GW: I’m here today with Ruth Cooper-Brown and Rachael Bown-Williams, who in 2005 established the RC-Annie fight and intimacy directors company. They do stage combat and swordy-fight stuff. The reason I decided to get them on the show is because a friend of mine was working on a production they were working on recently, I think it’s for the RSC, and they were like, Guy, you really ought to get these two on your podcast. So here we are. I should also say that they’re both instructors and examiners for the British Academy of Dramatic Combat, which Ruth has chaired for about six years. So without further ado, Ruth and Rachel, welcome to the show.
RBW: Thank you. Really great to be here.
GW: It’s actually the first time I’ve had two people on at once. This will stretch my interviewing skills. All right. First question is just to orient everyone. Whereabouts are you?
RCB: At this precise moment in time, I’m in my living room in southeast London, whereabouts are you, Rachel?
RBW: I am in space at the bottom of my garden, also in southeast London. We live about a mile away from each other.
GW: Very handy. Just enough distance that you can get a bit of a break when you need one, but close enough that you can get together whenever you want.
GW: I really like the colour in your studio.
RBW: Thank you. I noticed that you have a similar colour scheme going on. I just need some swords to hang on my wall.
GW: Yeah. I mean, the listeners can’t see it, but I saw the sword on your arm, so clearly are swordy people. So how did you guys get into fight direction? What led to this?
RBW: So, yeah, I’m happy to go first, so I started off, I know it’s not sword work, but I started doing martial arts when I was a child, when I was about eight, and I did karate and I worked up through the ranks and got a black belt in karate. And I came to London. I grew up in Wales and I came to London to train to be an actor at Rose Bruford College. And I did a BA course in acting and I found stage combat and you got to play with swords. And it was amazing. I was like, oh my God, this is brilliant. And there was enough connection to karate and the skills that I had learnt as a martial artist that helped create a foundation for the work that I needed with swordplay. So that’s how I did that. Then I left drama school, wandered around trying to be an actor for a little while and found the job of fight directing. And I was like, oh my God, that’s what I want to do, I had this epiphany in the bath, actually, that I was like, I want to be a fight director. And so I started working towards that process, really, of getting more performance certifications in stage combat and then working towards being an instructor and then making my way to starting to build my credits as a fight director.
GW: OK, and Ruth?
RCB: So I guess I started quite young in regards of when you look back at your life, oh, yeah, I can kind of see where it comes from now, but at the time I didn’t quite understand. But as a kid, I was one of those kind of rough and tumble kids. And I think Rachel was probably the same. I’m very much out playing and playing soldiers with the neighbours and running around with table legs and jumping off of garages and all that sort of thing, trying to be heroic. And I think that kind of stayed with me when I went to college, again, training to be an actor, but discovered a little bit about stage combat and fencing there and thought, this is fun, I quite like this, but had no idea how to go about it. I then got a job offer, I’m from Nottingham. I got a job as Maid Marian, for a few years, which was kind of the only sort of acting, fighting job I could find. So I was lucky that I got to play with swords, but rather badly. We were well trained or anything. We were kind of lumping these things around. Learned a bit about archery and also got to do some fun stuff, like be a magician’s assistant, like lie on a bed of nails and do some fire eating and stuff. So all that sort of stuff became quite useful later on, or became quite applicable later on in my career and then move to London like Ray, was trying to find some sort of fight training that was to do with theatre or film, ended up on a course where I met Rachel and we just kind of hit it off. And we used to go to this training course and at the end of the night, we’d sit in the pub and drink and talk and realised we were being really antisocial because we just talked about how we’re going to take over the world and how fight was everything. And we were just completely absorbed in that. And after about a year we actually got we got the guts together and actually started the company RC-Annie. Long story, long. Sorry.
GW: That’s OK, this is a long form show. So you guys met and then you decided that the area that you were most into is fight. I think pretty much every listener understands that moment when you first encounter proper swords and it’s like, oh my God. These are actually real. Yeah, it’s magic it is absolutely magic.
RCB: I still have my first re-enactment sword, I think, which is like a banana now. It was used so badly, I had no idea what was doing, just throwing this thing around. It is literally like a banana. It’s terrible. So I’ve learnt from that.
GW: This isn’t on the list of questions that I gave you. But I’m just curious, what was your first production that you worked on as RC-Annie?
RBW: Oh, my gosh, I can’t possibly remember that.
RBW: Yeah, because we do about 40 shows a year.
GW: But the first one you did together, is that not kind of special?
RCB: What moments are you referring to, Guy, of the first show?
GW: Well, you see, I think the first time you actually got paid by a company to do the thing you want to do. Because I vividly remember my first class teaching historical swordsmanship as a professional. I will never forget it, it is one of the most important moments in my entire life and I have two kids. So there have been quite a lot of important moments. OK, maybe this is such a blur of amazing jobs that you’ve forgotten the first one.
RCB: That’s terrible, I feel really guilty now.
RBW: I mean, I remember a show that we… it wasn’t the first show, but I think it was the first show where we had a meeting and we were able to kind of get the right amount of time that we needed to do the job. And it was for the Three Musketeers and it was for the Unicorn Theatre. And we had a great meeting. It was directed by the artistic director of the time. And we had a great meeting with her beforehand. And because they had a rep company, we were able to work with them before they actually started rehearsals on the play, laying down some foundation skills and training them in sword work. And that really helped us create some brilliant fun fights and some of those clips are on one of our trailers. And I still feel really proud of the work that everybody did on that show. It was a lot of fun to work on. And yeah, it was hard work, as it always is. But it was good.
GW: It must be really helpful if you can actually work with them properly beforehand and get them moving right before the choreography.
RCB: Yeah, there’s not always time for that, but yeah, it makes a massive difference.
GW: So now obviously the best fights will have weapons. I mean unarmed combat is great but I think we’re all into the weapons. And of course as soon as you have a weapon, everything gets more dangerous. So how do you keep everyone safe?
RBW: You’re absolutely right. It definitely does up the danger level. And one of the things, obviously, that we do is we don’t work with sharps. So all of our swords are blunt and they don’t have points on them either. But we are often working with metal and we never allow any targeting to the face or any points crossing the face line, because of course, actors don’t wear masks and we use a combination of distance and time to help keep everybody safe, as well as of course, not just making it up. So everything is choreographed and everybody knows where everybody needs to be, which is very different to normal fencing.
