Watching the fight sequences in the latest British revenge film, Vendetta is sure to have you flinching and wincing but for fight coordinator Nick Maison, they are the product of an extensive amount of planning, training and execution. Despite choreographers’ hard, and absolutely essential, work behind the scenes most of these unsung heroes go unnoticed as their names roll upwards in the final credits as everyone bustles out of the cinema. Truth be told, I myself would have a tough time citing many choreographers’ names off the top of my head. So, when offered the chance to throw a few questions in Nick’s direction, I jumped at the chance. Given my worm’s-eye view of the world that is film choreography I was more than eager to hear his side of the story as he shared how he stumbled across this line of work and his experiences working on the set of Vendetta, both behind and in front of the cameras.
You were previously the Director of all UK-based Krav Maga training and currently focus on your role as head of Total Krav Maga. Can you tell us a little about how you got involved in Krav Maga and how this eventually lead to you getting involved as film fight coordinator?
After serving 14 years in the British Army, I decided to leave in 2003 and pursue a new career as a Personal Trainer and Sports Therapist. Whilst in the Army I was a part of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, which involved keeping the Army’s soldiers fit to fight and amongst other subjects, teaching unarmed combat techniques. After leaving the army, and whilst building up my own private personal training business, I also used to work for a large ‘boot camp’ company based in London. The owner approached me one winter’s evening after the regular training session and asked me if I would run a self defence course for its members. He wanted it to be realistic and for it to take place outdoors around Hyde Park to cover certain types of situations such as what to do if you’re approached or mugged whilst walking home at night. I felt that the Military stuff wasn’t going to be that relevant, so I did some research online and found some very limited information about Krav Maga. I don’t even think the likes of YouTube or similar were around in those days so there were no videos or any kind of online reference material that I could use. I contacted the people whose details I had seen online, in Israel. It was a long shot, but I did manage to get hold of someone who sent me a book and some information, which was enough to help me put together a more relevant course. After all, these people would *hopefully* not find themselves in a situation where they needed to defend themselves against a threat from a person holding an assault rifle.
The course was a success and people were soon asking me “do you run regular classes anywhere?” I spotted the gap in the market and got myself qualified as an instructor. I improved my knowledge and qualifications on a series of 24 day courses over a couple of years and after seeing my commitment, our Headquarters in Israel asked if I would be the director for the UK. I seized the opportunity.
In 2008, with Krav Maga still being somewhat of an unheard system, I helped with the organisation of a trip to Israel called ‘Touring & Training’. As the title suggests, we trained some of the days and visited some of the tourist attractions in Israel on others, such as the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. Unbeknown to me actor, Marton Csokas was taking part in this event. I didn’t have a great deal of interest in the movie world at this point, so I had no idea who he was. He was just another client to me. What he was doing was actually researching his character for his role in The Debt, learning about Krav Maga and how Israelis go about their day to day life, the way they speak and behave.
On our return to the UK, I received a call out of the blue from one of the Assistant Directors on the production of The Debt movie, asking could I come over to Ealing Studios for a few hours to just clear up some confusion over a Krav Maga fight scene. I arrived to find Marton, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain having a debate with the stunt coordinator over a fight scene. There were no qualified Krav Maga instructors and no one had any real Krav Maga experience except Jessica who had done a few months training in L.A and Marton who had been in Israel with me for 9 days on the ‘Touring & Training’ event. I quickly sorted out the fight sequence into an easy to remember routine and with a much simpler yet more dramatic finish. Director John Madden came and took a look. After a few minutes he said something along the lines of ‘Great, we may need more stuff like this”… Then he asked me, “can you come back again tomorrow to help out?” I said “of course” and an afternoon of advice turned into 2 weeks on set at Ealing studios and a week on location in Budapest. I ended up choreographing 4 scenes of Krav Maga fighting and advising on other elements.
So on being called back to provide more extensive help in The Debt, what did that entail?
This was mainly about creating authentic Krav Maga for the time period, as this movie was set in the 1960s. Krav Maga is a constantly evolving system so showing techniques that are used today wouldn’t have made sense. I had to do a bit of research and see what weapons were being used at that time, what techniques were used to deal with those weapons and to try and make the characters appear realistic in what their capabilities were. There were no special effects in the fight scenes, so everything had to be real, achievable and shot on camera as seen. The fights were fairly simple and were mostly with the characters training for a mission, so they stopped short of actually hurting or killing each other on screen. This made life simpler as I didn’t have to think about the additional safety of them being thrown around or ‘bounced’ off items on set or how they would be depicted as getting knocked out or killed on screen.
Krav Maga certainly seems to be the rendez-vous point for many action movies of late. Why do you think this is the case? Would you agree that, although maybe not as majestic on screen as other martial arts, it conveys a real sense of brute force on the big screen?
