Chris Brewster is a Stunt Coordinator with more than 19 years of experience coordinating stunts and fight choreography for film and TV. His vast experience has earned him a reputation and proclivity for stunt coordinating superhero films and series. His work has been recognized with four Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble for movies such as Ant-man and the Wasp and Black Panther. He has also been nominated eight times for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble for shows such as Loki and Daredevil. Most recently, Chris served as the Action Designer for Warner Bros.’ superhero film Black Adam, starring Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. Based on the DC Comics, the film is a spin-off from Shazam! And the 11th film in the DC Extended Universe.
Chris stopped by to chat with us about his work on Black Adam.
We’re going to be talking about your new movie Black Adam, which you are the action designer on. Can you tell us how you create characterization through movement?
Absolutely. I think as action designers, it is our job to tell the story of the scripts but through movement, through every piece of action that you will see in any film. We like to start every process with, if it’s a character that is based on a comic book or a character that’s based on something, we start with research. So myself and Tommy Harper went through every Black Adam comic book, every YouTube video we could find about Black Adam and his powers and really dissected every member of the JSA and learned who each character was; what makes them who they are, and then did our research to find out what fighting styles they have, but then tried to create the reality of what that was. So in designing the movement and the action for Black Adam we know what his superpowers are, what his Shazam powers are. But to find out how to portray those powers within his movement, we basically created the styleless style, a style that a person would have if they’ve never been really put to a challenge before. Pretty much once Black Adam got his powers, you see in the opening sequence of the movie, he just plows through armies of men and he has not met anyone that can even come close to his abilities. He’s never had to have a fighting style, you know? I mean, he hit somebody once they turn to dust, or they’ll go flying a quarter mile and smash into a building.
So he’s never had to block anything in his life, he’s never had to evade a movement. I mean, maybe if it’s a missile flying at him, he might slip out of the way when he grabs it. But he’s never been in peril, so he doesn’t have any defensive tactics. We pretty much created an entirely offensive style for him, but then stepped up his levels of his physical character arc. Once he meets Hawkman’s mace, once he actually realizes that there’s something that can penetrate through his arm or something that can actually do some damage to him, he has to learn how to avoid being hit before countering and striking and stuff like that. So we basically broke down his style as a styleless style, whereas we took Hawkman style and the story behind Hawkman is that he has lived life after life. He’s constantly being reincarnated. But every time he’s being reincarnated, the skills and techniques and new weaponry that he has picked up with each life carries on with him. He’s able to recall his fighting style and his weaponry from back in medieval times to being in the gunslinger days so every life has its own style. In order to tell that story, we really wanted to pick the most diverse arts out there. We took the softest style Chinese arts like Kung Fu and Wu Shu and we paired them with a very hard style Japanese martial art like Shōrei-ryū, different style of karate or Kenpo. Then we brought in some capoeira, a Brazilian dance martial art which has a very, very different flair to it. There’s a lot of stick fighting so we brought in some kali and all kinds of different weaponry into the movement and then tried to transition from one to the next in the most seamless manner.
Obviously, he’s been doing this for generation upon generation so it shouldn’t look in any way stumbly like he should be able to just transition from one to the next because he’s been doing it for a very, very long time. We kind of took each character and dissected how they move in the comic books and what their story is. Then found the best visual way to represent their story.
The prison escape scene consisted entirely of live action stunts; how was that coordinated together?
Oh, that was amazing. My background in in the stunt world, I have a thing for ‘One-ers’, for single take pieces of action and when Jaume, the director, first presented the idea of the prison fight, he goes, “I want to shoot the entire thing as a master every take. I want to shoot it top to bottom. One take and everything has to sell for wherever we put the camera. We basically designed the fight and got it more dialled – in than any fight I’ve ever been a part of because we knew we were going to be shooting phantom cameras, which shoot at 1200 frames per second. So, everything has to be so accurate because what would normally sell at 24 frames per second would look like a huge miss at 1200 frames per second. Every single move was so critical. We basically choreographed that one and then spent a good week just rehearsing 8 hours a day to make sure everything was precise and just as perfect as can be. We had every element that would be a challenge, but in the end, made for just such an epic piece of action. I mean, we were shooting in water. The floor was really slippery. We had rain falling down on them and everything. Just every challenge that we faced added another layer to what we were doing. But in the end, turned out to be just one of the coolest pieces of action I’ve ever been a part of.
You trained with Aldis Hodge, who played Hawkman for three months to create the physical persona of the character. Then Dwayne Johnson had a shorter period, isn’t that right?
