Interview: ‘Stranger Things’ Stunt Coordinator Hiro Koda Discusses Emmy Nominations, Working With the Cast, ‘Power Rangers,’ and More! [EXCLUSIVE]

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You may not know Hiro Koda’s name, but you definitely know his work. The longtime stunt coordinator and director has worked on over 120 projects in his 30 years in the business, from kids’ television series like K.C. Undercover and Cobra Kai to adult projects like Big Little Lies, True Blood, Ozark, and many more (seriously, this man has quite the extensive resume). Koda has been nominated for six Primetime Emmy Awards in a category that has only been in existence since 2002 (winning one for Supah Ninjas). He was most recently nominated for the 2020 Emmy for his work on season 3 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, and he’s waiting to resume work on the fourth season of the show. I had the pleasure of speaking with Koda about Stranger Things, including working with the young cast. We also talked about his career, including his early work as a Power Ranger and some of his favorite stunts. Check out our conversation below!

Nerds and Beyond: It’s an interesting time for you because you’re supposed to be working on Stranger Things 4 at this point [production is halted due to COVID-19] but also, you just got another Emmy nomination, so congratulations!

Hiro Koda: Thank you very much!

Nerds and Beyond: I hope you were able to celebrate.

Hiro Koda: Yeah, we did. We did celebrate and we’re looking forward to seeing what the outcome’s going to be on the big night of the “Zoom-ys.” [laughs]

Nerds and Beyond: So, I was wondering if we could start off talking a little bit about Stranger Things. How did you first get involved with the show?

Hiro Koda: I was not involved the first couple of seasons. I was brought in season three thanks to my incredible AD [assistant director], Tudor Jones. I’ve worked on several projects with him in the past and he actually put my name forward for season three. I had worked with Shawn Levy in the past as well and he was directing the episodes that they were prepping at the time to get things rolling for season three. And so, they brought me in for a little interview and I talked through some of the ideas for the sequence that they gave me to give them my ideas on, which was the sauna test sequence actually, which was interesting.

And then they asked me to stay on board and it became an incredible show to be a part of. A lot of times when you go onto a show after it’s been going for a couple seasons, they’ve already built their own family and it’s hard to be the new guy coming in on set. But everybody welcomed me with open arms and made me feel right at home, and it is such a family. That crew, they work so hard for the fans and put their heart and soul into everything that they do, and it just made me feel right at home. The cast is incredible and the directors and creators of the show, the Duffer brothers, are incredible. It’s such fun show to be a part of.

Nerds and Beyond: It’s definitely a unique show as well, especially, I would assume, for stunt coordination just because it’s very action oriented.

Hiro Koda: It is.

Nerds and Beyond: So for those who might not be as familiar with the role of a stunt coordinator, could you walk through what a typical job is like for you? I know that it must really vary depending on the type of job that you have.

Hiro Koda: It definitely varies show to show, but basically as a stunt coordinator, I’m in charge of safety. You go through a script and you start looking and reading the scenes, pulling out all the different types of action in the scene. And an action could be anything from a big car crash, a big fire burn to someone flying off of a building to even just someone running through the forest. As simple as that is, it is still considered stunts. And I have to go through those scripts, break them down, and pull out what I believe is going to require me to be on set, whether it’s “safetying” an actor or if it needs a stunt double or bringing in nondescript stunt players to come play characters and drive cars, or whatever it requires.

And then from there, I hire stunt doubles, I hire stunt guys that will play characters that maybe have one piece of dialogue or something like that because they’re going to be in some type of action. So, they can play the part and do the stunts themselves. And then again, like I said, when we’re shooting, I’m in charge of the safety and figuring out what’s safe for the performers, what’s safe the cast, what’s safe for the crew as well. When we’re doing car stunts for example, when we set up cameras, we need to know where people need to be to make sure they’re safe when car stunts are happening. Certain cameras can’t have people near them, they’ve got to be unmanned and there’s got to be cameras set up in case the cars hit the cameras. In some cases, when we do crashes, we want the cameras to be crash cams because that gives you the coolest shot, but there’s so much involved.

It’s a lot of the prep time and the hiring process and managerial things for the stunt coordinator. Designing the action, which is what I love to do, is just putting together this crazy exciting action for the fans!

