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Making dreams a reality

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Making dreams a reality

Some stunts look impressive due to the power of their explosions or the height of their falls, but that’s just another day at the office for a stuntman. The ones that they lose sleep over are the brain-meltingly complex ones, such as the zero-gravity fight sequence in Christopher Nolan’s dreamy masterpiece Inception, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character goes mano a mano with a baddy while floating in a hotel corridor. That baddy was award-winning stuntman Rick English. Here he explains how they pulled off one of the most technically demanding and visually impressive fights in cinematic history.

Step 1: Shift your perspective

“In Inception, the action sequence depicts Joseph Gordon-Levitt – who didn’t use a stunt double – fighting his way along a hotel corridor. But because this corridor had to echo what was happening to a speeding van in another ‘level of consciousness’, they had to build several sets for the same stretch of corridor. One was on a giant rotating axle, for when the van was rolling off the side of the highway, but for my fight sequence, which took place as the van enters a free fall, the set was built vertically – a bit like a Pringles tin – with the hotel’s elevator doors at the top, and the camera pointing upwards to capture the action. As a viewer, you think you’re looking along the corridor, but you’re actually looking straight up.”

Step 2: Rig the action

“Joseph and I were hooked on to an elaborate system of pulleys and wires – one under each arm, one on each thigh – and suspended halfway down this upright corridor. We could control the shape of our bodies and our movements within a space, but not which part of the corridor we were occupying. That was down to a team of riggers, who would puppeteer us usingthe wires.”

Step 3: Get in sync 

“Fortunately I wasn’t actually getting punched. We always shoot everything so that it’s repeatable over multiple takes, and so the stunt performer actually wants to do it again. The camera angles are such that it looks like his fist is making contact with my face, but to make it believable, the synchronisation between him, me and the riggers had to be perfect. There’s no point getting punched by Joseph, throwing my head back and then the wires not flinging me backwards for another second – no viewer would believe that. It took three months’ worth of rehearsals to coordinate the fight choreography between myself, Joseph and the riggers.”

Step 4: Take the hit 

“While I am trying to make the fight look as violent as possible, I am also trying to protect Joseph as much as I can. I am the stunt performer, he is the actor. If I badly hurt myself and can’t carry on, I can be replaced. He can’t. So in the parts of the fight where we were wrestling and I flung him against the wall, I’d always try to make sure that part of my body came between him and the wall, to absorb some of the force of the impact.”

Step 5: Flip reverse it 

“One of the biggest challenges was that we ended up having to shoot the whole fight again, but mirrored. Since we could only shoot the scene from the bottom up, to get each of our point-of-view perspectives we had to flip the corridor and do the whole choreography again – only where the first time I’d had to swing up and left, now I had to do it down and right. It also meant I had to spend half my time upside down. I was convinced that when I eventually saw the film, my face would be bright red from all the blood rushing to my head.”

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