Interview: Dan Styles, fight director

During 20FOUR FRAMES’ visit to Piotr Karter’s Terminal 3 set, Fight Director Dan Styles drops in to tell us about his job and discuss which films have the best fights.

What does a fight director do? How does the role work?

From the outset, a producer will approach me with a script. I go through it and make a breakdown where I would look for any violence and consider any safety issues that might occur. I’ll give them a budget, a whole cost, recommendations for any doubles or any extra fight personnel and scale of fight team. They will process that through development and, if I get called to do pre-production or to go to rehearsals, I’ll call the director to discuss style and actor training, their background, if there are any routines they particularly like and other films that relate to this one. Then I get to work with the actors.

I tend to prefer to work with the actors within the choreography so that I’m giving them something that their character would actually do. We talk about their characters and their character’s background and then together we would work out something that will both fit them and their characters. You want the action to be within character, that works on screen, but you also want the actor to be comfortable and safe.

Finally, I would work with the director and the director of photography to make sure that all the shots are lined up in their set. When we move on to set, I’m there, for health and safety really. By that time, the actors should know what they are doing. We might need to tweack it here and there, for example, sometimes you get to the location and things look completely different so you change choreography. Or sometimes they change the camera angle so you need to adjust where the hits are ending up because it does not quite work from a certain angle. But mostly, I’m just there at that point to make sure it’s safe.

What was your path to fight directing?

Well, I’m an actor by trade. Part of my training was stage and screen combat which I really enjoyed. Because I’ve done a lot of martial arts and re-enactment of things previously, I picked it up quite easily and then moved through my levels quickly. Then as an actor, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of choreography work and I was asked to come and teach quite a lot.

Over the past few years I have built up quite a lot of experience on my CV. I took a course on teaching, which was two years, on the history of fighting. So, now I’m a teacher, fight director and actor, working on stage and screen.

What is your research process?

At first, you find out what films the director is inspired by. Directors have a big library of films in their head that they will refer to whenever they are creating something. For example, a lot of people who are doing military style films will say “I want the style of Jason Bourne” or “I want the style of James Bond”, which is a really good reference. So, I’ll got and watch all the Bourne films or Bond films. I’ll also watch Silat, Krav Maga and lots of that kind of martial arts.

If needed, and if I have time, I’ll also study a particular style. I’ll read books and watch videos to study the style. Sometimes, depending on the budget, the actors may get trained in that style. If not, I need to just create a look of a particular style, by making sure actors adopt certain poses and postures and moves. Then anyone who knows the style will be able to recognise it, without the actors having to train for six months or become black belts.

What is your favourite fight scene?

Ever? Wow, there’s loads. There are all sort of historical ones. I like Braveheart, the battle in Braveheart. It is really well shot, not too quickly edited and is just really brutal and gory but all the moves work on camera.

I think there is some really nice martial arts in like Ong-bak and Chocolat. Bruce Lee films, of course and I really like Jackie Chan.

Is there one film that really inspires your work?

It really depends on what the film is. I’ve done something myself where I kind of tried and copy Jackie Chan’s style without copying exactly everything that he did. There are other films where I have been asked to do some kind of Bourne style, very quick and close. There are other things that have been much more medieval, something more like Robin Hood, or Kingdom of Heaven kind of style. I love everything, so I couldn’t pick just one.

What is your advice for someone wanting to be a fight director?

Start now. You can go to school, you can learn how to use a sword, how to do martial arts and then make sure you have a plan, somewhere to go.

It really helps to train, to understand direction from the director’s point of view. It is really helpful to understand how a set works, what the sound person is doing, what the camera person is doing, where they will be. Coming from an acting background means I can talk to the actors in a performance sense, instead of being just very technical. I can talk to them about their feelings and the considerations that the character would have I guess that goes for any role in film and theatre, the better you know everybody else’s jobs, the better you can do your own.

What is your industry like to work within?

Last year was tough because of the Olympics. I think a lot of money was kind of spread out, into the Olympics. But this year so far, it’s been quite nice, people are saying there’s been much improvement to last year so it’s positive. A positive value for 2013.

Are there any films you have worked on or working at the moment that you like to mention?

Gangs of Tooting Broadway (2013 British-Tamil crime drama film directed by Devanand Shanmugam) has just come out on DVD so is available in shops.

Right now, I’m working in Stockwell on a youth production about homosexual killing. I was at rehearsal and it’s about a gang that beat up and kill this young gay man, which was quite brutal.

Juliana Lira de Andrade and Giuseppe Cifaratti

Terminal 3 is a new short film by independent film-maker, Piotr Karter.

Gangs of Tooting Broadway is available to buy on DVD now. You can also watch in online with Film4oD here.

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