Monday, January 8, 2018

A Conversation with Rookie Stunt Performer, Stephen Koepfer

First Stephen, thanks for taking the time to talk  You're a man of many accomplishments particularly in martial arts, but I want to focus on one aspect that I find absolutely fascinating.  You are both a stunt performer and a fight choreographer.  How does this even start?  Did you always want to do this or did you just fall in to it, so to speak?

I have been interested in television and filmmaking since childhood. It has been kind of a lifelong dream actually. Even as a kid I was making movies on Super 8, informally learning to shoot and edit film. Later, I even went to several summers of camp for filmmaking in my youth (man I wish I still had all those films and videos). I really just learned to love the whole world of making movies during those years. So many films in my youth, like Raiders of the Lost Arc and American Werewolf in London for example, really inspired me to engage that side of my creativity. Oh, and Best of the Best! I loved that film…LOL. Watched it thousands of times! Back then I was really interested in special effects actually and would spend a lot of time playing with latex molds, building models just to blow them up, burn them down or destroy them somehow…LOL. In any event, film was still a goal of mine up until beginning college at the School of Visual Arts, but after college my professional life went in different directions.

The one constant during all my life despite my winding professional life has been martial arts, which I made my profession in 2005 when I quit my day job to run my then two year old gym full time. As technology became available making it easy for anyone to make rudimentary films, and my notoriety in martial arts became a bit more significant, I started to drift back to TV & film. At first with this new thing called YouTube, then later producing instructional martial art DVDs and creating or collaborating on video content for various martial arts websites. Eventually, in 2007, I was hired to be a technical adviser on an episode of Travel Channel’s Human Weapon. That re-launched me into the business in a more serious way. Over the last 10 years I have gotten increasingly involved in that world including film production and during the past several years, stunts, which have become somewhat of an addiction for me.

My first stunt job was in 2010 on a low budget music video. I choreographed a fight and performed in it as well. To be honest, it was not really that great and I did not quite know what I was doing, but it was a learning experience and looking back, I can already see my style was starting to develop. We had some rudimentary John Wick style stuff in that fight, like a crazy rolling kneebar gun disarm. I was adding in dynamic grappling and throws that have now become really popular in fight scenes.
Then in 2014 I produced a proof of concept pilot for my friend and writer/filmmaker Sean Fitzgerald who was pitching a television program. The pilot, Choke Artist, centered around an underground fighter in NYC. Aside from all my producer duties, I choreographed the fight, trained and rehearsed the actors (who were both pro fighters), scouted the location, drew the storyboards, etc. I pretty much served as fight coordinator for that scene, though I did not even know what a fight coordinator was at that time.

The pilot ended up screening on Fox Sports because Al Iaquinta, a UFC fighter was in the scene. Once it aired, it got the attention of a veteran stunt coordinator named Doug Crosby. After a few meetings he encouraged me to pursue stunts more seriously, which I did.  What better way to combine my knowledge of film and martial arts? However, stunts are not simply doing martial arts on film. While having solid martial arts was my “in” to the community, I have a laundry list of other skills to learn and develop.

From that point, my good friend and student Paul Varacchi, who is an accomplished martial artist in his own right, set out to get more involved in the business. Paul also had goals of getting involved in stunts. Three years later, we are both in SAG-AFTRA, working in the profession and run Breakfall Studios together - an open training program for professional stunt performers that operates out of my gym.

Would you mind naming just a few places where we might have seen your work?

Though I do have a significant bit of film and television experience, I am very much a rookie in the stunt business. Also, if I do my job right, you won’t see me at all! But, I have been fortunate to work with teams on some incredible productions including John Wick: Chapter Two, Netflix’s The Punisher, NBC’s The Blacklist and the Saturday Night Live. I have also worked with very many talented and incredible people on smaller independent films, short films, student films and the like. This is really where you can hone your skills and build relationships that will carry you forward in the business. The New York stunt community is pretty damn awesome. Regardless of the project’s size, I love working with these people. There is a real sense of camaraderie that does not exist in many other professional communities I have been a part of.

