A movie action resource for filmmakers.
Alternate title: How Improv Broke My Nose.
What do improv acting and story structure have to do with fight scenes? Where do I start? Let’s build up a fight from the possible beats.
You might think the first beat of a fight is the punch. If acting is reacting, then action is reaction. More people can throw a punch than receive a fake, movie punch. Pretend to be the camera; close one eye and watch two people throw and receive a punch. If the reaction speed and angle matches the energy and direction of the punch and the reaction happens at the exact point that the fist crosses an imaginary line between the point of impact and your lens (your open eye) then the punch is ‘sold’ and a sound effect will complete the illusion to the audience that the punch made impact with the recipient. Both the punch and the reaction require muscle memory skills that cannot be mastered on the first day. For a fight to look fluid and believable, the brain must learn each move perfectly and then sequenced together until all the moves drop out of the conscious brain into the basal ganglia and become habits, hence the command to ‘get out of your head’ when your moves are robotic. This takes rehearsal time and ‘sleeping on it’ a few times. This is why Anthony Hopkins reads a script 100 times before the first day of shooting. This is why every skill you have ever trained at has drills. Find a fight class, learn the drills, and practice them.
The next step to good fighting skills is improv acting. What do you do when you are expecting a punch but you are ready to receive it before your opponent is ready to throw it? Or what do you do when the coordinator or director want you to act in the scene, instead of just throwing moves with no emotion? Improv is just as important a skill to practice in fights as in acting. If you pause waiting rigidly for your choreography, it is noticable and awkward and you are forcing the editor to cut around you. This is called having ‘egg on your face.’ If you can find believable emotions to drag out your timing, such as dealing with pain or being out of breath, you can allow your opponent the split second needed to get to his mark, and you can avoid the appearance of anticipating the move. As always in a fight you want to have eye contact with your opponent to ensure that the two of you are communicating, but you don’t have to make that eye contact obvious to the audience. If you really get into the improv, you may get a bit out of control and receive a head butt to the bridge of your nose, as happened to me (but as the coordinator told me, it was a long way from my heart).
Here are my shots from the barfight in Dukes of Hazzard. I had the privilege of learning from many top veteran stunt performers under the coordination of Darrin Prescott. Both of my interactions with Johnny Knoxville or Seann William Scott required me to act dazed and confused to kill time while waiting on their next action. In the behind the scenes [see photo] you can see that as Seann dives off the pool table I am trying to dive tackly him at the same time. That part didn’t make the final edit, but the stunt coordinator loved my choice to dive in there without prompting but also not interfering with Sean’s choreography.
So now let’s talk about an entire fight. What starts it? How does it end? Isn’t a fight scene just another scene in your movie or script? It has a beginning, middle and end, like in any story, but it also can have many other aspects of story structure. A story has a setup, inciting incident, turning point at the end of Act 1, midpoint that is as far from your ending as possible, death at the end of Act 2, discovery of a new possibility leading to a climax where the protagonist has a difficult choice, overcomes the antagonist or his own moral weakness, and concludes with an exciting finish to the end. Doesn’t a good fight have all these same components? So, writers, take your story structure and apply it to fight scenes. And fighters, learn story structure. You will engage your audience all the more. And stay safe with your improv.