RCB: When you train for the BADC, which is the British Academy of Dramatic Combat, you learn certain sort of underlining safe principles like a scaffolding, which is really good because it always sits there. And then obviously through your career, then you find new and interesting ways to augment that or change that, or approach in a different way. And one of the interesting things we found recently because of covid, it’s brought back the weapons work.
GW: Socially distanced, yeah. Use a spear.
RCB: We got to do a staff fight in As You Like It on the Globe stage. And I don’t think we’d ever get to put a staff fight on the Globe stage otherwise. And we stood back and looked at it and went, wow, it looks great here. Like it was always supposed to be like this, supposed to be a staff fight on that stage. It looked fabulous. And I think we have had that chance otherwise. So that distance was fabulous. And obviously we’ve been using things like longsword as well just because, again, you’ve got a nice bit of distance because of covid. What we’ve also had to do is things like trying to incorporate the use of guns. We do a lot of theatrical handguns.
GW: I was going to ask you about the guns, because I’m a shooter myself. When I lived in Finland I had proper pistols and would go down the range and blast holes in bits of paper. Couldn’t’t use those on stage, of course.
RBW: The laws are slightly different, I think.
GW: Yeah. I left my guns in Finland when I moved over here, which broke my heart. But there we go.
RCB: It’s hard, isn’t it, the rules are really strict.
GW: Yeah. So the guns, what are they like? What makes them safe to practice with?
RCB: Well, generally in theatre we won’t use a real firearm even with a blank. People just won’t go there. So we keep it super safe. We create certain parameters that we set for ourselves in order to keep people safe about distances and who you can aim at. And we’ve done a lot of research into UK gun law over the years and we try and stay very current and we make sure we don’t do anything that’s going to breach that. Or if we are, then everybody knows and everybody kind of signs up for that, because there’s a certain amount of things that you are going to do with a fake gun on stage, which means you will be potentially breaking the law. So it’s a bit weird. You do have a defence in law, but it’s really sort of muddy, things get really complicated. So we try and train everybody in how they can operate these things safely. And then it’s the parameters basically staying within law. But you’re right, we will use all the good stuff that we would use from a real firearms course, so Rachel loves the “four rules”, which I’m sure you will recognize. Do you want to say the four rules, Ray, because that’s your favourite.
RBW: Only because you don’t remember them. Treat all guns as if they’re loaded at all times. Don’t point the gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you’re ready to fire, and be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.
GW: It sounds pretty much like what I was taught. There’s nothing bugs me more than seeing someone who’s supposed to know how to use a gun and they’re not actually ready to aim, but they’ve got their finger on the trigger like they’re about to shoot themselves in the foot. It’s like, no! Get that finger out.
RCB: What are you doing?
GW: So OK, so if you’re not using blanks, how do you make a gunshot look right on stage?
RCB: We will use this blank firer so it doesn’t have an open barrel.
GW: I’m sorry, I thought you meant you wouldn’t use blanks at all.
RCB: No sorry, we just won’t use a firearm with blanks in theatre.
GW: Oh God no.
RCB: Yeah. In film, you know, but in theatre no. We use purpose-built blank firearms all the time and because the explosive element we have to do a lot of health safety risk assessing on all of that or we use riffs of various types and sound effects or a third person fire off stage, that sort of thing really. But like everything we always have a little process, whether it’s with a staff or a sword or a knife or a fist or a gun, there’s always like a safe order of attack, which we will install. It’s the same with guns. There are certain rules about how you do things each time. You will always go through this little process. It won’t be seen by the audience. Like I say, rule of attack is probably the best way I can describe that.
GW: OK, to me, one obvious problem of shooting blanks on stage. What do you do about ear protection? Because you can’t be there with these, I mean, I’m wearing these great big earmuffs at the moment, but, you know, my shooting earmuffs are beefy, and it would look completely ridiculous under an Elizabethan wig.
RCB: Ray’s had experience of using them, haven’t you? And you can actually wear them in a show.
RBW: Yeah. We have to by law, everybody has to be offered ear protection. The audience need to be told and informed that there are loud bangs or depending on also because there are law implications with that, that you may want to be telling them that there are realistic imitation firearms being used in the show. But we have worked with actors who have made the decision to work with ear defenders or ear plugs. And you can get some ear plugs that will reduce the noise rather than block the noise out. Or maybe somebody just wants to wear one in one ear or two. But it’s a really good point. And it may well be the deciding factor as to whether there is an on-stage fire or whether there’s an off-stage fire. But we will always do a decibel check, and it generally does go through peaks through the decibel limit. But you’ll find that sometimes other noises in the show sometimes louder than the blank firer. So, again, it’s another part of that risk assessing and making sure everyone is comfortable.
GW: Yes, I did once when I was shooting, a long time ago, I was alone in the range and I thought, well, what the hell? Let’s just see how loud it really is. And I took my ear defenders off, just to see. And I shot one, just 22 calibre. Shot one down range, and it was like, holy shit, that’s loud. Obviously it’s in an enclosed space.
RBW: That’s it. Your space will depend, and obviously, when you get bodies in that space as well, that will soak up some of the sound as well. And depending on what the set’s built out of, it all has an effect on how much the sound is. We were in a black box theatre just last week, actually, and we were firing eight mill and it was so loud, it was just rattling around that space. So there’s no way you’d want to be in there listening to that, having that exposure eight shows a week, 10 shows a week. I wouldn’t anyway.
GW: Yeah, and maybe the most frightened I’ve ever been in the theatre is when an actor with a firearm tracked the audience with it. I wanted to kill him so badly.
RBW: I’m so pleased you said that Guy, because we get asked to do that a lot. There seems to be a thing and it is definitely one of our big rules is do not point the gun at the audience because the audience don’t know what it is that you have in your hands. You don’t know what you’re triggering. You don’t know what their past experiences have been. It’s absolutely disrespectful and definitely crosses a line for us and not something we would ever agree to or want to be in a show that we work with. So it’s really nice to hear you say that. I’m sorry you had that experience, but it’s nice to hear that.
