Chad Stahelski - Martial Arts Stunt Coordinator, Stunt Double: Neo
MATRIX: How did you get into stunt work?
CHAD: I come from a kickboxing background and went to an audition one day with a friend, then got hooked up doing stunts. I met a really nice Stunt Coordinator who brought me along, and I started working after that. That was ten years ago now; this is my tenth year in film. I got hooked up with Keanu Reeves on THE MATRIX, and I’ve been with him since, and I’ve also been pretty involved with rigging and martial arts in film since.
MATRIX: What were some of the first projects you worked on?
CHAD: I did a lot of films like Bloodsport 2 and Bloodsport 3 with Brad [Martin, Stunt Double: Agent Smith] and Dave [Kilde, Agent Jackson] — we’ve been together pretty much since the beginning. We have a whole Martial Arts Stunt team here; most of the guys have been working together for the better part of ten years now. They’re all pretty handy at performing in the low budget to big budget chopsocky martial art kind of fight movies. We’re all pretty rounded stuntmen, I’d say, but I think the martial art thing is definitely our niche, especially the wirework and the acrobatic part of it.
MATRIX: Was there a lot of wirework before THE MATRIX in western films?
CHAD: Very little, other than your stunt wirework where people are sent flying using ratchet devices. As far as the intricate wire moves that the Hong Kong guys have brought, not too many. I don’t think there are that many wirework teams per se in the States right now.
MATRIX: Did you see wirework on the rise in the industry in the aftermath of THE MATRIX?
CHAD: I think so. Look at X-Men, Spider-Man, X-Men 2. Now everybody is asking for wirework — all the parodies, like Scary Movie 2, Charlie’s Angels, as well as every low budget chopsocky film and TV show. Even the TV show Charmed called us up to do wirework. Yes, everybody wants wirework now.
MATRIX: How did you become involved with the original MATRIX?
CHAD: It was kind of a fluke, actually. I was working on a different show at the time, and the Stunt Coordinator I was working with and another friend called me up and said they were looking for a double for Keanu Reeves — could I make the audition? I originally turned it down as I didn’t think I could make it. My boss made me go during my lunch break, and I auditioned for the Brothers [Larry & Andy Wachowski, Writers/Directors] and for [Yuen] Wo Ping [Fight Choreography], and got the call where they said come to Australia. So I went not expecting a whole lot, but when I got here I found out it was kind of a big deal and a great show. Once I got here I had about a month of prep before I had to actually perform.
MATRIX: Did you work from scripts or storyboards?
CHAD: Scripts, storyboards, and the choreography that the Hong Kong team had already established.
MATRIX: Larry and Andy gave Wo Ping a lot of license within the fight sequences, but what was your sense of the storyboards?
CHAD: The storyboards were individual beats because they need certain story moments to happen in the fight. Wo Ping choreographs around those beats, including the beats in the choreography. They always do a little adjusting here and there, but that’s pretty much their process.
MATRIX: Once shots were set up by Larry and Andy and Wo Ping, did you find them a notch up from you were used to doing?
CHAD: Absolutely. Just the rehearsals alone were up from what most people do in film; there was an incredible amount of rehearsal time.
MATRIX: What were some of the most memorable moments from the first film?
CHAD: Every scene we did had some great moments; it was pretty cool. I enjoyed the Government Lobby, the Subway, and of course the Dojo Fight. It’s the coolest thing to see a scene come together, to see everyone’s performance come together, and not just the two actors in front of the camera. There's a whole team of guys either pulling the wires, or lining up the shots, or training the actors, and when you see that come together, that’s the best thing.
MATRIX: Do you remember your reaction upon seeing a particular scene that you’d trained for and performed in when watching the final film?
CHAD: I remember going to the premiere with a friend of mine, and it was pretty intense; it was above our expectations. I’d seen some of the footage before the premiere, but at the premiere when it all came together with the soundtrack and the final edit it was pretty impressive. We were like, yeah, we’re onto something here.
MATRIX: Where are we right now?
CHAD: Right now we’re in Sound Stage 1 in Fox Studios, Sydney, Australia. On this particular side of the sound stage, behind us we have what we like to call the tuning forks, or the pitchforks. They’re flying rigs developed for the aerial battle that happens at the end of REVOLUTIONS. Each rig takes up to seven stunt guys to operate and, obviously, the two performers. For filming we’ll have both the lead stunt doubles, and Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in this rig, at some time or other.
Our goal with this rig was to create sort of a zero gravity effect, or an actual flying effect, without the use of conventional flying rigs or wires. So basically we — myself; R.A. Rondell, the Stunt Coordinator; Glenn Boswell, the Australian Stunt Coordinator; and Clay Pinney’s Special Effects House in Los Angeles and his whole crew — came up with some ideas based on a gyrosphere, which is a three dimensional rotational object. Then we narrowed it down so we could actually put a person in it.
At the moment we’ve got Brad [Martin, Stunt Double: Agent Smith] up there in the single arm pitchfork rig, and around his waist you can see we built a specific kind of twisting harness. If Brad goes head up he can twist left, right, and all the way round to deliver some of the strikes, punching, and some of the Kung Fu that’s going to be in the sequence. If Brad goes inverted he can be upside down delivering the same kind of thing. Along with all this he can go flat, like a superman style, and barrel roll, which takes care of all our twisting. If you add into it the gymnastic element, or the acrobatic element, he can flip: front flip, back flip, side flip, all in our little gimbal system there. On top that he can twist and flip together.
