GREG MICHAELS (Sword Master)

"I first heard about EATERS OF THE DEAD through a location scout. Eventually, he got my Fight resume to the Stunt Coordinator and a meeting was set up. I read the "Eaters" book before our meeting. I also knew that I was competing with several other Fight Masters--including a couple guys who I knew from Los Angeles (where I lived for 20 years) as well as Braun Ashcher, who did all the swordplay for the "Highlander" series shot in Vancouver. I considered the competition pretty stiff.
Since most of my fight choreography had been on stage--and the little I had on film, I hardly ever kept--I was desperate to retrieve one of my taped fights to show the Stunt Coordinator Brent [Woolsey] and the producer, Ned Dowd. I called an old friend in L.A., overnighted him a key for my storage unit (a lot of my belongings were still in L.A., since I had only moved to Seattle a year earlier), and asked him to riffle through my stored belongings and send the videotape of a broadsword fight I did for TIME BARBARIANS [Joseph John Barmettler, 1990]. He did, but, somehow, it was the wrong tape! Time was running out... My wife suggested I scour the video stores in Seattle to see if anyone rented this "B" film. I found it, went through a number of trials trying to videocopy just the fight scene. Finally, I got a "down and dirty" copy. Took that copy and a couple of my own broadswords (to show Brent and Ned the kind of weapons the Vikings would most likely fight with), and flew to Vancouver Island.
I remember the informal interviews going rather smoothly. I also remember Ned Dowd saying that he wanted this film to have BRUTAL fights and some original choreography. On my flight home, I began to think about his remark. Brutal fights?! This was a Disney picture, not even a Touchstone (an offshoot of Disney). I was really puzzled by what "brutal" meant in this case.
I was hired.

I was originally hired to teach the actors (11, or so, of them) the broadsword, as well as choreograph the Herger/Angus fight. I would begin in May [1997] and teach three weeks, two (or three?) hours a day. (The actors, as you may know, also had language classes, equestrian classes, etc., during this time.)

One short anecdote... On the first day of classes, we were put in a corral outdoors. Brent (the Canadian Stunt Coordinator) and Bud Davis (I think that was the U.S. Stunt Coordinator's name) sat on the fence, watching me begin class. Now, part of my training is trying to assess an actor's imagination and impress upon him the idea of safety. To that end, I ask for a volunteer from the group of guys. A big guy, perhaps 300 pounds of muscle, steps up to me. I whisper to him that I am going to shoot and kill him with an imaginary arrow--in the chest. His only job is to 1) die, 2) end up on the ground. I tell him he can take as long as he wants to die, he can be funny, tragic, both, etc. I shoot this beefy actor and he does a quick death and slams his whole big body on his back with a force that nearly shook Brent and Bud off the fence. I scratch my head in disbelief. "A guy that big is that agile?" I think to myself. "And that was a dramatic and safe fall." I kinda glance at my bosses Brent and Bud. I ask for another volunteer. Up steps Tony Curran, a red headed fellow. We exchange a couple of fun quips; the others laugh, and I think I'm breaking the ice with the actors, coordinators, etc. I whisper to Tony that I'm going to kill him--in the back--with an imaginary ax and that his job is to die and to end up on the ground. I do my dirty work, Tony throws himself into the drama, and does a complete somersault in the air and lands on his back. Everybody applauds. I'm dumbfounded. I turn to the Coordinators and then to the actors and half-joking/half-serious say: "What in the hell am I going to be able to teach you guys if you know this much already?" Everybody laughs again and, at least, I know I've broken the ice. I've trained alot of people and never seen two more daring and dramatic deaths. I find out later that "Bear" [Asbjørn Riis] is a professional wrestler, and Tony Curran has gymnastics in his background!

Anyhow, when it didn't rain, we conducted classes with broadswords outdoors. On rainy days, we were inside, in the Campbell River city center. The guys trained hard, and yes--the broadsword is, in my opinion, a simple weapon to learn, but exhausting to fight with safely and for long periods of time. I think, to break up the monotony, I taught some falls, kicks, slaps, punches, etc. Anything to get the mind and body to be in one place, at one time--which is to me the essence of safe and dramatic swordplay.

