Vic Armstrong on Being ‘The World’s Greatest Stuntman’
Indiana Jones and Superman have one thing in common: they were both Vic Armstrong, arguably the world's greatest stuntman. That's what his book says, and after reading it you'd be hard-pressed to dispute that statement. From 100 foot falls to flying into Marlboro trucks to leaping onto Word War I tanks, Armstrong's career as a stuntman goes back almost 50 years. He performed mindboggling feats on everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Superman 2 to On Her Majesty's Secret Service to Barry Lyndon to A Bridge Too Far to An American Werewolf in London to Return of the Jedi and dang, this list just goes on and on. Let's move on to his illustrious career as a 2nd Unit Director, contributing all the great action sequences from such films as Dune, Henry V, Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Universal Soldier, Starship Troopers, Tomorrow Never Dies, Charlie's Angels, Gangs of New York, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, The Green Hornet, Thor and the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man.
His new book – The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman: My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Movie Heroes, co-written by Robert Sellers, on sale this week – details the history, stunts and behind-the-scenes shenanigans behind those classic films and many more. Mr. Armstrong was kind enough to give Crave Online an interview just days after completing work on Marc Webb's new Spider-Man reboot, provide exciting anecdotes about his classic films, and give us an inside look at his most recent superhero work.
Crave Online: Hi! My name is William Bibbiani and I am interviewing you… now. How are you today?
Vic Armstrong: Good, good. Very good. I’m just off to London at lunchtime so this is perfect timing.
Crave Online: Fantastic. What are you off to?
Vic Armstrong: I’m just going to do some book signings, and then a bit of publicity, and then hopefully a round or two of golf and then back here.
Crave Online: That’s a good day! I just finished reading your book, maybe half an hour ago. I’ve been pouring through it all weekend. My head is just swimming. It’s just incredible how many of the movies I grew up with were you.
Vic Armstrong: That’s fantastic. I had trepidation about ever writing a book, if people would find it interesting…
Crave Online: What was it that finally made you decide that now was the time to write a book?
Vic Armstrong: Well, people had been asking me… You know, you meet somebody at a party, “Oh gosh, you should write a book.” And then people approached me and I just didn’t like the tack they were going along, about broken bones and all that nonsense… I love the business too much for that. It’s been too good to me. It’s not about broken bones. That’s failure, you know? That’s like asking a golfer, “What was your worst round of golf?” Or asking a racing driver, you know, “What’s the best crash you had?” So then I met Robert Sellers. He phoned me, and somebody had recommended him to me, and he called me. I’d looked at his work, and he’d done a lot of film books. I just liked his honest approach to it all so I said, “We’ll start and see how it goes.” So he spent several years coming around, and we’d [cover] from ’65 to ’70, or from ’73 to ’75 […] and he’s just the saying the name of the film, and I would come to a memory. Nothing was written down, it was all just from memory. And that’s the way it all came out. We just did it like that and it sort of evolved, as it were.
Crave Online: There’s just so much to cover. How long did it take you to put the book together?
Vic Armstrong: Probably four or five years.
Crave Online: Great, and now I’ve got to cover the whole thing in half an hour. [I enjoyed] the positivity of it all; it’s so nice to see that your enthusiasm is still so high after all these years. It’s really infectious.
Vic Armstrong: That’s great. I remember old Pierce Brosnan, one day we were doing a Bond and I’d have my unit and we’d be shooting. I’d shoot a sequence and Pierce would come down, [and] we’d put him into the sequences. I had special moments picked out that I wanted to use him in, and I edit as I go along, on video, so I’d put him in my trailer and I’d show him a video and I’d show him what’s happening, and he looked at me, “Oh Vic, you’re always so enthusiastic!” And I was, “Oh well, that’s just me! If I like something then I’m enthusiastic about it. You just can’t help but be that way, you know?” I guess if you get too jaded then you give up.
Crave Online: The book kind of takes you through your entire career, and it’s really interesting to see you starting out as this sort of hungry stuntman, doing anything. You know, “Vic, jump on that motorcycle. Go.” And now you get to do these huge projects, lots of money thrown down and you’re controlling everything now. Do you have any nostalgia for that time when it was just you risking your life for no particularly good reason?
