411 Talks w/Luke LaFontaine About Savage Dog, Hollywood Career, More
You may not know Luke LaFontaine’s name, but chances are, if you’re a movie fan you’ve seen his work. LaFontaine is a noted stunt performer and stunt coordinator who has been working in Hollywood for over thirty years. He’s provided his stunt expertise to movies, TV shows, and video games. LaFontaine recently acted as the fight coordinator on Savage Dog, an action flick starring Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Cung Le, Juju Chan, Vladimir Kulich, and Keith David and directed by Jesse V. Johnson set for release this summer by XLrator Media.
LaFontaine took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from this writer about his work on Savage Dog, his career in Hollywood, and more.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get the job of fight coordinator for Savage Dog?
LL: I’ve been Jesse V. Johnson’s stunt coordinator and fight choreographer for over a decade. Jesse talked with me at length about the film. I went and immersed myself in coming up with a fighting style for Martin Tilman (character played by Scott Adkins in the movie). After story boards and working out camera movement I brought in Robert Dill to shoot a thorough pre-vis with me. Scott liked it, approved it, and we started rehearsals three weeks later.
BK: What does a “fight coordinator” do? Is a “fight coordinator” the same thing as a “fight choreographer” or are they different positions/disciplines? What were your responsibilities on Savage Dog in your position as fight coordinator?
LL: Yes, those titles are the same. As choreographer you are responsible for all the fights as well as training the actors in some cases. On Savage Dog I was responsible for all the action on the film working as choreographer and stunt coordinator. Jesse V. Johnson has built some amazing gun battles in his films. I just got with him and put together what he wanted. There are some great gun battles in the film, super visceral. Scott, Marko and Cung had awesome insight into their characters and ideas for fight stuff. In the end it’s always a team effort.
BK: What was it like working with noted martial artists like Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, and Cung Le? Is it easier to work with people with fighting backgrounds when it comes to fight coordinating or does it matter at all?
LL: I had a great time working with such amazingly talented martial arts stars. Scott Adkins is super human in his abilities. He gives 200% all the time! We have to desperately talk him out of doing stuff that’s too dangerous and most of the time he winds up doing it because he can. Marko is a great martial artist and has a great eye for what works for him on camera. Cung Le is an absolute beast while being the nicest guy you ever want to meet. Scary power with total control. They’re all incredible. Most of the time if the fighters understand film fights it’s great, but there can be real problems if they don’t. Really “going for it” never works! People get hurt and it looks terrible on film. There have been actors who have immersed themselves in fight work and done a brilliant job. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and Harrison Ford to name a few.
BK: What was the hardest thing you had to do while working on Savage Dog?
LL: The hardest thing to do on Savage Dog was to work within the schedule. We had lots of exotic locations and this was a period piece set in the 1950’s with a lot of detail. Not only did I have to be careful with keeping fight techniques creative while being realistic for an Irish fighter in Indonesia in 1959 , all our locations were real, no built sets, we had 8 major fights with have a dozen smaller action pieces. With a fight that needed 3 days to shoot we had less than 1 whole day. In several cases I had 3 hours or less to get a whole fight. Scott and the stunt guys really pulled out all the stops! Marko and Cung’s fights with Scott are epic, visceral, unforgiving fights. Everyone was brilliant.
BK: How close did you work with Savage Dog director Jesse V. Johnson?
LL: I’ve worked with Jesse v. Johnson for well over ten years now. We’ve been in some hair raising and seemingly impossible scenarios. But they get done! We work very closely together. It surprises some film crews the trust we have with each other. Always adamant about getting great shots and not compromising. Jesse always has a serious vision and is phenomenal at working with his actors. He’s always one upping himself and never settling for just “good”.
BK: How did you get into the stunt world? What sort of athletic background do you have? Are you a martial artist?
LL: I got into the stunt world in the 80’s. My background was martial arts and swordplay. I started training at the age of 9 in Aikido, kendo, and classical fencing, eventually expanding into karate, kung fu, kenjutsu and historical European swordplay, studying here, in Japan, and Europe. 38 years later I’m still learning.
(LaFontaine and Stanley Tong on the set of Martial Law)
BK: You’ve done stunt work on both TV and in movies. What’s the difference between working on TV as opposed to film?