You were kind enough to send a screener of a documentary you co-Produced and co-Directed with Matthew Kaplowitz called Concrete and Crashpads: Stunts in New York. What an education! There is soooo much that goes in to making a brief few seconds of kinetic action on screen visually pop.  Are there particular things you do to get the creative process going? A particular environment, tool, or anything?

Honestly, like anything else, it is very much a “use it or lose it” proposition. Creativity is a muscle you have to exercise. So my peers and I are always training, trying bits of new choreography in training, learning new skills, and training with different stunt coordinators and performers. We are always trying to stay fresh and expand our game. In addition to our regular martial arts training, we spend many hours a week training stunt specific skills – rolls, falls, acrobatics, wire, etc. Myself, I spend easily 10 hours a week (if not more) training specifically for stunts, on top of running my gym, teaching martial arts and all my other responsibilities. You are always trying to stay prepared for any job you might get. When a stunt coordinator calls you, you better be trained up and ready!

We try to shoot practice fights as often as possible, or help others we know with theirs. We often shoot our training sessions, just to keep the camera skills fresh. Knowledge of how to perform and sell to the camera is critical. Shooting just a few beats of a fight scene in training can teach you a lot. Practice fights are literally when we create choreography, shoot it, edit it, etc. This allows us to really dig into choreography concepts, learn camera angles and refine our editing skills.

We often give ourselves what we call “3 hour challenges,” which is when one of us picks a location, we assemble and give ourselves three hours to choreograph and shoot a fight scene in that unfamiliar setting. We then give ourselves an extra 48 hours for post production (editing, after effects, etc). Unless our intent is to create a finished product for display, most of the time only we see it, critique it, and assess for our successes and failures. I will also share the videos with trusted stunt coordinators and ask for their critique as well.

Before watching the documentary I would have assumed all the work happened on the set, but now it looks like stunt team work each scene out before you ever get on set.  What's the average time that goes in to a scene before you hit the set and does that reduce your time spent on the scene?

In an ideal world scenes are rehearsed and ready to be “plug and play” on shoot day. For major productions the stunt coordinator will create the choreography with trusted stunt professionals and shoot what are called “previs” (short for pre-visual) to present to production. A previs is essentially a video storyboard. The stunt coordinator, camera operator and stunt performers will shoot all the projected fight scenes in a film or TV episode, edit them, show them to the director & production for approval. This generally happens throughout a season of a show, but often all at once or fewer intervals for a film. Production may suggest changes or they may not. They may scrap a fight completely if they don’t like it.

Once everything is approved, a new crew of stunt performers will be hired by the coordinator (sometimes the same people from the previs, sometimes not) to shoot the actual scene that will appear on the show or in the film. This new crew will rehearse the scene before it is shot. So, the more smoothly and professional this process is, the quicker and more economical the actual shoot will be. Time is money, so the faster and more perfectly the scene is shot, the better.

Having said all that, the average day player stunt performer like me, doing expected skills (basic falling, fighting, weapon handling, etc.) will often get no advanced rehearsal. Stunt performers are expected to know and perform many basic things without explanation or instruction. In every major production I have been this year, the only rehearsal I have had was on set. So, never ever claim to do something you can’t do. You will risk the shoot, your future in the business and most importantly the safety of all the team. If a coordinator calls you to ask if you can do a 30’ high fall, a stair fall or a car hit, you had better be honest…even if it means losing a gig. Keep in mind this is for basic gags like “run, shoot, get shot, fall down.” More extensive fights do get some rehearsal time.

Some of the protective equipment seems like it would end up getting quite bulky.  Have you ever had on so much gear, you don't know how you hid it on film or are there tricks to making this look seamless?

Most stunt performers have more gear than they know what to do with LOL. For example, I have four or five different back pads. Some more low profile, some more visible. Some that can take more impact, some that protect you less. Some which cover just the spine, some that cover much more of the back. Forget elbow and knee pads! There are too many kinds to count. In essence, we acquire protective equipment and gear from many other professions and use as needed depending on what the gag entails. We often re-engineer gear from other professions to suit our needs. This business is a gear-head’s paradise! Most important is to be ready with your kit when you show up to set. Knee, back, elbow hip and tailbone are a given. If you show up without a solid kit, you will look like an amateur and risk future jobs.