GW: Yeah, it’s super scary. And I was thinking that if that show went touring in America, that somebody points a gun at you and you happen to be armed, you are entirely justified in opening fire. Generally speaking.
GW: You don’t know. OK, obviously it is on stage. You’re probably not legally justified, but depending on what state you’re in, you might very well get away with it because you don’t know what that gun is, you haven’t examined it.
RCB: Right. Your stage is a public place and by law in the UK anyway, if people have paid to be there it’s a public space. And therefore it’s just like pointing a gun at them on the street. It’s actually legally not much different, which is one of the reasons why we say no, and we get creative about where these things are pointed. We spent ages tracking where the end of the muzzle goes.
GW: I’m glad to hear it. If I go to one of your shows, I don’t need to go packing. I’ll be all right.
RBW: Well, sometimes I think it’s interesting because there are times where it feels like it’s pointing at you, but it won’t be and it won’t be there to intimidate you. If that makes sense. It won’t be used as a device to intimidate the audience. But there are times where maybe you will be pointing at the balcony or you’ll be pointing at a light or something. And obviously, depending on your sightline, it might look like you’re pointing towards some unknown somewhere within the audience.
GW: You know, if you write a book and put it on Amazon, on the cover, you cannot have a gun pointed at the reader. They will not let it through their quality control. You can have them pointing off to the side, but if they are pointing actually out at the reader, this was true a year ago when I tried to put a cover up. They were like, no, get the art redone because you can’t have a gun pointing at the person. Even in a picture.
RBW: Further backs up the don’t point the gun at the audience.
GW: Absolutely. OK, now I know that in Britain it is super hard to get hold of firearms, even blank firing replicas or BB guns, there are all sorts of legislation around it. But am I right in thinking you guys actually provide guns for productions?
RBW: You are right, we will hire guns out to productions if they follow our… it’s not just like we’re giving guns to anyone. There are strict rules that they have to follow and they have to abide. If they’re filming, they need to make sure that they inform the police and tell us the CAD number. There are very strict rules in place, but if they meet those criteria, then, yes, we will hire guns out or realistic imitation firearms out to theatre productions and film productions as well.
GW: What’s the CAD number?
RCB: Case incident number essentially. The police give you a number, which is the date and stuff.
GW: So if somebody calls in, you can just say there’s this thing, this number here, and don’t worry.
RCB: We will always tell the police what we’re doing with these things just in case. So if anybody does, particularly in London, they’ll think it’s some sort of terrorist attack going on. So we always let them know and we’re always tracking that, but we often won’t hire to people who haven’t done our training, which sounds very self-serving, but it’s a way of us knowing what they know.
GW: You can imagine the number of amateur productions that have asked to borrow some of my swords. There is no way in hell you’re borrowing my swords. Unless if you have a qualified fight director, fine, but I will I will lend them to the fight director, not to you. Or send me your actors and I will train them and choreograph the fight for you if necessary. And if I’m uncomfortable with their safety, then I won’t let it happen.
RBW: Of course, I totally get that, and we do the same. If anyone needs anything that is actually any non-gun items that we’re hiring out, we will ask similar questions in terms of do you have somebody who is trained to work with your actors on this? Are you using them for practical use or using them for prop use? I mean, for just the time that if you want practical use and you’re choosing an item that is not built for hitting another sword against another sword, or you’re trying to hire an aluminium sword versus a steel sword and you want to hit them together. So for that purpose as well. But otherwise they just come back like Ruth’s re-enactment sword, right? They’re just like bananas.
GW: Yeah, I’ve had that problem, too. I learnt to pair of longswords to a show that had a fight director and everything. And the swords came back not too dinged up, but they’d done the kind of classic belly cut finish. And it was in summer. And so the actors were sweating and so the sword was basically wiped with a wet, salty rag at the end of each fight and nobody thought to clean them.
RBW: Rusty, right? We send out cleaning kits with all of our swords.
GW: It was so bad. I mean, I had a “if you bugger up my sword, you give me this much money so I can buy a new one” clause. And it was like, look I’m really sorry, but that thing is trashed.
RCB: Sometimes you can’t get it out and it goes black right into it they really have wiped it down at all. They get like finger marks and stuff. We’re like, well we’re stuck with that then.
RBW: And fake blood. Fake blood on a blade, that has a similar sort of thing.
GW: So I mean, do you guys use fake blood at all?
RBW: Yeah. I mean, we actually sell fake blood as well. It’s called “Sblood” and we sell two types, so we sell basically a thin and a thick, “Splat” and “Spurt”.
RCB: Just to amuse ourselves. That’s all.
GW: Great, but I’m guessing you don’t do the little explosive packets which made the blood kind of appear.
RBW: Squibs. No, you basically need to have a little radio operated detonator. You need a person to come and rig you up with one of those.
RCB: You need a human with wires.
GW: OK, so if I need a bucket of fake blood and a gun.
RBW: Or swords or knives or all sorts of weird and wonderful items we have in our cupboards. Riot gear. If you are going to a fancy dress. No, we’re not a fancy dress company, please don’t.
GW: OK, you heard it hear peeps, if you need blood or guns or riot gear, RC-Annie are the place to go. In the UK at least, I don’t imagine you do much work abroad.
RBW: No, and especially not now in Europe. It’s a pain to get them in and out.
GW: Now safety obviously isn’t all about controlling the violence. There’s the psychological safety aspect of this. And you also do intimacy direction. Now, I’ve had a friend of mine called Siobhan Richardson on the show before.
RBW: We know Siobhan!
GW: Oh, yeah, she’s great. And she’s an intimacy director, too. And she was the person that introduced me to the whole idea of it and as soon as she said it’s this particular specialisation, I was like, holy crap, why was that not obviously necessary from the very beginning, right? Why is this a relatively new thing? But you know more about it than I do. So why don’t you tell us how does intimacy direction work? What is it all about?
