Monday, November 23, 2015


Gary Powell is one of the most in-demand, experienced and respected stunt co-ordinators in the film business. His career has encompassed films such as BRAVEHEART (1995), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), TITANIC (1997), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), three Harry Potter films, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008). I talked to him about his career, focussing on a certain secret agent he has collaborated with seven times (including the new film SPECTRE) - Bond, James Bond.  

When did you first entertain the idea of being a stuntman? 
I've been around stunts my whole life because my dad (Nosher Powell), brother (Greg Powell) and uncle (Dinny) were all stunt people. The first time I ever did a stunt was for the Carry On TV series when I was ten years old. I happened to be there when they needed someone to ride a horse in a scene involving a jousting tournament. For whatever reason, the actor was a bit nervous riding a horse, and because he was only a little guy, I was the only one small enough to get into his costume. That was my first stunt and I got paid 35 pounds, which I used to get myself a ten-gear racer. 

When did you become a professional stuntman? 
I actually didn't turn professional until I was 27. When I was 14, I started to get into the stunts again but I actually liked the special effects side of things more. I used to love making models and blowing them up. As a kid that appealed more to me than jumping off of things. I helped out with the special effects on a few films, but then I wanted to do my own thing and I went off and did some DJ-ing and working on construction sites. But then a bit later on I realised that doing stunts was the easiest thing for me to do.

What do you think are the components of a good stunt? 
My rule of thumb is that it is has to make sense in the story. To me the best one-off stunt ever done and ever filmed was the opening to THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) when Rick Sylvester jumped off the cliff on skis. It will never be beaten. And it was part of the story, so it did its job too. 

Are there certain qualities that make a good stuntman? 
There are a lot of stunt people in the world, and the good ones are passionate about what they do. That's important to me, because quite a lot of people do these stunts because they want the bragging rights, but when you see them working, they're not any good because they only care about the money. You can tell the difference between those who care and those who don't a mile off. 

How do you the feel about the image of stuntmen as adrenaline junkies? 
Some are, but my team and I definitely aren't. We calculate everything as much as we can and we are not daredevils. You get a lot of daredevils and the stunts don't work out as expected and the results are what they are. We earn the money but we want to go and spend it at the weekend. 

You once said that you don't like working with fearless people. 
A lot of the stuff we do is straightforward, but a lot of the stuff we do, if it goes wrong, it's going to be really bad. If you can't see and eliminate that danger, and if you don't have any kind of fear when you're doing a stunt, well that's dangerous and I don't want to be anywhere near you. Even on the silliest stunts I get nervous. I want to get it right my end because everybody else has done their job, and when it gets down to 'Action!' it's down to me. If I get it wrong, I could have wasted the time of about 300 people. 

What do you personally get the most out of doing stunts? 
When I was performing stunts, the bigger the stunts the better for me because they would get your heart pounding. When I did the barrel roll on THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999), it was a pretty tricky thing. I was going about 60mph, and I went about 14ft in the air. If the boat hadn't gone over and clipped the Sunseeker, that would have been a nasty result. We did have a bit of a mishap in one of the rehearsals when the boat came down on top of me. I got carted off to hospital with a suspected broken neck and back, but luckily I was just bashed up a bit. I used to love being set on fire. I used to love everything. It was such a good buzz.

How are things different now you're a stunt co-ordinator? 
It's a sort of a natural progression to become a co-ordinator after doing so many years of stunts. Some people just carry on doing the stunts themselves instead, but I just got to the point where I just couldn't do what I used to do. I was always known for doing a good job so I didn't want to become like the boxer who did one fight too many.

Was it hard to ease into being a stunt coordinator and not be doing the stunts yourself? 
When I first became a stunt coordinator, it just felt that like I was getting people to do stunts that I wanted to do – riding cars fast, getting set on fire – but I get a kick out of organising a good scene now. For example, on CASINO ROYALE (2006) the script read 'What follows next is an amazing foot chase.' Martin Campbell and I sat around for weeks coming up with ideas. Then we found the construction site in The Bahamas, we had a model built and started planning what we could do. I'm seeing as it is being done, but it's not until I see it with an audience, and I am seeing and hearing their reactions, that I truly know I've done a good job. It's a great kick to have organised a sequence like that.

Is it hard to stay creatively challenged? 
For me, that's the goal. Much of the time it's all scripted, and I have minimal input, but sometimes it's a blank of paper and ''What can you do?'' Then we can really get to work.

