Photo © Tribune Entertainment
Interview with stunt/fight co-ordinator Paul Rapovski *submitted by Isabelle Meunier
ACTION ON MUTANT X
(by Isabelle Meunier)
Marco Bianco and Paul Rapovski, respectively stunt and stunt/fight co-ordinators, are the men behind the action prowess performed on MutantX. Sharing the workload between them, they ensure fights and stunts not only look great on screen but also are safely orchestrated.
The preconceived notion that stunt doubles are enacting those jumps, rolls and fights goes right out of the window; beside the level of action, what makes MutantX an impressive series is also the fact that the actors themselves are those hooked on wires and performing those scenes. "We have to deliver that much action in every episode and are fortunate that it's with our actors," Rapovski enthuses, "and when I do my action, I don't want to see a tight shot, I want wide shots so we see them do it, I'm very serious about this." There are however exceptions to the cast performing some stunts, such as those dangerous or time-consuming. "Safety is very important," he stresses, "the actors have to work over 22 episodes and I don't want to tire them out too much. I'll also use my people when we have to get our day done and actors have to prepare for the next scene. But most of the time it's the cast doing their action."
Because they need space to train and rehearse wire-work scenes, actors have been well provided for; from the trampoline in one corner, the dummies and exercising equipment lining the opposite wall and the mats underneath the wires occupying the center, the exercising room behind the sets is well rigged for action and has thus been baptised by the stunt team 'the Mojo room', in reference to Austin Power. "You know how Power says he's lost his Mojo and can't perform sexually?" grins Rapovski. "Well the idea is that if you can't perform when you enter the Mojo room, you will by the time you come out!" Of course, he's referring here to wire and stunt performance and he's not kidding; once safely harnessed, hooked on wires and hoisted above ground, there isn't anyone who couldn't perform the somersaults and back-flips gravity allows only the physically trained and disciplined to execute with ease. But isn't wire-work scary and dangerous? Yes, in the hands of someone who doesn't know their business, but with these guys at the helm, you couldn't be in safer hands and work can soon become great fun.
Rarely keeping still on set, when off-duty Paul Rapovski offers a picture of calmness and economy of movement denoting his martial arts discipline. There is a passionate tone in his soft-spoken voice when talking of issues close to his heart such as his work, and the MutantX cast he constantly praises. "I like the actors a lot," he smiles, his eyes lighting up. "They work really hard, put a lot of effort in and this makes me happy. I'm a lot harder on myself than I am on them."
Having proven he knows his stuff with the numerous films and series under his belt (The Enforcer, Extreme Challenge, The Hitman, Relic Hunter, John Woo's Once A Thief ), a few have tried to grab him for themselves; Relic Hunter wanted him back for another season and Adrian Paul asked him for his series Tracker, but MutantX won the race. It's lucky for them they did too, as it's highly probable the series' action wouldn't look as good as it does hadn't Rapovski brought on board his action/wire-stunts expertise learnt from celluloid masters in China. "I got my action background and training in Hong Kong by watching all the different action directors," he explains, adding that most share a common trait. "Many of them also act because that's just the way they do it there; John Woo for example will always throw himself in a part while directing his movies."
A martial arts expert and 1996 world full contact stick-fighting champion, he started training from age 9, soon realising Asia held the key to bettering himself. "I really had a passion for martial arts and cinema," he reveals, "so combining the two, the natural choice was to go to Hong Kong because that's the birth place of this style of action and I wasn't impressed with North American action when training in martial arts as a kid. So I continued training, finished university and went there to study action, understand how to use my martial arts in the film industry... and I ended up living there."
Paul Rapovski and Jet Li. Photo © K G Sato
Hong Kong and Shanghai were an eye-opening experience as Rapovski discovered a facet to martial arts he hadn't yet fathomed. "For me, after training day after day I started to think 'what else can I learn?'" he recalls. "I think it has to do with evolving, you have to open up your mind and living in China has opened my mind tremendously because they don't only train in martial arts there; they live martial arts in terms of philosophy. My teacher in Shanghai wasn't a fighter but a great technician, superb to watch, so I evolved into that; I stopped training the 'fighting part' and trained more in the 'art part.' We train for fighting but we rarely fight for real, so I now train to better my action because I do action everyday and enjoy it."