Nerds and Beyond: One thing that you said that sticks out to me – I feel like I see interviews all the time with actors who say, “Oh, I love doing my own stunts. I love being able to do that myself.” What is it like to train somebody who’s a great actor, but has never had to do a stunt before on how to do stunts safely? I’m especially thinking of this just because of the age of the kids in Stranger Things. I’m sure they’re eager to get involved, but from a safety standpoint, you probably have a lot of rules for when and how they can do their own stunts.

Hiro Koda: Yeah, it’s always challenging with kids. The kids on Stranger Things, all of them, they enjoy so much when they get to come play with the stunt team because they’re going to get to do some fun action and they’re all game to do it all. But you’re right, there’s safety guidelines that we have to go by and there’s certain things that the studios and insurance and things like that will allow them to do. And obviously I’m going to let them perform things that I think they are completely capable and comfortable doing, but they do have to stay completely safe. They are children, and that’s my number one priority. Safety is important. And so when it comes down to some of them can’t do this, it’s telling them, “it’s not that you’re not capable of doing it, but it’s just not allowed and a stunt double is going to be needed to do certain things.”

And it varies with different studios. Different studios have different protocols and guidelines for what the children can do and even the age limits change from a kid that’s under the age of 12 to a kid that is all the way up to 17-years-old. They have different rules, so I have to stay on top of what’s allowed and what we’re able to do with them. And they have their teachers on set as well, that are there to watch after them and make sure that they’re safe as well. It’s always challenging.

Image courtesy Netflix.

Nerds and Beyond: I’m sure it is a challenge, because I can imagine being 14 or 15 and saying, “I want to jump in. Put me in coach, that looks like fun, I want to do that!”

Hiro Koda: [laughs] That is the word, “put me in coach,” because they all want to do it and I do push them to their comfort levels ,and they enjoy it and they have a good time. And once it gets down to where I have to pull them for something because it requires us to use doubles, there’s not an argument, they understand, and they step back. They get really close with their stunt doubles and they enjoy watching them do something cool because they’re like, “That’s me, that’s me doing that!”

It is interesting to watch people say [in interviews], “Yeah, I do all my own stunts,” because that’s just not always the case, but you know what? Stunt people are always in the background and they’re hidden, and if our stunt people are out there doing things that you think was actually the actor, then they did a good job doing their work, because they made you believe that it was them, you know? So it’s all good.

Nerds and Beyond: So one thing I did want to mention as well – you have an extensive IMDb page, and you’ve worked on a lot of different projects in terms of tone. You have shows like Stranger Things which are action oriented and very dark, whereas you’ve also worked on shows like K.C. Undercover, which is a Disney Channel family comedy.

Hiro Koda: [laughs] Yeah, I’ve done every bit of the spectrum.

Nerds and Beyond: What is it like to prep for action sequences that are more dramatic and you’re able to show a little bit more injury versus Disney Channel, where you’re trying to have these stunts and have everything be safe, but also have it not be terribly traumatizing for an audience of kids to watch?

Hiro Koda: That is a good question. I mean, it’s a challenge that I enjoy being able to do both. I also did a show for Nickelodeon called Supah Ninjas, which was the same type of deal with children and things like that. And there’s so much that you can’t do with some of the bad guys. If it was a robot or a nonhuman object, you could hit them in the head, but if it was humans, you couldn’t hit in the head. So it was like: you’re trying to create all this cool fight action, but you can never hit somebody in the head. And then it’s like trying to push the envelope of the violence to the point that you can’t anymore [for kid’s television].

But then on the flip side of that, I’ve done Big Little Lies. It doesn’t have a ton of stunts in it, but it deals with a lot of domestic violence and that’s heavy, heavy material to deal with. And it’s completely the opposite of something like K.C. Undercover, which was Disney. It’s always a challenge and it’s always fun to just be able to … and this is what I love about my job, is I get to come into a job, depending on what show it is, and it’s always something new and something different. And whether it’s dealing with creatures and monsters on Stranger Things or dealing with a creature or a monster that is a domestic abuser, it’s completely different, it’s a totally different topic. Big Little Lies was a heavy show to be a part of, and it was a lot of fun to be on and great cast, but heavy content and was hard to put that type of action together and a lot of times people are like, “Where are we coming up with this stuff? This is crazy.” It’s different.

