Fighting Movie: Fight Choreography

Masterminding the choreography of the fight sequences were veteran stunt coordinator MIC RODGERS (Fast & Furious, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Lethal Weapon franchise) and fight coordinator MIKE GUNTHER (Underworld, Live Free or Die Hard, Fast & Furious).

They began working with Tatum five weeks before filming, teaching him routines that involved techniques from boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling to Ultimate Fighting and mixed martial arts. All quite helpful, because facing Tatum in each of the fight sequences were men who had been involved in combat sports, some professionally.

Up-and-coming Russian boxer Yuri Foreman plays Sean’s opponent in the scene at the social hall in Brighton Beach, while top-ranked mixed martial arts champion Cung Le squares off with him in the Chinese pleasure palace. His partner in the Bronx brawl is Stand Up’s DANTE NERO, who has extensive experience in multiple fighting techniques. Much like our film’s hero, Dante—in his early years—fought on the streets to make money. Sean’s ultimate opponent on the rooftop, Evan, is played by a man with extensive martial arts training.

“To come in and work with him was, from my standpoint, a dream come true,” says Mike Gunther. Tatum’s character is supposed to be trained in high-school wrestling, so the style that the fight coordinators created had to reflect that. Fortunately, they had a good student. “Channing’s a really great athlete,” says Gunther, “so he made my job very easy.”

In preparation for the role, White trained for three hours every day for four weeks. The former football player had to train to get the look and feel of his character’s fight champion moves down.

The coordinators trained White in moves derived from Brazilian jujitsu, muay thai and grappling techniques. About doing most of his own stunts, White says: “When you hire athletes, or actors that happen to be athletes who can do their own stunts, you add a lot of realism. You could be the best actor in the world but, as soon as there’s a shot of an actor from behind and we see a punch but never see his face, we know it’s not him.”

For Tatum, working with each opponent was a chance for camaraderie. As their fight scene had a number of different elements, Cung Le worked with Tatum for three days prior to shooting. The two actors performed a combination of dirty fighting and street fighting on their feet, as well as on the ground. The fight was not entirely choreographed, leaving them freedom to freestyle some of their moves.

As they staged the fights, ensuring safety for their actors was a serious responsibility for Mic Rodgers and Mike Gunther. The trick was to make the scenes look as real as possible, while keeping the actors safe from harm. Says Gunther: “If the actor goes down, everyone that’s working on this movie goes down. So the responsibility of keeping him safe added a lot of pressure. You definitely don’t want anyone to get hurt on your shift.”

Misher knows that the authenticity has paid off in the fight scenes captured in the film. “I’m a fight fan, and actors able to perform their own stunts is something I don’t see that often,” says the producer. “That feels rich and exciting to me. I enjoy the specificity and the gifts boxers and mixed martial artists have, so I love the way we were able to authentically bring that to the film.”

“The fights are not classic movie-style fights,” adds Rodgers. “What we tried to do was reinvent that. We worked closely with the special-effects department, so there’s a lot of breaking glass and knocking stuff over that’s special-effects rigged. We advised them on what was safe, and they came up with their ideas.”

Despite Tatum’s broad athletic experience, fight training was an entirely new beast. For an actor, it’s not simply a question of remembering the moves and making the fight look real. It’s also a matter of maintaining the performance, which requires equal concentration. “Keeping up the emotion in a fight is hard,” says Tatum, “because you’re filming one fight scene for 14 hours a day. You need to show emotion when you take a punch or grab somebody and slam them into a wall or a plate-glass window. Mic Rodgers pointed out to me that one reason the fight scenes in Lethal Weapon worked was because Mel Gibson is so good at selling it in his face and in the emotions. He’s not just going through the physicality of it.”

Adding to the illusion was director of photography Stefan Czapsky and editors Jake Pushinsky and Saar Klein. “We shot the fights with a handheld camera—three cameras simultaneously, in fact,” says Czapsky. “That gave Jake plenty to work with in the editing room. And you have to find camera angles that make the punching look real. During our first fight, Channing actually got hit; he wound up with a bit of a black eye. He learned after that why there’s a good reason to fake it. It doesn’t hurt as much.”

The editors had the challenge of combining the editing with sound design in order to make the fight scenes look realistic. “The combination of editing and sound design can make or break a fight scene in a movie,” believes Pushinsky. “People hear a good slap or a good punch and, even if it’s not there visually, they still believe it. With sound and editing, you can do a lot of tricks.”

In addition to quick cuts, the editors also rely on the actors to portray the throwing and receiving of a punch. Continues Pushinsky: “People’s eyes aren’t as fast as they think. One thing I learned was that it’s more the person getting hit who has to do this real acting of selling the reaction to a punch than the person throwing the punch. Everybody can throw a punch into the sky, but not everybody can act like they just got hit.”

Pushinsky also believes in the importance of music, especially when doing his editing work. For him, a big part of these fight scenes is rhythm. The editor comes from a music background, and music always plays a huge part in his process. Pushinsky plays music while editing, even if it’s music that’s never going make it into the scene, as it adds a rhythm, a feeling and a pace to a scene that he believes audiences feel subconsciously, because everyone listens to music.

Agrees Montiel, an avid musician who finds filmmaking and making music very similar, “I know what feels right when I play music. When you’re writing music or writing a film, you’re picturing everything that goes with it.”

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