Yes. Yes. Which I mean, kind of totally works for their characters because obviously as Black Adam, Dwayne didn’t really have to learn new styles. Black Adam’s movement is honestly Dwayne Johnson’s movement. He literally embodies that character just in his day to day. The way he carries himself, the way he presents himself. He IS Black Adam. We literally would choreograph his movements and most of the time we would show him an entire piece of action, and he would have it memorized in a minute. He would watch it once or twice, have the entire thing memorized, and then find ways to add character to every single beat of the action. He would take the most basic technique and just make it a trailer moment. We would design the action and we’re like, okay, it should be a very simple, basic strike but he would find a way to almost look away, do the strike, and then look back slowly. He’d just find these little elements that made everything so much more dynamic and exciting. He just literally makes everything bigger than you could ever imagine. With Aldis, he had to play a character who had mastered martial art after martial art after martial art. Luckily, Aldis has a really good background in martial arts but he definitely had his work cut out for him. I’ve never seen somebody train the way he did to prepare for this role. That 3 months of training, a lot of actors say, “hey, I was training for several months” and that means that they went to the gym for like an hour, three times a week and that’s how they’re prepping for the role. Aldis was in the regular gym for maybe 2 or 3 hours a day. Then he would come to the stunt gym for another four or five, sometimes 6 hours, to train with us on different martial arts, on choreography, on reactions and movement. He was doing 8 hours a day for three months straight to level up his fighting game to be at the level of Hawkman and it was incredible; his start to finish is just out of this world.
How did you collaborate with cinematographer Lawrence Sher to design the camerawork and fight scenes like the stunts, lines of dialogue to reveal insights into the character?
Well, there’s an element to the action design world called pre-viz, where we basically create our concept for the way we think each piece of action should be shot. We have a really good dialogue going back and forth between the director, the DP to express “hey, we shot this this way because this kind of enhances this movement” or “this is the best place to put a camera to sell this specific hit”. When you come into a situation where you have somebody like Lawrence, I mean, the guy is literally one of the best DPs in the entire world. The guy I mean, he did Joker. He’s a legend. The guy is incredible. So usually, like each DP kind of has their own style. Some are very, very open to ideas and suggestions. Some are very locked in their own specific way. Lawrence was just awesome to work with because he is a master of his craft but very open to ideas. Every time we would pitch an idea for like, “oh, we put the camera right here because this is how you’re going to get this movement and blah, blah, blah. This is the best spot to sell this stunt”. He was always very open to taking all of that input and he always had a way to elevate our ideas. We would say in the pre-viz, as you put a camera right here, so all the action was coming right at the camera and he said, “Yeah, I absolutely love that, but I also want to get the camera doing this”. We can actually travel in with the movement so we can cut from this shot to this shot and he would just find ways to elevate it, all of our ideas. We were just constantly building upon each other’s ideas to kind of get something truly unique and better than any one individual person could have created.
How has visual effects developing over the years changed your job?
Well, every year the VFX world gets bigger and crazier, and they’re more and more realistic with everything they do, just every year that cinematography has existed. It’s a very interesting world because it used to be you would shoot pure live action and then, little things in with VFX but now the VFX guys are so incredible, they can animate entire scenes. I mean, there are a lot of superhero films out there that are more cartoon than live action so the new challenge, that to me, makes all the difference between your average superhero project and like a really, really good superhero project is the relationship between the stunt world and the VFX world, when they work seamlessly, when they go hand in hand, you almost can’t tell where the live action stops and where the VFX enhancement carries on. I think a lot of that is when it’s genuinely cheaper to just animate everything. But if you actually shoot the action and then enhance it with VFX after the fact, that’s where you will feel the real weight behind all of the movement. Everything feels a lot more real and tangible and I think it pulls the audience in so that the audience feels with what the characters are going through. When you’re watching what is essentially a cartoon you’re always pulled back. There’s no reality to it so you can’t really put yourself in that spot. But when there’s real action mixed within all of the VFX, you really feel like you are going through what those characters are going through. Even if they’re flying through the air, what they’re doing is live action and real human movement. It makes the audience feel that they could be in there flying with the heroes, fighting with the heroes, doing what they’re doing. So, the new challenge is being able to blend the two worlds seamlessly and I think that we worked with an incredible VFX team on Black Adam, the communication we had between the two worlds really, really paid off and helped create something really awesome.
I believe you also worked with some wire work in this movie; can you talk about working on that?