Vic Armstrong: No, I never figured I was risking my life. Everything was calculated and worked out. I was ambitious. I remember in the 60’s, thinking “Wow, my ambition is to earn 5,000 pounds in a year,” which seemed completely unattainable. That would be a hundred pounds a week, for fifty weeks of the year, which is just… I would only be getting sixty-five, seventy-five pounds a week anyway. So you’d have just do double, triple time to do it. And I’ve never forgot that. (Laughs) – But I was always hungry, but I always knew it was a business. Even in the old days, the silent film stars, they weren’t deathwishing crazies. Everybody values their own lives, even in those days. They might not have had our technology but they had the cunning and the cleverness, and they came up with great ideas. We come up with great ideas, and modern technology helps us […] Hopefully you’ve taken all the risks out of the equation…
Crave Online: Is it different now for young stuntmen getting started? Well, obviously it’s got to be different, but you used to be able to just come in off the street apparently. “I’m a stuntman.”
Vic Armstrong: Yeah, it’s much, much harder for young people now, because of the huge amount of competition. With the reporting on stunt work, and actors talking about it, and programs about it, and the specials on the DVDs that refer to the stunts, people are much more aware of it at the moment. In the old days they never did. So people are much more aware of it, and try to get into the business, and so there are many more people into it. And they’re all very talented people, so it’s a real hard, hard, hard job to get into these days.
Crave Online: I look over your credits and it is absolutely phenomenal. In the book you talk about the stuff that you’re really, really proud of – the James Bond movies, the Indiana Jones movies – what was the movie where you were like, “Oh god, I wish no one had seen that?”
Vic Armstrong: I’ve done a lot of those. (Laughs) – No, none really I’m horribly embarrassed about. I work, I’m always proud of my work on a movie whether it’s a success or not. You don’t know. When somebody phones you up and says, “We want you for a day,” or “We want you for a month,” or six months, that is the most important film you are ever going to do in your life. The one you’re doing at the moment. You’re always taking all these precautions, and you do it as economically and as professionally as you possibly can. When the film doesn’t work out right it’s tough, but you can’t actually tell when it’s going on though. You read the script, and you think, “Wow, what a great story.” Like The Sicilian was a wonderfulscript. Fantastic script. Great actors. John Turturro and Christopher Lambert and people like that. Great cast, great action, and it just didn’t happen… It’s just the way it goes. There’s no way of telling.
Crave Online: I’m reading about you making all these movies that I’ve been thrilled by. The Assassination Bureau, Rob Roy… I just don’t know what to talk to you about. What do you get asked about the least?
Vic Armstrong: Well, I don’t do that many interviews. Mainly I promote the film I’ve worked on.
Crave Online: I’m thinking at parties. You introduce yourself, “I’m Vic Armstrong, stuntman. I’ve done blank.”
Vic Armstrong: Oh, I’d never say that. (Laughs.)
Crave Online: You’d never say that?
Vic Armstrong: I never tell anybody because they’re all, “Oh, do a stunt!” Like if I was a brain surgeon and told them, “I’m a brain surgeon.” “Oh, remove that guy’s brain!” (Laughs) – If they hear you’re a stuntman, they’re like, “Fall down the stairs” or something. Which I’d probably do, but [by] accident. (Laughs.)
Crave Online: There’s a lot of partying going on in this book, because of all the down time you’ve had on the set. You’re talking about jumping on coffee tables with Oliver Reed.
Vic Armstrong: Oh yeah, well, they’re great times, you know? Letting the steam out. When you think, we’re very transient… When you think about the travelling I’ve done, I’ve been to 65 countries, and many of those over and over again. Four times to China, twelve, fifteen to Thailand, et cetera et cetera… You spend a lot of time in the air, you spend a lot of time away from home, and you just go completely bonkers. You’d be a totally boring person if you sat in your hotel room every night, because sometimes you don’t work for days on end. So, idle hands cause mischief. (Laughs) – We’d go out, and we’re pretty gregarious people, the people I travel with and take with me. We do get up to silliness now and again, but it’s only due to boredom.
Crave Online: It’s interesting to see some of the stories you have in the book that are just sort of, “Wow.” Like the time you quipped to Sophia Loren [when she was riding a horse that kept trying to buck her off] that if she was riding you bareback you’d be bucking too.
Vic Armstrong: (Laughs) – That was embarrassing!
Crave Online: I was laughing my ass off at that.
Vic Armstrong: No, I was just a young guy and it just came out! She was all, “Naughty naughty!”
