September 16 2014 Latest news:
Andrew Clarke, Arts Editor
Monday, July 18, 2011
Stuntman Vic Armstrong has a signed photo from Harrison Ford, showing the pair of them dressed as Indiana Jones, looking rather battered and dusty, but smiling broadly at the camera. It’s a picture that shouts cameraderie.
On this photo Harrison has written “If you ever learn to talk I am in deep trouble.” Another, a couple of years later, for the sequel Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade says: “We have got to stop meeting like this.” Vic Armstrong has doubled for Harrison Ford not only in all the Indiana Jones films but also in other Ford epics such as Mosquito Coast, Patriot Games and Witness.
Vic Armstrong is hugely proud of the fact that he has not only worked on the Indiana Jones films but has been stunt co-ordinator on the James Bond and The Superman series too.
“It’s a huge honour. I can’t believe it myself sometimes. If you are a race horse owner and you have three Derby winners, it’s a miracle – you would be lucky to get one but three – it’s unheard of, but I’ve been deeply involved in three iconic movie series and it has a similar success rate. I have been extremely fortunate to be have been around, at the peak of my fitness when these films were in production.”
Vic, who started as a stunt man, became a stunt co-ordinator and is now a second unit director, is speaking about his life and career next week at Wingfield Barns arts centre in north Suffolk.
He has just published his autobiography The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman after his family and friends nagged him for years to set down his film experiences on paper.
“I’m not finished yet but I have tried to get as up-to-date as I can make it. I wanted to tell the real story of a stuntman – not concentrate on the accidents and the mishaps and all that tabloid blah. If you have had an accident that means you haven’t done your job properly. If you are a stuntman, a proper stuntman, then the trick is to create something which looks spectacular, which looks daring and dangerous but is ultimately safe – safe enough to repeat four or five times until the director is happy that he has got the shot he wants.
“If Michael Schumacher was writing his biography you would want him to talk about winning races not about the accidents and the times he spun off the track. The same is true of stuntman. I believe if you get hurt, you’ve done your job badly.”
Working with journalist Robert Sellers, it took Vic six years of interviews and editing to get the book into a format that he was happy with.
“It’s something for the kids and the grand-children. Robert would show me pictures from my films and all these stories came flooding out. The more I did, the more I realised I enjoyed the process. It so easy to let these stories just fade away into nothing.”
Vic is close friends with Suffolk stunt engineer Dave Bickers, who made the leap from moto-cross into the world of film-making and Vic has employed Dave’s services on many occasions to help him realise the impossible.
“Dave is such a huge part of my history and the history of film stunts in this country. The man is a walking genius. His first proper job in the business was when I flew him out to Rhodes in 1979 to do a motorcycle chase in this World War II movie Escape To Athena with Roger Moore and Telly Savalas.
“He built this bike and sidecar to jump this peasant and donkey in the middle of the chase. He’s a fantastic engineer. In American Werewolf in London I was driving this London bus and I needed it to do a 180 degree spin and it wouldn’t do what I needed it to do. I had a word with Dave and he immediately came up with an engineering solution and it worked like a dream.”
Vic said that the secret to being a successful stuntman was that you had to be a specialist in something. Vic started life as an amateur jockey. His father trained racehorses including those belonging to actor Richard Todd.
“I loved riding. As a boy I loved racing around on horses, playing cowboys and Indians, throwing myself off my pony and so I grew up unwittingly learning the skills I would later use in later life.”
He said that at 17 he was recruited by a stuntman who exercised horses for his father to be Gregory Peck’s riding double in a film called Arabesque. “He said did I want to come and ride for this film he was working on. We had to jump walls, rivers – at one point we had to jump a Land Rover, I thought it was money for old rope. I was earning £20 a day, which was more than a week’s wages in 1966, and I was being paid to do just what I was doing at home for free.
“I thought this was a great way to earn a living. My friend had just come back from shooting Duel In The Sun in Spain with Yul Brynner. I thought: ‘Wow, not only do they pay you to ride horses, they pay you to go to Spain as well and put you up in hotels.’
“I was the only young face working on the stunt team, in those days. The majority of stunt men were ex-commandos, that sort of thing, you would line-up these actors would come out, look nothing like me, and choose me because I made them look good. The times I heard, ‘Oh, he’s the perfect double for me,’ he laughed.
