An Interview with Robert Chapin – By David Stephenson

Robert Chapin is one of the movie industry’s top fight co-ordinators with over 20 years of experience in this often breathtaking and dangerous field. In this interview he discusses working with such names as Spielberg and Raimi, Robin Williams and even David Hasselhoff, and sheds light on the dangers and rewards of being one of Hollywood’s top performers.

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 Firstly, could you introduce yourself to our readers who may not be familiar with your work?

Born and raised in Miami, Florida where I got into stage combat and swordplay just out of high school (1982). I joined a group called the Royal Chessmen that performed living chess games at local renaissance fairs. I had such a blast, I joined a jousting group called The Knights Arrant, did some swashbuckling at a theme park called Pirates, and helped pay my way through college by performing swordfights at a dinner theater called Shakespeare’s Tavern.

What started out as a hobby quickly became a profession when I made my way to Hollywood in 1987. I was hired to perform swordfights on several feature films such as Hook and Army of Darkness. Within five years, I had written and starred in my own swashbuckling feature film called Ring of Steel, and I have been performing and choreographing swordplay in Hollywood ever since.

You’re known as a highly skilled fight choreographer – what drew you to that profession? How does someone get into that type of career?

First off, thanks for the "highly skilled" comment. Fight choreography is a rather subjective profession in Hollywood. There are plenty of studio executives that have no idea what good choreography is.

I wasn’t really drawn into swordplay as a profession, it was just plain fun. That seems to be the secret in Hollywood; you’ve got to love what you do. Beyond that, I trained with whoever I could in everything from swordplay to gymnastics and martial arts including Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Wushu, Capoeira, and Kali. And then you have to go where the jobs are. If you want to work in Hollywood, that’s where you’ve got to be.

Yours is described as a dangerous profession – have there been any occasions where you’ve ever been in serious peril? Ever get seriously hurt?

I’ve seen some serious injuries and I’ve heard fight choreographers boast about their scars, which makes no sense if they’re trying to convince you how good they are. After 25 years, I’m lucky enough not to have any scars or major injuries.

However, every fight scene has its own inherent dangers, and an accident can happen in the blink of an eye. Only rehearsal and training can help you minimize the risk.

What’s the biggest injury you’ve ever received on set? Is the job really as dangerous as people make it out to be?

I tore my ACL (knee) in fight rehearsal doing a flip with a half twist off a minitramp. Like I said, it takes just a blink of an eye, and yes, it can be extremely dangerous. I’ve seen some serious injuries including a sword cut right across a person’s face. There are also stories of big action stars with even bigger attitudes who don’t mind if a stuntman gets stabbed or loses an eye.

I think Brandon Lee’s death was a big wake-up call for Hollywood.

Who’s the best actor you’ve ever worked with in terms of picking up the skills needed to pull of those high-impact fight scenes?

Robin Williams on Hook. Even though he had a stunt double, he jumped right into a complex fight sequence and had it down in a matter of minutes. However, he already had the skills thanks to his Juliard training. It pays to be prepared, otherwise it’s virtually impossible to make someone look like an expert swordsman overnight.

Looking through your credits, you worked as choreographer on Sam Raimi’s Army Of Darkness – what’s he like to work with? Any stories to tell?

Army of Darkness was a bit of a challenge for us sword guys – since we were working on Hook at the same time. We’d get up at 6am and work all day on Hook, then drive up to the valley to work all night on Army of Darkness. We slept between takes.

Sam is a brilliant director, but he was a bit frustrated with the scope of the film. We had some major battles with precise timing that didn’t always work to his liking. At some point, he threatened to finish off one of the knights himself.

What’s more, the film almost wasn’t released thanks to politics and financing. We were called back after almost a year to finish filming at the Introvision studios.

Raimi is something of a cult hero to some of our readers – did you notice any difference in his working style to, say, the time you worked with Spielberg on Hook?

Spielberg appeared to be lost on Hook. I don’t know what politics he was dealing with, but it seemed he had no idea what he was shooting from one day to the next. An insane amount of money was spent and lost on that film.

Sam, however, had fairly elaborate storyboards and was coming from a low budget background, so he made the best of his time and budget.

 Did you get a chance to work with Bruce Campbell? If so, in what capacity? What’s he like off-camera?

I didn’t get to work with Bruce directly, but I was there for his training. He’s an extremely hard working actor and quite humble.

Is his chin really THAT big in real life?

The camera adds 10 pounds.

You’ve worked on Baywatch – what was your role there? Do you find television work differs to that of working for the big screen?

I doubled David Hasselhoff for an episode. They needed someone to climb a sixty foot cliff in Zuma called Point Dume and do a fight scene at the top. I told them I did that regularly on the weekends for fun, but it was nice to get paid for it.

Some say that television work is faster paced. I think it depends on the production. We shot Ring of Steel in two weeks, which is pretty crazy for a feature film. The big difference is the attitude. TV actors are always trying to make it to the big screen. However, that’s changing these days with a lot of star actors making the transition back to TV.

What’s it like working with David Hasselhoff?

Nice guy, hard working. I actually doubled him before Baywatch on a show he produced called Ring of the Musketeers. It was a cross between the Three Musketeers and Knight Rider – modern day descendants of the musketeers fighting crime with swords. Among the cast were Cheech Marin and John Rhys Davies. Very silly stuff. To this day, he remembers me as the guy who coached him to swordfight. He loves that stuff.

