Interview: Vic Armstrong - Stuntman behind Indiana Jones, James Bond and Superman
Stuntman and director on high falls, Superman, Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford
Vic Armstrong is one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. In the 60s he started working as a stuntman, going on to be Harrison Ford’s stunt double on the Indiana Jones movies and Christopher Reeve’s on Superman. Later in his career he began designing the stunts and filming them as a second and action unit director. He’s worked on over 100 films, including James Bond, Flash Gordon, An American Werewolf in London, Rambo III, Charlie’s Angels, I Am Legend and more, picking up Academy Awards and BAFTAs along the way. He’s also one of the nicest men in showbusiness, as we found out when we caught up with Armstrong to talk about his memoir The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman.
How did you first get into the world of stunts?
I got into the stunt world purely by fate. I was very, very lucky. I had a great family. My dad really encouraged me in horse racing and throughout my stunts, and never worried about me - or admitted they worried. I was a steeplechase jockey. I started galloping on racehorses at nine and by 14 I was competing. Then when I was 17, one of the stunt guys wanted to borrow a horse of mine - we had a very good horse who would jump anything - and he was doing a film with Gregory Peck. So he borrowed the horse and said the next day ‘the riders aren’t very good would you like to ride with us?’ So I went down and got £20 a day, which was top rate back in those days. It was over a week’s wages. There were only about 20 stunt people in England back in those days so I got an agent and she started sending me for interviews. You’d line up against a wall, me, 17 years old, with a load of 40 or 50-year-old guys, and the actor would come out and say ‘I think the young man would be a perfect double.’ You’d look nothing like them but it appealed to their vanity, so I got a lot of work very quickly and picked up a lot of skills as well.
Do you think working on a Bond film so early on helped your career?
100%. Working on a Bond was fantastic for me. The old saying 'nothing breeds success like success' is so true. I’d go for interviews and they’d ask ‘are you free next week?’ So I’d go ‘maybe I’ve got another job bubbling’ and they’d desperately want you then. It’s supply and demand. The fact I got a Bond film, You Only Live Twice, very early on in my career, in 1967, was incredible. So you go for your next job and they ask what have you been doing and you say ‘well I’ve just been working on Bond,’ suddenly your status goes up. It’s human nature, but you milk it for all it’s worth [laughs].
What do you think it is about Bond that everyone loves?
It’s impossible to put your finger on. You might look at Bond and think ‘lets just copy that formula’. People have tried but somehow it just never quite works. I did have an evening at the British Film Institute where we were celebrating what would have been Cubby Broccoli’s 100th birthday. They had a remastered copy of Dr No and you can see the formula in there but you can’t repeat it. It’s a bizarre mixture, but it just sparks something in everybody and attracts them.
Is there one particular stunt you are most proud of?
There are lots of things I’m proud of. People ask ‘what’s the most dangerous stunt you’ve done’, but they’re not dangerous if you walk away from them. To me the excitement is planning and breaking it down into a sequence of events that you can do and know how to photograph and make look fantastic. I’ve jumped off a horse at Aintree into a spiked fence, that was a spectacularly good stunt; the horse falls I did on Young Winston; I did a 100 foot fall from a viaduct on The Final Conflict, the third of the Omen series. A 100 foot fall is a long way. You reach 60 to 70 miles per hour before you hit the airbag. I jumped off a horse onto a tank on Indiana Jones [and the Last Crusade], that’s a stunt I’m very proud of because technically I knew how hard it was to have a horse run in straight line close to a cliff edge - to not have it slow down when you drop the reigns. Also I’m very proud of the fan descender, a piece of equipment I invented for Green Ice, for which I picked up a science and technology Academy Award, which basically means you can fall from any height at any speed because you have a wire controlling your descent. I invented it for a film in Mexico where we had to jump off a 340ft building. The producer said to me ‘Vic we need a piece of equipment for this film that has never been seen in a film before. Can’t be James Bond-ish, small enough to go up in a one-man hot air balloon, simple enough to be used by anybody, totally practical because we want to film it.’ So I went ‘OK that’ll take two or three minutes to come up with’ [laughs]. But I can up with the descender and won an Academy Award. It’s the invention that I love. The creativity.
Can it be frustrating that films you have worked on with amazing stunts can be ignored if they don’t do well at the box office?
