The Iron Lady of Action films and the only women stunt coordinator I know of who’s giving every Male SC a run for the money here is an exclusive interview with Melissa Stubbs.
Nilesh Sahay: Stunt coordination, how did you get started?
Melissa Stubbs: Started doing stunts at 17 with fight choreography and martial arts in cinema. Glen Randall Jr used to be Spielberg’s guy and directing Time Cop with Van Damme. Glen made me stunt coordinator at age of 23 in 1993. After that went on to some movies to tv shows, I did the double of the lead female and was also the stunt coordinator. And I worked in The Last Samurai to assist in fight choreography and I stunt coordinated in the second unit. And then joined the Director’s Guild of America in 2003, directed second unit for a 50million dollar Warner Bros project.
Nilesh Sahay: You’ve been around for over 24 years. Action evolving dramatically, from 80s to 90s and now in an era where VFX is huge in films. In the 3 decades which you’ve been stunt coordinating, which is your favourite era?
Melissa Stubbs: My favourite was 90s, but best is yet to come. For example, the recent Terminator was visual effects heavy, and we didn’t rely on them then as much as we do now. Christopher Nolan doesn’t like visual effects, he likes to do things practically. There is a time and place for visual effects but the audience can tell what looks fake, and this can pull the audience out of the movie because it is too heavy on visual effects and not enough realism. When I work, even today, I try to make it as real as possible without relying too heavily on visual effects because it can make the film look animated. The audience doesn’t know what it’s looking while watching, but they will know it looks off.
Nilesh Sahay:You worked on this 100million plus budget film, Terminator Genesis. Were you intimidated working with action legend like Arnold Schwarznegger?
Melissa Stubbs: His stunt double was Billy who Arnold wanted as stunt coordinator. But he didn’t have enough credits to be the stunt coordinator. So I joined the team and I had to work directly with Arnold and I didn’t know how he would receive me , being a woman he is an old-fashioned guy. But he was so kind and so welcoming. He was very open, he quite enjoyed my approach, no bull-shit. No ego and my only concern was what’s best for the character and film. And it was quite refreshing for him so he was wonderful.
Nilesh Sahay:Has the use of visual effects affected employment of stuntmen?
Melissa Stubbs: No but it has decreased amount of work. It’s lot safer, and preparations goes on for weeks and weeks. There are lots of pre-visuals and rehearsals involved. During Terminator we sat with visual effects crew and edited/created them and then went to the training facility to show the stuntmen and see if it worked. Then later checked with producers to create the sequence and writing it. A lot of creativity was coming together with visual effects and and the stunt team. Also, we did a lot of experiments, there were no story to follow.
Nilesh Sahay: But are all the stunt men out of work?
Melissa Stubbs: I don’t think it has decreased employment, but it has made it safer and better. For example, In Last Samurai there were huge armies fighting. And we did have 500 people in panels and shot the scenes panel by panel and blended them together to make it look like 5000. We decreased extras but not stuntmen. Digital doubles are created through animated process. An as a result the need for extras have reduced dramatically.
Nilesh Sahay:What was your prep for the film Terminator like that?
Melissa Stubbs: I prepped the actors first. Started shooting may 2014, teaching the actors how to fight. But I started training them in December 2014.
Nilesh Sahay:For a big film you would prep for at least 3-4 months?
Melissa Stubbs: Yes, for the Last Samurai we prepped for 3 months. But sometimes you have to make it up as you go along, because all this prep can change when we shoot, we don’t do what we rehearsed always due to location limitations and other external factors.
Nilesh Sahay:Tell me about your director Alan Taylor what’s his take on Action Films?
Melissa Stubb: Alan Taylor is a delight to work with , and knows his job really well and that makes my job really easy. Looking forward to collaborating with him in the near future.
Nilesh Sahay:Of All the Action heroes of all eras , who are your favourites?
Melissa Stubbs: Arnold Schwarznegger, Jackie Chan, Hugh Jackman
Nilesh Sahay: Seen any Indian Action films?
Melissa Stubbs : Ek Tha tiger and Bang Bang.
Nilesh Sahay:A final question If you come into Indian filmmaking, do you think you can cope on a film with a smaller budget?
Melissa Stubbs: : I have worked on a small film to help a friend out, when the film budget was only $500,000 and I’ve worked on Terminator which had a budget of 180 million. Fifty Shades of Grey was $60 million. I am flexible and can make the stunts and action work, depends also on how much time we have to shoot the sequence. And at the same time it will be impactful. I am a filmmaker and a problem-solver. I think outside the box, and when it comes to a limited budget, it’s really not a problem.