We were lucky to get into contact with veteran stunt man/stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell for an interview.
Charlie’s credits include projects such as Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s Planet of The Apes, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, Back To The Future trilogy, Adam McKay’s Vice, Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, Flight, Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s Hulk, HBO’s The Pacific, Live Free or Die Hard, Spawn, Knight & Day, and the original Toxic Avenger.
I was able to speak to him about various projects from his lengthy career along with how he got involved with the stunt business.
HN: What originally got you interested in becoming a stunt performer?
CROUGHWELL: “I began doing stunts in New York. I was attending Engineering school at the time and as much as I enjoy math and figuring out how to do things for real, the only path that seemed interesting was stunts. I was always very active, with motorcycles, water-related activities and began driving go-carts at a young age. It was exciting and what better way to put it to use than stunts. I’ve always been impressed with stunt peoples’ abilities to figure out how to do some pretty crazy things by societies standards.”
HN: How does someone go from a performer to stunt coordinator?
CROUGHWELL: “As a stunt performer, you acquire experience through your day to day interactions with the stunt community. When I started, most of the industry was located in Los Angeles which made getting out and about to meet other stunt performers very easy. Through that experience, you either continue doing stunts or you move on to coordinating or designing the stunts as well as bringing the correct people for the job on to your project.”
“When I first got into stunts the goal was to eventually direct, whether it be first unit or second – they are both very engaging. The second unit is a lot more fun though most of the time.”
“My interest in entertainment was originally in directing first unit and or second unit and that was the primary reason I pursued this business. The intimate collaboration of minds to tell great stories is an amazing process and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
HN: You recently tackled a tricky stunt for the Steven Soderbergh film The Laundromat with Oscar-winner Meryl Streep featuring a group of elderly folks. What was the most challenging part of the stunt and how do you make sure everyone on the set is safe?
CROUGHWELL: “My greatest concern was Meryl’s safety and comfort level. This applies to any actor you work with. Many of them are extremely fit though they may not have experience with the particular stunt you’ll need them to perform.”
“In Meryl’s case, I asked production to schedule some time for us in the water in a secure tank so we could assess her comfort level and adjust accordingly. On our scheduled day we met up with Meryl at Body Gloves dive tank. (Body Glove is a very well known company operating within the surf and dive world). I had two dive masters as well as two safety swimmers, Meryl’s stunt double (my daughter Callie Croughwell) and me.”
“I mentioned to Meryl on the way in, that the wardrobe on the day of the actual shoot could be different than what she arrived in but we’ll be prepared to adjust to any effect it might have. We had been informed by the costume designer of the general design but not specific items.”
“She then explained that the clothes she was wearing would be the clothing she would wear during the shoot. That warrants a big “WOW.” I was pleasantly surprised! I continued to explain what the plan for the time there was and the steps we would take. She responded, ‘I’m ready, let’s go,’ and with that she jumped in the tank.”
“We video any tests we do to share with the director for approval before we make any final decisions on the execution. Needless to say there were a few options we wanted to try. Moving upward through the water, staying stationary and just observing what was happening, etc.”
“Director Steven Soderbergh wanted her to be stationary and observing. We were in and out within 30 minutes and Meryl was on her way. That had to be the fastest walkthrough we’ve ever done with complete confidence that the actor was comfortable.”
HN: You worked on the fantastic WWII series The Pacific for HBO.
What were some of the more challenging sequences and how important was it for those action sequences to look as realistic as possible? What is like recreating famous battles from history?
CROUGHWELL: “World War II was hellacious. The things that were experienced by all sides boggles the mind in terms of the amount of brutality but also compassion. Hollywood has turned death into a bit of a spectacle. On The Pacific, as well as in Band of Brothers, all scenes called to be as close to reality as we could get without it actually being a reality.”
“This was going to take a really great group of stunt people who understand movement and the story it helps tell. The show was being filmed in Australia using local stunt people and although I didn’t have any experience with the Australian stunt community, as stunt people we all pretty much speak the same language.”
“The day after I arrived in Melbourne I went to the office to meet the Australian stunt coordinator (Mitch Deans) as well assistant stunt coordinator (Scott McLean). We discussed the necessary approach and planned to redo a fight the director needed that had been done for one of the previous episodes.”
“So the day after I arrived I found myself in a jungle, it was pouring rain, the mud and water was knee-deep and we not only had to choreograph the entire fight but video it as well. Mitch and Scott had assembled a group of local stunt folks and we all met on set early the next morning. We were a little wary of the conditions but in the end figured this is exactly what the soldiers would have had to go through so we might as well.”
“At the end of the day, every one of us was covered from head to toe and half-laying in the mud. I looked up and there were our producers, watching. They all had smiles on their faces and that was one of the greatest moments in my career. The guys had done an outstanding job through all of it and we ended up with a great fight on video.”