Crave Online: I love that to this day you’re still wincing at that. Oh god, I’d be so embarrassed… It’s really crazy that you’ve been such an integral part of every movie.
Vic Armstrong: I’m very proud actually to have worked on… I was lucky. As I say in the book I’m a great believer in luck. You know they always say the harder you work the luckier you get, but it’s a good grounding experience to realize that I am lucky, and there are all these guys who haven’t been as successful as me. Talented people. I’ve been very, very lucky. And I was at the top of my game and [had] the right physique and fitness level when Superman came out, and the Indiana Joneses came out, and to have been involved in the Bonds. The iconics of genres were out there when I was at the top of my game. Ten years before, ten years later, I’d have missed the boat. And I’m so proud of the Indiana Jones trilogy. We raised the bar for action. As a team. It wasn’t me. It was the whole team of people that didn’t. The Spielbergs and Harrisons and George Lucas, great writing, great directing, great artwork, great camerawork, great stunt work. So it was a whole team effort, and I’m so, so proud to have been involved with those. And then I look at the Bonds, and I go, “Wow, I was at 65 pounds a week on my first Bond, and now I’m spending millions and millions of that company’s money. They put their trust into me, and I’m actually directing this stuff.” I’m so proud of that career.
Crave Online: You directed the Dolph Lundgren movie Joshua Tree [aka Army of One]…
Vic Armstrong: Right. And I did Young Indiana Jones for Lucas, as well.
Crave Online: Are you still seeking out official directing roles?
Vic Armstrong: Yeah, I get offered one or two a month. But basically, I look at them I see Straight-to-Video, which is not what I want to do. I’d rather do… I don’t mind low budget, I’m quite happy with low budget. I can work very economically. I’m experienced. I know how to do things very economically and to the best of ability, and our people would come and help out, et cetera. We could deliver a really, really good movie. But I don’t really want just a video. I want one that people can look at and see in the cinema and go, “Wow, why didn’t he do that before?” (Laughs) – And you know, it’ll come. And if not, I’m more than happy to keep doing these big, big budget action units, which are tremendous fun. Tremendous pressure but very good fun as well.
Crave Online: As a second unit director, obviously you have to make certain that your footage matches the director’s.
Vic Armstrong: Right.
Crave Online: And you talk [in the book] about how Martin Scorsese made you watch all these old silent movies. October and Battleship Potemkin. Was there any director whose style, not necessarily what they wanted on screen, kind of flew in the face of what you would normally do? It sounds like that would be such a challenge for some of these people.
Vic Armstrong: It’s a huge challenge, and that is my job. You’re Second Unit Director, you’re not main unit director, you have to bend to their wishes and you’re going to do what they want, you know? Because you are their second set of eyes. That is one of the hardest parts of second unit, copying somebody’s style, because it has to match seamlessly, visually, and also delivering the best action you can. You know, you walk along hot coals a lot of the time, and it’s quite a political situation, but it’s part of the job, you know?
Crave Online: You have some credits on your resume that you don’t talk about in the book, because I imagine these aren’t very stunt heavy films. You’ve got Quills on here. You’ve got Holiday, that Nancy Meyers movie.
Vic Armstrong: Oh right. (Laughs) – Great little movies. Great fun to work on. I got called in [on Quills], they’d shot a chase with this torture machine on a stagecoach and it didn’t work, so they wanted it done again. So I sort of organized that and set it up. It was great fun. It was brilliant. And Holiday, with Nancy Meyers, working with the lovely Cameron Diaz again, we did a mini chase around Surrey. We snowed all of Surrey in. Actually, there’s one place where there’s still snow. I thought the stuff was disposable, biodegradable… but it is, it [just] takes weeks to disappear. So I sort of didn’t show my face around there for a little while. (Laughs)
Crave Online: You’ve got a bunch of really huge movies coming out this year and next. You did The Green Hornet, which I only just saw and I loved.
Vic Armstrong: Yeah, and we did some fantastic action with my whole family. We had my brother. He did a crash. My son did that crash through the bus, head on. And my nephew […] The whole family was in that one. It was great fun. Hard work, but great fun.
Crave Online: It’s weird because Michel Gondry is so not an action movie director.
Vic Armstrong: No. (Laughs.)
Crave Online: Did he have any ideas that were just bizarre?