RCB: I think essentially, because there’s probably different approaches and different people, depending on their own background and their training, et cetera, but ultimately it’s about good preparation and it’s about communication. We’ll do things like we’ll set boundaries, et cetera. And we’ll establish how you’re going to work in space together. But also a lot of it is looking after everyone involved. So there’s a strong mental health element as well and being an advocate for people as well. It gets very much hand in hand, I think with stage combat, with you find somebody that often you become the go to person for the actor’s well-being anyway, because you’re kind of a health and safety person. The way they’ll often come to you with aches and pains and stuff. The next step for them to go, I’m not comfortable with this or whatever. So that kind of happens naturally. But when, you know, you’re about to do with a scene of an intimate nature, whether that be a sex scene or establishing a relationship with someone else, whatever that is that you’re doing, really, I think the most important thing is getting everyone on the same page because it’s communication and it’s getting everyone to be complicit. You can’t do anything unless people agree. And is there anything else you’d add to that, Ray?
RBW: And of course, it changes depending on what’s required in the room and all of that. But I think ultimately what it comes down to is what is the story we’re telling? What is that with regards to talking to the director and the cast, what is the story that we’re telling? So you agree on that fundamentally so that we’re all working towards the same external objective and then have a conversation about how do we do that? How do we go about that and make sure that everybody has an equal voice in the room and that no one is dominating that in a way. And yes, of course, all of the things that Ruth said about finding out what people’s comfort zones are, because what we find in both fight direction and intimacy direction is that when you find or name or establish your edge, and you give people permission to opt out and to name their own comfort levels, it allows the work to really flourish because people feel safer. And I think sometimes people think, oh, oh, I don’t like that. When we first started out, when Ruth and I first started fight directing, there was a theme around, we’d meet with directors to work on the production. And obviously we’re like just dying to work, you know, we’re like, yeah, we’ll do whatever, you know. And they’re like, OK, so I don’t usually work with fight directors because I don’t want it to look choreographed. And I think in answer to what you are saying about intimacy direction, I think the key is the same, is that directors want it to be magic. They want it to have the chemistry. And what I think people realise is that chemistry can only last maybe one, maybe you might find it in rehearsal, maybe you might find it in the audition. But it is not something that unless you work it and you find it so that it is repeatable. So it is telling the same story. That kiss moment that lasted ten beats in rehearsal might end up by the time everyone’s trying to get to the pub at the end of the show only one beat and the moment’s gone, the magic is gone. So making sure that just in the same way that we work with Fight that we’re looking for the story. What is the story? I want it to look unchoreographed. I want it to look … . What are we trying to tell here and what do we need to do that? And making sure that each beat is answered in that story and therefore everyone’s safe and comfortable and then they can do their job.
GW: It is the same when training the more advanced levels in martial arts. We will often go into some very, very psychologically dangerous places where you’re dealing with really, really nasty things. And yeah, for me, the hardest thing is, because on the one hand, the students have to trust me, which generally means that they are open to suggestion. In other words, they will tend to do it because I say they can do it, rather than because they actually want to do it. So, what I have to do is try and create a space in which they feel they can actually check in with their own feelings and say, actually not today, not the day for this or not this particular thing. No, it’s not right. Because it’s really, really easy to put them in a situation where they would feel that that they can’t say that because maybe everyone else is doing it and they don’t want to be the person left out. Or maybe they think that if they say no, then, me or the rest of the students will think less of them or whatever.
RBW: Absolutely. Yeah.
GW: OK, so what do you guys do to make it so that actors in a vulnerable position feel able to tell the director to fuck off?
RCB: Well, what we try and do before we get to that point, hopefully, we’ve already had conversations with them privately, too. So, for example, working on the show recently Romeo and Juliet. Not to go into too much detail, but there’s some really go there places, incidents that happen in that show, and talking to one actress we had to really find her alternative ways of getting the job done, i.e. she had to die. So we need to make sure that she didn’t take herself there. So we were trying to establish ways to do that. So, you know, that may end up being a very technical exercise. It’s removed from her or it’s a thing that’s happening to a character, not her. So she feels she has absolute control on that moment, in that situation that she’s not going into it. And it’s exactly the same with intimacy. The individuals have to know that they have absolute control in that moment and they’re only going to go to where they want to go and they can protect themselves by not actually taking the whole of themself into that, if that makes sense. And emotionally and mentally and physically they don’t really have to go there, but we can help them create the illusion of going there. I hope that makes sense. So then they feel empowered to say, I need help with that, so they don’t have to have those conversations with the director.
RBW: But I think that’s what our job is, is to be the person in between the fuck off, so that the director talks about what they want. We have the conversation about how we’re going to get there. And then I feel like it’s our job to fulfil the director’s vision. It’s not necessarily the director’s job to be putting X, Y, Z move in. They can request it, of course. But so I think it is about trying to find a way that there isn’t conflict within the room, because the minute we’ve got a conflict, and of course it happens. Of course it does. But we need to try to avoid having conflicts so that everyone can do their job. And exactly like Ruth says, it is trying to get, like we’ve been to those ends. I mean, we’ve been called into jobs before now all too often where something has happened and someone has either slapped somebody or somebody, “just felt that it was the right thing”. And then we get called in going, oh, my God, I’ve got problem within my cast because somebody has done this and the boundaries have been broken. So I think we’ve had loads of experience of going into rooms where the conflict has already happened, to go OK, how do we unravel that conflict and that’s what we’ve had to do. But how do we stop it happening in the first place is the ideal.
GW: One of the things that we have is senior students in the school where if a student, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel comfortable bringing something to me or to some other instructor, they can go to one of these senior students and just have a quiet word with them instead. And then it gets relayed up. And so they’re not put in that position of having to actually say these things to someone who is further up the chain, so I guess you kind of like a buffer state between the vulnerable actor and the powerful director who might push them into doing things that they don’t want to do.
RCB: Yeah, I mean, we know it happens, right, and for whatever reason, or if we’re there and present, all we can do is our best to try and protect everyone. But it’s interesting sometimes how we actually see directors be very much like I really don’t want to get this wrong. I mean, really early on in a the film we did really early on in our careers was with this great director working on this horror movie. And there were nasty themes in this movie. And he really wasn’t comfortable dealing with the sex in the movie. There’s no nudity or anything. Well, a little bit. But you were really seeing sex in that way. He was like, how do we do it? Because he really was so uncomfortable. He didn’t want to have to go there, so it was fair enough. So we will look after everyone for you.
