The temperature outside consistently hit 30 degrees with temperatures on set considerably higher. Once you cram lighting, crew, a dozen or so cast dressed in tactical kit carrying weapons into a very confined concrete box, you can only imagine how uncomfortable and physically demanding it was to shoot a fight scene in those conditions. Cast and crew safety was paramount and making sure shooting ceased regularly and everybody took regular breaks to re-hydrate was essential. Challenging therefore means different things to different people.
In one scene I doubled for actor Toby Osmond in a stair fall. As I recall, we shot that stunt in 4 takes, in roughly about as many minutes. I was then out of my kit and back to the surface. The actors & crew on the other hand, often spent all day in that environment shooting dialogue scenes. Give me a stair fall anytime! As a stunt performer, you have to give credit where its due!
Having worked in stunts does it give you a different appreciation when watching sequences in other films?
It definitely does. Until you’ve worked in the industry, you have no appreciation of the time, planning and work involved in putting together a rolling action scene, particularly one containing several stunts. A sequence you watch on screen mighty only last 30 seconds, but may have taken several weeks of planning, training and rehearsals to capture the required footage. This is one area where indie film makers certainly don’t receive due credit for what they achieve with limited time, resources and budgets.
Which has impressed you recently?
Wow, theres so many! For sheer insanity as well as scale and logistics of the stunts it has to be Tom cruise and the Mission Impossible movies. As far as fight scenes and fight action related stunts, I think a lot of movies fall into the trap of making the fight scenes look choreographed. The grittier and more organic they are and less noticeably choreographed, the better they work, which is the hallmark of great fight choreography. The Cavill v Cruise bathroom fight from Mission Impossible: Fallout was a great scene. John Wick 1 & 2 had some great scenes, particularly the Reeves v Common knife fight on the underground. A lot of the Bond movies have really upped their game too. The Craig v Bautista fight on the train from Spectre sticking in my memory as being a well structured and memorable scene.
Do you think actors should do more of their own stunts or leave it to the professionals?
That’s a huge a question and one that could spark plenty of controversy! There are so many different types of stunts, all with varying logistics, risk factors, safety, planning and training needs, dependent on where they sit on the stunt spectrum. It’s a question I can’t answer too easily.
In my experience, actors generally jump at the chance of getting involved in fight scenes and throw themselves into it 100%. Fighting is a very primal part of the human condition so the expression of emotion through physical aggression is something actors seem to relate to very easily. Either that or they just want to look badass onscreen!
More often you have to put the brakes on what they are prepared to do. Their level of involvement will have many factors to consider as it depends on what the stunt involves, the risks to the actor, and the risk to the production etc. Small stunts can be carried out relatively safely by actors provided they’ve been trained properly, all the correct safety precautions are taken and they have the confidence to carry out the stunt. However, the stunt double is always there to take the fall and to take the risk in my opinion. Good direction, camera work and editing can produce seamless transitions, its how movie magic is made. Personally, I would always err on the side of caution and come down more on the side of “leave it to the professionals” before placing any actor a risk.
Having said that, not all actors are equal. If you consider the stunts that Tom Cruise has performed throughout the entire Mission Impossible franchise, it shows what is achievable by an actor with the right training and mindset. I do wonder whether his insurer buries their head in their hands each time the see what he’s agreed to do though!
We had a fairly high level of stunt participation in both Black Site and Stairs however. Black Site features Samantha Shnitzler in the lead role of Ren Reid with Phoebe Robinson-Galvin as Kerr, one of the movies main villains. As well as being extremely talented actresses, both Samantha and Phoebe are also highly skilled martial artists and experienced indie stunt performers in their own right. They both performed all their own stunts in the movie. This was a brilliant piece of casting by Tom Paton. Credit where its due, Samantha and Phoebe’s skill & performance is what makes those fight scenes work and the intensity they brought to the production is reflected in what you see on screen.
On Stairs, Spencer and I had the pleasure of training and working with Shayne Ward who I can’t praise enough for the way he threw himself into the fight choreography and action sequences. Shayne had little or no combat training other than a little boxing experience as a child. Spencer and myself basically had to train him from scratch for his role in very limited time. Once the movie is released, I guarantee a lot of people will be surprised with the evolution he has made from his character in Coronation Street.
What are the main things indie filmmakers should consider when wanting to capture stunt sequences in their films when budgets and logistics might be tight?