Beside learning new action tricks, it wasn't long before Rapovski followed what in Hong Kong is a natural progression: being in front of the camera and in Rapovski's case, alongside Jet Li if you please. "There's only two ways you can go in martial arts," he laughs, "you either open a school or go into films. The majority open a school and never go into films because they don't have that passion, but I had and didn't want to open a school. When you're a white guy my size," adds the six foot four muscle-packed action man, "they always have roles for you there, so I was constantly doing stunts, action acting and still do; I go back to Hong Kong at least once a year to do a film."
However, as Rapovski also points out, not everyone versed in martial arts can necessarily make it in the thespian world as there is more to screen action than just rigidly applying the moves and sticking to a technique. "People come up to me and say 'I have all these championships, I'm a great martial artist, I can do this,' but you put them on a film and they can't do anything," he explains. "Having martial art training doesn't mean you're a good film action person, that's not true. I look at flow, rhythm, style and multiple movement and in my experience, dealing with someone with a background in martial arts can sometimes be bad and harder if that person isn't willing to change. It's a transition and the stunt often doesn't work well for the camera because these people think that, by having trained this way and by kicking that way, they're doing it properly. Only you can't always kick properly to make it look good on camera because sometimes kicking awkward looks better, but try telling this to someone who's been training in martial arts; he doesn't understand or can't adjust."
Photo © Tribune Entertainment
Despite potentially being a double edge sword, a martial arts background certainly came handy for some of MutantX cast members whose adapting abilities soon alleviated any concerns Rapovski might have had. "Victor (Brennan) listens, watches me work and adapts quickly. Vicky (Shalimar) is the same way and you are quite surprised by her because she does everything; she not only punches and kicks well, she also acts well with her action, which is important to me, because some people can fight but have no experience in theatrical action which is a totally different state of mind. You think you can hit but when you're dealing with an actor, you can never hit him! It's all about acting hard, not hitting hard." Well, tell that to John Shea who ended up bruising himself as he really went for it in 'Darker Shade of pale'! "Some would aim here and stop," Rapovski laughs, pointing at his chest, "but John would go and hit them and I said 'John, you don't have to hit them!' But when you see John's action, he looks great and I don't mind my actors hitting my stunt men," he chuckles, "but I do mind my stunt men hitting my actors!"
Anyone messing with 'his actors' as he fondly calls them would end up in serious trouble, as their eagerness to learn and ability to action-act has earned them his genuine admiration. "They are great people and I am very proud of them," he enthuses. "They look very strong, they are not just fighting hard, they're acting hard. In other words, it's not just a punch with no expression which I see on other shows where they forget that inside every fight, there's some drama they have to act. For example I'd say to Victor 'When you hit that guy, don't just go up and attack; look at him, then get upset or smirk and go for him,' because I like to put a bit of drama in the action. Hong Kong is famous for its dramatic, charismatic and stylistic action, meaning that when I fight with Jet Li and hit him to the ground, he falls, rolls and gets up then looks at me for a bit, dramatically reacts and then goes for it. It's not just the punch, there's drama there because the reaction is almost as important as the action."
Forbes March (Jesse) may be quite new to the action scene but has proven a natural talent for it when, after having endlessly practiced his stunt on the day, his amazing performance in the Pilot episode stunned everyone and earned him the nickname 'God of the Spin.' "Emma (Lauren Lee Smith) goes in the alley and Jesse fights a couple of guys," Rapovski recalls, "hits one who flips and lands, the other shoots him and Jesse kicks a barrel up then spins in the air, kicks the barrel which hits the guy. It's all in one shot, the camera doesn't lie you see it and Forbes's action was perfect in every take, and it's amazing! There are very few actors who will get wrapped with the wire three times, do the action and land perfectly each time." When pointed out the noticeable wonder in his voice when recalling March's performance, Rapovski vigorously nods. "Where I'm impressed is that I expect and demand my doubles to do well but I expect my actors not to be perfect because that's my job to make them look perfect. So when Forbes does it perfectly three times in a row, this man deserves respect and credit. That's why I like my cast so much and I give credit to the producers and casting department, because it's rare that you cast that perfect a group of people, almost accordingly to their characters' mutant powers. And," he chuckles, "I find Eckhart quite a funny character, Tom McCamus is perfect and a brilliant actor!" That's a character Rapovski incidentally would enjoy seeing hooked on wires and he hopes some 'Eckhart-action' will be written in at some point, which would be fun to watch!