Absolutely. So to me, one of the things that actually helps blends from real world action and what we actually filmed live with the animated stuff is the wire work because I mean, we were actually flying human beings, 50 to 100 feet in the air, having people flying and fighting, way, way, way higher than you’d ever expect, which being able to do that makes it much easier to animate around that. A lot of times you would have characters start on the ground and as they jump it’s purely animated. So, then it just goes to a complete cartoon in the sky and you kind of lose all of the energy that you had when it was grounded. Whereas on this show, you’re actually able to fly people through the air. I mean, we really had Hawk Man flying, adding to people, carrying them down to the ground. He really did, he started probably 100 feet up in the air. We had both Aldis Hodge and his stunt double, 100 feet up and flying in really, really fast and we were able to safely land them while they dropped the two bodies. We had literally the most incredible rigging team. Shawn Kautz was our Key Rigger, and he’s one of the very few riggers in the world that I personally have trusted my life in his hands. He’s one of those people that we knew we could trust him with the life of Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, and all of these amazing A-list actors. He’s one of those guys who will keep everybody safe every step of the way. It was just a very comfortable experience in doing something that you would never expect to have people, especially actors doing.
You mentioned earlier that you like doing one-ers (a one take fight sequence) and you’d also worked on the Netflix TV series Daredevil a few years back, which have some of the best one take fight scenes you’ll ever see.
Thank you. Thank you.
How challenging is it to do a one take fight scene? Surely that’s one of the most challenging things to work on…
Unlike the traditional way of filming a fight sequence where you set multiple cameras and you do multiple takes and kind of break the fight down to the little sections. When you’re running a fight as a one take master it takes one performer, one mistake, and you ruin the entire take. It’s all over. So there is a much bigger drive to have a perfect take top to bottom. It’s a big challenge, but when it works out, it really, really works out because when you’re not cutting, you are with the character for an entire take whether it’s a 30 second sequence or on Daredevil we were able to do like a 12-minute sequence where you are with the character. You’re with Matt Murdock for 12 minutes straight. You are feeling every hit. You are right there with him and when you’re not cutting, you feel like you believe that it is all happening; when you’re cutting around, it’s a lot easier to believe okay, they probably have a stunt double do that. They probably do this and that. So the challenges of doing it as a oner is you can’t make a mistake and you have to get a lot more creative because if you’re going to plug in a double for certain moves, you have to do it in the most seamless way otherwise the audience is going to know. So, the challenge is to always trick the audience into believing that that character is doing everything.
Yeah, you’re also stunt coordinating the new Paramount+ Teen Wolf movie and your second unit directing the Teen Wolf spinoff series Wolfpack. How is it working on that?
Yes. Oh, it’s amazing. It’s amazing. It’s a fun full circle because I worked on Teen Wolf, the TV show very early on in my career. I pretty much did the entire series top to bottom. I mean, I worked on it a lot. When I first started that show, I was just a performer. I was doubling a bunch of the characters. I got to have a couple of small character roles on the show, and then throughout the seasons I became the fight coordinator, and then I got to stunt coordinate several episodes of the show. Coming back as the stunt coordinator for the feature film was really awesome and exciting. It was great. I mean, we had almost the entire crew and the entire cast from the TV show came back to do the movie together. So it’s like a big family reunion. It was amazing seeing everybody. And not only did I work on the show, but I was also a big fan of the show. To see what Jeff Davis did in creating the movie, that kind of puts it all together as the fan, I was so stoked. I was really excited to watch all the actors come back and play characters that they played years and years ago and just fall right back into those characters so perfectly that the fans are absolutely going to love everything about that film. Then working on Wolfpack is really exciting because not only do I get to coordinate all of the action, but I am second unit directing as well. I feel like I’m able to enhance the werewolf action in a way that hasn’t really been captured before and I think it’s going to be a very, very fun, new dynamic werewolf style for all of the fans of Teen Wolf and people who are just into werewolf and any kind of action, really, it’s going to be really exciting.
You’re in pre-production for your directorial debut Relentless, which starts next year. Are you able to discuss that yet?
I don’t know what I can say on that just yet, just because we’re still in the paperwork stages of trying to get it all dialled in. But yeah, I have my directorial debut coming out and I’m very excited because I have spent my entire career building as a filmmaker and learning how to tell a story. I first learnt how to tell a story through movement. I take what’s in the script and find a way to tell those words through punches and kicks and cool movements. But then I figured out how to fully tell the story. I want to be able to find the right spot to place the camera and the right camera movements, the right framing to really tell the story that each punch and kick is telling. It’s kind of just grown in my love for storytelling and filmmaking continues to grow. It’s basically the new wave of action films. You’re seeing the John Wick’s, you’re seeing Extraction. You’re seeing all of the legendary stunt performers turned stunt coordinators, turned directors are really enhancing the action of cinematography. They’re creating just a new way of capturing action that really hasn’t been seen before. I like to think that I have a very unique way of telling stories through both movement and camera movement and I’m really, really looking forward to showing my view of the next generation of action.