And then to be able to be on something like K.C. Undercover, which is just fun, exciting action. It’s completely different. And you’re trying to do a little bit of slapstick comedy and still keep it fun and exciting for family friendly type of viewing. So it’s what I love about my job. It’s always something new depending on the show that I’m on. It keeps me on my toes and it helps to keep things innovative and exciting. So it always changes for me, so that’s fun.

Nerds and Beyond: And I feel like Big Little Lies is a show where an average viewer might go, “Oh, a stunt coordinator works on that?” just because there aren’t massive action sequences. But of course, you have to make sure everything’s safe for the actors who are on the set. What is it like to do stunt coordination for a show that’s not a big action oriented show?

Hiro Koda: I mean, for shows that do not have a lot of action, it could just be an actor running through the woods and you just have to be there for safety to make sure that the actor is going to be able to run through the woods and not trip on a loose branch, being able to find the path that they’re going to run and clear that path out and make sure that if they’re running with the steady cameras, they’re running with vehicles, and you just have to make sure all of that is safe.

There are so many things that go into my job as a stunt coordinator that a lot of people just don’t know are things that we’ll have to deal with. And if it’s as simple as someone just getting slapped across the face or someone jumping off a building, I take every stunt that I do seriously and keeping it a hundred percent safe is my number one priority, and that’s what I have to do to maintain what I do as a coordinator. And so it doesn’t matter how big or small the stunt is, I guess is the answer to that.

Nerds and Beyond: And speaking about your job being so involved with safety on set, with COVID changing basically everything about the film industry at this point, do you think that industry standards, particularly in stunts, are going to change as a result of COVID-19? More so than other aspects of production, stunt work relies on physical contact.

Hiro Koda: Right. There are certain shows out there that can change their storylines and take out some of the stunt work or intimacy type scenes, but there’s a lot of shows that it doesn’t work without any of that, and you have to have that. And that’s going to come down to all the different studios and even the different states that have put out the different guidelines and are trying to figure out, once we do go back to work, what those guidelines and what those protocols are going to be. And once those are established on what we will go by to go back to work. Then as a department head with the stunt department, I have certain protocols and things that I want to do with my team to keep everybody safe and also to show my due diligence of keeping everything safe as possible. I want to keep my team safe and keep the crew and cast safe for what we’re trying to do.

So it’s going to be an interesting thing when we do start back to make sure everybody goes by those. And I know that there’s productions that have started up and are working and I hope that they are successful with what they’re doing so that once everybody gets back to some type of normalcy, that we can make this all work properly. It’s going to take some time to get used to these changes but I think that we can all accomplish it if we work together.

Nerds and Beyond: And of course, it’s all so new as well. I’m sure you’re learning new things every day.

Hiro Koda: Yes, and I’m trying to research as much as I can to what’s the best way to approach certain things. I’ve purchased the equipment to clean my stunt equipment, my pads and things like that, to keep everything as sanitary as possible, looking into different types of masks that are going to be working well for when we’re rehearsing because people have to wear masks obviously. They’ve got to have something that they can breathe well in. So it’s looking into all the sporting activities and the big sporting events to see, what kind of masks do they wear, because they need to be able to breathe when they’re running or they’re doing sports and things like that, so that would help with us stunt-wise. So it’s just going to be a new thing. It’s going to be interesting. And I’m trying to stay at the top of the safety chain and make sure that we can make it all work, because I’m ready to get back to work.

Nerds and Beyond: So I had a few questions more about your career as a whole, because I think that your job is so unique and interesting, and people may not know how you get into a job like this. When did you know you wanted to work in film and how did you initially get started?

Hiro Koda: I’ve been in this business now close to 30 years. I got my SAG card when I was 12-years-old doing a national commercial. I did a national HI-C drink commercial, and I thought that I wanted to be an actor. I grew up in martial arts, I did gymnastics and I did many things as kid. My father was my instructor in martial arts and he trained several different people. He trained a couple of stunt folks and we were really close friends with a couple of stunt performers, and they took me to a movie set and I got to see a stunt rehearsal live when I was like 12-years-old. It was the coolest thing that I ever saw and I thought, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a stuntman.

So I knew from the age of 12 that that’s what I wanted to do, and then when I was 16 turning 17, I moved out to California and pursued a stunt career and have been going for almost 30 years now, since then. And it’s been an interesting road! I performed for many years and just throughout the years of performing, I moved to fight coordinating and I was coordinating for a lot of big stunt coordinators. And then I was being mentored by those stunt coordinators on how to coordinate, because they’re like, “You would be a good coordinator. You should learn how to do all this.” And then gradually moved into stunt coordinating, and now coordinating and second unit directing. And my ultimate goal is to move towards directing. I love directing and that’s something that I’d really love to do.

