*** Check out my later interview with Stephen about his work on John Wick 3: Parabellum ***
“A film set is a living organism. Something as simple as slowly driving a car 20 feet as part of this constellation of activity can be very intimidating if you have never functioned in that space before.” Steve Koepfer
Stunt men and women are the “shadow warriors”, in the background but pivotal to the scene. I reviewed the fascinating short documentary film Concrete And Crashpads – Stunts in New York recently, and it really whetted my appetite to find out more about this world.
Luckily Steve Koepfer, who co-directed that film with Matthew Kaplowitz, was kind enough to answer my questions about breaking into film and TV stunt work in New York, his experiences so far, and the NYC stunt community in general. Steve has been training in, and teaching, martial arts for years now – and after making the move into film and TV a decade ago, more recently moved into stunt work. Oh yes and he worked on John Wick: Chapter 2 with Keanu!
1 How did you get into stunt work? Was it part of a grand plan or did you just fall into it? (pun intended!).
I am quite the rookie stunt performer. Having said that, it seems stunts is a natural next step for me in a long line of professional activities. From childhood I always wanted to make movies; starting with my dad’s super 8 camera. We would make and edit these little short films with homemade special effects. It was a blast!
When I got little older I went to summer camp for filmmaking, where I learned a bit more about the process, editing, etc. Finally I ended up in college at the School of Visual Arts. While I was not in the film department (I was in advertising/graphic design), it was my intent to head in that direction eventually.
After college my life went in a direction different than I had planned. But, it was martial arts that brought me back to television and film years later, and eventually stunts. It is only fitting that martial arts would be the vehicle that moved me towards stunts specifically as it has been the one constant in my winding life path. In the past 10 years I have been involved in TV & film in diverse roles including producer, director, technical consultant and stunts.
2. The dinner party question! What misconceptions do people have when you first tell them what you do (I always assume that on films everyone working on them lives in a big house together like in The Monkees).
Honestly, until recently I did not tell people I am a stunt performer. This is a very new title for me and I am still very much a rookie. Though my first stunt job was in 2011, I did not do another until 2014. That was when I really considered stunts as a serious possibility. I had produced a short film and coordinated a fight for a former student and friend of mine. That film got some play and was the vehicle that enabled me to meet some legit stunt professionals, which I was not. That short got the attention of a New York based stunt coordinator, Douglas Crosby, who was the first person to suggest that I may have a future in the stunt business.
Wherever I end up in stunts, it will always be Douglas who gave me the confidence to give it a shot. Once I had made the decision to pursue stunts, it seems like puzzle pieces just started to fall into place.
So, to answer your original question, I don’t know what people will say! Now that I am in SAG-AFTRA and getting better gigs, I will have to report back to you on this. People already think I am nuts for all the physical punishment I have received during a life of martial arts and fighting, so I doubt they will think I am more sane than I was before.
3. In the film someone says that the person you look to on a film set isn’t the director but the stunt coordinator. Is it as straightforward step up from stunt performer to stunt coordinator?
That is a very long journey, and not an easy one. Though I have has some “Coordinator” credits on small non-union indies, I do not consider myself a Stunt Coordinator. A Stunt Coordinator literally takes years and years of commitment and not everyone is cut out for the job. Aside from being an experienced stunt performer, one must have a very wide variety of knowledge, functionally understand filmmaking (editing, cinematography, etc), or know who to hire to fill in the gaps for whatever kind of stunt is dictated by the story. One must be extremely organised and be a strong leader.
The Stunt Coordinator more than anything else is responsible to the safety of his team. Of course he or she needs to help create incredible action, but the Coordinator has a team of people putting their trust in him or her with literally life threatening activities. The Stunt Coordinator must be able to function and stay calm under significant pressure from many different avenues.