100%. I’ve done lots of movies over the years that I’ve been really really proud of, where the action has been great. I did a western in Israel called Billy Two Hats, the first kosher western. I doubled Gregory Peck, I was the horse trainer, I directed the second unit, I hired all the stunt men on it, I even played a part in it as Harry Sweets Bradley who gets shot to death in bed with a hennaed whore. That did nothing at the box-office, but there was some fantastic action. There was another movie Cutthroat Island, it completely bombed but when you look at the action, we had a team of white horses galloping down the harbour in Malta with bombs going off. Great action, but a complete turkey. You can do very little on other films, and suddenly they’re huge hits, and you obviously take the credit with both hands. I did a little film many moons ago called Henry V with Ken Branagh, his first movie. We did that low budget movie and I really got on well with Ken - in fact I worked with him recently on Thor - but it was low budget, no time to shoot, but with great passion, Ken knew exactly what he wanted to shoot and that film gave me as much clout in Hollywood as any blockbuster.
The strange thing is that if a stunt is done really well. you shouldn’t notice it at all. Is it frustrating that people don’t see the hard work that went into it?
Not at all. I’m flattered by that because that’s the whole essence of it. Stunts you do and any second unit shots should be absolutely seamless. We’re all tiny cogs in the machine that makes a movie. Several hundred people moving around the world and everybody, however small, their contribution is an integral part of the movie and I love the whole machinations of making movies. I never feel in any way slighted by actors getting credit. So they should because I couldn’t act to save my life. I tried and I’m hopeless. Actors have a really hard time, and that’s what people want to see when they go to a movie.
How did you make the move from being a stunt man to second unit and action unit directing?
The transition from stuntman to director is quite a natural one. You become a stunt co-ordinator and your job is to employ the stuntmen and break down how the stunts should be done. Then you become an action unit director and your job is employ the stunt co-ordinator and work out how to photograph it and edit it. So it’s a natural progression, and it’s all part of the art of making the action look extremely dangerous - when you are trying to take the danger out. It’s a lovely art form. There’s a little bit of magician work, but it’s a wonderful art form that I find very creative.
Do you like working with CGI or do you think it’s overused?
That’s a fantastic question because I love it as a tool and it is totally overused a lot of the time. But for us as stunt men it’s a fantastic tool. When I did Superman we used piano wire and it snapped all the time. Now you can use wire as thick as your finger, have harnesses in shot, airbags in shot, and it’s so easy to erase. If there’s movement that you can’t do physically you can add that in post [production]. What I don’t like is whole sequences that are completely created on the computer, because then they start looking like cartoons. But used correctly it’s fabulous. I always equate it with morphine. When morphine was invented it was an incredible drug, used in the right quantities and for what it was intended for, but if you over use it, it’s a killer. It’s exactly the same with CGI in movies. We just did the Amazing Spider-Man last year and you see Spider-Man flying for real on that. You see him go though the bottom of his arch - he’s weightless at this point - before he changes direction and when he’s at the bottom of his arch he’s pulling 3.5 Gs. You can see that subconsciously on anybody’s body, just the shape of it, whereas if it’s a computer thing he has a completely different bodyline and body shape. The human brain does pick this sort of thing up.
You’ve worked with 100s of actors but there are three in particular you talk about in your book. Firstly, did you enjoy working with Harrison Ford?
Harrison, I adore. He’s got the same sense of humour as me and we both come from similar backgrounds we just hit it off from day one. I love his humour as much as anything else. He’s a very, very funny guy. Years ago, I’d come back form Mexico, and he’d given me explicit instructions on how to get to his house. He was living in the Hollywood Hills. So I got to the top of the road, turned right at the T junction, and by a boulder was supposed to be his house by a rockslide from years ago. So I drive up to the house, there’s a note on the door ‘I’m having back treatment. Come in make yourself at home’. I know Harrison’s got a bad back, so I go in the door shouting ‘Hey Harrison.’ No reply. So I sit down, start reading the paper, wandering around, shouting and shouting. Nothing. Then suddenly the penny dropped. This can’t be Harrison’s house, it’s far too twee, so after walking around shouting my head off, I tiptoe out, get in the car expecting Dobermans to rip my throat out at any second, turn around, drive the other way at the T junction and he’s standing there waiting outside his house. So we go down to dinner, I’ve been in Mexico for about three months, and I look at the menu and he’s taken me to a Mexican restaurant, which was just the last thing I want. He’s got a wonderful sense of humour. A fabulous guy.
And Tom Cruise?