Firstly do your homework. The indie industry is notorious for unpaid, low paid and expenses only work. In the right context, this absolutely fine for anyone wishing to gain experience and get noticed provided all concerned are OK with it. If you are an indie filmmaker and your potential stunt performers are offering their services free of charge, asking exceptionally low fees, or have a back catalogue of freebies, however, it is entirely possible they are probably not that legit.
All stunt work, regardless of the type and level of stunt, involves proper training and safety protocols to control and mitigate potentially hazardous scenarios through calculated risk management. No self-respecting stunt industry professional will provide their services, or the services of others for free. An injured stunt performer is an out of work performer. An injured cast member could also mean the end of your production, so doing your research is the best and first piece of advice. Look at the type of productions they have been involved in and where possible, check if it was paid work. Don’t be scared to ask for references, health and safety certifications, insurance and qualifications etc and make sure that you have the right insurance cover and follow the appropriate health and safety policies.
Stunts in Indie movies don’t necessarily have to be huge or expensive to make an impact. It’s more about how the action sequences are shot and structured in relation to how the story is told. It’s how the drama and intensity is created and enhanced by the stunts.
Obviously, a filmmaker needs to be realistic in his expectations, particularly where budget and time are concerned. It’s not going to be feasible for an indie film to afford Hollywood style action scenes on a small budget, however, action sequences including fight scenes, fight stunts, shoot-outs and some of the more basic ground stunts like jerk-backs, falls, stair falls etc, are at a much less complex level of the stunt spectrum and used cleverly are effective ways to enhance the impact of a movie. With skill, they can be far less expensive to shoot and far less time consuming to arrange with the right coordination, but will add great value to any production without breaking a budget. This is the great breakthrough I believe Tom has achieved in his last two movies, particularly Stairs. I think there will be a lot of people in the industry shocked with what he’s achieved as It’s an indie movie with the feel of a huge budget production.
On Stairs you had the chance to flex more than just your stunt muscles – you got to flex your acting chops too. Is it something you’d like to do more?
Definitely. Acting in the true dramatic sense is something I’m definitely venturing into in future, with one or two potential roles lined up for later this year. I was called upon by Tom rather impromptu, to fill a small role in one particularly harrowing scene a couple of days before we wrapped. It was one of those scenes, although an incidental part of the storyline, somehow evolved into something far more dramatic on the day of the shoot. It was incredibly challenging but at the same time, incredibly rewarding.
Although only a short scene, I was extremely honoured to be asked to fulfill the role, not least because Tom kind of sprung it on me last minute, but more the fact he trusted me to pull it off without expressing any doubt in my ability. When you’re suddenly placed under that kind of pressure and surrounded by so many great actors constantly raising the bar, you don’t really have much choice but to rise to the challenge so as not to disappoint. I can’t go into detail for obvious reasons. All I can say is I was complemented later by someone who had seen a first rough cut of the movie and their comment on my performance was “You are one evil bastard!"
What advice would you give those looking to get into stunt work? Both in terms of approaching their craft and making themselves known to filmmakers?
That’s a huge question as there are various routes and many dynamics and factors to consider. There’s also a fair degree of politics too. Someone older like myself, with a specialist skill-set will have a completely different perspective having had an entirely different journey to someone a lot younger training from scratch and looking to make a lifetime career of stunt work.
There are many great training providers and training resources available to obtain the skills to work as either an independent performer, or for entry onto the British Stunt Register for instance. It is a myth that it is a necessity to be on the register to work in the industry. A huge amount of performers work independently or on independent stunt teams. The indie entertainment industry couldn’t function without them. You will also find, British Stunt Register performers, independents or those purely with specialist skills regularly working along side each other, even on big budget productions. There is a place for everyone and everyone has their place in my opinion, so it has to be what suits you personally once you factor in any skills you may have which will help accelerate your journey.
Whichever route you choose, the ability to build a good reputation and strong relationships is probably the best advice I could give anyone. Trust, honesty, loyalty and respect are probably the best attributes you can foster and regardless whether these are applied to your trainer, fellow stunt team member, director or even runner, they cost you nothing you will certainly reap rewards and progress your career because of them. Whichever route you decide is the right one for you, In every industry you will encounter politics. I prefer to not involve myself in it or be distracted by it. I’d rather focus on making movies.
You can follow Darren on Instagram and Facebook.
Black Site will be available on VOD and Blu Ray through "Dread Central Presents" from 9th April this year.
More information on the making of Stairs can be found via the Britflicks featurette on YouTube.