LL: TV is much more regimented than film. You only have so many days every week to finish an episode. This goes on all season long.
BK: What’s the difference, if any, working in a stunts capacity for a low budget movie as opposed to a big budget movie? How is a movie like Shadow Fury different from something like Iron Man?
LL: Money and time. Those are the two big differences as well as chain of command. You have a little more leeway on smaller films. On big shows stick to your job, don’t get attached to your action ideas, and be ready to rechoreograph everything.
(LaFontaine on the set of Hook with Robin Williams)
BK: What was it like working on three different Power Rangers series?
LL: I actually worked on 10 seasons of Power Rangers, season 2 all the way thru Wild Force. Koichi Sakamoto brought me on in 1994 and made me the first Caucasian member of Alpha Stunts in 1995. It was a great time. I worked with and under the tutelage of Koichi, Tatsuro Koike, and Akihiro “Yuji” Noguchi. We worked on dozens of films from 1995 to 2002. I got to play a Ranger 3 times, Blue twice, Green once, literally one quarter of the main bad guys, doubled a dozen actors and helped train every set of Ranger actors. It was a serious proving ground. We fought, trained and stunted 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. A lot less CGI back then so we were doing 90% of the action. It was a great time, lots of memories.
BK: What did you do on the original Karate Kid? Imdb shows that you worked on stunts in that movie but your work went uncredited.
LL: The Karate Kid was my first big film. I was brought onto the film by the director John Avildsen. His son had recommended me telling me “my dad’s doing some karate picture you oughtta be in it.” John gave me the part of the first guy to fight Ralph Macchio in the tournament. Pat Johnson, the stunt coordinator and fight choreographer and a martial arts legend, was generous with letting me do any action, as I wasn’t one of his team. The part had to go to someone else so I did fights with the Cobra Kai instead. Those and other action eventually were mostly cut from the film because they felt they overshadowed Macchio. I wound up in a shot with Pat Morita and Elisabeth Shue as a skeptical fighter watching Daniel fight.
BK: What are “utility stunts”?
LL: “Utility Stunts” are all the workhorse jobs that get done by the stuntmen. Most of the off camera work. Moving pads, setting up equipment, etc.
BK: How does someone get into the stunt world?
LL: It’s like the spy industry, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill ya! No, really being a pro or champion in a related sport or special military service or being highly trained in martial arts or other physical discipline is kind of a prerequisite. You can’t really just do it with no abilities because you think it’d be a cool job.
BK: How has the stunt world changed since you started? And what do people not understand about the stunt world?
LL: The stunt world has changed in the last decade. Things have gotten more competitive. The biggest, scary change is that new producers and directors are not vetting stunt people and coordinators. So, there are a lot of internet and small independent projects being run by self-appointed coordinators. It’s very dangerous to have action run by someone with no real stunt experience. You don’t get to give yourself the title of stunt performer or coordinator. You earn it professionally by work you do for coordinators and your peers. Things have also changed in that the physical abilities of stunt people have expanded and progressed.
BK: Who are your movie heroes?
LL: Jeez, I’ve got a lot of movie heroes. Here’s a few: Buster Keaton, Kirk Douglas, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Duvall, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. There are tons more but we’d be here all day.
BK: When should actors not do their own stunts or do their own fighting?
LL: Well, when the action is too dangerous, or the fights are too complex for the actor to perform well enough or are too interspersed with dangerous stunt work. It’s great when an actor can do his or her own action well but its best to leave the dangerous stuff to the professionals. We train all the time to be able to fix something mid-take or get out of a potentially scary situation. There’s a misnomer that most actors do all their own stunts. Trust me, they don’t.
BK: What is the most insane stunt you’ve ever had to pull off for a movie? A TV show? And what kind of stunt do you hope you never have to do again in your career?
LL: That’d be a toss-up. On Power Rangers I had a pyrotechnic charge on my chest that I set off myself in the middle of doing a gainer full twist landing on my back 8 feet down in a dirt trench. The other would be the car hit from Wicked Game/Extreme Heist where I got hit by a car doing a slide 180. I flew 10 feet before I hit the ground. Car hits… no more of those.
Again, I want to thank LaFontaine for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview and I want to thank david j. moore for helping set it up.
Check out Luke LaFontaine’s imdb page here.
All images courtesy of Luke LaFontaine.