Sherlock Holmes came out on DVD yesterday, but as some of you may have discovered, it’s a bare-bones release. I’ll bet you my finest smoking jacket and two billy-clubs that a loaded special edition will be out in time for the holidays, but in the mean time, Tor.com would like to bring you a little behind-the-scenes fix with stage combat and kung fu teacher, stunt man, and all-around badass Mike Yahn. As Lord Blackwood’s double, he got dropped off a bridge and swashed buckles with Robert Downey, Jr, all for your entertainment.
Megan Messinger: How did you get involved with the Sherlock Holmes movie?
Mike Yahn: It was through Richard Ryan, who was the fight coordinator on that. The stunt coordinator was Frank Henson, but Richard has been his go-to fight guy for a while now, they did Soloman Kane and Gulliver’s Travels together. So when the production was moving to New York, Richard was trying to figure out guys who are about Mark [Strong]’s size, and who could fight. And this is a quote from Richard, when I asked him why he hired me, he said he needed somebody he could bully around, which fits me pretty well. I’m easily bullyable by coordinators.
MM: You knew Richard Ryan from SAFD stuff?
MM: We’ve been talking in class about how the fight direction tradition on movies comes from people saying “Oh, shit, we should get a fencing coach in here!” Are fight masters on movies these days fencing guys? Martial arts guys?
MY: Less fencing these days, I would say. There’s definitely martial arts, there’s heavy escrima influence in things, there’s a lot of Wing Chun—there’s a heavy Wing Chun influence in Sherlock, for example. The difference between stunt fighting and theater fighting is that theater has to be repeatable, right? We want it to be safe. Me fighting on film is a very different animal than me fighting in the theater. Me fighting in theater—well, it’s like I’m teaching in class: take care of your partner, make sure you’re communicating. When I’m fighting on film, I’m taking care of my character. I’m fighting for the guy I’m doubling for, and I’m not taking care of my partner so much. I mean, some, I’m not a dick, I won’t stab them, but I’m driving them.
MM: And they’re presumably driving back at you.
MY: Presumably. Not always. Certainly one of the reasons that Richard hired me, initially, is because he wanted someone who could push Robert Downey, so that when they’re shooting over my shoulder and I’m fighting Robert Downey, he wanted me to really drive him. Though we never ended up using any of that stuff anyway! All those sequences were completely shoved under, but that was the original plan.
MM: Oh, no!
MY: Yeah, I have some pictures of us practicing, but it’s funny, because I was specifically hired to really go after Robert Downey in these fights, keep him on his toes, and it ended up when we shot, I never really got to fight him.
MM: I was watching the movie, going, when are the fights?
MY: There’s very little.
MM: The stuff that ended up getting cut, do you know where that was to fall in the movie? Was it on the bridge, or…?
MY: You know, I’m not sure. Like I said, the fight changed so many times. But very little, if any, of my fighting stuff was used. Certainly you can see my hand a couple times with the sword, like when Downey is swinging around, I’m the one holding the sword after him. I ended up doing more pure stunts, though: falling from the top of the bridge, crashing through wood, getting my feet thrown out from under me and getting dragged across the bridge. Which is an interesting thing, because I came on primarily as a sword fighter.
MM: So when they pulled you in for fighting, were they just like, “Hey, Mike, can we also drop you from large heights?”?
MY: Well, it was between me and someone else for it, someone who had a lot more straight-up stunt experience. And me, who has more sword fighting experience, someone who Richard’s worked with before, who he knew he could bully into doing whatever he wanted, but only a little wirework experience. I think the debate was, which is this guy going to do more of? And the decision came out, oh, he’s going to do a lot more sword fighting and the other stuff will be easy. And I ended up doing all the other stuff and not much sword fighting, so go figure!
MM: Any particularly fun or crazy or dangerous or painful moments from the set that you recall?
MY: Nothing ever felt too crazy. It was surreal, certainly, a lot of the time. There was one day where we were rehearsing at the hotel, and it was me, the stunt coordinator Franklin, Richard, and Robert Downey Jr and Mark Strong, and that’s it. It’s like, okay, this is pretty good company I’m in! And Guy Ritchie swings by with his kid and at some point the kid starts playing around with swords and I’m showing him a couple things, and it occurs to me that I’m teaching Madonna’s child how to swordfight. It’s like, hey, do this, do this…heeyyy, that’s Madonna’s kid.
