Sunday, December 4, 2022

Interview: Action Designer Chris Brewster Talks ‘Black Adam’ & More! [EXCLUSIVE]

FANDOMDCInterview: Action Designer Chris Brewster Talks 'Black Adam' & More!

Chris Brewster is a stunt coordinator with over 19 years of experience coordinating stunts and fight choreography for film and television. His experience has earned him renown on superhero sets, and has been recognized with four Screen Actors Guild Awards for movies such as Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp, as well as several additional nominations for his work on series such as Daredevil and Loki. Most recently, Brewster served as action designer for Warner Bros.’ Black Adam.

One of our editors, Hannah, had a chance to sit down with Brewster to chat about his involvement in Black Adam as the action designer.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity.

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Nerds & Beyond: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to sit and chat with me for a little bit, I really appreciate it. Let’s go ahead and dive in. I wanted to start with the straightforward questions — how did you get your start in stunt work and action designing? 

Chris Brewster: Well, it’s been a pretty crazy but direct path. I started with martial arts when I was four and won 13 World Titles by the time I turned 18. Then I started doing martial arts live performances, and just doing those brought us to Hollywood. My friends and I were on this team called Side Swipe, and we did halftime shows and competed on America’s Got Talent and a bunch of different TV shows, which started bleeding into the stunt world. We started meeting all these amazing stunt coordinators who were like, “Yeah, if you ever want to take those martial arts moves and apply them to film and TV, this is how you do it,” — and I was just instantly hooked. Then as I started performing, I grew a love for storytelling, and at first, it was a matter of telling the story through the movement — what this character would do as far as whether this character would throw a punch here or whether they would block — whether they were offensive or defensive. 

Then it built onto not only how to tell the story with the movement but how to capture it on camera. Because a lot of times you’ll come up with a really, really cool move, and if they don’t put the camera in the right spot, it kinda ruins what you are going for. It doesn’t tell the same story that you’re trying to tell within the movement. So as I kept going, I got into just full-on action design, where you design the choreography for the characters, you design the tempo and the timing, and where the characters take a breath and what they’re experiencing throughout the fight. And then how to capture all of those moments on camera to tell the same story that the script is telling. 

Nerds & Beyond: Thank you for that — I want to deep dive a lot more later, but for now, we’ll stay on the surface. What got you involved specifically with Black Adam

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Chris Brewster: Well, Tommy Harper has been my idol in the stunt world. He’s been a big brother to me, a mentor, and him and I worked on Tomorrow War together just before Black Adam, and it was amazing. Tommy and I have a really good dynamic. He is a legend in the stunt world, and he loves my passion for the choreography. He brought me onto Tomorrow War and then immediately called me up about Black Adam, and he was the coordinator, and at first, he hired me to just be the fight choreographer of Black Adam. And as we got into everything that we were doing and training the actors and everything like that, he upgraded me into being a stunt coordinator alongside him, which is a dream come true because, again, he’s my idol. He’s my hero. It was an incredible experience. 

Nerds & Beyond: Congratulations for getting to work with one of your idols! One thing that really stuck out to me about the action sequences in Black Adam is that they seemed much more deeply ingrained in the story rather than just being used to escalate the story, if that makes sense. The sequences didn’t just serve as action, but also flowed like dialogue. Can you talk about the process working with the cinematographer specifically and the rest of the team to bring forth that depth of action to the screen the exact way you wanted?

Chris Brewster: Definitely. Before getting into that, you really hit on one of the most important elements that I think most people miss. To me, the difference between a normal stunt coordinator, or what most people think of as stunts, and the modern-day action designer is we try to take every punch and every move and use it like a line of dialogue in the script. Every move we do should tell a story. Myself and our entire stunt team is big on not doing action just for fluff. It’s not just, “Hey, now we wanna see something exciting, so do something cool over there.” Everything needs to tell a story. And I think that we had an amazing opportunity on this film to really tell a story through every movement that every character did. 

Nerds & Beyond: As far as being the action designer, when you’re given the script, and you’re going over everything, are you given much creative freedom when you’re looking at building a scene?

Chris Brewster: Well, every series and every film is completely different. I’ve been on some shows where … so, on Daredevil, there was literally a script that just said, “This is where Brewster and team fight for the Emmy,” and that was all that was written for one of the sequences. Some shows really trust the action team to do what we do and come in and make memorable action that will go down in cinematic history. Then there’s some shows or films where either the director or the writer or the producers have like a very specific vision, and they pretty much tell us what they want, and we have to take that vision and turn it into the real world. Black Adam was a pure combination of the two. 

