Stunt Choreographer of the Year Garrett Warren: 'It's About the Emotion of the Action'
We continue our series of interviews with the winners of the 2009 Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards with Stunt Choreographer of the Year, Garrett Warren. A virtually indestructible one-stuntman-army (he's taken four real bullets and lived to tell the tale), Warren is the go-to guy for stunt coordination on 3-D motion capture movies like Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. He's no stranger to non-CGI danger, either, having just dodged actual explosions and flying Grand Prix cars while serving as Mickey Rourke's Iron Man 2 stunt double. Read on to find out who insists on doing their own stunts, who prefers not to, and pick up a couple of Tintin and Iron Man 2 scoops while you're at it.
I was skimming your bio, and, well, you sound like a bit of a superhero yourself. Tell us how you became one of Hollywood's most sought-after stunt coordinators.
[Laughs] I was born and raised in Boston. I was a martial artist, and a friend of mine wanted some help teaching karate in L.A.. When I got out here, I got a chance to train some of the bigger celebrities in the entertainment and sports industries. I moved on and became a stunt person. My first job was on a TV series called Raven. Then I eventually became a stunt coordinator and started to run shows. One of the biggest opportunities I had was on Bob Zemeckis's Beowulf.
Back in 2000, and I don't know if you really want to go into this part of my bio, I had just finished shooting Charlie's Angels, and I had gotten shot. I was attacked at my house by a person who was allegedly hired to kill me. [Ed. Note: Warren's then wife, Claudia Haro, was arrested for hiring the assailant. She was formerly married to Joe Pesci.] I suffered the loss of an eye and took four bullets. But within a short amount of time, I got back into shape. I didn't just sit on the couch and let it get me down -- I got right back into the swing of things and let that focus my attention.
Did they ever arrest that guy?
They did. The shooter was arrested and I believe got 70 years in prison. The case is still ongoing, because there's still one other person that they're trying to go to trial with. I can tell you this much: the shooter has been apprehended, and I'm doing a lot better. As you can see, my career has definitely gone forward.
More than gone forward, it seems like it deserves a movie of its own.
[Laughs] I get an awful lot of people telling me I should write the story of my life. One day I would love to do that. Maybe call it My Life Through One Eye. I do an awful lot of stunts for movies, and it wasn't always those that were the most dangerous things in my life.
Seriously. That's some crazy shit. But like you said, it didn't exactly slow you down. It seems like you got into 3-D motion capture business at exactly the right time, and now you're the man.
I did. I think one of the things that helped me is that I didn't only root myself in stunt work. I looked to other things -- like Cirque du Soleil, or ballet. And more than just dance, I looked to Parkour. I really try to capture the movement, the essence, the emotion from all of that movement, and I wanted to bring those forward into the motion capture world. It's easy to fall on the ground. It's not easy to fall on the ground with some character behind it, whether you're playing a two-legged catlike creature, or a 12-year-boy even though you're 30. I think that's what helped propel my career in the 3-D motion capture world. It wasn't always about the action -- it was about the emotion of the action.
Speaking of teenage boys, you worked on Tintin. Is there anything you can tell us about that, beyond that it's called The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and somehow involves unicorns?
[Laughs] I don't know if it necessarily involves the creature of the unicorn. If you know the book, the Unicorn is actually the ship.
Oh, okay. That's how much I know.
But if you read the book, it does follow an awful lot along with where the books have already set forward. It's truly an amazing movie. I was a sleeper to me. It took me by surprise. We did a test for it two years before we shot it, and when we did the test it was fun and interesting. But oh my gosh -- when we finally saw the movie, it was amazing. The stuff that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson came up with, the performances of Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis -- oh my goodness. You cannot imagine what those guys can do to words on a page. It's one of the better movies that people are going to see, especially when it comes to being an animated movie.
Can you describe the look of it at all?
It looks an awful lot like the cartoon. They really wanted to bring the cartoon to life. So if you know the cartoon, or have seen the books, that's what it looks like. It's beautiful. You would have thought to yourself that they would have tried to go for a more realistic look, but they're actually trying to preserve the look and essence of the original Tintin characters.
I'm wondering how coordinating stunts for a live-action film differs from motion capture?
The difference is that you have to have just a little bit more imagination when you have motion capture. You have to make believe you're in an elevator, or something is a dragon, or a house. In live action, we'd actually have the horse, or build a mock-up of a dragon, or put the actors in an elevator. We still perform an awful lot of hard action sequences, but they don't necessarily take place at an actual location. We just put down a box, and have the person jump off of that, and that can be jumping off the roof of a building.
But why take the risk of putting someone in harm's way if you could just recreate that in a computer?
One of the things that we've always found is that no matter how hard you try to create something in a computer, it never carries the same kind of acting, the same kind of weight or movement as if you do it in real time. Watching a person fall for real and watching an animator make a person fall are two completely different looks. Not to mention that a lot of the actors we've used in motion capture filming prefer to have that organic feeling. They want to be part of that action sequence, so they can give you that performance that they would have given if it was real.
