His name may not be instantly familiar, but his work most certainly is: over a prolific career, Vic Armstrong has been a stunt man, stunt coordinator and second unit director on some of the biggest and best-loved action movies of the past four decades — a list of credits far too long to even consider including here. He’s stunt-doubled for successive James Bonds, from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, worn the cape and tights on Richard Donner’s Superman, and famously done stunt work for Harrison Ford on, among many of the actor’s other roles, the original three Indiana Jones films.
Then there’s his work with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Angelina Jolie, to name a handful, or — our personal favorite — his listed credit as “Unicorn Master” on Ridley Scott’s Legend. How does one get to be a Unicorn Master, anyway?
Armstrong’s robust career as a second unit action director has also seen him shoot sequences for the likes of James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, while he recently completed work on Marvel’s Thor and forthcoming The Amazing Spider-Man.
This week, he releases his autobiography entitled — and with a fair claim to the crown — The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, which chronicles his career from riding horses for Gregory Peck through his role today as one of the industry’s most sought-after action coordinators.
Armstrong called in for a chat with RT, having just wrapped shooting on Spider-Man, to talk stunts on the new Marvel web-slinger, some career highlights and, as ever, five of his favorite movies. (And hey, if he wants to pick movies he’s worked on — who are we to say no?)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, 94% Tomatometer)
Raiders would have to be one of them. I just think the ride, the whole thing, is just fabulous entertainment and escapism — and it felt real, you know.
I gotta go for one of the Terminators as well — I don’t know which one. [laughs] Probably one, because the first time I saw it… one is always more difficult than the second one, I think. I saw that in Rome after Arnie brought it over when I was doing Red Sonja. We were gonna go out to Rome one night and I said, “I can’t, I’m working, I’ve got a five-o’clock-in-the-morning start,” and he said, “Well, take this — go up to your room and watch this video.” And I watched it — and it was a rough cut of it — and I went, “Oh my god, it’s the greatest film I’ve ever seen.”
Next, Armstrong talks about filming action on The Amazing Spider-Man and Thor, and takes us through some of the highlights of his impressive career — including his stunt work on the original Indiana Jones films.
RT: You’re filming the action stuff on The Amazing Spider-Man at the moment — how’s it all going?
Vic Armstrong: Great; we just wrapped some shooting in New York. Did you see him flying? There were some amazing pictures of him flying.
I did, yeah. Everyone seems to be impressed that you’re doing this old school, with wires and practical stunt work.
It’s amazing how it’s gone full circle. Whenever you get offered a film now it’s like, “We wanna try and do as much of it for real as we can.” And one of the things we always discussed on Spider-Man was that we wanna get away from the CGI Spidey flying through the air — we wanna see it for real, and try to do it as much as we can for real. [Marvel producer] Avi Arad said the other day, “Vic, that’s exactly what you guys did.” There’s a certain movement when you see it; subconsciously you realize it’s real, you know.
Did you look at the other Spider-Man movies for a sense of motion, or is this a whole new thing?
We didn’t look at the other movies, really, because when you think about it, they would have had to look at what we were doing, or the type of work that we were doing on other things, in the old days — probably trapezes and things like that. We based ours on, not a trapeze, but literally vine-swinging, if you like — going back to [Tarzan star] Johnny Weissmuller and that type of action. You work logically: how would you “web” yourself down the street? You’d go one direction and then you’d go another way and you’d use that momentum to come back in another direction. It’s a bit like skiing.
You also did second unit on Thor prior to that, which is doing rather well.
It’s done fantastically. I was really pleased, actually, because we put a lot of effort into it and, again, we did as much as we could for real — knowing that you’re going into a surreal environment, everything that we can put into that that’s real, we did. Do you remember a picture called Starship Troopers, with all the bugs? Huge bug movie, but we did everything we could to interact the terrain, the people, the location, the studio — everything to interact with those bugs, you know. It was the same with Thor: we wanted to put as much reality into it as we could. And we put as much realism as we can into the action by using the actor, as well. Chris [Hemsworth] was fantastic: he trained up and worked with us; it was just like having another stuntman.