Are the Bond films special for you in that they always try to go one better than the last film? 
Yeah. That comes down to Barbara and Michael, who really care about the product, as did Cubby Broccoli. Obviously they have budgets to work around but they always give you as much as you need to do the best job you can.

What goes through your mind as 'Action!' is called on a stunt scene? 
You've dreamed up a stunt, and it's always something a bit daring, but when you're about to do it you're thinking ''Why the hell did I think of this idea?'' Youe heart is pounding. Now I am a co-ordinator it's more of a laugh and less stressful, but I have to make sure everything is rehearsed and everyone around me is protected. Whenever I used to get asked to do a stunt I would always say ''Yes'' because I always knew I could do it. But now it's nerveracking because it's my friends I'm asking to do stunts, and I don't want them to get hurt. When someone says ''Action!'' I'm probably the most nervous person on the set, despite my cool and calm exterior!

Do you enjoy arranging the stunts more than performing them? 
I have to say it's a bit of both. When I first got into it, all I wanted to do was do stunts. But like I said, I got to 37 and I realised I wasn't doing the stunts as well as I did when I was in my twenties. It was a real effort and it was taking its toll on the body. The passion and drive was still there but the enjoyment was less because it was hurting more. The enjoyment of being a co-ordinator is probably a bit more because when it is successful, it's a greater pleasure. 

It must be a great calling card to be able to say you arranged the stunts on the Bond films. 
CASINO ROYALE is all you need to say really. I'm always comIng back and forth from America, so I'm going through Immigration a lot. They always ask what I do, and when I tell them I'm a stuntman on films they instantly ask ''What films have you done?'' When I mention CASINO ROYALE, they always immediately stamp my passport and let me through!

I read that you had a very good relationship with Sam Mendes on SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015). What other collaborations with directors have been especially good? 
Martin Campbell is the one I have worked with the most. We really get on and he's really supportive and trusts me with what I do. Martin has really taught me a lot of things, and not just the stunt side of things, but also the directing side. He has been a huge help.

Campbell said Daniel Craig took to the action side of the role like ''a duck to water.'' Is that your recollection too? 
Yes. Getting that call – ''Right, you're going to be the next James Bond'' – has to be every male actor's secret wish. I don't think there's a male actor in the world who would deny they would want to be James Bond. It has to be the ultimate role. So when he got it, he knew what he was letting himself in for, and he came to us and we trained for three months prior to starting the film. He was also doing physical training in his own time. What helped in a roundabout way was all the negative press he was getting – 'The Blonde Bond', 'He's Going to Ruin the Franchise' - it all made us determined to prove them wrong. Which we definitely did, and it was a nice payoff.

He totally reshaped his body for the movie. 
We actually had to slow him down! He was getting so big that we were worried it was going to affect his movement. He was not a lover of heights but he was up there on the construction crane 90 to 100ft off the ground every day. I told him ''You don't have to do this. We have doubles who can do it.'' But he said ''No, I feel like I'm cheating the audience if they can see it's not me. If you say it's safe for me to do it, I'll do it.'' There wasn't an ego there about doing everything. 

How was working with Pierce Brosnan on his Bond films? 
Pierce was great. I totally enjoyed my time working with him. He really put the work in. I remember when we were doing all the stuff on the Thames for THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. It was January and February, and freezing cold. He was in the boat and getting soaked, and not disappearing into his trailer between shots or anything. 

You've worked with so many big time directors and stars. Has there ever been a time when you got starstruck? 
I just try and treat them as everyday people. We're all on the same page when we are making a film. It keeps it nice I think, if the feeling is that everyone is on a level playing field. The one person I met briefly who I have to admit was a true Hollywood legend was Paul Newman. I was working on BRAVEHEART (1995) and he came onto the set one night to meet Mel Gibson. That's really the only time where I just stood there in awe.
Your relationship with the lead actors must be close and unique in a way. 
We try and get them to understand that they can talk to us openly, and that they can say if they have a concern. And that we're there to have a good time too. It's all very relaxed. The closest one makes the cups of tea kind of thing! I really think they appreciate it. 

There must be a huge level of trust there too. 
Definitely. There's a huge amount of trust. I'm in charge of their lives for the next six or seven months! I remember working with Ryan Reynolds on GREEN LANTERN (2011). We had one scene which was at the start of the film where we had to fire him a hundred feet up in the air. Ryan said to me beforehand ''I can see the papers. ''Here lies Ryan Reynolds.'' '' Before we started rehearsing it I showed him a video of what I wanted him to do and he looked at me like I was crazy. Afterwards he couldn't have been happier with the result.