Who are some of the actors who insist on doing their own stunts, and what's your reaction when they tell you that?
You know, I've always had most lead actors and actresses say they'd like to do as many of their stunts as possible. One person in particular, Seth Green, wanted to do every stunt possible he could do on Mars Needs Moms!, and he did. He did about 90% of it.
But then you get to a movie like Alice in Wonderland, and Johnny Depp says, "I only really want to do the stunts that are necessary for me. Anything that you don't need to see me in, I prefer to let the stunt double do it." Those are the kinds of stunts -- where you'll be falling down some stairs, or falling off a chair -- that while they might not seem like big stunts, they hurt your actor. And that sets you back production-wise. It's always good to see someone who is professional who thinks ahead and realizes that it's not a big deal to see someone fall on the ground.
You were just working on Iron Man 2 as Mickey Rourke's lead stunt double. What's it like to do stunts for Mickey Rourke?
I've doubled Mickey Rourke since 1996, with the exception of the movie The Wrestler. I was actually working on Avatar at the time so I wasn't able to get away to do it. Mickey is one of the greatest guys not only to work with, but double for. He's always on the side of saying, "Please, let the stuntman do it. If the stunt guy can do it better, let him do it."
I've always made it a point to not just go up there and perform a stunt, but to try and emulate Mickey Rourke as much as possible. I think he loves that. I watch his idiosyncrasies -- how he holds his hand up to his mouth, and how he places his right hand on his hip.
So you guys are a package deal.
Every time he's done a movie, he says, "Garrett Warren is my stunt double and please try to work it out and hire him." Iron Man 2 had a double-whip sequence, and I am a whip specialist. There's not very many of us in Hollywood that do double-whips. On top of that you had Mickey Rourke saying, "Please get this guy." So of course production and the stunt coordinator thought I was the perfect choice.
When you say "double-whip," what does that mean exactly? What is required of his character? I saw the footage at Comic-Con, but it's still not entirely clear to me how Whiplash reaps his damage.
Well, double-whip basically means that you have two whips in your hands. I had brought two whips with me that are made of kangaroo hide that are incredibly well made. You can perform all sorts of tricks and cracks with them. In the movie, you won't see those whips. They'll digitally replace it with other types of whips. I don't know if I'm at liberty to say what the whips will look like, but they're going to be these super whips that have an awful lot of power. They can cut through cars, they can do an awful lot of damage. And when the movie comes out, you'll see that he doesn't do just whip-cracks and grabbing people. He lays waste to an awful lot of vehicles and street pieces and other things.
So will it be you we'll be seeing in a lot of these sequences?
[Laughs] Any time you see some stunt where someone might have gotten hurt, then yes. At one point, Whiplash had to get hit by a car, and Mickey did the lead up to the stunt, and I did the stunt where the car came in and hit me and took me to the fence. So yes, you'll see a combination of Mickey and myself. And when it comes to the whip routine, I have to admit, Mickey Rourke did a really good job with the whips. However, the suit was very painful at times. It was this big metal piece that wasn't very comfortable, so he didn't always want to do the whip routines every take. So I'd go in and do the whip routines.
Does the suit covers the whole body, because in the footage I saw Whiplash is mostly shirtless?
It covers the whole body in metal rods, but you are shirtless [underneath]. That was the part that was hard. When you move, it was metal digging into skin, cutting your shoulders, wrists and back and so forth.
Let's talk a bit about Avatar, since that's a topic on a lot of people's minds lately.
Absolutely. I love that one.
It's been under such a thick veil of secrecy, and now people have finally seen the first footage. I think some are people coming away surprised, for better or for worse, at what James Cameron has done. What was the experience of working on it like?
Avatar was one of the most uplifting, educational, incredible experiences I've ever had as a movie maker. Jim Cameron is truly a genius. Aside from him being a genius, he's also a storyteller that you cannot deny -- one of the greatest you're going to find out there. And he takes the time with the actors, too. He doesn't rush them at all. And he really cares about what they have to say, how they're going to perform it, and he gives them the time to work it out before they even do the scene. I was truly impressed by him and the movie. The marriage of green screen, live action, and motion capture was truly one of the most painstaking efforts I've ever had to do when it comes to a motion capture, but in the long run, I think it paid off. You'll see some of the most realistic motion capture, if not the most realistic, the movie industry has ever seen.
So anyone who feels disappointed by what they've seen so far, what do you say to them?
I think those are the people that already had it in their mind that they were going to be disappointed by it. People who had already set it up for failure. There are an awful lot of people out there that don't go with an open mind -- they come with a judgment pending. I hope they take that teaser as a scratch, and go in with an open mind. It's going to be one of the most amazing movies that they've ever witnessed. ♦