Nerds and Beyond: And you’ve been a second unit director for quite a few projects now. How do you approach a project differently when you’re coming in and doing the direction versus the stunt coordination, or some projects that you’ve done where you’re doing both? In Stranger Things, you were really handling both sides of that.

Hiro Koda: As a second unit director, normally it comes in hand together as a stunt coordinator. Usually if a stunt coordinator is also the second director, then they usually will do both on most shows. There’s some people that come in and only second unit direct and they’ve never done stunts before, it just varies. I tend to, when I get on a show that definitely is very action heavy, then I will push and try to get second unit as well because second unit always has the big action stuff on it and that’s something that I’m pursuing and want to eventually be directing. So it’s the natural progression in the business. As for “How do I approach that?” It’s different. As the director I am stunt coordinating, but when I’m directing on the set I’ll have a stunt coordinator there to handle taking care of the stunts while I’m directing. But the stunts that are involved in what I’m directing are what I’ve already designed and put together during prep.

So I’ll have somebody there that’s going to be in charge of the stunt team and make sure that they’re doing what they need to be doing for what I’m shooting. But overall, I guess I’m what you would call the “stunt supervisor” above that to make sure that everything is going as what is planned and what I want done while I’m shooting. But for me as a stunt coordinator, I will hire my stunt doubles and I’ll bring those guys in and shoot “pre-vis,” which is a live action version of what I’m designing. And I’ll cut it together and have that all put together so that when we get to second unit, I’ll know what we’re going to be shooting at that time, and everybody will be on the same page at that point.

Nerds and Beyond: That’s so important, I would imagine, to do just so that you know exactly what’s going to happen on the day.

Hiro Koda: Right. It makes it a lot easier to make sure everybody knows what’s going on. It’s a good tool to use for me. I am able to present that to the directors of the episode and they’re able to take a look at what I’m planning and what my action is for the sequence so they’re on board with what’s going on. So then once all that’s approved, everybody’s on the same page before we get out there to shoot, it’s already ready to go. We just have to put it on film.

Nerds and Beyond: So, one thing I have to ask you about, because I was very excited to hear this, is that you worked on Power Rangers early in your career. It’s such a big part of people’s childhoods, especially people around my age. And I read that you were able to play quite a few of the Rangers over the course of your time there. What was it like to be on that show, and is it crazy to you that people have such a strong connection to that show even years later?

Hiro Koda: That show is still going to this day, do you know that? They’re still shooting that show. [laughs] That show was an incredible project to be a part of. I did the first seven seasons and I did get to play different Rangers. I played a lot of monsters and bad guys. I got to get a little bit of everything on that show. Me having a motorcycle background, I did do a lot of the motorcycle stuff for the different rangers and fight stuff, I have a martial arts background. So I did end up getting to be the Blue Ranger quite a bit. And the Green Ranger. And again, like I said, I was several different monsters and whatnot. But the stunt team was a team out of Japan called Alpha Stunts and Koichi Sakamoto, he was the second unit director and he’s also producer on that show, he was the stunt coordinator and his team from Japan was there.

And I got really close with that team and Koichi is one of my mentors in this business and has helped me throughout the years. I just remember things that he did, and he shot pre-vis as well, and I was a part of some of the pre-vis for his other shows (because he used to do other shows outside of Power Rangers as well). I’ve worked for him on those shows and to see how he works is something that has stuck with me my entire career and he was a huge mentor of mine. So I got a lot out of the team over there on Power Rangers and to be a part of something like Power Rangers, which is still huge today … I mean, I talk to so many different people [about it]. I do Cobra Kai as well, and I’ve done a couple of comic-con things [for that series] and the people at conventions, they still bring up the Power Rangers, they just love the Power Rangers still to this day. It’s a crazy thing that everybody still loves to hear about it. It was a fun show to be a part of. It’s interesting running around in spandex in downtown LA, but it was a lot of fun.

Nerds and Beyond: I’m sure it was, and now you have bragging rights forever with just about every kid to tell them that you were a Power Ranger.

Hiro Koda: My kids always get a little kick out of telling people, “My dad was the Blue Power Ranger.”

