Chris Brewster on Showing Character With Action
ComingSoon Senior Editor Spencer Legacy spoke with action director Chris Brewster about coordinating stunts for Black Adam. Brewster discussed working with Aldis Hodge and showing a character’s personality through action. Black Adam is now playing in theaters.
“In ancient Kahndaq, Teth Adam was bestowed the almighty powers of the gods,” reads the film’s synopsis. “After using these powers for vengeance, he was imprisoned, becoming Black Adam. Nearly 5,000 years have passed, and Black Adam has gone from man to myth to legend. Now free, his unique form of justice, born out of rage, is challenged by modern-day heroes who form the Justice Society: Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Atom Smasher, and Cyclone.”
Spencer Legacy: The fight between Hawkman and Black Adam is quite dynamic. Can you walk me through the process of creating that?
Chris Brewster: Absolutely. Well, the fight between Black Adam and Hawkman is such an interesting piece because their styles could not be more different from each other. We like to say that Black Adam has a styleless style. He is the ultimate power. I mean, he’s untouchable — up until he meets Hawkman’s mace. He’s really never been put down. He’s never been hurt. So he’s just nothing but pure confidence in every move that he throws. He’s faster, he’s stronger, he’s just better than any person or character that he’s ever really had an altercation with. So for him, his movement is very direct. It’s not martial artsy at all. He doesn’t need a martial arts technique. He’s just pure power and aggression. Whereas Hawkman … he’s lived life after life after life. With each life came new skills, new weapons, and new abilities.
So we had to show that within that fight with those two characters. The way we did that was basically showing Black Adam on the attack from the first moment. He’s just using all of his superpowers, as he would. If you could fly and hit somebody and smash them through buildings, that’s the first thing you would do. Then, to show Hawkman try one style, and if one style wasn’t working, he would have to adapt to another style and then to another style. We wanted to show the character arc of what each person was going through throughout the fight. So for Black Adam, he went in thinking he was absolutely invincible. Obviously, once he got hit by that mace, he realizes, “Oh, there’s something on this world that can actually do damage. I don’t want to get hit by that anymore.”
So he goes from having never had to fight defensively to actually trying to avoid a specific object. Whereas Hawkman, he’s going for the attack, and he’s like, “Okay, this isn’t working. This isn’t working.” He’s trying different styles, and the only thing that works is his mace. So then he starts learning, “Okay, I need to use my martial arts techniques to make an opening so that I can actually try to go in for a kill shot with the mace.” So you get to see each character not only start off with very different styles, but you get to see each character learning and growing throughout the fight.
You trained for a few months with Aldis Hodge to nail that down. Is it difficult to show someone how to express a character through physicality?
Usually, yes. One of the hardest things to teach is character behind the movement, or the intention behind the movement. It’s very easy to teach choreography as far as like, “okay, you’re going to throw a left punch, then a right punch, then you’re going to grab with your left and strike with your right.” The movements are like a dance. So you can even teach somebody, and with enough repetition, you can teach anybody an entire fight sequence. What’s hard is throwing a punch and making it look like you’re throwing that punch, trying to actually hit somebody and do damage. It’s hard to show a character through the movement that you’re doing. Luckily, we were blessed with two of the most incredible performers in the world, between Dwayne Johnson’s extensive background in wrestling and being an action superhero, an action actor, and action God for the last decade or two.
He comes in and he has this uncanny ability to add character and style and just take every move, whether it’s a really, really dynamic, exciting wire move where he is flying and hitting somebody, or even if it’s as simple as just one simple punch, he finds a way to make it cinematic. He has so much character in everything he does. He turns his head and every moment that he does something is a perfect trailer moment. It’s amazing. Aldis … not only does he have an amazing performance — I mean, he’s been acting his whole life — he has this ability to channel his character in his movement. He’s able to express himself through movement.
But I mean, he came in and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen somebody train as hard as he did for that three months leading up to Black Adam. He literally learned martial art after martial art. He was in the fitness gym lifting weights with all of us. He was at the stunt gym practicing every martial art, hitting a heavy bag, doing boxing drills, doing stick fighting drills– literally everything we threw at him, he took the challenge and went for it. What would normally be the biggest challenge in getting these actors to portray their character through the choreography was actually the easiest part of this film, because they just naturally added character to everything they did.