I think Krav Maga has a certain trend to it, but mainly, as you mention, it is a no frills self defence and combat system. People can connect with how this type of fighting is portrayed in the movies. For anyone who has ever been involved or seen a real fight, there are very rarely, nice flashy ‘high’ kicks or beautiful manoeuvres. It’s often scrappy composed of ‘big hits’ and not intricate complicated techniques. Things like furniture, other people, stairs and obstacles make fighting even more difficult in real life. Krav Maga takes this into account and we learn how to use such environments to our advantage, not as a hindrance. I think the reality base is what’s appealing. You don’t need to wear a certain uniform or type of clothing to be able to work with Krav Maga. You can do it in your work clothes, whilst carrying a backpack and in confined spaces (like on a bus or tube).
One thing is actually coordinating the actual fighting between the actors but another thing that many people tend to fail to appreciate is how difficult it is to coordinate this with the actual camera itself. How much of the fight scenes in Vendetta were down to you and how much down to the film’s director, Stephen Reynolds himself would you say?
I’ve actually worked with Stephen prior to Vendetta, on promotional videos for my Total Krav Maga events, so when Stephen approached me directly about being a part of Vendetta, I knew I could help create some positive energy and input to make this a fantastic production. We both knew a little about how each other worked and the best ways to shoot the fight scenes, using the correct angles. I’d say it was very easy to work with Stephen and our input to achieve such slick results was 50/50.
And what about the cast? How well did they pick up the skills you taught them for the film? Danny Dyer certainly looked to have picked it up pretty well based on the film.
The beauty of Krav Maga is that the basics are easy to learn. Danny was passionate about his character ‘looking the part’ as were the other performers. They were prepared to put the training hours in to achieve this. This is not always the case due to time constraints and sometimes down to the performers themselves; however on this production my life was made easy by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the people involved. We put in lots of rehearsal time, sometimes at unsociable hours and in less than comfortable weather conditions to achieve the results and get the shots, often in one or two takes, may I add. The performers did a great job, in my eyes.
I took up Krav Maga myself a few years ago and we are constantly reminded that the best method is to avoid brute force until there are no other options. In films, violence is a must as that is what people want to see when they go to see an action movie. How do you apply your Krav Maga philosophy when going in to coordinate fight scenes for a movie?
It really depends on the script and what the director wants to portray. In some cases, I really would like to present Krav Maga as firstly a self defence system, then a combat system. There are negative comments about Krav Maga such as ‘it’s too violent’ often due to some people not teaching Krav Maga correctly or posting ‘over the top’ videos on the internet. As you mention, trying to avoid the conflict is our first step and only when absolutely necessary would we engage in the combat side of Krav Maga. If a scene allows it I would always try to portray Krav Maga in the correct light with the character not being the ‘initial’ aggressor but as acting in self defence. There are different types of Krav Maga, such as Military, Law Enforcement, V.I.P protection & civilian, of which I am qualified as an instructor in all. However the script depicts how the character is supposed to behave, I will do my best to advise and help to translate the character’s actions onto the screen combat for their particular role.
You are also fight coordinator for another upcoming film, I Am Soldier, starring Noel Clarke and directed by Ronnie Thompson (Tower Block). What kind of action can we expect in that film? Along the lines of Vendetta or a completely different kettle of fish?
I Am Soldier is a different kettle of fish, when it comes to the Krav Maga scenes. Most of the fight scenes are during a combat mission. The characters are kitted up in uniform outfits and are carrying assault rifles. The style of Krav Maga is very military orientated, so the techniques are very aggressive, life or death scenarios and are often very intense. One fight scene is quite long and very desperate. You’ll have to wait and see though, as I haven’t seen any post production footage myself. I have no idea how the scenes have been edited or what the final production will look like.
Now that you have got a taste of the movie business, where would you like to take it from here? Would you be keen to actually appear in films yourself or are you much more comfortable taking a behind the camera role?
Jonathan Sothcott and Stephen Reynolds were very good to me on Vendetta. They allowed me to choreograph and appear in my own fight scene. I have had some extras parts before but this was my first real on screen performance. While I am more than happy to organise things behind the camera I am definitely keen to get out ‘in front of it’ more. I am currently doing various courses as a Screen Combat performer with the British Action Academy and registered with a casting agency. I think I may look to try and get listed with an agent in 2014 and see where the journey takes me. I think I could bring some excitement and great action scenes to the right production.
Who would you say are the most impressive martial artists currently working in film or who would you like to see more than we currently are seeing?
I think the most well known martial artist currently is Jet Li. He has had a great career and is an exciting performer to watch in action; however I have to take my hat off to Yayan Ruhian & Iko Uwais for some of the most awesome fight choreography and skills in the movie The Raid. Jeff Imada should also be recognised for his work as the chief fight coordinator on the Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum films. The Bourne Trilogy and The Raid are my all time favourite combat type movies…
We’d like to thank Nick for taking a moment to answer our questions and hope to see him much more, both behind and in front of the camera. Vendetta hits DVD and Blu-ray this 23rd December and we highly recommend you get in on a piece of the action and we’ll leave you with the latest red band trailer for the film just so you know what you’re missing out on.