Did Andrew Garfield do any of his own stunts on Spider-Man?
Yep, he trained as well, down at this big warehouse we had down in Culver City, where every piece of the action we shot was all mocked up. It was quite funny if you’d seen it: lots of cardboard boxes and platforms simulating buildings or fire escapes or a bridge. Andrew would be there and he’s one of this new breed of actors that wants to be involved in every aspect of their character’s being; so he’s down there with the stunt guys and they would train him up to whatever standard we could get him to. He was very closely involved, and we’d put him in wherever the chance was. He was putting his thumbprint on it, as it were.
Your film credits read like a list of the biggest action movies of the past 40 years; I don’t know where we’d begin talking. I understand you got into the business because your dad owned racehorses?
Yep. I think my earliest recollection was in the ’50s, of a very famous English actor called Richard Todd — he kept racehorses with my father. So when I was seven, eight, nine years old I’d watch this guy with a big open Bentley and women in furs, and I would talk to him, in awe, and he’d tell me what films he’d been doing and I’d go off and watch them. So that was my interest on movies. And then I’d come home and get on my pony and gallop off playing Cowboys and Indians on my own, and falling off my pony — so I guess that was my introduction into it.
Were you aware that there were stunt people that did this stuff?
No! [laughs] I was Richard Todd when I was doing it. They never even said they had other people to do it. [laughs]
So, your first paying stunt job doubling for Gregory Peck on Arabesque — how’d you get that?
I had a great horse that could jump anything, and a stuntman called Jimmy Lodge would come and exercise the horses with us. He was the stunt coordinator on Arabesque. One day he said to me, “Look, can I rent your horse off you, because the ones we have on the set are useless.” I rented him the horse and he called next day saying, “We need another good riding double to jump these jumps as well.” And off we went. I thought, “Wow — 20 pounds a day.” That was a week’s wages. I thought it would work very well with my horse racing career. Everyone said don’t rely on this for a living, it’s very spasmodic. If I was a jockey, I probably would have been retired now for 35 years. [laughs] I’d be shoveling sh** now.
And a year later you’re on You Only Live Twice — that must have been something for a young guy.
Oh, I was in awe. I went out to Pinewood Studios, this great cavernous place, and inside there was the inside of a volcano — with rockets standing up and a roof for a helicopter to fly in and a monorail going round and round. I’d never seen a set before like it. The guy who would become my father-in-law, [stunt coordinator] George Leech, said, “We need people to slide down a rope four or five hundred feet,” and I said “Yeah, I can do that” — thinking, “There’s no way anyone can do that.” Again, I was in the right place at the right time of my career.
What was your favorite 007 stunt, of all the many films you did?
I think on the Bonds, directorially was when I had more fun — when I was starting to do it with Pierce. The boat chase, and the car chase where the BMW was remote-controlled; they were cool chases and fairly original. How do you make a car chase original? How do you make a boat chase original? And they both came out pretty original. To me, the most important thing is to have exciting and original chases, thinking that you’re not ripping anybody off. And then on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, sliding and hanging off a cliff at the end of this big old ski chase; and then there was the fight with Yaphet Kotto in the shark pen, on Live and Let Die.
Then there’s Superman…
That was tremendous, Superman. We’d just finished A Bridge Too Far, another huge, huge movie. I ended up doubling Chris [Reeve], not knowing it was going to be such an iconic film. It was amazing, working with Dick Donner, a guy with such fantastic vision.
Did you get to keep the outfit?
I have, funny enough, Warner Brothers gave me a life-long loan on them: the cape, the tights, the costume. I’ve got a cinema in my house in England and I’ve got them hanging in there. I’m very proud of them.