Nerds and Beyond: That’s amazing. That’s so cute. Not too many other parents who can say that, that’s for sure.

Hiro Koda: Exactly! [laughs]

Image courtesy HBO.

Nerds and Beyond: So I know we’ve been talking a lot about Stranger Things with your most recent Emmy nomination. But looking back over your career so far, has there been a project that you learned the most from, or a project that you are the proudest of? I know we talked about how Power Rangers was a big influence for you early on, but is there a stunt that you remember that you’re really excited that you pulled off, that you still watch now and go, “Oh, that was amazing. We really made that look incredible.”

Hiro Koda: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. There’s so many things that I’ve gotten to do and be a part of and even perform myself. I was talking about it the other day with somebody, I did the TV show True Blood. I did several seasons on that from season four through the end of it. And we had a sequence where we did some full body burns with some stunt folks and we did two full body burns. One was completely covering the face, arms, everything and it was a pretty huge deal that had to be done right at dawn, there was a specific time window that we could only shoot him because of the certain amount of light that they needed to shoot at. And so we only had a specific amount of time to shoot it.

And so the prep and all of that to make that happen and make sure everything went as planned and safe was huge. That’s something I’m pretty proud of. That’s a hard question because I’m proud of everything that I’ve done and every show that I get to be a part of is always different. I feel like I almost learn something new on every show that I go to because it’s something new and I’m continuously challenging myself to be innovative and keep things new and fresh. And so that’s always a huge accomplishment after I’m done. Like, yeah okay, we did it. We made that happen. So it’s always pushing that limit and making things exciting for the fans.

Nerds and Beyond: Those fire stunts are always the ones that make me feel claustrophobic. [both laugh] I remember watching a behind the scenes video on Game of Thrones when they had a group of people get lit on fire by a dragon. I just remember thinking, “Oh God, that would be crazy to have to set up and execute.”

Hiro Koda: That was a big one on there. That was big. Fire stunts are always a tough one for some people. It’s a lot of fun. I love dealing with fire and stunt people love being set on fire [laughs] and if you have the right fire team and you do everything the way you’re supposed to do everything goes well, but it’s always fun to be a part of a fire stunt. So scary, but fun. A stunt person’s adrenaline is rushed. They’ve got that adrenaline rush to get some kind of big stunt done, so that’s always fun.

Nerds and Beyond: My last question I have for you is what advice would you have for somebody who wanted to pursue a career either in directing or in stunt coordination? Because it’s definitely a different field to get into. There’s not an obvious path to follow.

Hiro Koda: Right. Yeah, it’s a career path that you need to make sure that that’s where you want to go. A lot of people move from performing to site coordinator to stunt coordinating to second unit directing, to even directing. I mean, there’s been several of my peers that are stunt folks that have moved from second unit directing and now they’re directing main unit. I mean, Chad Stahelski has been doing all the John Wick movies. David Leitch just did Hobbs & Shaw and Deadpool 2. And then Sam Hargrave just put out a film on Netflix called Extraction. And those guys were stunt guys before they moved to second unit direction to now directing movies, which is what I would love to do. It’s a process you have to go through, you can’t just jump up there and be a stunt coordinator.

And so the advice I would give is that they need to put their time in, find themselves a good mentor, find somebody that is respected in this business and get a mentorship going. They need a mentor to run them through the ropes of how things are supposed to be run. I have a lot of people that worked for me and there’s a few people that I have stuck to that I bring in to assist me, and I want them to learn everything and anything that they can if that’s the progression that they want to take. It’s finding a good mentor and really being serious with what you do because between stunt folks and the crew and the cast: everybody’s safety and their lives are in your hands. So do your research, do your homework, and find the right person that can show you the ropes and do the time. Get in there and learn what it is on set that needs to be done as a stunt coordinator before you just take a job as a stunt coordinator, if that makes sense.

Nerds and Beyond: Yes, absolutely. And like you said, people’s safety is on the line, so you definitely want to make sure you have somebody who knows everything there is to know, or as much as they can know, before they get started.

Hiro Koda: That’s right. And I mean, people that work for you, they should trust you a hundred percent if they’re working for you. And their lives are in your hands so you need to know what you’re doing.

Thanks to Hiro Koda for chatting with us here at Nerds and Beyond! For a behind-the-scenes look at how he created the stunts for Stranger Things 3, check out the video below.

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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