Have you ever had difficulty working around the limitations of various costumes or make-up? If so, how did you get around these obstacles?

There’s a saying in the industry. Given the chance, your costume and props will always conspire to kill you. Typically it’s the shoes that are too slick, wigs or helmets that flop around and blind you, or robes that get wrapped around you just when you have to block a potentially lethal sword attack. You just try to do the best you can and learn a few tricks along the way, like mopping the floor with soda to make it sticky. Also, get to know the wardrobe person early so you can head off any disasters.

The only problems I’ve ever had with makeup is when you sweat greasepaint into your eyes – blinding you, or when fake blood gets all over your hands which is made of slick Karo syrup. On one occasion I saw a sword fly right out of an actor’s hands straight towards a stunned camera crew.

One of the biggest changes to the stunt industry is the introduction of CGI stunts. What are your thoughts on this – do computer graphics enhance or detract from a film?

I actually just wrote an article on this subject for Inside Stunts Magazine (http://www.insidestunts.com). CG is just a tool, and it can be used to either benefit a film (as in Lord of the Rings), or drag it down with crappy effects. This is true of any aspect of film: acting, story, photography, directing, editing… Everything has the potential to enhance or detract from a film.

That being said, CGI is an amazing tool, capable of practically anything. I think we will continue to be astounded by the possibilities in the coming years. Likewise, we will continue to be astounded by how bad CG can be, which is why we hear complaints from audiences and stuntmen who are opposed to the use of CGI.

Does the advent of CGI make life for fight choreographers / stunt men easier or harder? Is there less work now this technology is accessible?

In my article, I talk about CG as a tool for stuntmen – no different from an air bag or ratchet. Stunts can be made safer by removing wires and rigs, fights can be sped up, pyro can be added in post, a bluescreen can be used to composite a stuntman on the edge of a cliff or building. You don’t even have to look like the star anymore when your head can be replaced with CG.

It’s true that there are some instances where a stuntman can be replaced entirely with CG, and full CG battle sequences have been created for films like Lord of the Rings, but even visual effects artists will tell you that it’s always better if you can use a real stuntman. Regardless of where the technology is going, CG will never replace stuntmen. Actually, CG has created new jobs for stuntmen in the areas of motion capture for feature films, TV, and video games.

Popular films like The Matrix have seen the use of techniques like wireplay etc. becoming ever more common – what do you think of these techniques?

Like CGI, wire work can greatly enhance action sequences if used correctly. Unfortunately, it is overused quite frequently which can be distracting and downright silly.

What do you think of the Asian world of action cinema and the extreme lengths some of their professionals go to? Some describe the lengths those stars go to as insane; what are your thoughts on that?

Jackie Chan’s biography (“I Am Jackie Chan”) gives you a good idea why Asian stuntmen are willing to take extreme risks. There are at least a dozen other guys waiting on the fence to take your place in case you can’t do a stunt or get hurt.

Regardless of what we think in the states, we have to step up our game to compete with the Asian market and hopefully try to make it safer in the process.

A few years back there was an outcry amongst stunt men who protested against what they saw as a lack of respect from the rest of the film industry. Complaints included the lack of an Oscar for stunts and fight choreography. What are your thoughts on this?

I personally think the Oscar Awards are long enough, but yeah, I think that stunt coordinators should at least deserve some sort of recognition. As it is, stuntmen have their own awards show called The World Stunt Awards (www.worldstuntawards.com), and it’s way cooler than the Oscars. The first year I attended, Arnold Schwarznegger (with the help of a stunt double) made an entrance by jumping out of a helicopter and falling through the roof of the theater.

 Who do you think are the best fight / stunt professionals in the business right now? Is there anyone out there whose work you find particularly inspiring?

There’s a lot of up and coming choreographers who are embracing CG enhanced stunts, which is where the industry is going. I’ve seen a lot of older coordinators reluctant to dive into the new technology, which is understandable.

As a swordsman, I’m keeping my eye on Richard Ryan, who recently choreographed swordfights on Troy. He has an extensive background in choreography and is willing to use whatever tools out there to help tell a story.

If any of our readers were considering taking up a career in fight choreography and stunts, what would your advice be to them?

I actually have a page I put together online giving advice to aspiring stunt professionals (www.robertchapin.com/action_faq.html). The best advice I ever got was from my first stage combat group, the Royal Chessmen. Rule #1, don’t hurt anyone, and Rule #2, don’t get hurt. I would add that if you want to find work as a stuntman, train with the people who are working in the industry. And above all, don’t take it too seriously.

You’ve previously written that many young stunt professionals join the Screen Actors Guild and then find they don’t have the experience to make it at that level – what are your thoughts on the SAG, its prices, and the limitations it can sometimes present?

I’m actually registered as SAG Financial Core, which allows me to work non-union productions. Many aspiring stuntmen (and actors) think that getting your card will immediately get you work, which isn’t the case. SAG does not find work for their members, and what’s worse, you can no longer develop your skills or add to your credit list by doing non-union work. SAG can also fine you for doing non-union work, so you better be sure you’re ready to stick to doing union shows.

What’s next for Robert Chapin?

I’m looking to combine my visual effects background with stunts and fight choreography, perhaps even directing. I have a few projects of my own in the wings, but regardless of what you have planned, this town always has a way of surprising you. Twenty years ago, I had no idea I’d star in my own feature film or find work as a professional fight choreographer. Hollywood can be a lot of things, good and bad, but one thing’s for certain, it’s never dull.