MATRIX: What do the operators of this equipment do?
CHAD: Another stunt double, Darrin [Prescott, Agent Smith Stunt Double], is working the wheel. If Darrin turns the wheel we get a rotational cartwheeling effect that rotates Brad in another dimension. So as far as twisting and rotational things go, we’ve got that pretty covered. You can also see that we have three wires on the pitchforks: these are our directionals. We have Dave [Kilde, Agent Jackson] operating those to give Brad an up and down. So if Brad stays still, our elevation guy, Dave, can raise him high or low. We can also do left and right, for which we don’t have enough people to show you right now.
It’s all a pretty simple system based on counter weights and our gimbal and swivels. Also, we’ve got the whole rig set on a dolly with dolly track up there, so we can move Darrin in a similar way to a bobsled with a sled crew — forward and back — as well as left, right, up, down, and multi-rotational. We’ve got a pretty good three-dimensional arena to play in if you combine that all together.
MATRIX: How much practice and training do you guys fit in prior to filming?
CHAD: It took a couple of months to fine-tune the actual system, and to get it operational so we could have two people combating in the air without impaling them. Each sled crew takes about seven people: so you’ve got seven people on each sled, which is fourteen, plus the two performers, so you’re looking at sixteen people all trying to coordinate their actions together. When we shoot we’ll have a Technocrane crew to deal with as well, so it takes a lot of practice. As far as the performers go, we’ve had Keanu and Hugo in here a couple of times already, and they’re doing really well right now just from their former training and all the wirework they’ve done.
MATRIX: I would think this qualifies as a few notches above traditional wirework.
CHAD: Yes, this goes pretty far above traditional wirework. The wirework is great, but it doesn’t give you that floaty feeling. When we put the wardrobe on, and the wind machines are going, and the rain above us is running as well, I think everything adds up to give you that floaty kind of flying look.
MATRIX: Right now, how far away are you from putting this on film?
CHAD: We’re supposed to shoot the actual scene with the actors at the end of January [2002, in 1.5 months]. We've been training on this rig now for about three months on and off, along with other things.
MATRIX: Having worked on the original film, how does the wirework between the films compare?
CHAD: I think the wirework on the first one was a really good introduction for the general public to wirework in a mainstream film, but I think we’ve far surpassed it on this one. I think RELOADED will show a lot more intricate wirework than anyone has seen in a western culture film, and I think that REVOLUTIONS ups that another level as well.
MATRIX: How has it been working with Keanu Reeves as Neo?
CHAD: Keanu is great. He’s probably one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood and a total perfectionist. He gets along great with the Stunt team; he probably spends more time with us than anybody. Keanu just doesn’t give up, he’s a great athlete. He would have made a great stunt guy; he’s adept at just about any physical action we give him. Keanu trains hard: he’ll wrap at nine at night, then go and train for an hour. He’ll do thirty takes and won’t run out of gas, the guy is just nonstop.
The great thing about him is that he wasn’t trained in stunts as an actor, and nor were Laurence [Fishburne, Morpheus], Carrie-Anne [Moss, Trinity] or Hugo [Weaving, Agent Smith]; they were trained with stunt people, by stunt people. They weren’t trained the way some cushy actor would have been trained; they were put through the same things our Stunt team were put through. They did as many repetitions as we did of something,and they did it more because they’re the ones who are going to be in front of the camera. They did all the wires, they got bruised, they were cut.
MATRIX: Where does Keanu stop and you begin?
CHAD: I’ll do most of his lineups and run-throughs, and I’ll help him in his training, but as far as performance goes, I would say 95% of the Kung Fu and any actual fight scene is him. Those are his kicks going up, he’s actually that flexible, he’s kicking and he’s taking some of his own falls. I only step in when the moves become extremely intricate, or just above what someone of his training time would be able to do. Even then, as far as the harder and more intricate moves go, they’ll still have him try and they’ll still shoot him doing it. If they get lucky and get a good take, they’ll use that take. I’m just backup footage, basically. The only other time I step in is for the impact shots, the high work, or something that’s a little bit more stunty and dangerous. A lot of the bigger acrobatics, the falls, obviously, and the extreme wirework would be done by a stunt double.
MATRIX: What do you think people can expect from RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS?
CHAD: More, a lot more. RELOADED is our huge sequel with, I think, some of the best fight scenes and greatest action sequences that have ever been in an American film. Look at the team they’ve got together: you have Yuen Wo Ping, you have R.A. Rondell — who is one of the top Stunt Coordinators from America — and Glenn Boswell, who is probably one of the two best Stunt Coordinators in Australia. Add to that, every stunt guy in the show is a great performer: we have the best martial art doubles and acrobats. Every stunt performer on this show was auditioned, and auditioned, and auditioned, so you’ve got the best. You’ve got a phenomenal group of Special Effects guys, from Steve Courtley here to Clay Pinney back in the States, who have done amazing jobs, and who have taken everything that their departments are capable of doing up one notch. The feeling here is … got to beat the first one. I think that’s everyone’s motivation.
MATRIX: Thank you Chad.