“When we were filming the battle of Okinawa, the producers had made arrangements for several members of the US army that survived it to come to set and observe. When they looked out onto our battlefield, several were choked up to say the least. They commented on the realism of a place that had such a profound effect on their lives. Some couldn’t watch certain scenes due to the emotions they were experiencing.”
“Our approach and performances during the battle scenes then had to be as realistic as possible. The casualties from the REAL battle were over 100,000 Japanese and 50,000 Allies. I had time with the stunt crew beforehand to discuss the different pieces, rehearse them and prepare any other issues involved.”
“I can’t possibly list all of the different gags we had to perform but one that I’m especially proud of in a weird kind of way was when we used an Australian amputee stuntman to blow his leg off as he steps on a mine. The special effects department built him a prosthetic leg piece that he could take several steps on while they triggered a harmless explosive effect that blows his leg off as he’s carrying a wounded soldier on a gurney.”
“All in all, it was one of the many great experiences I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of.”
HN: Speaking of television what is the main difference between say doing stunt work on a series like Animal Kingdom versus a film production?
CROUGHWELL: “TV doesn’t typically have movie money but does have movie visions. I enjoy this because it requires more creative thinking to achieve the same effect.”
HN: Another project was Matt Reeves’ Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, which employs a good amount of motion capture from actors such as the performances of lead characters Caesar played by Andy Serkis and Koba played by Toby Kebbell.
What was that production like compared to the Tim Burton version and was it slightly more difficult given the rigs some of the actors were wearing (motion capture headgear and arm extensions)?
CROUGHWELL: “This was a great experience, I had also done the Planet of the Apes film that Tim Burton directed and had already been through the process of conducting Ape School for all of the performers. This gave us a leg up on what was expected. With Matt’s version employing considerably more motion capture work than Tim’s, it only required a small group of highly competent parkour trained performers.”
“Rigs are designed around not only practical elements (props, set pieces, arm extensions, whatever it may be) but also performance elements. We spent a great deal of time talking with the director, actors, and all the departments to design, adjust, redesign, readjust and finally perform with each and every rig well in advance.”
“Director Tim Burton is awesome. He is extremely creative and sure of what he wants. It’s fun and challenging to provide him or any director with what they want. As the coordinator, you have to find a way into their mind and try to realize their vision as accurately as they see it.”
HN: The Tim Burton era Batman costume didn’t seem terribly flexible for movement did that hinder the stunts in Batman Returns?
CROUGHWELL: “It was a bit stiff for the stunt double but nothing that couldn’t be managed. We also had multiple costume pieces built to our specs when something special was required.”
“For example, the shoes that Michelle Pfeiffer had to wear. In order to perform the gymnastic moves or anything that couldn’t be done in heels, several pairs with collapsible heels were built with the heel retracting and returning to its original appearance in the process of performing the stunt.”
HN: Do you have an opinion on the current popularity on the comic book/superhero genre after tackling it with Batman Returns, Spawn, and Ang Lee’s original Hulk? Did you have any idea that the genre would become such a box office juggernaut?
CROUGHWELL: “You could see the public’s interest in these kinds of films. I enjoy working on them but prefer stories that are a little more realistic. Whether it be superheroes or just regular people, there are always challenges to work through and overcome.”
“Visual effects capabilities have in many ways altered much of what we do. Some stunt folks don’t like the fact that the numbers of people required are sometimes less when doing effects-heavy action pieces yet my perspective is that it is a tool that I can use to my and ultimately production’s benefit in achieving the director’s vision.”
HN: Can you tell us anything about working on 20th Century Fox’s Call of The Wild starring Harrison Ford?
CROUGHWELL: “Call of the Wild was a great story that I read when I was younger. It’s one of those stories that is a dream to get the opportunity to be a part of. I’m bound by an NDA with regards to the film and can’t speak about it too much. I will say that the director, Chris Sanders, is an incredibly talented visionary and all of the performers and production were top-notch.”
HN: You were the stunt double of Michael J. Fox on films such as the Back To The Future trilogy, Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, and Brian De Palma’s Vietnam War movie Casualties of War.
What was it like working with Michael on those films?
CROUGHWELL: “Mike is a solid guy. Very athletically inclined and on his game. There wasn’t much he wasn’t capable of doing or production wouldn’t allow him to do when it came to his stunts”
HN: One last thing, we’re huge fans of genre filmmaking and we noticed your credits included the original Toxic Avenger. Did you have any idea that would become a cult film?
CROUGHWELL: “We had absolutely no idea that Toxic Avenger would be more than a small blip on the screen. Our interaction with all of the departments on any film can be super chill or crazy. We’re in this crazy business where we make-believe for a living and love doing it. The craziness of one group or another is something we’ve come to expect on some level and compensate for its effect before engaging.”
We’d like to thank Charlie for speaking with HN Entertainment and sharing his knowledge/time.
You can currently watch The Laundromat on Netflix and Call of The Wild is set to be released on February 21st, 2020.