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Learn to go with the flow

This week, stuntman Rick English reveals the physical toil, psychological torment and soggy-wigged dangers of underwater action

Learn to go with the flow

When it comes to big-budget Hollywood set pieces – no matter how fast, furious or explosive – the stunt performer at the heart of the action is usually in complete control. But there are exceptions, not least when thousands of litres of water are cascading towards them; when all they can do is hold their breath and hope. Awardwinning stuntman Rick English has avoided a watery demise in films such as Kingsman: The Secret Service and Casino Royale, but one of his most dangerous waterborne feats took place in the First World War-style trenches of Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute. Here, he guides us through it.

Step 1: prepare yourself for a soaking

“When shooting a film, to simulate a sudden torrent of fast-flowing water, you have to use something called a ‘tip tank’. It’s basically a huge tank of water – a bit like a skip, but bigger – at the top of a tower. [When we were on the set of The Magic Flute], on ‘action’, the special effects team controlling the tank tipped it over, unleashing thousands of gallons of water all at once, which fell vertically down a slide, gathering momentum, before flowing directly at me and the female stunt performer who was doubling for the leading lady.”

Step 2: get swept along

“When you’ve got that amount of water coming at you that fast, there’s no simulation needed: it knocked us off our feet and immediately swept us into the trench, where the water was 8ft-deep. It can be quite disorientating when you first get barrelled into the water – you can’t tell which way is up, which way is down, and where you need to go. You just have to relax, look where you are, compose yourself, and get back to the action that you’re there to do.”

Step 3: ham it up 

“The first time we did this one, I was pinned against the side of the trench by the force of the water for a few seconds, until the water from the tip tank stopped coming through. Even then, the current was really strong, as they’d built jets into the side of the trench to drive the water along at speed. I probably could have swum against it if I’d wanted to, but you have to exaggerate your struggle for dramatic effect.”

Step 4: hold your breath

“If ever I’m doing tip tanks, I hold my breath from the word ‘action’ to the moment my head is clear of the water. In this scene, because we had to carry on into the flooded trench, that was around 30 seconds – longer than it sounds if you’re tumbling along and struggling against a current. To practice my breath-holds, I use a contraption that provides resistance as you breathe in and out of it, which develops lung capacity. It’s actually even more useful when prepping for fire stunts, where you also have to hold your breath the whole way through – you can’t inhale flames into your lungs…”

Step 5: swipe right

“A huge amount of planning went into this stunt, but the surging water made following that plan very difficult. I was meant to hold on to something on the bank, grab the female stunt performer as she came flying past, and pull her to safety. What actually happened was that I grabbed awkwardly and accidentally tore off a part of her costume, so they couldn’t use the take. I never like it if we have to go again because of something I did wrong, but a lot of times what you’ve got to do is tricky – to say the least – and it’ll take a couple of takes to get it right. Here, that meant changing into a dry costume and getting the hairdryer out on my wig.”


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