A couple of the guys (who shall go unnamed) were not, in my estimation, doing that well in the combats--but everybody else was cooperative and learning all they could. Banderas was not among this group, because he was to arrive on, or around, principal photography. And, as you said, he had been training with Bob Anderson [for THE MASK OF ZORRO]...

The greatest problem I had was the amount of work they had saddled me with. At some point in the training, they brought in a bunch of stunt guys (maybe all these guys came early on in the training, I don't recall). Also, they didn't have the Angus role cast. I also worked with Diane Venora with a dagger, with Anders [T. Andersen] and his broadsword (though he had some training), etc., etc. The end of my three weeks was fast approaching and I hadn't completed half of what I'd been assigned--through no fault of my own. Two nights before I was supposed to end my tenure, I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote out an exact list of what was left to do. The next day I sent this list to the Coordinators Bud and Brent, and Ned Dowd the producer. They quickly saw my dilemna and kept me on the film for another unspecified amount of time.

After production began, there were some slack times for me. I honestly don't remember who requested that I train Diane Venora (McTiernan? Brent Woolsey?) and exactly for what purpose. But I do remember that Diane and I spoke about the fact that she was a Viking queen and might have some background with weapons. I know that her acting chores were rather minimal in the beginning, so we worked a little with the dagger--in case she had to defend herself from the Wendols. I believe she had worked a little with some sort of edged weapon before, but I can't swear on it. Basically, we worked on footwork and a little knife action, so that she could look as if she might actually be able to protect herself. Being the conscientious actor she is, she picked things up quickly--even though our work was minimal. To my knowledge, she never used a knife in the film--but, as I say, I was only on the set for the first part of the film. As for Anders, all I can say is that I am sure that my original job description did not call for me to stage a fight for him. That is why, given that he had some previous experience with swords and the fact that I wasn't aware of any particular duel he was in, I spent very little time with him. I honestly don't remember a fight in the script [involving his character].

As for choregraphing the Herger/Angus fight... Because Angus hadn't been cast, I choreographed the fight in my head. I then taught the fight to two stunt guys and, eventually, videotaped it for later watching (for John McTiernan). This fight was unusual. Michael Crichton had used the "breaking-three-shields" before Herger kills Angus in his book and script. On paper, this sounds O.K., but I was very apprehensive that this set-up would be unintentionally funny--or at the very least--monotonous for the viewing audience. I expressed my doubts to Brent who, I hoped, would go to McTiernan. The word came back that the fight was to use the "breaking-three-shields". I had to find a way to have the armorer and prop people create breakaway shields that were functional, find moves that kept the shield smashing from being repetitive, etc. The original kill I came up with was, I thought, the best death I had ever choreographed. Eventually, as I say, I videotaped the fight. McTiernan asked me about casting. I suggested a couple big guys who could fight (from L.A.). They were never called. Instead, John wanted to know if I could ascertain an actor's fight potential with the broadsword. I told him that if I spent one hour with the prospective actor, I could tell. And so, I worked with Chris [Hagel] and told John that I felt he could be trained. The filming of the fight, as I recall, kept being put off, for one reason or another. Then, there were artistic differences: Dennis [Storhøi] felt his character wouldn't kill his opponent as I had choreographed it. He even felt the fight moves were not his character. As I told him, the moves are there. He can act them anyway he wants. I've worked with quite a few actors and have had no trouble like I was getting. And John McTiernan, as I recall, had not seen the videotaped fight. I just wanted Brent or John to see my version of the fight, before Dennis had the opportunity to have the thing his way. As it turned out, McTiernan made changes in the fight--although he admitted he knew next to nothing about swordplay. But John, as you may have heard, was a control freak who meddled in every facet of the shoot. I thought he treated his actors very well, but he managed to alienate just about everybody else--from the armorers to the costumers, etc. I have to say that I had no run-ins with him. In fact, he seemed to respect me. Of course, he still wanted the fight his way. And the greatest disappointment for me was that the kill would not be my kill, but a simple beheading--something we've seen so many times in films. But, ultimately, the director has the last word--and John definitely insisted on it.