Vic Armstrong: Not really… I had pretty much free reign on that. I ran it all by them, obviously. You do your due diligence. I went out on locations, wrote the storyline down, talked Michel to see what moments he wanted in the chase. I scouted locations and wrote a beat sheet with all the action in it, et cetera. And then he was happy with that so I went off to shoot it. I edit it and give him my rough cut and that’s it. My baby’s gone.
Crave Online: Have you seen Thor yet?
Vic Armstrong: No, I haven’t. My son just he just got in from New York last night, from Amazing Spider-Man, he said he saw it. He thoroughly enjoyed it.
Crave Online: I loved it, personally.
Vic Armstrong: It was great working with Ken Branagh again after all this time [after Henry V], and a great a choice for the job, he was. Perfect.
Crave Online: He balanced it really, really well. So much of Thor has CG in it.
Vic Armstrong: Right.
Crave Online: And you talk about in the book how CG is great for really amplifying stunts, but when you start focusing too heavily on it, it becomes this crutch.
Vic Armstrong: Yeah. There’s certain places where you do need it. And I always figured there was going to be a lot of CG, because Asgard doesn’t exist, and you want to make it, as a contrast to Earth, you want to make it futuristic and different. I think there you have a free reign to do it. You have to create whole worlds and that’s what you do. But then you cut back to the action on Earth, that’s so organic and so real, you know, when you see Chris [Hemsworth] flying down the street, when he gets knocked down the street a hundred and fifty feet… that’s Chris. And we did it for real. We did rehearsals and all that for the stunt. We tried to round the surrealistic Asgard stuff with down to earth […] and you know, sort of realistic action on the ground.
Crave Online: In the book you talk about getting actors to do these stunts. Mission: Impossible III, you designed every stunt so that Tom Cruise could do it.
Vic Armstrong: Yeah, I’d just finished War of the Worlds with him. I knew what he was capable of, and what he wanted to do, and we literally designed everything with him in mind. We used CG to help take out an airbag or two, and wires and things like that, but what you see Tom doing he’s doing. He’s such guts, and we threw himself off that building, we built a thirty foot on top of the Curious George car park at Universal Studios, which was the top of the building that he was going to leap off and parachute away from, and we rehearsed it with a stuntman – we always rehearse it […] – and then showed him the video, everything else. We showed Tom the video, J.J. [Abrams], and they said “That’s great” so we lined it up for the camera rehearsal, Tom showed up the night of the shoot and we had marks on the ground with the tape. [I] said, “Okay, Tom, when you do this you’re going to run along this tape line on the ground, get to the edge, throw yourself out as far as you can, you’re on the cable, then you’ll drop sixty or seventy feet when you’re on the cable and you’ll stop. We have an airbag down there.” But it takes some balls. He said, “Okay, let’s do it.” “Do you want to do a rehearsal?” “No no no, I know what you want. You just told me.” “Okay put this harness on. Stand back. Three, two, action.” And he just launches into space, total leap of faith. And he launched himself out there, held the pose until the resistor cable kicked him sixty-seventy feet below. Amazingtalent. He’s a talented guy. And he’s a talented driver as well. Did all his driving. My son’s a great driver as well, they did a lot of chase work together, crashes and things.
Crave Online: One of my favorite shots in any action movie is that one shot in Mission: Impossible III, where he’s on the bridge and he’s running towards the camera, and a rocket hits in the background and there’s this crazy snatchback. Do you have shots that you’re most proud of, not necessarily the stunt itself? Like, “Oh yeah, I directed the crap out of that one shot!”
Vic Armstrong: Oh yeah. And it’s all in one. It’s not cutting, cutting, cutting. It’s all there. You see it. It’s visual. You describe the location, you see the whole bridge behind him […] I love those sorts of shots. And he did that six, seven times until he got it right. We had a detonator in the window to blow the window out at the same time. All the stunt guys were there. “Aw, I want that on my reel!”
Crave Online: Do you have any other favorites?
Vic Armstrong: Well, the one in Mission: Impossible III again, where he rolls off into the Vatican […] Seventy foot drops, and he’s just touching ground. A little puff of dust pops up, and oh, I’d like to take credit for being that actor. We had a bit of luck with it as well. It’s a heck of a good shot. And I love my jump on the tank in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the stuff that Harrison [Ford] has done, and the fights he’s done. They’re not just stand alones. They’re all storytelling, moving the plot forward moments, which is what we do. We don’t just go out and do a spectacle. We don’t blow up a gas station just because a nun ran across the road to save a puppy, and a tanker runs into a gas station and blows it up. We hopefully have a storyline that progresses the movie along. If it’s an integral part of the story then that’s a bonus.