RBW: I mean, I think that that’s how we were doing intimacy direction before intimacy direction was a thing was exactly for that. Maybe we’re working on a rape scene and then somebody says, oh, do you do sex scenes as well? And you’re like, yeah, OK. Because exactly that, people don’t want to do them, they don’t want to do that. They don’t feel comfortable. They don’t know how to approach them. So we found ourselves sort of stepping into that role before it was even a role. Under our fight coordinating hat.
RCB: I think a lot of fight directors and movement directors find themselves doing those sort of crossover roles on occasion, because they are the person who is there that they trust and the health and safety person who is physical. You’re a physical person. Can you deal with this physical thing, please?
GW: Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it, how fight direction has been the thing since forever. But this intimacy direction thing is a lot newer and how a lot of people are totally comfortable with physical violence. Oh, we can have a sword fight. We can murder this person and cut their throat and chop them into bits and burn them at the stake and do whatever else. And that’s fine. But the sex is really uncomfortable.
RCB: That is a really good point.
GW: It’s very odd. When you think about it, isn’t it odd? And how you could have a movie rated like 12 people go get shot and thrown out of aeroplanes and all sorts of stuff. But, you know, if an actress takes her top off, it’s a 15.
RBW: It’s such a good point. And I guess because I spend quite a lot of time in my job reading scripts or visualising or looking at violence or I’ll be having a conversation about how we’re going to work something out, like, oh yeah. Really nice. Oh, that’s great. I love the idea, that I’m definitely within the concept of like yeah, brilliant, let’s burn them! Well, obviously not for real. But if you hear our conversations on the tube sometimes it certainly sounds probably quite disturbing. But I don’t have an answer to your question, really. You’re absolutely right. I guess one thing is real and one thing is fantasy.
RCB: I think it says a lot about our society.
GW: It is a cultural observation, really. This has always been the case, since movies became a thing, it’s perfectly all right to shoot people, but anything sexy is grown-ups only.
RCB: Because that’s cool and entertaining. It’s odd, isn’t it?
GW: Yeah, it is very odd. So I do have to ask because at least half of the listeners will be wondering, what do you think are the best fight scenes on stage or screen, from a technical perspective, or from your perspective?
RBW: Ruth, I know you might have actual names, which is probably what people want. The things that I look for in terms of how things are shot in film. I think a lot of the time things are shot to be suggested with a wavy kind of camera option or cut so that you miss a lot of the action and therefore a lot of the storytelling. So I feel like sometimes, when something is shot well, from a technical perspective, and it’s telling the story it’s great. I love things that look that look unchoreographed, that hide the technical, that look messy. I think when I said earlier about when we used to meet with directors early on and they’d say, I want an unchoreographed fight, of course we were dying to get a job. So we’d get together and find somewhere to rehearse and say how are we going to do this? And we basically have built our career on trying to make things that look messy and unchoreographed. And so I like it when I see that and it tells the story and performed well. But over to Ruth with some actual specifics.
RCB: It varies doesn’t it, as you go through your career ideas change. But yeah, I love anything that looks really either painful, like there’s a good truth and the reality. So, for example, like some of the stuff on Game of Thrones, like some of those battle scenes where people are just being swallowed into the mud when it’s just overwhelming bodies and carnage and you can’t tell what’s going on. Lovely. Just really great work. Yeah, lovely, gorgeous, lovely, pretty. And I guess that leads into things like it’s a classic to mention The Duelist, of course. But of its time, I mean, it really was good storytelling in terms of it’s grim, its blood. It hurts.
GW: That sabre fight in the basement. Oh, my God. At the end of it they are so tired that basically they are just staggering about leaning on their swords and then just taking these hoofing great big swings at each other.
RCB: That’s a nice bit of storytelling. And I am a massive fan of the old Bond movies. Yeah, I know, I know, they’re terrible aren’t they?
GW: I love Bond too, but I very rarely hear that.
RCB: Well the fights are of their time. But I do remember being struck as a kid. You know Dr No. Is it Dr No that has Robert Shaw in? But there’s a great train carriage fight which I think was really inspired. They are in a small space, and they’re bouncing off the walls and it’s legs akimbo. It’s really not nice. I mean, it’s not pretty. No one looks heroic and it’s just messy and desperate. And I remember being struck by that. And I thought that’s great, more that more legs over your head and being dumped on your head. Brilliant. Let’s go with that. And so, yeah, that’s sort of like Ray said, really messy, things that look painful, are convincing and serve the needs of the story. I hate the shaky camera thing.
RBW: Guy, I’ve got a question for you.
GW: Yeah, go ahead.
RBW: How many times do you watch a movie with a sword fight in it and the minute they pick up a sword, you go, they can’t fight, they can’t use that. How often does that happen?
GW: Almost invariably. OK, I took my kids to see the Black Widow movie last weekend. First time back in a cinema since covid. Oh, I love cinema. Leaving aside the film, there was a trailer for some other film, and one person is clearly the hero and there’s a bunch of baddies who are clearly the baddies and he’s fighting them. I think it’s on top of a moving train. I don’t know the name of the film. And my youngest daughter said, Daddy, are they doing that properly? And I went, no. I mean, there was one moment where there is a cut coming from behind. And he turns around and just puts his sword in the way, and it’s completely like sticking up vertically out of his fist. There’s no mechanical support there at all. And he puts it out and it goes “ping”. And then he goes back in there and it was just like… It was shockingly crap. Most swordfights on screen are shockingly crap. I mean, Game of Thrones. Have these people never held a sword before?
RCB: Yeah, dreadful stuff in there.
GW: Yes, yes.
RCB: It’s particularly upsetting, isn’t it, when they’re supposed to be like warriors who are really highly trained, but they’ve clearly got no idea, bless them, because they didn’t have the time for all the training.
GW: Do you remember the Fellowship of the Ring movie, the first of the three. OK, you know that bit where Boromir is training the hobbits in sword fighting? OK, I have a theory as to why it’s so shit. He has already been taken over by the ring and he is deliberately teaching them to get killed. That is the only rational explanation for that.
RCB: Oh, don’t.