MM: It sounds like a dream, like, “I was in a hotel…teaching Madonna’s kid to swordfight…”
MY: Yeah, all sorts of things like that, where afterwards you’re like, well, that was weird. But it feels very normal at the time. And certainly a bunch of the stunts were painful. Wirework is wonderful, it’s so much fun – it’s painful as hell, though. You’re being held up by a couple of wires and a harness, and that harness is tight. Particularly the harness I used that spun me around.
MM: For the big drop off the bridge?
MY: Yeah, that was a custom rig, and it was probably about an inch too small for my waistline. So I literally had to put the thing on and jam it down, like full-on palm strikes. I could feel my hips going rrrrp, creaking in, and I had these huge bruises. But it wasn’t coming off! And we do that, and then of course, I had to do it with the coat on, too. You feel like an idiot with this thing on. And to add to that, smacking it down to get it over your hips! So that was painful. None of the stuff was scary. The wire stuff was pretty easy, unless you’re freaked out by heights. You’re more scared because you don’t want to fuck it up, right – certainly this stuff is dangerous if you screw it up. But if you’re on your toes, you’re smart and relaxed, you’re fine.
There was one stunt we ended up doing that I remember, we had the whole thing planned out, and during lunch they decided to change the entire thing. So we replaced the back half of the bridge with balsa wood, and I had to crawl out into the middle of all this balsa wood with wires around it, and I’m just sitting there. And we yank the wood out from under me, and it basically explodes and I fall through and I was told, just starfish out to try to catch the chains underneath you. I was padded up six ways to Sunday, but this isn’t Standard Stunt 103, it’s like, we have no idea how this is going to come out, but here’s our best educated guess, let’s see if we can do this! And that one was a little scary because there was no practice take. We managed to get it in one take, thank God! I’m really disappointed, though, we realized afterwards that none of us took a video on set while I was doing it, so there aren’t any copies of this particular stunt except what made it into the film. And this is how it works – for a stunt that took us a day to figure out, it just all boils down to…this is about how much is in the film. [we watch the clip; it’s less than a second] And there you go.
MM: And it cuts to Mark Strong’s face.
MY: Yeah, we lowered him into the chains. And that’s all me, falling there, though that shot’s a weird one. You saw when we originally practiced it, I start high and go low, but when we shot it, just for CGI purposes, I actually started low and went up, which makes it a lot more difficult to get that spin.
MM: And what are you teaching this afternoon?
MY: Combat for film at the New York Film Academy.
MM: What does that encompass?
MY: There’s a fairly heavy emphasis on acting the fight, you know, breathwork, what’s the story we’re trying to tell. And then, because it’s a film academy, I film the students. I’m trying to give them that sense of always knowing where the camera is, because the difference between stage combat and film combat is, in stage combat, especially if you’re talking a proscenium stage, you have a wide field of view, you know your audience is over here, you’re separated from them, so here’s how we move the fight. In film combat, there’s an audience of one. It’s you, your partner, and the camera, and you always have to be aware of the relationship between the three entities. And that’s a wee bit more specific a skill.
MM: In general, you do so much stage combat and wing tsun—have you always done martial arts, and that lead you to stage combat, or…?
MY: The opposite. I didn’t so any of that stuff. I remember freshman year of college, I directed a scene with a fight in it, I let the actors choreograph it themselves, I had no clue. I was like, that’s cool—what’s that called, a slip knap? Huh? And I started taking [fight master J. David] Brimmer’s classes and I loved it, and at some point, I realized that I should probably actually learn how to throw a punch. So I met a guy on a show, he was cool. I didn’t do much research on the subject, I was just like, I’ll take martial arts with him. And it ended up being a crazy badass martial art that I’m actually somewhat decent at. And now I’m an instructor, so it’s weird, how life takes you.
And this is what I blame it on: I have a remarkable ability to land on my feet. Brimmer likes to describe me as the Fool, from tarot cards—I fall off the cliff into a pot of gold. Describes a lot of my life, honestly. It’s not like I made a decision: I want to be a stunt guy. Stage combat was fun! I’m good at this, let’s keep doing it. Or, I want to be a martial arts instructor! I ended up falling in love with the art itself, then at some point I was asked to teach, and I was like, great! And now I’ve got my own school down in the East Village, and by the end of this year, knock on wood, I might become a kung fu sifu. When I moved to the city for college, to think that in ten years I would be a kung fu sifu, doing stunt work and fighting on a regular basis...it’s insane. But, like I said, wonderful things happen, I just breathe, smile, allow it to, see what direction life takes me.
Megan Messinger is a production assistant at Tor.com and a stage combat afficionado; she records those adventures at Not Gonna Hit You.