A Look Into the World of Stunt Coordination, an Interview with Charlie Croughwell
Charlie Croughwell is a veteran stunt man and stunt coordinator with a career spanning 40 years and over 100 productions in television and film. His career began as Michael J. Fox’s stunt double for Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, and since then he’s worked in varying stunt capacities on projects such as Batman Returns, The Planet of the Apes, Life of Pi, The Laundromat, and most recently The Call of the Wild.
With such a diverse background, Charlie’s work has taken him anywhere from flipping over cars to falling through a river, to coordinating swimming underwater with dolphins, and to planning iconic fight scenes with CGI animals (more on that below). As Charlie says in our interview, while stunt doubling may seem like primarily a profession of daredevils, a successful stunt requires not only incredible precision but also close collaboration with other departments involved in the film’s production.
There’s a scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly’s being chased by a car while riding his skateboard. It culminates with him jumping onto the hood of the car, run/jumping over the roof, and landing on the other end. While Michael J. Fox (Marty) did the riding of the skateboard, Charlie was the one jumping over the car and doing a few of the other stunts. There’s a link to the video further down in this blog. Try to see if you can peer through the rapid editing to see where Michael and Charlie switch places. Their art is at once nuanced and brimming with adrenaline.
“In your pursuit of a career in the stunt business, you must sacrifice a great deal if that is what drives you. As you work your way through, you develop a reputation. That reputation is what carries you forward… Your reputation, which is a product of everything you’ve done, is what will help you succeed or fail.
“Are you truly dedicated or does the idea of being a stunt person, coordinator, director, etc. just sound cool? If it’s just the coolness factor, then you should pursue something else. It can be hard, extremely dangerous work; if you’re not up to the entire process you should look elsewhere.”
Andrew Cheek: How did you first get started as a stunt coordinator and stuntman?
Charlie Croughwell: The first step to becoming a stuntman is not just wanting to be one, but continuing to pursue that goal for as long as it takes to get work. The stunt community as a whole is smaller than one might think, as far as who knows who. Everyone knows everyone, so the work you do directly reflects whether you continue to work.
I actually began my pursuit of stunts in 1980 working on whatever and wherever I could when given the opportunity. I started in student films, which gives you the next job and so on through stunt contacts. My first official role as a stunt coordinator on a film was on the George Burns film 18 Again! Where I doubled both George and Charlie Schlatter. When I performed for either of them, I had a backup coordinator to oversee the particular stunts I performed.
Andrew: How has stunt coordinating and doubling evolved over your career, since you began as the stunt double of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in Back to the Future?
Charlie: There’s a lot to this question, but in the simplest terms, technology has and continues to afford us the opportunities to do more VFX integrated work. Aside from that, things don’t change a great deal as far as the time and energy you put in.
Andrew: What’s one thing the average person probably doesn’t know about stunt doubles or coordinators?
Charlie: I don’t think the average person has any idea of what stunt people and coordinators do. I believe they see us as daredevils. Stunt people are a unique group that love the thrill of adrenaline, however, most come from sensible, very technical backgrounds. It’s a hard question to answer, but stunt people have typically been portrayed as a very rowdy group, and in some cases it’s correct, but not quite as much as it was when I first started out.
The processes that we go through to get to the final act vary in so many ways dependent upon the particular gag. Coordinating correctly is having a great team that makes me look like I know what I’m doing.
Andrew: Could you share a little about your experiences working on the recent film The Call of the Wild, starring Harrison Ford? Specifically, related to some of the challenges you may have faced coordinating stunts for scenes involving, at times, a fair amount of CGI. I imagine that sleight of hand of staging, say, for a fight scene, is different when you introduce computer-generated imagery or effects.
Charlie: Adding any CG to a performance by a stunt person requires that we, like actors, must interact with the CG character if the scene calls for it. In doing so, the CG character can be represented in many ways, whether it be a human stand-in or an object that is in place of the CG element. With Call of the Wild, when working alongside any of the CG characters, we had humans in the roles as the base of the CG model for the VFX team to create the end result.
Andrew: How would you say your work as a stunt coordinator influences the choices made by the various crews involved with moviemaking, from the actors themselves to the camera crew or director, the lighting department, and so on? That is to say, what overlaps of influence have you noticed?
Charlie: Everything we do takes additional support from the various departments. When it comes down to it, the entire process really is a team effort across all of the departments that participate in the execution of the particular gag.
Call of the Wild is a great example. Everything we do is a collaboration. Some are more involved than others. On COTW, there were so many departments involved in almost every scene we did, VFX, SFX, costumes, etc. The water scene wasn’t just someone falling through the ice, but a recently scuba certified actress equipped with the knowledge to exist in a water world safely, wear specific equipment for her safety, and three divers in the tank with her the entire time. The water in the entire river had to maintain a range of temperature from 85–88 degrees, all while she had to swim against a very powerful current produced by the special effects department and augmented by the VFX dept.
The shots above the surface were filmed in a long rectangular tank; the shots below were filmed in a deep large tank that was covered with a 2” thick sheet of polycarbonate sheet resembling ice from below. That was all built by the SFX department.
We had a dive safety team that consisted of three dive masters and two dive instructors. Their primary concern was safety for our performers. We then had Pete Romano and his support as our underwater cinematographer.
Our performers were Cara Gee and a stunt double for Cara that is proficient in water-related stunts.
The double for Buck (the CGI dog) had to swim along underneath our actress so that they could be towed along. We ended up adding a tow line to our actress so we could assist her travel and not wear out our Buck swimmers. I could probably go into unnecessary detail for so much longer, but at the end of the day, it really does take a finely oiled machine that is guided by our director toward the direction he wants the scene to go.
Andrew: If you don’t mind, could you share a story or fun experience you had during your 35-year-long career?
Charlie: Many of the shows that I’ve worked on have great stories to go along with them. I started in the film industry in 1980, as that’s the year I began pursuing work as a stuntman, later going on to coordinate and even direct action sequences.
When you’re working your way up in the stunt industry, you end up working with many older stunt folks that have blazed the trail for the next generation. When I used to sit and listen to so many stories from the older crowd, I wondered whether I would ever have great stories like the ones they told. I find now that I am one of the older guys and have many stories to tell, which I do freely anytime the conversation lends itself and you have a group of stunt folks that are willing to listen.
Andrew: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Charlie: As a stunt person, we go from one job to another. Some just a day and some for a year or more. In your pursuit of a career in the stunt business, you must sacrifice a great deal if that is what drives you. As you work your way through, you develop a reputation.
That reputation is what carries you forward. A director mentions your work to another, a producer does the same and so on. Your reputation, which is a product of everything you’ve done, is what will help you succeed or fail. Are you truly dedicated or does the idea of being a stunt person, coordinator, director, etc. just sound cool? If it’s just the coolness factor, then you should pursue something else. It can be hard, extremely dangerous work; if you’re not up to the entire process you should look elsewhere.