I would suggest reading the Action Movie Maker’s Handbook by Andy Armstrong*. Andy Armstrong is a legend and part of a family involved in stunts for three generations. You will get a small, enlightening glimpse of what that role consists of. Do, I think I would make a good coordinator? Yes, I aspire to that some day. But, I am not close to being there yet. [*Scroll to the bottom to buy]
4. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to chuck myself off a tall building onto a trampoline but within reason can anyone be trained out of the self-preservation instinct to perform smaller stunts?
I am a firm believer that people can achieve many things they never thought they could. And stunts aside, I think learning how to fall safely is an incredibly important life skill. As a martial arts coach I always ask new students the following question with regard to learning self defense, for example: “Compare the amount of times in your life you have been mugged at knife point to the amount of times you have fallen down. Now, which skill do you think is more important to the average person?”
Clearly the answer is learning how to fall safely. I think most people can learn to do basic falls if they set their mind to it. There is not a person alive who has not fallen off a bike, off a curb, down stairs, off a swing, etc. People should learn to fall. Having said all this, I am not into sugar-coating things and I am not a believer that people can do anything they set their mind to. Some people are simply not cut out for certain things. Not everyone can do stunts.
5. I’d imagine the first time a stunt performer has to perform a completely new stunt, especially when just starting out, must be terrifying. How do you overcome that?
I can very much speak to this. I recently had my first job on a large production. Norman Douglass, the Stunt Coordinator on Gotham hired me for a simple job. I was to drive a cab about 20 or 30 feet. Not precision driving mind you, just drive a cab in a straight line from point A to point B. Easy, right? One would think. But, then you get to the set for the first time and realize how much you don’t know. You literally have to learn a new language! What does “back to one” or “pictures up” mean? Wait, what did the Director just say over the radio? I could not make it out! Did he say “Action”? Should I start driving? The windshield glare is blocking my view! Damn, this car is only 6 inches away from a $100,000 camera! Don’t you mess this up, Steve! How do I negotiate all this activity?!
A film set is a living organism. Something as simple as slowly driving a car 20 feet as part of this constellation of activity can be very intimidating if you have never functioned in that space before.
Your mind has to be singularly focused and you have to trust yourself that you can do the job. That day on set, Turner Smith was the acting Coordinator and, as simple as my job was, his supportive eye, or nod was extremely beneficial to me. Which brings us back to the Coordinator role. I totally felt like Turner had my back, even for such a simple job. This is important.
6. And linked to that, how much is fear a good thing and how much a hindrance?
Fear is normal. But, it can be a hindrance if you give it power over you. In fact, if you give over control to your fear, it is very dangerous. You don’t want to be overly confident either. You have to respect your fear and the danger you put yourself in for the safety of you and your peers. But, once you do, put that fear away and be confident that you are there because you are able to do your job.
7. Are stunts getting more dangerous? Can any stunt be made almost completely safe?
I can’t really speak to the evolution of stunts from personal experience as a rookie. But, from an observer’s view, it seems with technology stunts have evolved. As have all aspects of filmmaking. Some may have increased danger, and some may actually have less. In the end, life is dangerous and we try to minimize that danger as best we can. Stunts are no different.
8. Do you need accreditation to work as a stunt performer?
This very much depends on what kind of stunts you do. Certainly certain kinds of specialty stunts do need higher levels of training, permits, etc. Firearms, fire stunts, precision driving, flying, etc. With regard to the average day player who’s expected skills are fighting, falling, hitting the ground, etc., there is no real “school” to go to or diploma to acquire. It is really about seeking out what you need to acquire the skills you need. The stunt business borrows skills from many different walks of life. In my experience, if you are serious and work hard people will help you out, point you in the right directions, etc. Of course, to be a professional, you need to get into SAG-AFTRA; and that is its own challenge.
9. Which actors (male or female) would you most like to work with? (Bonus points for someone other than Keanu!)
Well, I have worked with Keanu already, so I guess I don’t need anyone else right? I mean John Wick is the man, right?! But, seriously, I am not really sure I have a list of actors that I want to work with specifically. For me, the fun is in the performance, the creative process of it all. I enjoy working with anyone who engages that process.