Certain sequences where Juame [Collet-Serra, director] is like, “I know exactly what I want, but I can draw. I can’t make human bodies actually do it.” So it was the challenge of taking basically a cartoon and making that cartoon come to life. And then there were other sequences where he was like, “I want this to be amazing,” and at one point, he said, “For this sequence, we’re not going to edit it as a runner, but I want to shoot it as a runner, because you get a certain energy when you’re running an entire piece of action without cutting. I wanna feel that.”

Seeing as how doing one-take flight sequences is one of my specialties, he let that one be my world to build on. It was a cool combination of the two opposite ends of the spectrum. Certain pieces of action he would leave to myself and the stunt team, and then certain pieces of action, he was like, “This is exactly what I want, make this come to life.” It was just fun dancing back and forth between the two. 

Nerds & Beyond: The prison sequence consists of entirely live-action stunts — what were some of the challenges that you faced?

Chris Brewster: Well, for the prison fight — that’s one that was not fully detailed and completely animated before we got into it. So Jaume [Collet-Serra] really let us do a lot of contributing and creating with that one. The challenging part of that is we shot the entire sequence on phantom cameras, which shoot 1200 frames per second … so what would actually read as as a hit? Anytime you stack a hit where you don’t actually hit somebody, but the hand goes across and they sell the reaction — at 24 frames per second, there’s a little gap that even if you’re not completely perfect, it reads as a hit and it sells perfectly. At 1200 frames per second, that’s not so much the case — it could really stand out.

We literally needed our people to be 100% dialed in, and it was such a delicate dance because if somebody was off by a millisecond, it would’ve ruined the entire take. That was the fight sequence that needed the most precision. And not only did we have to sell every single hit for a 1200 frames per second phantom camera, but we were in the rain, we were on wet slippery floors, and everything like that, so there were so many elements that made it really difficult. But we have some of the best stunt performers in the entire world in that sequence, and they just rose to the challenge, and the team absolutely rocked it. 

Nerds & Beyond: I have a feeling I know the answer, but was there a particular scene in this film that you’re the most proud of? I know it’s hard to compare scenes like that, but I feel like everyone kind of has that one that they attach to. 

Chris Brewster: The prison sequence was definitely one that meant a lot to me and my team. All of the other sequences had this really beautiful culmination of the stunt team and the VFX team — every department just worked hand-in-hand to create these masterpieces. But in that sequence, there wasn’t as much effects because there wasn’t as much of a lot of the other elements. There was a lot more pressure on the stunt team, and I feel like the biggest challenges make you the most proud when you pull them off. So that sequence will stay with me for a really long time. All of the performers that we had do the sequence were just all incredible, but the way they rose to the challenge on the day just blew me away. 

There were a few shots where not only were they playing for 1200 frames per second, but we run a bolt cam, which is a camera arm that moves insanely fast. There were so many elements where it’s like … if they were a hair off, we wouldn’t get it. And nothing was ever off; they nailed every single beat perfectly. There were a few “impossible shots,” where this is a one in a hundred, but we’re gonna go for it — and within two or three takes, we nailed it. And then you say, “I don’t know how that happened … but let’s try it again. Let’s try the next section.” It was a really big challenge, but it worked out really well.

Nerds & Beyond: The payoff was great, because the precision came through impeccably.

Chris Brewster: It’s very hard to take a live-action fight sequence and make it as dynamic and as exciting as an action sequence where you’re using some live-action and some visual effects. We have Blackhawk and Black Adam fighting thousands of feet up in the air. It was such an incredible scene. The entire JSA fight is amazing. It was so incredible. To try to rise to that level with all live-action was a really cool challenge. 

Nerds & Beyond: I’m glad you brought up the flying. In this film, but also in a lot of your past work like Daredevil and The Winter Soldier, you’ve done a lot of “street-level,” more traditional hand-to-hand fighting between superheroes, and this is kind of taking it up several notches by incorporating flying. What did you find the most challenging about that?

Chris Brewster: Well, luckily, there’s a handful of rigors in the world — they’re the people who basically put people on the lines and throw them all over the world. There’s a handful that I would genuinely trust with my life, and we had a lot of them working on this film. Certain things in the stunt world that would normally be incredibly scary, you lose any fear when you have the right team around you. And we had one of the best stunt teams in the world on this project, so there was not a moment where I feared for myself, or any of the actors, or any of the stunt performers because we had Tommy Harper, we had Sean Couch — and the guy is an absolute genius. The challenges arise from basically taking what a human body can do and then putting them on wires to make them look not only like a human … they have to be more.