Having said that, pads are sometimes not considered, even if you bring them. Particularly for female performers who often have wardrobe where pads can’t be hidden. My good friend Tina McKissick is an incredible veteran performer (she is profiled in Concrete and Crashpads). Tina once had to so a car hit and crash the windshield in a bikini! Where are you going to hide pads in a bikini? I always say that the women are more badass than the men in this business. If your character is in a mini skirt and heels when she falls down a flight of stairs, you will have very few pads on when you fall down those stairs. This is not a profession for the timid. You have to be all in.

My husband, Mark, occasionally tries to show me films from the 1970s and he assures me that the Burt Reynolds film Hooper is a must see, so have you seen it and what do you think of it?

Ha! I saw it a looong time ago. I would have to re-watch it to answer that question. But, I will say that the stunt performers of that era are legendary tough mofos. I think they might look at today’s advanced protective equipment and safety trends and think we are a bunch of babies LOL. Those guys and gals are real ground pounders. It was a different era and stunt performers then really took a serious beating (not that today’s guys have a walk in the park!)

Do you have a preference between doing someone else’s choreography, working you own, or is it all a pleasure to you?

I like both aspects. Not sure if I prefer one over the other. I enjoy the entire process. Making films is all about collaboration. It is the creative collaboration I really enjoy; being part of a crew. I will say that for some bizarre reason, I get off on stair falls. When I first started training them, I was nervous as hell. But after doing it, I get a serious rush. It is kind of a sick addiction.  

When it comes choreography, are you a purist or do you see a place for wire-work and CGI?

What really matters is the viewer and the final product. If they like it, I like it. Riding the wire is a blast and is not a new thing in the business. But, in all honestly, I have only done it in training. I have not done a hand pull or serious wire work on set yet. That day is coming soon I hope, and I am ready to go when the time comes. Regarding CGI, for me it comes back to the final product. If I can’t see it, it is awesome. But, I have seen some productions and practice fights where the CGI is detectable. That definitely sucks. I would rather have no blood splatter or squibs than crappy looking blood splatter. Crappy CGI is a distraction that takes your attention away from the action.

Having said that, advances in wire work, rigging and CGI have made the profession much safer. There is less need fire burns, high falls, car hits, explosives, etc., because of it. One can debate which is better, but it has made the profession safer. But in the end, sometimes the real stuff just looks better. Audiences may not know why they don’t like a scene, but they do know what they like and don’t like. For example, if a punch to the face does not sell well, the viewer may not be able to articulate why a fight looks fake, but they know it does. Same goes for CGI.

When I think of stunt work the touchstone would be Jackie Chan in his prime.  What's your professional evaluation of his work?

Ha! He should be evaluating my work! I am the rookie, he is the legend. Anyone who does not admire and appreciate what Jackie Chan and his team can do should just un-friend me on Facebook right now LOL.

It seems a thankless job, how do you feel not usually being recognized/appreciated by the audience as realizing it’s you in the film doing the awesome parts?

I am not in a scene to be seen. I am there to contribute to the success of the production. Bottom line, I don’t want to be seen. If you are a stunt performer and your priority is to be seen, you should consider modeling or acting and get out of the stunt business. Do I think the stunt profession needs more credit and recognition? Definitely. How can you nominate Mad Max for a best picture Oscar and not recognize the film’s stunt coordinator? But, for me personally, it is not about being seen at all. It is about being part of a crew and making great creative films.

As the stunt man/woman you would have to wear what the performer wears in the scene.  Clothing can be so restrictive of the full range of motion you'd need when fighting/doing stunts. Are you ever consulted on this or do you have to work with what you get assigned?

You work with what you get. But, you do have some say regarding sizes, etc., when you go to wardrobe for a fitting. I always get a bit larger than my actual size so I can accommodate pads under my wardrobe. I always assume I will be wearing basic body pads.