The actors must want to pat you on the back once they see themselves in the film. You help to make them look good. 
They do! We put them through a program, and it's hard work. It's definitely not easy. If they want to look good in the film, it's like anything else, they have to work hard at it. We sit down and go through what I need from them, how they want to look, what they are comfortable doing, and we make a template that we work towards. 

Were you a Bond fan yourself before you joined the series on GOLDENEYE (1995)? 
The first one I saw was DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971). I didn't know what it was or that there had been films before. I thought it was great. I remember the stunt with the Mustang and it was the first time I had ever seen Las Vegas. It really made me want to go there. It wasn't until I saw THE SPY WHO LOVED ME that I realised there were other James Bond films. By that time I had family working on them so I fully understood what they were. 

Was it a source of pride getting the gig on GOLDENEYE? 
It was, because it's the ultimate phone call for a stuntman. It was so much fun. I remember Simon Crane telling me ''You've got to learn how to drive a tank.'' I asked ''What film are we doing?'' He said ''James Bond.'' I said ''Great!'' We looked at the storyboards for the tank chase and what we were going to be doing, and it was just amazing. We finished the film and it was all said and done, and I was sitting in a cinema watching it with a few of the stunt guys. There's a bit in the tank chase where I had to do a 360 in the tank. There was a guy sitting behind me and he said ''Well that can't be real. It can't be done. It must be CGI.'' I was dying to turn around and tell him it was possible because it was me doing it! I could just imagine the look on his face. 

Was that the moment where you realised your career had gone to a different level? 
When you do a James Bond film it's forever. We're still watching DR. NO (1962) over fifty years later. You're etched in history if you work on them. It's a pretty great thing I must say.

The Bond films since GOLDENEYE (1995) have often had different directors each film. How does the arrival of a new director impact upon what you do? 
It can be quite huge really. Each director has his own vision. It's my job to give them what they want, regardless of whether I think they are right or wrong. There are things that the diehard Bond fans want to see, and the director is going to get the backlash if he doesn't give it to them. 

With CASINO ROYALE, did you feel there was a different focus on the style of action and stunts? 
Having worked with Martin Campbell on GOLDENEYE, he called me in, and we went through how we were going to attack the action in the movie. It was clear this was going to be a different film, even though it was still a James Bond movie. Martin's brief was that it was going to be a grittier and more realistic film. When we did the fights, Bond had to bleed, he had to get hurt, get injured. We couldn't do fights where they punch the crap out of each other for twenty minutes and at the end their hair is perfect and they don't have a mark on them, which has been done before. That was the focus, and it's actually the way I like to do things. I'm not into the martial arts Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles style of doing things. The Bonds are the perfect fit for me. 

What are Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson like as producers? 
I couldn't wish for two nicer people. They are the producers with a job to do and the budget to look after, but they're great people to work with. I remember we were sitting down on location one day somewhere and Michael comes walking up and handed out cigars to each and every person on all the different departments. It was just a nice way of saying ''Thanks for all the work you've been doing.'' They really are a caring bunch of people. Because they've been involved in the films their whole lives, they really care about the end product. They're not trying to cut corners to reduce the budget. They spend every bit of money of the budget to ensure they get the best product at the end.

What was your favourite memory of working on SKYFALL (2012)? 
I had to take my hat off again to Daniel again. Like I said, he has a fear of heights, but when we were doing the fight on top of the train, he was up 15 or 16ft on top of the train, which was rattling along at 50mph. That's intimidating. When we were doing the scene on the bridge, we had doubles and he didn't have to do it, but he said ''Fuck it. I'll do it.'' You could see that the devil on his shoulder was saying ''Do it!'' while the angel on his shoulder was saying ''Don't do it!'' It's funny to see him fighting against himself to do it. 

How do you feel about the use of CGI in films? 
I actually don't mind it. As long as it doesn't take over the film and pull the audience out of it, I'm fine with it. When you have a live-action film and there's a whole CGI sequence, the audience knows it, and it just takes you out of the film. 

The Bond films use CGI very responsibly. 
Yes, you never know what's CGI and what's not. We use it for removing wires, rigs and set extensions but you'd never notice.

A lot of the films you have worked on have been blockbusters, but you have also worked on smaller films too. Are they a different challenge? 
Sometimes, yes. Your commitment is still the same, but you may have five stuntmen instead of fifty.I do like to do smaller projects sometimes because they keep me grounded, and you have to survive on your wits and not be so reliant on technology. It's also useful to observe and learn how directors achieve things on a much smaller budget and schedule.

I spoke to Gary by telephone on 24th December 2012, and would like to thank him for his time.