I mean, we’re talking about god powers — they’re flying as fast as Superman. They can travel huge distances when they hit each other — that force is gonna knock them a mile away. To find the balance of how superhuman you can get with a human body is the delicate balance. We want to make it as exciting and dynamic as possible, but our number one priority and the one thing that we will never fail at is making sure that all of our people go home at the end of the day. 

Nerds & Beyond: Getting everyone home safe at the end of the day is important, and it’s great you had such an amazing team to work with. In addition to the incredible stunt team, you obviously had Dwayne Johnson. What was it like working with him?

Chris Brewster: Well, it’s not very often that you are working with an actor who is literally the character that they’re playing. Black Adam is a god — he is the strongest and the most intimidating and just a hulking man of a superhero. Dwayne Johnson doesn’t even have to act to be that … he is that guy. He walks in the room, and not only does he look like Dwayne Johnson, but he carries an energy about him that is tangible. You could be on the other side of the stage, and the second he walks in, you feel it — you feel his energy. It was incredible to basically channel who he is into a comic book character because there’s so many similarities that we were able to feed off. 

He’s spent seven years or longer really getting into the headspace of this character. He knew Black Adam better than anybody on that film. He literally walked in, and it was just like he would snap, and boom, there he was. There was no moment where you’re thinking, this is Dwayne Johnson acting like Black Adam, because he is Black Adam. He is an amazing performer. He can look at choreography because of his wrestling background because he has been doing action movies for a long time — he can watch an entire fight sequence and have his stunt double do it with him watching how he does everything once or twice. And then he’s got it; it’s completely dialed in like that. It’s like he’s a professional dancer who watches the routine and can memorize it that quickly — but instead of dancing, it’s fighting. He would come in, watch what we were doing, and within moments have it dialed into perfection.

Nerds & Beyond: It sounds like it was all around a great experience working with him. If we still have time, I have some more fun questions now that we’ve gotten the serious stuff out of the way. 

Chris Brewster: Awesome. Let’s do it.

Nerds & Beyond: Perfect. I like to call this a lightning round — I’m gonna present either an “either-or” or a straight-up question to you, and I really just want the first thing that hits your mind.

Chris Brewster: The pressure is on.

Nerds & Beyond: I know, I’m making it stressful, right? You’re working on Teen Wolf: The Movie soon and the spinoff series Wolf Pack, which we’re really excited about at my website, by the way. Starting us off: would you rather be a werewolf or a superhero?

Chris Brewster: Ooh … superhero. I’m going to go with superhero, definitely.

Nerds & Beyond: I know you like, or at least you liked, growing up the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Who’s the best one? 

Chris Brewster: Oh, Raphael. Easy.

Nerds & Beyond: Okay, yeah, that’s definitely the right answer, but I wasn’t going to judge if you gave a different one.

Chris Brewster: Yes, that’s absolutely the right answer. Raphael definitely.

Nerds & Beyond: In honor of it being spooky season …

Chris Brewster: Oh, yes. Halloween’s coming up.

Nerds & Beyond: Do you have a favorite horror movie? 

Chris Brewster: Oof! Well, I have to go with Fright Night — if only because it was really, really fun to work on, and I won my first Taurus Award for the fire work on it.

Nerds & Beyond: I love Fright Night anyway, so I thought it was a good choice, but having that special memory attached to it makes it even better. And then I have one more question, the hardest one — does pineapple belong on pizza? 

Chris Brewster: Oh, man … I love it. I know so many people hate it, but I absolutely love it. So it’s a yes from me.

Nerds & Beyond: I do, too, don’t worry; you’re in good company. Like I said in the beginning — I really appreciate your time today. Congratulations for your hard work on that and on getting another good project out there. And, like I said earlier, we can’t wait to see what you do with the Teen Wolf teams!

Chris Brewster: Oh yeah. Teen Wolf: The Movie is gonna be great, and and I’m excited about Wolf Pack because I’m actually getting to segment it and direct that one. I’m getting to actually film the action, and I feel like we’re finding ways to step up the way we capture werewolf action. I think it’s gonna be … it’s extremely exciting too. 

Nerds & Beyond: Perfect. I can’t wait to see what you bring to the table in the future! Thank you so much. 

Chris Brewster: Of course. Thank you. 

Black Adam is now playing exclusively in theaters.

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