I eventually spent two months on the film and, when I was released, I was told I would be called back in a couple weeks. However, I felt that I saw the writing on the wall. I had trained all the actors and all the stuntmen. The rest of the swordplay was what I call "hack and slash" and did not call for a great deal of creativity. Just one or two cuts, and a kill. I wasn't returned to the film--but, as I say, I kind of expected that. I was happy I spent two months when I was just hired for three weeks originally.

I did hear about Dennis' finger being broken. (I was not on the film at that later time.) It makes me angry because one of my philosophies is that "there are no accidents. There are stupid actors, macho actors, etc., but there is no reason for an accident." I do feel that, in a small way, it reflects on my credentials as a Fight Director. And that broken finger, when I heard about it months later, did not please me.

Which brings me to the insurance stuff. As I have never had a serious sword injury (to the eye, for instance) nor have ever had an actor I trained injured, I do not worry about insurance. In a film, all the talent are covered anyway. As for Antonio, I couldn't have asked for a better natured guy. We would talk about certain moves and he would execute them. He was very creative and possibly the most athletic actor or stuntman I have ever worked with. I talked with Casey [O'Neill], his stunt double, at length, and he had the same opinion.

The scimitar was the Arab sword at that time period. The way it comes about was all in the script. In my own head, I took a little poetic license. Yes, Banderas is a poet, but also, in my opinion--a gentleman. As a gentleman, I presumed he had sword training as a young man, even though he was not a soldier. The Islam culture was flourishing at this time, and it's not too far-fetched to think that all men of status had training in equestrian arts, as well as the art of the sword. The scimitar, by the way, is curved slightly--as is a cavalry saber. I have been told the curve helps slice through your opponent. A straight blade hinders that action from horseback.

I worked on different styles of fighting for the actors. And this is my method: after everyone is trained in hand-to-hand combat and swordplay, I pair the actors and ask them to choreograph their own ten to twelve cut fight. Each actor gets to find sword moves that appeal to him; I simply watch the finished fight, talk about the logic (the reality of the fight) of what I see, and the safety. I make small refinements and--Voila (to use your French!)--the actor has a style of his own. I'm a bit demanding in this department and I can make many refinements. A couple of the actors let me know in no-uncertain terms that I needn't micromanage as much as I did. And they were right.

I think my swordplay method is calculated to look real. If you look at the old Errol Flynn films, you see that they are fighting (with rapiers) out in front of their bodies. No one ever seems to cut at the body. These days, I teach an actor how to SAFELY cut to his opponent's body. That adds a level of realism. And most live and film fights are that way these days. Are they historically correct? I don't know. Some experts say that broadswords were rarely used for parrying, that the crude steel couldn't withstand many, many blows a battle might take so the warrior tried to evade as many cuts as he could. Others say "not true". Parries with the blade were the order of the day. I'll say this: theater and film have a convention. We want to see a beginning, middle and end to most fights. In reality, I think violence is random, chaotic, probably not a lot of what our "choreographed" fight look like. William Hobbs [swordmaster on WILLOW, EXCALIBUR, LADYHAWKE, THE DUELLISTS, ROB ROY, etc.] does some dramatic, yet somewhat more historically accurate fights. Or even the violence in BRAVEHEART approaches the chaotic nature of a battle and violence.

I was actually touched by the movie at the end. (I was touched by the screenplay when I read it too.) I must point out, however, that I am a sucker for these type of "buddy movies"--where one guy sacrifices himself for the good of his friend/fellow warriors/community. Having said that, I was a little disappointed that the film was not more epic in scope. From being around the very conscientious director (John McTiernan), the expertise in so many of the film's artisans, the magnificent sets, the amount of money being spent on the picture--I really expected a bit broader, deeper, slightly more heroic film. All-in-all, however, I thought THE 13TH WARRIOR was a good, if not great, action picture."


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