Photo © Tribune Entertainment
Every action scene has to look its best and as it's an issue he's unwilling to compromise about, Rapovski tries ensuring that it does by watching takes on the set's monitors whenever possible. "The actors obviously can't tell how they look when they go for it," he explains, "so I'll watch the monitors and say 'your leg has to be straighter, this has to be bent more as it looks better...' and the good thing is that they listen. I'm a very demanding person when it comes to action because I want them to look good. When I see something that doesn't look right, I ask that it's done right and they do the best they can so I always give them a pat on the back. It all works very well and everybody is on the same page, but the moment one person isn't, I won't tolerate it and we have to fix it because action is so easy to change and fix."
What is frustrating to Rapovski however, is his inability to cut himself in at least half and be wherever is needed to ensure the best shot is either taken while filming, or chosen in the editing room. "I try to get in the editing room but can't always be because I'm on set," he shrugs. "I can't be by the monitors when I'm pulling wire ropes on set, so I have to trust the directors' eyes to tell me the action looked good, but because they don't know what to look for, they sometimes say it looks good when it's in fact not how it's supposed to look. It's no one's fault but mine as I can't be at three places at once, so it's a team effort and I've encouraged the actors to once in a while go into the editing room and take a look because, like me, they remember how many times they did a shot and which looks better."
But overall, the man doesn't really complain and is seemingly quite happy with the direction the series has taken. "I'm very happy with where the show is going," he nods. "You know, the first season is always the toughest and it takes time to iron out the rough spots but it's getting there, things are moving together and I know it gets better and better, so do the stories."
Also expect visual treats as Rapovski has many action tricks up his sleeves the cast will be performing as the series develops. "Because I became more interested in designing action, I learned in Asia how to make things up in martial arts that look really cool," he reveals. "I don't want to give much away so all I'll say is that you'll see new things with the characters, such as they them moving differently as they are learning to use their powers."
It won't be long before looks of envy turn to the undeniably groundbreaking action-packed MutantX, and it's a ride Rapovski certainly is proud to be along for. "We are doing something that's never been done before on a TV schedule with no 2nd unit crew," he enthuses. "MutantX is setting a standard every other series will look at and some will say, 'how is it possible to deliver that action? Nah it's not real, they must be doing this or that...' The fact of the matter is, the level of action we deliver on this series is actually feature film material, which is amazing! For that fact, I'm not regretting taking this show instead of something else, and one of the reasons that will make me stay longer and be happier is the opportunity to do more and better action."
Good to know that things can only look better on MutantX, but one can't shake off the image of laurels getting crushed somewhere down the line... "This series is setting a standard which will be hard to match on other action series," Rapovski agrees, getting the imagery. If the Powers That Be were to prove him wrong however, concerns would be voiced and it's fortunate that the producers are the listening type, as there are limits to Rapovski's compromising; "People who don't listen, I don't work for."
WIRE-WORK: SAFETY IS THE KEY
It cannot be stressed enough that wire-work is unlike any other stunt; it is a highly specialised area where safety is paramount. Beside knowing how to rig for wires, one of the key elements lies in not just pulling the wire ropes, but knowing how to time the pull, in the same principle as driving a car isn't about steering the wheel in a straight line, but knowing how and when to steer and how to react to any situation presenting itself. Therefore, only stunt co-ordinators who know and understand its nature should rig for and supervise wire-work on sets.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Because TV and film productions jumped on the bandwagon of the increasingly popular wire-work, there aren't enough qualified people around to meet the demand and that's a potential recipe for disaster, especially when some of the ropes are being pulled by unqualified hands. "It can be very dangerous if you put wire-work in the wrong hands," Rapovski stresses, "and trust me on that, there's a lot of stunt co-ordinators out there who say they know wires, but they are just kidding themselves and productions.
However, Rapovski stresses that careless injuries resulting from wire work or other stunt action eventually affects the profession as a whole. "If too many people are getting hurt," he warns, "it brings the credibility of experienced stunt coordinators into question and that affects wire-work or action in general. Wire-work as in all areas of action carry a certain element of risk, but when in the capable hands, that risk is greatly reduced. So much so, that the cast of the Mutant X prefer to do all their wire work and stunt action themselves under close supervision, of course."
There is a simple way to avoid potential accidents in the waiting and that's by asking those who know. Take it from one of the authorities on wire-work, they will offer assistance. "I'd rather help than see someone get killed," states Rapovski.
© Isabelle Meunier
Not to be altered and/or distributed in any way without the prior written consent of the author.