GW: That god-awful excuse for a fencing lesson.
RCB: That’s it. That’s the problem with this business, isn’t it? It is very difficult to watch anything, hence our list being quite short.
GW: But here’s a funny thing. The unarmed combat stuff that they’re doing on screen these days is absolutely stunning, and they’re doing frozen locks and stuff. These are the sorts of things that professional WWF fighters do who are probably, I think, the best stage combatants on the planet because they really sell it.
RBW: But that’s because the people doing are the WWF people. They are doubles, which is, of course, isn’t happening in Game of Thrones or, you know, they’re not doubling them.
GW: But I mean, so in the unarmed stuff, you get these absolutely extraordinarily technically difficult fights done to this astonishingly high standard. And then when the blades come out it all turns to shit.
RBW: I think you’re right. And I do think that is largely to do with doubling, the people doing the gymnastics, the people who have doubled and they’re trained to do that. But also one of the differences is that, as you know, is that when you’re doing unarmed combat, you’re much closer together. So time is shortened and everything happens a lot quicker. Whereas when you’re working with a blade, a camera, you’re further apart. The shot is slightly wider. It’s harder to cheat a lot of those elements and it’s certainly harder to cheat doubles in there as well. Nasty wigs from behind, I guess. But then you don’t see the sword fight quite so well, you know, but I couldn’t agree with you more. And I just wish everybody would get trained to hold a sword and to use it, at least to hold it properly.
GW: OK, I mean, Keanu Reeves famously did like nine months of kung fu training before doing The Matrix, right? Yeah. And it really shows. It was epic. It was so well done. It would be lovely if they did that sort of thing for actors, but they just don’t.
RCB: It’s always down to time and money.
RBW: I agree. What you actually see in Game of Thrones is actually their sword handling gets better as the series goes on.
GW: They’ve had some practice. OK, here’s a question that I ask all my guests and how you interpret the question is as interesting, perhaps, as the answer itself. So what is the best idea you have not acted on?
RCB: This is really hard.
RBW: Yeah, we did struggle when you sent this through.
GW: Good. Excellent. If it was all easy it would be a waste of time.
RBW: My first answer to this was actually, I think we are ideas, you know, and it’s kind of how we built the company was on ideas, but also on things we couldn’t do. So we were like, how do you work with breakables? I don’t know, let’s make a workshop on it and then we’ll have to learn.
GW: I do the same with books. I needed to learn how to do rapier, so I wrote a book on rapier. That’s how I learned how to do it.
RBW: So there’s a lot of things like that. But I think we have spent quite a lot of brainpower and time on building an immersive theatre show that we were hoping to make and create, and also a film at the time, I suppose. But it would probably be more in line with a series now of like gods and mortals. So taking all of the great gods and just creating a series on that and their lives and their quests. So, yeah, epic swordfights. So that those sorts of things, I think anything that comes down to just the two of us being able to work and create and make it happen. But when it comes down to obviously having to find a lot more money, then we just end up going, it’s a bit like too much hard work having to get the loan or whatever it would take.
GW: Yeah, I find myself steering away from projects where I’m entirely dependent on other people.
RBW: Yeah, exactly.
GW: And raising a large sum of money. I have done a reasonably complicated project in that line before, and it was so much work and so much waiting around for the other people to do their part of it so I could get on with my next part of it.
RBW: Exactly. I mean, theatre producers, we’ve worked on shows where writers and producers have been talking about a show for 10 years. I mean, before it’s even managed to get into a space and into a rehearsal room, you know. That to me is just too long.
GW: I want it done now!
RBW: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. So, Ruth, have you got anything about the brilliant idea?
RCB: I think we’ve probably had loads of great ideas we’ve never acted on because we will throw things out there and see if it sticks a lot of the time. But we’ll just go, let’s try this, you know, and give people a framework going this may not work. We’re going to give it a go, see if that feels right. OK, how about this now? How about that. Ah, there are elements of that, you know, so we do a lot of throwing lots of ideas at things often, particularly if we’re devising or if we’re really trying to find where the actor is comfortable or what they believe that the storyline is for that character. There’s often a lot of offering of ideas all the time. And sometimes you get really excited about an idea. Oh, yes. Well, I think we should flip them over here and do a little cartwheel and they’re like, hmmm. And so you never get to fully realise that.
RBW: You bring me to the quote of Richard Ryan, which was during a conversation where we were talking about fight directing. And he said to me, “They’ll kill your babies.” And so it’s been a really brilliant little piece of, I suppose it I took it as advice that I come back to when you do have those moments and those times where you’re like, I really want to do that and wouldn’t it be amazing? And then someone just goes, we’ve got to cut that. We’ve got to cut that fight. We’ve got to cut that battle. We haven’t got enough money for that. And it does sometimes feel really heart wrenching.
GW: Quiller-Couch has much to answer for.
RBW: What sorry?
GW: Arthur Quiller-Couch, late 19th, early 20th century, literary critic and general man of letters wrote some influential books back in the day, and I think he’s the origin of the term “murder your darlings.”
GW: So when you’re writing something and you go through it, murder your darlings because the stuff you’re in love with is usually crap.
RBW: Not being precious, huh?
RCB: It’s also for performers for them to be allowed to make mistakes as well, I think it’s really great if we can get into that place where they’re happy to offer stuff and it’s ok if it doesn’t work, which is nice. And that’s a nice space to create if we can.
GW: Yeah, absolutely.
RBW: We also designed a video game once, an app, because we spent a lot of time in cars or travelling on planes or whatever. It didn’t actually come to fruition, but we definitely watched all of the rules out and what the characters would look like.
RCB: I’d forgotten all about that.
GW: Well, I mean, I’ve produced a card game, which was an awful lot of work. A video game is like an order of magnitude harder.
RCB: We didn’t get there. It didn’t happen.
GW: But if you have cartoon characters, like drawn characters, then they don’t have opinions. If you want to do flip them upside down, carry them across the stage, do a cartwheel and then chop their legs off, you can do it.
RBW: Yeah. What were they called Ruth? We were they were going to look a little bit like us. I think they were Vikings. We definitely put them in. And then we were like, oh, we could have them through the ages. We designed a whole series of the fighting app games. If anyone’s listening, who wants to make our game.