Another really notable fight is when Black Adam breaks out of prison. He’s not able to rely on his powers in the same way, so he does some more grounded, intense moves. Was it difficult to switch gears for that fight?
Honestly, it was not difficult at all because, to me, that’s our world. Everything that happens on a superhero film is a culmination of all of the departments. It’s live-action from the stunt team mixed with VFX. Everybody working hand-in-hand to create action that is literally impossible. We’ve got people flying and fighting thousands of feet in the air. So we’ve got like our wire team flying, the actors and the stunt doubles flying around and doing all kinds of really dynamic, exciting movements that are then enhanced by the VFX team and all these added layers. For the prison fight, there was a little more pressure because it was entirely live-action, so it’s more pressure, but that’s what we do best. Luckily, the challenges that were presented were right up our alley.
Jaume [Collet-Serra, director of Black Adam] said that he wanted to shoot every take of the prison break as a single-shot runner. And that’s one of my specialties. I’ve made a name for myself with runners. We love that challenge because when you do small takes and you constantly cut, it has a very different energy. When you run an entire minute-and-a-half-long action sequence, you get tired. You see the heaviness, you see there’s so much character added to it, and obviously, it’s a much bigger challenge because if one person messes up in that 90 seconds, you ruin the whole take. Whereas if you’re cutting around and stuff, if there’s mistakes, you can cut around the mistakes. When it’s a runner, you can’t mess up. So the challenge was being perfect take after take for five days straight. Luckily we had some of the best stunt performers in the entire world. I mean, they rose to the challenge and they absolutely killed it.
To tie into that, there is the live-action stuff, there’s the mixture of CGI and wire work. How satisfying is it to kind of combine those different action mediums?
It’s one of those things where there are some projects where it feels like you’re totally separated and each team is doing their own thing and you don’t really see how it comes together until you watch the final product. Black Adam was really fantastic because we had a really good marriage between stunts and VFX, but also with all of the departments. It was like one really big family came together on this film. Every person working on the film was incredibly passionate and everybody really, really wanted to make this thing incredible and exciting. Every step of the way, we had conversations. We had communication going between the stunt team and the VFX team, and the VFX team would create an animation that we would then try to turn to real life.
We turned it to real life and would have bodies actually doing it. We’d change the choreography because they would animate two people flying at each other and just punch, punch, punch, punch, punch. And we’re like, “Okay, but just 15 regular punches will get boring. This guy’s going to throw this punch, or this guy’s going to block it and then go for this technique.” We tried to characterize and individualize each person’s movement. Then we would make our tweaks, and then we would send that video to the director to get his notes, but then we would send it back to the VFX team and they would reanimate it with our choreography so we could see how the characters would look 10,000 feet in the air fighting and doing those movements. We’d just go back and forth. So it was a really fun experience to be part of a team that was like a stunt and VFX team every step of the way.
As someone who’s done a lot of stunt work yourself, how has that experience helped you to design action?
Luckily I think that we’re in a really exciting generation of stunts where not only my generation of performers, but … I was working with, with Tommy Harper. Tommy Harper was the main stunt coordinator for Black Adam. He’s my mentor and my idol in the stunt world. So what he’s brought down from his generation to my generation of performers … his generation was a generation that was trial and error. They would try things, break bones, and if they didn’t walk away from it, they’d figure out a safer way to do it the next time. So we benefited a lot from them. Then this new generation is benefiting a lot from both his generation and my generation — all the previous generations.
So since we’ve found much, much safer ways to do things, we’re able to really elevate everything. What used to be practical and doable was jumping off of a 30 or 40-foot building because sometimes you could land on a soft pad from 30 or 40 feet and walk away from it. Now we have state-of-the-art amazing rigging where people can jump off a several hundred-foot building all the way down the ground without a pad, and you’re able to do things that were virtually impossible just a few years ago.
If you could pick any character that you could design action for, who’s your dream pick?
Right now, I’m really excited about concepting things for Nightwing. Chris McKay is one of my favorite directors on the planet, and one of the jobs he’s slated to do is that movie. I’ve really been jumping into those comic books and trying to create a style that is 100% accurate to comic books, but also something unlike anything that’s been done on camera. So, that’s my new mental challenge.