I recently spent two days working with Amir Arison on The Blacklist. He was awesome. He made this rookie feel very comfortable (as did everyone on that set). No ego or attitude. He was very respectful of me as I was of him. Great experience!
10. Okay please tell me about working with Keanu…
My role in John Wick 2 was very minor (but still cool!). Chad Stahelski (Director and co-founder of 87 Eleven Action Design) asked me to come and teach some Sambo to the stunt team. He was looking for some additional dynamic throws to incorporate into the choreography. I worked with them for a few days and spent most of my time with Coordinator JJ Perry, Justin Yu, Jackson Spidell (Keanu’s stunt double) and Eric Brown. Oh, and of course Keanu was there for rehearsals.
JJ was incredible and very generous with me. He really gave of himself and shared lots of information with me. It was almost like a mini internship. I got to be a fly on the wall of one of the top stunt teams. They are elite level.
11. I really liked that there were so many women interviewed in your film. Does that reflect the balance in the New York stunt community? Are there many women stunt coordinators?
Matthew and I wanted to try and make sure the film represented the diversity that is the stunt community. That was a very conscious decision. There are definitely many more female performers than in the past. But, sadly there are very few female coordinators. The same can be said for African American coordinators. Like all walks of life, the stunt community has its own diversity challenges.
12. Do you ever worry you’ll wake up one day just unable to carry on? I’m thinking of the equivalent when actors suddenly start suffering from stage fright once they’re established, or even you might just find that years of that kind of physical work have taken a toll on your body.
I don’t worry about stuff like that. I have only so much brain power in this 48-year-old grey matter. No need to waste it on self defeating worries.
13. Does CGI affect your work, either in finding your role performed by a computer-generated figure or in terms of raising an audience’s expectations of what’s possible?
Making movies is a massive team effort. The stunt department is only one part of the process. SFX plays a part, as do all the departments. In the best productions, even the small indies I have been a part of, the ability of the team to work together always had a positive effect on the final cut. Without a doubt stunts and SFX must work well together.
Again, I am a rookie, but my feeling is that rather than diminish the amount of work for stunt performers, technology and SFX has changed the type of work stunt performers do.
14. There was a real affection for New York in the film among the performers – how much does it as a place affect the projects you’re in?
I have found the New York community to reflect the vibrancy and energy of our city. We all love this city. I myself am born and raised here. If you look at my body of work, it very much reflects my love of this town. I am 100% New Yorker! I have not worked in any other stunt markets, so I can’t say from personal experience, but I feel like we are unique. Not necessarily in skill, but definitely in attitude!
15. What films with stunts can you watch again and again, never get bored, and always find something new in them?
Old Boy (the original), Fighter in the Wind, John Wick, Throwdown, Hard Boiled, The Killer and Flash Point are a few. A few of the films that really inspired me in my youth, that I can watch over and over again are American Werewolf in London and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
16. And following on from that, can you watch a film and just sit back and enjoy it for the experience or are you constantly thinking “I’d have done better”, or “wow I wish I’d thought of that”?
Yes, totally. I can lose myself in a film without critiquing it. If the story catches me, I am all in!
17. Are you a secret romcom fan?
I guess not. I don’t even know what it is! LOL.
HUGE thanks to Steve Koepfer for answering all my questions with such good humour and such detail. You can buy Andy Armstrong’s book in Kindle format from Amazon UK: Action Movie Maker’s Handbook: The Art of Movie Action, and from Amazon.com here: Action Movie Maker’s Handbook: The Art of Movie Action. (FYI I get a sadly-very-very-small commission for anything sold through the links on this site).
Check out my review of Concrete And Crashpads – Stunts in New York, with a link to the trailer on the same page.
Read my later interview with Stephen about his work on John Wick 3: Parabellum