Although Vic says that hard work plays a huge role, you can’t ignore the role of fate – of being in the right place at the right time. This was certainly true for his admission into the world of James Bond.
“I came back from a picture in Switzerland and a mate of mine, Bill Weston, was caught up on a long shoot and suggested I take his next job. He said: ‘I am shooting this film, a science fiction film with this eccentric director, I think it will go on a while why don’t you go and take my contract at Pinewood.’
“It turned out that the film Bill was working on was 2001 with Stanley Kubrick and his next job which I inherited was You Only Live Twice. I was the first ninja off the rope when they attacked Blofield’s headquarters at the end of the movie and it was the start of a wonderful relationship with the series.”
Over the years Vic has worked with Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. He even performed the death-defying horse jump off a castle battlements into a moat in the renegade Bond movie Never Say Never Again.
One of his treasured moments was designing the pre-title speedboat chase at the start of The World Is Not Enough which ended with Bond launching the boat out of the Thames and onto the banks by the Millennium Dome.
“The script was really vague. It just said something like: ‘Bond launches the speedboat from the MI5 headquarters, gives chase down the Thames and ends up at the Dome.’ It was up to myself and fellow stunt co-ordinator Simon Crane to develop the sequence into something interesting and then to film it. We also got Dave Bickers on board again to design the hydraulic ram which would allow the speedboat to do a 360 spin and then fire it out of the water.”
He said that during his career he has gathered knowledge and experience but he has never been afraid to call specialists in for help and advice. “It’s horses for courses. As I have said, the idea of a any movie stunt is to make it look good but keep it safe. It’s about camera angles and minimising risk.
“You design stunts to keep everyone safe. Many actors like to do their own stunts – people like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise want to do as many of their own stunts as they possibly can. They are very fit and very adept but there are times when you have to say no. Even if they are capable of doing it you can’t risk them breaking a bone, twisting an ankle or getting a scar on their face, the delays and the resultant costs for a film would be catastrophic.”
He said that digital technology has helped stars do more of their own stunts. “When I – and my wife Wendy, doubled for Chris Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman we were flying about on thin piano wire. Today you can have actors hoist up on thick, heavy duty cable and it can be digitally removed with no trouble.
“I design stunts now for actors to do with boxes and crash mats in full view, knowing that they can be easily removed in post-production.”
He said that complicated stunts can involve specialists being drafted in from a variety of specialist backgrounds. “I look at what is required, who can do the various elements of the stunt. So one sequence may involve gymnasts, vehicle specialists, engineers, explosive experts, all sorts.
“You cut across a wide range of departments in our job really.”
He said that he learnt to ski in order to double George Lazenby for the climatic chase in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “I got this phone call out of the blue. I was at my dad’s stables one day and the phone was ringing, there was no-one else about, so I just answered it. This voice said: ‘We’re looking for Vic Armstrong. I said: ‘Yeah that’s me.’ He said: ‘Are you free tomorrow, for two weeks? It was Bond. They put on a plane at Gatwick, I went out for two weeks and stayed for four months.”
Over the years Vic has gone from a daily rate stuntman to stunt co-ordinator to second unit director.
“When I was a stunt man I used to look across at the stunt co-ordinator and I used to think that’s the job to have, he’s employing everyone, he’s working out the stunts, he’s advising the director, he’s the top dog, so I became a stunt co-ordinator, that was great, I was able to plan stunts and then I looked across at the second unit directors, they were the people I was now working with. I was advising where to place the camera to get the best shots. I used to go to dailies, where they run the previous day’s footage and I used to work out why some scenes worked and others looked underwhelming. I worked out that it was all to do with camera placement, lenses and film speed, and so I wanted to become a second unit director myself – rather just advising others how to do it.”
He said that shooting the stunt sequences is the pinnacle of his craft. “It’s a tremendously satisfying thing to do. You end up actually writing the sequence and you work closely with a lot of other people. It’s a wonderfully collaborative affair and that’s why when you get a god team together, you tend to stick together.”
Vic Armstrong will be talking about his life and career as a stuntman with BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Lesley Dolphin at Wingfield Barns on Wednesday July 20 at 6.30pm. Tickets £10 can be booked at 01379 384505.