Many fans are familiar with you from your work on the original Indiana Jones movies. How did you meet Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford and get involved with that crew?
When they started Raiders, Wendy, my wife, was on it — she was doubling Karen Allen — and I was in Mexico on Green Ice, with Ryan O’Neal. David Tomlin, the first assistant director, was a good friend of mine, and he said [to Spielberg], “You need to get Vic Armstrong out here, he’s a great double for Harrison.” He tried to get me and I was busy, so they shot in England and then went out to Tunisia, and had been there a week, I think, and I finished up on my film and flew out to meet them. I got there and I was just kind of standing around on the set watching. We said, “We’re not doing anything, let’s slope off and get a quick lunch before the mob get here.” So we started walking away and I heard this person calling, “Harrison! Harrison!” Then somebody grabbed me and spun me around, and it was Steven — and he went, “Oh, you’re not Harrison. What are you doing here?” I said I was a stuntman and he went, “David, come here, this guy says he’s a stuntman, he looks just like Harrison.” David said, “Yeah this is the guy I’ve been telling you about, Steven.” So that was it — straight into the deep end.
The cover of your book is a shot of you, as Harrison, on the rope bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What was that like to perform?
That was fantastic. That was an amazing construction: we had a company put up that great big bridge with cables wrapped in rope, and then we blew it up for real. It was across this ravine which was two or three hundred feet deep and the water was only 18 inches deep, so you couldn’t have anyone come off it. And then we had the real rope bridge hanging on the side of the ravine, and I did the fight with Mola Ram and then we built another bridge back at Elstree and did some more stuff with people falling off that.
Of all the actors you’ve worked with, who would you say was the most game in the stunt work?
That’s gotta be Harrison, Arnie, Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth for Thor.
What was it about Harrison?
Just everything, yeah — there’s not a stunt he didn’t do on [the Indiana Jones movies] that he wasn’t in, in some way or form. I mean, I did the jump on to the tank [in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade], but that was silly — you wouldn’t want him to do that. But every little thing — even when he was off on Temple of Doom with a bad back, when he came back the first thing we did was go straight into the fight on the rock-crushing conveyor-belt. We’d shot it with me and then we just went straight into it with him and put him into it. There’s nothing he wouldn’t go for, if you say, “Yeah, this is good and this is okay, you’re not risking too much.” Obviously we don’t want to risk them, because it’s our livelihood, you know — we don’t want them to get hurt, because we wanna keep working. [laughs]
You’ve long been a busy second unit action director — was that a natural extension of being a stunt man?
It’s a pure progression from a stunt man, to a stunt coordinator who thinks up the stunts, to the action unit director who works out how you’re going to shoot it. The thing I like about it is the creativity of being the director. You bring everything together: you pick the people, you work out the stunts, you work out the safety, then you get the great thrill of actually shooting them.
I was surprised to discover you shot the opening sequence of Terminator 2.
Yeah. I was supposed to do the whole movie [as second unit director] at one time but I was busy. Anyway, I got off what I was doing and they’d finished [Terminator 2] and said, “We need this opening sequence.” I was thrilled I got to work on it at all, you know, because I love Arnie and I love Cameron’s work. I was very honored to get on to it, I must say.
Has CG changed the way you coordinate second unit action sequences?
I work very, very closely with them [CG artists], and I look at it as your “Get out of jail free” card. When you really need help, that’s what you use it for. It’s like morphine: morphine is a wonderful drug if you really need it, but abuse it and it’s deadly, it’s a killer — it’s the same with CG. CG can kill a sequence. We’ve seen as many films ruined by CG as we have made good by it. But I think it’s only through misuse, you know. It’s a fantastic thing; it’s all in the use. It’s dreadfully abused at times, but it’s all through lack of knowledge of how to do it properly.
Vic Armstrong’s book, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, is available now.
Spider-Man image via Splash Online. Other images courtesy Vic Armstrong/Titan Publishing.