GW: You may be surprised. There are lots of people at the games industry who are involved in the historical swordsmanship world.
RBW: Are there? I get that I suppose. That makes sense. I mean, it’s play, right?
GW: Yeah. And it’s also swords. This show is for sword people, obviously.
RBW: The Sword Guy. For sword people.
GW: Exactly. But that’s not everyone. I mean, if you put a table up at a show somewhere and you have a bunch of swords on it, like a re-enactment event or a role playing convention or something like that. A bunch of people will walk right past the swords and not even look. And some people will notice the swords and move on and some will notice and they’ll come and they’ll maybe poke around a bit and go away. And some, a few will come and they’ll pick up a sword. And you can just see them change, it’s like a light goes on, everything rearranges slightly and they will measure their life from before swords and after swords. I have seen it several hundred times, it is unmistakeable. And those are the sword people. It’s not everyone by a long shot. A lot of people are into other things, I’ve had guests on here who, yes, are totally sword people, but they’re also knitters. And that got some of some knitter friends of mine who have no interest in swords very excited. Oh, finally, you’ve got something to show I’m actually interested to hear from.
RCB: You can knit scabbards, right?
GW: No, it wouldn’t work! They would be floppy and useless.
RBW: What I find interesting, Guy, about that, and I haven’t had that experience actually, but I feel like with swords there are people who feel like they ought to know and they need to tell you all that they feel they know about that item. And I don’t know whether it’s connected to our gender or whether that’s a thing. But the amount of people who maybe will pick up, oh, let’s have a look at that then, ooh the balance of that is off. That feels like a large majority of people to me.
GW: OK, I am not saying I have never mansplained, because it’s very hard, as a bloke, to get to the age of forty seven without ever having done that sort of thing. But I can tell you, I do know what it’s like to be mansplained at, because someone thinks they know about swords because they’ve seen stuff on TV and watched YouTube videos and what have you. And of course I’m completely uninformed about such matters and need to be put straight about certain things.
RBW: It’s funny, the people that do that without even asking you what your connection is to that thing or why you might be holding it. It’s just that assumption and throwing information at you. I’m very aware I might sound quite negative, but it does happen quite a lot, I think, in terms of that. I know, the need to show you the knowing.
GW: With swords particularly?
RBW: Yeah, I think so. More so than guns. I think with guns there is definitely a sort of attractive factor that people want to gravitate towards them and want to pick them up and want to handle them. But I think swords comes this sort of oh I know something about that. I must tell you.
RCB: Do you think it’s this magical thing that they want to have, something sort of “other” about swords because of the connection to stories and mythology and fantasy. I think, as well as it being a very practical, we kill people with this thing, but also it’s this wonderful fantasy, heroic. Yeah, it draws people who want part of that magic tingly thing. I must have it.
RBW: That “magic tingly thing”. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
GW: Ruth, you’re amongst friends.
RBW: If only you could see the hand gestures that were going along with the “magic tingly thing”.
RCB: Entirely different show.
GW: I don’t know what you’re talking about. OK, so my last question. If you had a million quid or thereabouts, some large sum of money, it’s imaginary money so you can stretch the budget, to spend on improving fight direction. How would you spend it?
RCB: Outside of the obvious of teaching everybody that it’s really important that they get some training?
GW: You can go with the obvious. What are the specifics of how would you do it? OK, so you teach everyone what about, I don’t know, make it part of the national curriculum for P.E. Everyone has to do a year of historical swordsmanship.
RBW: That’s a little young. I can’t teach kids any more.
GW: But also, you can’t go to every high school in Britain and do it. You would not need to. Every P.E. teacher would have to have swordsmanship as part of their training because there’s this compulsory element. That may be me answering the question, you answer the question.
RBW: I think no, I think in that term, understanding that for us and swordspeople out there, maybe vying away from your audience right here, but that working with swords and working with weapons is not just isolated in working with swords and working with weapons. It really helps you in a myriad of ways and it helps you understand your body and one of the things about working with fighting in general, when you are in a choreographed fight, you can only play the moment. That’s what’s so, I think, addictive about it for actors, because as an actor, you’re always wanting to be in the moment. And that’s the challenge. I was in the moment. How do I get there? I don’t know. How do I recreate it? But when you’re fighting, that’s all you can do. The minute you think about what just went wrong or the minute you think about what’s coming up, the current moment and the current piece of choreography that you need to perform drops completely out of your head. So that is a massive skill, I think, to learn. And I think both Ruth and I we can’t do our job as well if we’re not working if we’re not working with people who understand their bodies, or should I say we are limited. That’s probably a better way of putting it, is that we are limited in doing our job depending on the actor’s skill. And so the job that you were referring to recently, where we were working at the RSC, we were working with actors who did understand, at least had had some really good training to advanced level at drama school, which meant that our job was so much easier because we weren’t going, no, no, stop. No, no, no. We didn’t have to just keep putting the brakes on all the time that actually we could start working on the story and really working on the drama and the timing and the rhythm. Sorry I’ve gone off on your million pound question. I suppose it shows that I’m quite passionate about training.
RCB: We would probably set up our school, we’ve always had this sort of fantasy idea of having this venue where you can train in lots of different things, including swordfighting, obviously, but also in boxing, in any martial arts that you, like, have a lot of choice of what you can do. A variety of things you can do, but equally would have like a library of historical fight books and have a little office there. We always had this dream of this utopia, this fight utopia that we’d have.
GW: You guys must know Mike Loades.
RBW: Yes. Well, we don’t know him personally, but of course we know of him.
GW: He was he was on the show a little while ago and his idea that he would spend the money on was he would paint a castle. Because castles were originally painted. I just thought that actually Mike’s painted castle would be the perfect venue.
RCB: Yes, let’s do it.
GW: Ruth, you brought up historical fencing books. And actually I should have added this into my list of questions, so I’m just going to go off-piste again. And there’s usually the question I just asked is the last question, but it’s my show and I can do what I like. Do you guys actually do historical fencing research, that kind of thing?
