I’ve always loved movies. One of my earliest memories is going to a drive-in double feature of “Enter the Dragon” and “Three Musketeers.” My dad was a theatre projectionist for many years. Every moment I could I spent hanging out in the projection booth, watching the magic happen. I love movies, but I hate what they do to swordplay. It drives me just nuts. Swordplay is such a visually dynamic art and sport, but the moment it gets on screen it turns into mush. The public perception of swordplay is completely skewed as a result. Why does Hollywood do this? Who is to blame?

You are. At least partially. The Hollywood movie engine is an incredible thing, and it’s all focused on making you happy. A happy you makes money for a film, and that’s important. There is a simple rule that drives the movie business: If your movie makes money, you get to make another one. If it doesn’t make money, your career is dead. Next time you hear the news people talk about the rankings for the weekend movie releases, pay attention. The number one and two movies are the movies where people get to keep their jobs. Every other movie released that weekend? That’s a whole bunch of people looking for a new career, or doing their damnedest to explain why they should be given another chance. Movies are damned hard to make. Not a lot of people appreciate just how much work goes into making a movie.

We start with a writer. If I sell one of my scripts, I get $60,000 for it. Minimum (sort of. Depends on the writers guild and other factors.) $60 grand sounds pretty sweet, especially considering a novelist might only $5k for something with a whole lot more words. But consider…odds are vastly in favour of you never selling another script as long as you live. Even if everything goes right and the movie makes good money. It’s mostly a one shot deal. Only so many scripts get sold in a year, and every other writer out there is competing against you for those few slots. But maybe I’m lucky, and write a script with good swordplay potential, and it sells.

A producer is usually the guy who buys a script and decides to make a movie out of it. He’s the guy who’s going to hire everyone else…like the director, camera guy, actors, etc (and another writer to re-write your screenplay, probably.) Even if your script is amazing, the producers choice of who to hire will start to shape how the movie is going to come together, and how it’s going to look. It’s not your script anymore, it’s the producers baby, and he will do whatever he wants with it. Rightfully so…he’s likely just committed 16hrs a day, every day for the next year or two to make this movie happen. With luck, he shares your vision. Or your damned great writing has left him no choice but to share your vision. Consider how many better writers than you have had crappy movies made, and start to despair…

The director is the guy who makes everyone work. The producer puts the talent together, the director tells them what to do. The director has a style and vision, and he absolutely has to get that on the screen. His style, his vision. The director has every right to put his stamp on things, because he’s committed his next year or two to this project, too…and if it fails (ie, not a blockbuster) he won’t get a second chance. So he’s going to put every ounce of his artistic vision into this movie he can, because he might never get another chance. So you have no choice here, your vision is now shaped by the director. Keep hoping…you might get lucky.

This process continues all the way down the chain. The grips may not get a say in how things look, but they are doing their best to be a part of the team. Everyone on set, on a good shoot, works together to make a shared vision happen. But even when things work the way they should, there are a lot of voices that need to have their say. When things don’t work…it doesn’t take much to turn things into shambling wreck. It’s truly amazing that most movies get made, never mind turn out to be good.

So the writer puts in a swordfight, the producer likes swords, the director is talked out of using steam-powered nine-bladed piston swords, the actors agree to get training…now what? It’s the fight choreographers, isn’t it? Those dirty bastards! Well…yes. Yes it is. But it’s not their fault. A lot of times a fight choreographer isn’t even used, because a stunt coordinator bluffed his way into the job. When they are hired, the first thing a choreographer has to deal with is safety…which means insurance. An injured actor is an actor who can’t work, and that means a whooooooole lot of money lost. Insurance companies like money, and they will have their say in what happens. Choreographers have to consider overall potential for harm first and foremost. That consideration shapes everything about fight design. If you risk an actor’s safety, no job for you!

When an experienced film choreographer thinks about a fight scene, he’s gotta think about the filming. Sure, me and a friend can spar and not hurt each other, and make some amazing things happen. Let’s say we do. I pull off a cool move, it looks neat. On set, that’s one take. ooooh, never mind, the focus puller fudged it. Let’s reshoot. Do the exact same thing again. What the hell was that? I said the exact same thing. You did something different. No I don’t know what, but don’t do it again. Do the first thing again. Roll film! Not bad. Actually, that was great. Everyone got it? Good. Okay, I think it would be cool if we got some closeups of the feet. Let’s reposition the lights, cameras, boom, boxes, and craft services table and do it again. And again. And again. Oh, was that 18 hours of the same thing over and over? Damn. Let’s do it all over again tomorrow, because we have the film budget so why not?

Say a brief fight scene takes a day to shoot. Say that the production cost for the movie is about a thousand dollars…a minute. What’s that come to for a 10 hour day of shooting? How many fight scenes of how long in a good swordplay movie? Do you want the actors forgetting or screwing up a sequence? How many times can that happen before someone starts seeing dollar signs slipping down the drain and tells the actors to just whack the blades against each other for a minute or two, and then one of them can fall down? “We’ll fix it in post…” Yeah.

And of course it’s only a small number of choreographers who know what real swordplay is like. A very, very tiny number. Choreographers tend to be people that act first, fight second…if ever. Some of them seem to believe that acting with swords is the same as fighting, and that’s why we see what we do on the screen. Well, one of the reasons. I’ve only touched on a little bit of the complex process that is movie-making.

So what can we do about it? I can think of three solutions right away. The first one is that fight choreographers should stop planning fight scenes to show off cool things. They should armour up and fight, put some serious helm time in. Following that they should spend time watching every fight they can. Look for cool things that happen spontaneously. Become a reporter of fights, share what you’ve seen in your choreography. Remove the posed artificiality and faux realism, and just show the truth. Learn to see it first, though.

Secondly, writers need to write good scripts that depend on good swordplay. Not in terms of setting or background, but as the central driver to the story.

Thirdly…I’m not gonna tell. Yet. I’ll give someone a few weeks to finish up on set, and then see if we can’t make some magic happen. In the meantime, I’ve got a few scripts here if someone’s interested…

And yes, that photo above is me and Inigo Montoya. Mandy Patinkin was in town filming during one of the original Academie Duello classes. He saw us training with swords and sent out a PA to ask if it was okay to come and talk with us…wow. Awesome guy. He stilled remembered the choreography from the movie, and performed it for us. Definitely one of my fencing career highlights!

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2 Comments

  1. Well, honestly, fights on camera, any fights, sword or not..REAL fights..look boring, and aren’t very long…so you have to make them bigger and flashier, and more exciting and entertaining..like car chases. . Put it this way..a guy gets shot in film, he flies back ten feet, in slow motion..in reality…he just falls down.

    1. Hey Aaron! I appreciate you coming by to comment.

      I used to feel that way, but after a watching a few cooking shows I am now a big believer in camerawork being able to make anything exciting. 😉

      One of my favourite fights on film was the final duel between Shinzaemon and Hanbei in “13 Assassins.” It was fantastic. Quick, short, and absolutely martially sound. For some reason we can’t seem to have that sort of thing with European arts in movies. Instead we get the “300” style “stick your face out there after moving your shield aside so you can be hit” pose-fest, or more of the absolute crap in any of the recent three musketeers movies.

      We had a brief bit of awesome in Alatriste with the fight between Malatesta and Inigo. Or the saber vs rapier bouts in “1612” but otherwise, it’s more of the usual bash, bash, bash, stab crap.

      Someone is going to make the equivalent of “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” at some point, and show people what can be done with western arts. Some day…hope I’m still around to enjoy it!

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