He’s broken all boundaries with doing his own stunts. That scene in the last Mission Impossible - off the roof of the big one in Dubai [Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building]. He’s phenomenal. I worked with him many, many years ago on Ridley Scott’s Legend with Mia Sara, as well as War of the Worlds and two versions of Mission Impossible III. We started with Joe Carnahan directing, then he left the project, and we went with Tom and did War of the Worlds, then came back and did Mission Impossible with JJ Abrams. Having worked with him over a long constant period of time I realised how passionate he was about doing his own stunts, so I designed everything so we could see his face, see that it’s him and not a stunt man. Because you do design things based on how you are going to shoot them - so you can put a double in. It’s all carefully thought out. But with Tom we did it so you could see him full on, doing everything in the movie. He’s not only an athlete but he still had the talent to sell the shot without getting hurt.
And what about Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Arnie is one of my top men, I love Arnie. Like Harrison, we’ve been through it since the early days of our careers. I remember meeting Arnie in Mexico on Conan The Destroyer. He was in make-up with his wig on and I introduced myself and we hit it off from day one. Again, he’s got a phenomenal sense of humour. And we did film after film together and I just love the man. He’s just as tough as they come. The work ethic is what I admire. I’ve been out partying with Arnie until three or four in the morning and the phone goes at 5am and he’s going ‘I’m in the gym waiting’. His work ethic, his sense of humour, his camaraderie, there’s no better man in this world.
Would you like to work with him now he’s acting again?
I would love to work with him again. I’d like him to do something apart from The Expendables , I think there are too many of them in there. I’d like to do something one on one. We did Conan, Terminator 2, and Total Recall. I’d love him to just find the right movie again, which will be tough for him, but I’d absolutely adore to work with him again.
Your family have followed you into the world of stunts. That must be great
It’s very flattering that they wanted to follow me into it. My brother does it, my nephews, my two sons and my daughter. My wife did it when I met her - her father used to do it. It’s fantastic, but it’s terrifying as well. The last two films that I’ve done involved big car crashes and when you see your kid being strapped into a car - full face helmet, roll cage - you knew they are going to hit something head on at 60 miles and hour and burst into flames. It’s terrifying yet I have to be calm as a cucumber, in charge of everything on set, going ‘action’, but inside it’s [meek voice] ‘action’. I don’t think I had grey hairs until they started, but it’s very flattering that they wanted to follow me into it.
It sounds like such an exciting life. What are the downsides?
It sounds wonderful traipsing around the world. I’ve worked in 65 countries and for the school holidays you take the kids with you, otherwise you never will see them, but it’s not all a bed of roses. However exotic it sounds, the kids are living in a hotel. They don’t have their toys, they don’t have their friends, so they can get stir crazy after a few months. And the travelling is exhausting. There are all those downsides, but also, the same as any job when you are successful, you end up away from your family. But it obviously made a decent impression on them for them all to come into the business, so it can’t have been all bad.
And of course people do get hurt. It’s not a thing that happens that much, thank goodness, but if any accident happens, it’s a failure, because we are there to make it look spectacular and have the audience come out on a high. We’ve designed it so you can do the stunt repeatable times and still have the same effect.
Why did you want to write a biography?
You’d go to a party and talk to somebody and they’d want to hear a story and they’d have the tabloid approach to your life, ‘How many times have you been hurt?’ I didn’t like the angle that everyone was going for until I met Robert Sellers. He was absolutely fabulous and he’d written a lot of film books and I liked his approach and style. He said ‘it would be in your own words and if you don’t like it, we don’t need to print it, even if we do find a publisher.’ So I was happy with that. It took six years. People who know me say they can hear me telling the stories because they know my phraseology, so I think it’s a good representation of what I wanted to get down on paper.
Any directors or actors you wish you had worked with?
I would have loved to have worked with John Huston. He’s one of my heroes, his book An Open Book is one of my favourite film books of all time. The other person I would have loved to have worked with is Errol Flynn. Again his book My Wicked, Wicked Ways is one of my favourite books. Sadly, most the people I wish I’d worked with are in the past. I did get to work with David Niven and a few of the mighty ones - Gregory Peck, Jack Warner. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. My visions of old Hollywood sound even more exotic than the wonderful one we live in today.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on Jack Ryan, which is the prequel to Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games. We’ve got a nice cast. Chris Pine is Jack and Kenneth Branagh is in it, and we go to New York next week, then we go to Russia, then Liverpool and the rest is in London, so I’m thrilled I’ll be in England for winter, which is a rarity for me.
Will you be back for any of the sequels to the big films you’ve done recently?
We’re not doing Thor. Another gang are taking over on that one. My brother is waiting to hear about Amazing Spider-Man because I think it might clash with Jack Ryan, but I’m sure Armstrong Action, all eight of us, can send a few stalwart representatives.