When Marvel’s “Helstrom” premieres Oct. 16 on Hulu, audiences will brace for the jaw-dropping stunts for which the super-franchise is known. Stunt coordinator Dan Rizzuto is aware expectations are high—but that doesn’t mean he threw every gravity-defying sequence at the wall just for the hell of it. Here, Rizzuto breaks down how he weaves action into character and story, and the ways he works with actors to look their most badass at all times.
How was it that you got into stunt work?
I had no intentions of getting into film whatsoever. I actually used to fight professionally, and then I got into bodyguarding. I was bodyguarding Jessica Alba on “Dark Angel,” and I just ended up meeting a bunch of stunt people on my off time, and one thing led to another and before I knew it I was in stunts. It just kind of happened.
Working on a Marvel property, is there added pressure to make the stunts jaw-dropping?
I wouldn't say it’s pressure. For me, it’s more excitement for what we get to do. We do so many different stunts on different shows on different levels. But what I experienced on-set from cast and crew was, there was just a different energy. Everybody wanted to be there and everybody was doing the best that they could and everybody would go a little bit overtime, discussing how we can make things cooler, bigger, better. That’s not always the case. A lot of the time you get on a show, you get on a set and, you know, half the people don’t want to be there and they don’t really care about the project. The stunt side of things, a lot of people don’t really see the creativity that comes out of it. Yeah, there’s a technical aspect to it, but when you’re given some freedom to create, what a blessing. It’s what we all want. Within the first week of being on this show, I was addicted to the energy, and I was crazy excited to get to set every single day.
When you’re creating a stunt, are you always thinking about how an actor will be able to actually “act” through it?
One hundred percent. I look at storytelling as, rather than throwing in gratuitous action or moves just because I think it’s cool, I really sit and look at what suits the character, what’s believable, what isn’t going to throw the audience off [and make them think], Oh, I totally don't believe what I’m seeing. We wanted to create action based on the characters and based on their natural motions and movements, and everybody was open and down for it and the actors were fantastic to work with. I love the creative aspect of it. [Showrunner] Paul Zbyszewski was so hands-on and open and you could just call and throw suggestions at him, no matter how crazy they were.
How do you as the stunt coordinator work with actors directly?
I like to know as much as I can. I like to read the scripts, not just to highlight the stunts but to find out what the character is like. What state of mind are they in? Would this action represent that, or is it just something that’s going to pull the audience out of the scene? You have to have talent who wants to be there and wants to look good and actually cares, and that, honestly, is not a common occurrence. More times than not, there are people who just don't want to be there and don’t want to show up to rehearsals. This show was different; everybody was into it and everybody had input and everybody cared. I’ve been in film now for 21 years, and it's hard to get a diamond in the rough like that, where everybody wants to be there.
Do you tailor stunts to individual actors?
You’ve got to look at all aspects of their character. What are they wearing? They’re wearing high heels, OK, well, maybe we can’t do this gag but we can use something like this instead. It's a big puzzle, because at the end of the day, if somebody gets injured, everybody suffers, the show shuts down. The talent has enough to worry about. I’ve done some stunt acting, and [if] you give me more than three lines, I’m already in tunnel vision, I can’t remember a thing. They’ve got to remember these monologues—then they’re going to throw some action into it. It’s difficult. We want to make it as easy as possible for them. I try to look at what talent each actor has already, rather than saying, “OK, I want you to step with the right foot and do this,” when naturally they step with the left foot first. Let them step with the left foot, then it’s subconscious and we’re going to get a better showcase, it becomes safer, it’s less for them to worry about. Go and try to memorize eight pages in a day—they’ve got to do that and they’ve got to remember their actions. I’ve got all the respect in the world for actors.
What is the workaround for those times that you have worked with less engaged actors?
I’m the opposite of a production coordinator; I won’t say yes to things just because I want the next job. If the actors are not willing to show up to rehearsal, it just means it has to be shot differently. With the director and the producers, I’ll pick out spots where we will have the actor just take a step and look and do little inserts to sell that they’re doing it, but it hurts the whole production, and it can become a safety issue. I’m very open with them and just tell them that if you're not willing to come to rehearsals and train, we can’t have you do as many shots as we would like to, and not only does that mean your performance suffers, but the whole show can suffer.
When actors are ready, willing, and able, how do you work with them in preproduction to prepare them?
We like to put on little training camps where they come for three, four hours a day to work on stuff. This show was very wirework heavy. We pulled off some feature film–level wire work in the timeframe of a TV show that we're really happy about. That’s usually more of an uncomfortable or a scary experience for the actors, being connected to a wire and being lifted or pulled or maneuvered around compared to doing just a basic fight scene. We had an amazing stunt rigging team and the time we got with the actors to do very light, specific things to get them comfortable in that environment makes the whole process that much easier, so we don’t have to sit around on set with 200 crew members staring and waiting and productions paying for actors to get comfortable. We do it in a safer, smaller environment and we create the steps for what we want, and at any point, if you’re uncomfortable, if there’s something that you want to question, always ask, even if we’re rolling. Ask, because it’s [about] safety. We can press record again.
Do you think anything about stunt work will change post-COVID?
We were one of the first shows back, so I've been on set for about seven weeks now. To be honest, it’s not as crazy a vibe as I thought it would be. Everybody’s just adjusted to it, and everybody’s very respectful and there’s aspects of it, actually, [that] I like better. Everybody’s more focused now. It’s not so nonchalant. Everybody’s thinking about their actions and it’s becoming a cleaner, safer environment. The crafty table is not just a wide-open thing anymore. Everybody’s respecting the fact that the actors have to be mask-free. I think the stunts will still be there, and we might see an increase of hiding the actors a bit more and having stunt guys do a lot of stuff. I like that they’re testing two, three times a week. It gives people a peace of mind that it’s not this risky, crazy environment. People just have to respect it: Don’t go to the beach or a bar just because it’s the weekend and then come back to set.
Is there anything you wish more people knew about stunt work in general?
I’d probably get crucified for saying this, but there’s this big push among people who want stunts [to be considered] for the Oscar, and I’m down for an Oscar for the stunt coordinator as a whole. But to me, I'm old-school, where stuntmen were the gray men of the industry. They hid, they weren't publicized, because we weren’t supposed to exist. We’re there to give the illusion of an actor doing a gag. If you're Brad Pitt’s stunt double, and all of a sudden everybody knows who you are—you’re getting in magazines and you’re famous—people watching the show now go, “Oh, that’s so and so, that’s not Brad Pitt.” Everybody knows we exist. We didn’t get into it to become famous. Yes, there should be an Oscar for the stunt coordinator, but let’s not go overboard to the point that stunt people are getting known on a level that the actors are known, because then we just killed the movie magic.
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