Crave Online: One movie that I guess you’re working on right now is The Amazing Spider-Man. You talked just a little bit about it in the book, and what you’re planning for it, and how you’re going to use Muay Thai and parkour. Are you done with that yet?
Vic Armstrong: I literally finished on Friday, and my son finished yesterday and my brother finishes next Friday. When I finished writing about it, that’s when the book was just coming out. That’s as far as I got. Robert wanted to bring it up to date as far as we could. We’re just finishing up on Spider-Man, but it’s exceeded all our expectations. There’s some great stuff on YouTube of Spider-Man flying down this overpass on Twelfth Avenue, and you see him flying for real. The body language is so much different from CG Spider-Man. It’s just fantastic. And we got great stunt people there who do parkour, who do skateboarding, and they were teaching Andrew Garfield certain elements of that. And certain elements you wouldn’t miss him doing. You know, $200 million is resting on his shoulders, so it would be totally impractical to put him in every situation but he’s in as many situations as we’ll allow him to be. And he’s fantastic. I really think that it’s a… They hate to call it a “reboot,” but it’s sort of reboot…
Crave Online: Well, it is.
Vic Armstrong: I hope it has as much realism as Mission: Impossible III did. Because I think that was the best of the Mission: Impossibles…
Crave Online: I totally agree.
Vic Armstrong: And I think it’s as grounded in reality as that is, but with the same flare and surrealness that Spider-Man brings to it. He’s flying on spiderwebs and climbing on buildings, you know? So I think it’s going be a great, great mixture of real and surreal.
Crave Online: Now is Amazing Spider-Man the first movie you’ve worked on that was shot in 3D?
Vic Armstrong: It was. Yeah, I went to a course at Sony. Three-day course. I was totally bamboozled. I learned absolutely nothing. I came out and I worked on some tests, and then within the first three hours of shooting on the set I learned more than the whole, whole three days of the class. It’s a whole new approach to shooting, which I love because I love learning new things. You shoot totally differently. Normally you’d shoot over somebody’s shoulder to punch somebody, and the depth perception is foreshortened, and you can stop your fist a foot away from their head and it looks like you’ve hit them. Of course in 3D that doesn’t happen because everything is in sharp, sharp detail and relief, so you have to work out different angles of shooting. You use small lenses. You never have foreground crosses. You know, normally you track past something in the foreground, it sort of adds to the speed sensation. But that makes you feel seasick in 3D. And they’re very unwieldy rigs. It takes ages to change a lens. […] There’s all sorts of trial and tribulation but at the end of the day it was great fun to learn to do it. I must say, I love learning new things. I’m terrified of being jaded and repeating myself.
Crave Online: Do you like the effect of 3D? Do you think it’s a good tool or are you distracted by it?
Vic Armstrong: (Laughs) – No, I don’t. I think it’s too much hard work. I think it’s exhausting to keep the eyes in focus all the time. I personally would rather shoot on film in 2D, but that’s my preference. But it seems to be the flavor of the month at the moment, and we’re in the business to make money, and so we get on with it.
Crave Online: Looking back, what is the scariest stunt you’ve ever done?
Vic Armstrong: The one I did that scared me the most was probably the 100 foot fall on The Final Conflict, where I’m on this horse and the horse rears up and throws me off this viaduct. We did two parts. We did the horse fall and then I did that 100 foot fall onto an airbag. It’s a funny feeling when you’re standing on top of a viaduct, looking down a hundred feet at an airbag that looks like a matchbox, and launch yourself off. And the same thoughts go through your mind, you know, and then thirty seconds before you go it gets calm and you focus and it all happens. And afterwards you think that was a waste of adrenaline. It was easy. (Laughs) – I would be apprehensive before. It keeps you awake at night.
Crave Online: Thank you again. Seriously, you’ve brought so much to so many amazing movies. And thank you for writing the book. I think people are going to really like it.
Vic Armstrong: That’s fantastic! My pleasure. Thank you very much.
Crave Online: My pleasure. Thank you, sir.