Stunt men/women (Zoe Bell comes to mind) and fight choreographers being somewhat invisible, in your professional opinion, can you name a few people who should be household names?

There are so many amazing people out there! I don’t know if stunt performers should be household names or not. But, some contemporary performers and coordinators on the list would include Andy Armstrong (read his book!), Chad Stahelski, J.J. Perry, Phil Silvera, Jackson Spidell, Debbie Evans, Heidi Moneymaker, Darrin Prescott, David Leitch, Christopher Brewster, Cort Hessler and Eric Jacobus. I mean the list can go on and on. Those is just off the top of my head. There are so many incredible stunt professionals in our business. There are guys like Charlie Picerni who has been killing it in the business since the original Start Trek series! Legendary performer Hal Needham received an honorary Oscar in 2012, as did Jackie Chan last year. Paula Dell, who died this year at the age of 90, was a superstar in the business. But, it all started with our great forefather Buster Keaton!

There is a great web series called Stunt Stories hosted by veteran performer Corey Eubanks. If you want to learn about the business and some of the legendary performers, definitely give it a watch. If you follow the Concrete and Crashpads Facebook page, we often post stories, interviews and articles about the business as well.

When it comes to stunt work, do you specialize in fight scenes, fall work, car stunts or something else?

Right now, I would have to say fights as that was my in, but I am always training to expand that.

I'm guessing yours is a rough job.  Do you have a particularly notable or unusual stunt that led to an injury?

Thankfully no. I am going to try very hard to keep it that way ;)

This seems to be a job that you need to trust those you work with.  Do you find it's best to work in a team over and over again, or is the integration of a new co-worker easy because it's understood that everyone in the field has to be at that level?

Absolutely. Trust is essential. The more you work with folks, the more you trust them and the more you will work. This may be the toughest factor for rookies to overcome – building a trust in the community. If there is no trust, there is no work. It is a slow process, and it should be. Getting in this business is a slow burn that can’t be rushed.

Do you have a handful of films that you could point to to say,”This is as good as choreography or stunt work gets! These are the ones to see!”?

Currently my favorites are the John Wick films, Kingsman and Deadpool. I walked out of Deadpool with my mind blown to bits LOL. The church fight scene in Kingsman was epic.

Before your first stunt on a professional shoot there had to be butterflies.  What was running through your head?

My first union stunt gig was on The Blacklist last season. I was literally in the union a week when I got the job. Yes, I was damn nervous. It was a 2 day job and I was playing a mercenary. The stunt coordinator Cort Hessler is an Emmy winning legend! Tina McKissick, his assistant said to me - only half joking - about my tactical gun handling skills: “You will be front and center, don’t F- it up or you won’t work again in this town!” I had a good laugh with her on the phone, hung up and maybe pooped my pants? I had serious butterflies. But, I guess I did OK because I was hired again for another episode a few weeks later.

What's next in the pipeline for you?

I honestly don’t know. This business is up and down, oftentimes very last minute. There is a adage in this business that says “if you want a job offer, book a trip.” I had a ten day trip to Japan planned last month. I would be there coaching the US National Combat Wrestling team at the Combat Wrestling World Championship. Of course, I got five calls to submit for stunt gigs during that time! But, since I have been home? No calls. That is how the wind blows in stunts. But, it is all good. I just keep training, keep hustling, keep doing good work and trust that the right people are noticing and the jobs will come. There is no rush for me. I want to do this right.

We always like to close these conversations with advice from you the expert directed to the reader. Can you name one thing anyone can do right now, to grab a little bit of that stunt glory--like faking a punch, how to fall out of a chair, anything at all?

I would suggest to just start filming stuff on your own. Have fun, create your own fights and start filming. It is so easy today. You have to keep training and keep filming. Those days you don’t want to train, you need to train harder. Find what makes you unique and show the world. But, for me it all started with making home movies. So, go have some fun and shoot something! 

Thank you so much for taking the time.  I really appreciate it!

My pleasure!

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