RCB: Yeah, we do. When we were teaching. I remember getting the old, call it what you will, I call it I.33. the old sword and buckler treatise. And I remember trying to pull that apart in the classroom with the students. Just looking at all of that and literally just all of us were playing with it and exploring it because we had the weapons. We could do that. And we do. We get great amounts of inspiration from these books depending on what we’re doing.
RBW: Yeah, absolutely. And I think now with YouTube, I mean, when we started out, it wasn’t a thing. So we were looking at the pictures in the books and now with YouTube and people bringing these things to life, it’s so helpful to us. But we don’t claim to be historical martial artists, do we? There is obviously a lot of those rules that we, I mean, we have a different purpose, right? Like we are working to create the choreography and also the story. And also audiences don’t understand the minutiae of swordfights that we need to make sure that the arc of the story and the choreography and the musicality of the fight is telling that same story repeatedly. But I think we both have a massive respect and we have great friends of ours who are much more well versed in these areas. And we love going to these workshops because it gives us ideas. Like recently we did a series of workshops with Jared Kirby, who did some things online and just bringing some of that stuff and him bringing us some of the old ways of training and some of the manuals to life for us. It’s much better than reading Saviolo and just going what? My left foot does what? I’d much rather have someone like yourself make it come to life for me and put it into my body.
GW: I think quite a lot of my students come to me for training because they don’t want to actually do the books, but also quite a lot start out not being particularly interested the books and then through the training, start to want to basically fact check my interpretation, see if they can catch me out. So they get into the treatises that way. It’s very satisfying.
RBW: What a supportive, unchallenging environment that you work in.
GW: It is really important because if you’re training drones, zombies or robots, then you want absolute obedience all the time, but if you are training people who have come to swordsmanship because they have this internal interest in the sword, they resonate with it and they want to learn to do it properly, then if you think historically Fiore dei Liberi was training knights, Fiore was not a knight. He was of lower social station than the people he was training. And if he was giving Niccolò III d’Este a lesson, there’s no record that he ever did, but he dedicated his treatise to him, to Niccolò, you can’t imagine Fiore expecting obedience from the Marquis of Ferrare. That’s absurd. So Fiore would show up and the Marquis might say something like I want to get my spear work better. And so they would work on spear. Oh yes sir, try this. Yes, that was excellent. Now hit me in the face harder or whatever. So like for my beginners I get them started by asking questions and suggesting things they would like to do next in class. But also if we are doing Fiore the Il Fior di Battaglia is open on the lectern. And if we’re doing Cappoferro, then the Cappoferro’s Simulacro dell’Arte is open on the lectern and they’re encouraged to go and check the book. And I tell him that sometimes we’ll do it exactly like the book, but sometimes we’ll do it a bit differently. And if we do it a bit differently, it’s either for a good reason, which I can explain if you ask if I have to explain it already or I’ve made a mistake. And if you catch me in a mistake, I will do the push-ups.
RBW: I was all ready to come to your class until you mentioned push ups. I’m only teasing. I’d love to come to your class.
GW: If I were Salvatore Fabris, that would make you the king of Denmark. You can come to my class and do what you want.
RBW: But I think you’re right. And I think it’s really great to hear that if you want to just be the king of your castle, you’re not going to learn very much and you’re not going to attract people. Whereas, yes, we can learn just as much my students, by inviting a space for enquiry. I think it does. Certainly when I first started teaching, I couldn’t do that because I was terrified of what anyone was going to ask me. But now I love it. It’s like, come on, bring some energy into space.
RCB: It makes you think, doesn’t it, do I know that? Maybe I don’t.
GW: Teaching joint locks to a doctor is different to teaching joint locks to someone who doesn’t know the difference between a ligament and a tendon. The doctor or someone with anatomical knowledge or a masseur or a physiotherapist or whatever. They will go, OK, you’re engaging this, this and this and they’ll tell you exactly which ligaments and tendons and stuff are doing what. And it’s brilliant. If you can get them to come with their own areas of expertise, it speeds up their learning because it’s related to stuff they already know. And it pushes me ahead.
RBW: It reminds me a lot of when Ruth and I seem to enter martial arts classes together or historical martial arts classes together, because we are put in a lock and we’ll go Ow! And then we’ll start laughing. Or the other one will laugh at the other one, you know. Or Ruth will go, do you think you could just come and help me? I can’t quite seem to get that lock on. I’m like, no, no, no, no, Ah! The amount of times I’m looking at her and I’ve got like a kali stick in my throat or something.
RCB: I find it all very amusing.
RBW: Yeah, people seem to enjoy us laughing at each other and just want to hurt us more.
RCB: They’re learning. I’m not sure helps us.
GW: Yeah. I have noticed that you can usually tell an actor in class because they try and sell the technique. Like when a joint lock goes on, they demonstrate the pain and it’s like no, you have to get rid of that.
RBW: They don’t want to show the pain.
GW: They need to be thinking about countering it. So if you just go with it too easily, you won’t be able to do the counter. You have to be getting the forces into your body, bringing them down into the ground and basically making life hard for your opponent.
RBW: Which is definitely what most of the people putting these locks us are doing and they’re looking at us with very serious faces. They’re waiting for counter, which is generally like a massive slap of the floor or something. Can’t wait, Ruth, to get back in the room and do all that again.
GW: Excellent. All right, well, I think we best wrap it up there, so thank you both very much for joining me. It’s been a delight talking to you, getting to know you a bit.
RBW: Very nice to meet you. And are your classes running now?
GW: I don’t have a school in Britain. I founded the school in Finland and it’s all over the place now. But when I moved to Britain five years ago and didn’t start a branch here because I sort of have enough branches elsewhere to handle. I’m teaching regularly over Zoom and I basically teach wherever I’m invited to go, but I’m not actually running my classes because I have other things to do.
RBW: You’ve got other things to do. You’ve got too much on. You’ve got a podcast to deliver and edit.
GW: Yeah, that started out as a lockdown project and it’s going to carry on anyway.
RBW: Yeah, it’s great. Five star reviews.
GW: Yes. Listeners, feel free to add to those five star reviews, please.
RBW: Exactly. Subscribe! Press the subscribe button here.
GW: Thank you Rachel.
RCB: Thank you.
RBW: Thank you. Thank you so much, Guy. Have a good day. Thank you.