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Anthony De Longis and F. Braun McAsh: A Lifetong Love Affair

February 23, 2018

broadsword stage and screenIn the fall of 2004, while working on a college production of Macbeth, I heard about Anthony De Longis’s instructional video series Broadsword For The Stage and Screen. It was exactly what we needed, but getting the tapes took some finagling; we finally got them on VHS via interlibrary loan from the Yale Drama School and watched them in the Barnard Media Center. (An outtake from those videos, if memory serves, provides the title for this post; it’s been a while!) It can’t be a coincidence that 2004 was also the year I fell headfirst into Highlander, but at this point I don’t remember which came first, Jamie’s DVD box sets or those afternoons sitting with Michael in the library carrels with our giant headphones on….

Between the broadsword videos and the many, many hours I’ve spent enjoying Highlander, I’m something of a fangirl for both Anthony De Longis and Highlander sword master and actor F. Braun McAsh. And when I saw that the 2017 Highlander Worldwide Convention was going to be held right here in L.A., and included a day of fight workshops, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hang with these guys. I mean, look at these guys:

 

duendeTHIS ANTHONY DE LONGIS (right) EPISODE WAS LIKE 90% SWORDFIGHT

 

modernprometheusF. BRAUN MCASH (left) WAS IN THE MOTHER%&$#ING BYRON EPISODE

 

thequickeningMY HEAD LITERALLY FIGURATIVELY EXPLODING

 

So I was definitely going to the con. My exam schedule meant that I could juuuust squeak out half a day away from school, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: on Friday morning, October 20th, I caught the bus into the city for their joint workshop “Katana vs. German Longsword.”

Yes, you read that right. You see why it had to happen. (You also read the date right. Yes, that’s how long it takes me to finish a blog post these days.)

(And on a note slightly separate from fight direction, this is one reason why I love speculative fiction in all its forms: when else would you actually pit these weapons against each other? A little googling shows me that comparing the two styles comes up occasionally with martial arts enthusiasts, but it’s definitely an infrequent challenge for a fight choregrapher.)

Tony and Braun — if I may be so familiar! — are both consummate scholars of their art, and the class largely consisted of them comparing and contrasting the two weapons, with Tony on katana duty and Braun repping the German longsword. More importantly, they talked about why each weapon works the way it does. Differences came down to the shape, weight, and edge of the sword and the style of armor it was used against, but there is also a certain universality in the attempt to get at another human being with a sharp metal stick: physics dictates some constants, physiology the rest.

 

Left: Ochs guard, from Joachim Meyer’s 1570 fencing manual
Right: Ko gasumi, from a contemporaneous work of the Shinkage Ryu school
Both images via this blog post comparing the two styles

 

These weapons are evenly matched in a way that not all pairings can be; roughly the same length and heft and both held in a two-handed grip, neither sword is going to cleave straight through the other or blow past it as a matter of course. (Obviously you can pit any weapon against any other weapon, but try a smallsword parry of 6 against a longsword cut, or see if you can stab a spear-wielder with your knife. I’ll wait.) When weapons have wildly different strengths and weaknesses, I find that it’s harder to use the fight theatrically.

Because that’s my perennial question: how do you translate faithfully-reconstructed or living-tradition martial arts into fight choreography, particularly for the stage? I’ve never worked on film; I imagine there’s more freedom to be martially accurate in your storytelling, given that the action is playing to a single point, the camera, which has a limited and adjustable frame; you have the ability to cut from shot to shot; and you only have to get it right once, not at every show for a full run. I’m not saying film is easier, just that some of the challenges of live theater are accounted for! But the street-to-stage “translation” issue is one reason I’ve never gotten super deep into any particular martial art. Martiality for its own sake doesn’t hold my interest; the whole time I’m just thinking, “Would it be safe on stage?” and “What story does it tell?” Maybe I started my love affair with stage combat too early, and maybe my interests are too narrow… I’m glad that there are people like Braun out there, who, chatting after the workshop, groused that not enough people read Capo Ferro in the original Italian, but that’s never going to be me.

Tony’s wife Mary was also there. I knew she’d handled some of the workshop logistics, but I didn’t expect that she would also have a Ph.D. in cell biology, wear awesome armor-patterned leggings, and, acting as a third teacher when we broke off into pairs to swing weapons, matter-of-factly rescue my neighbor from her mansplaining partner. So, basically, #lifegoals.

And, yes, we did partner up and move around, but with 25 mostly-inexperienced people in a space never meant for it, the experience was somewhat, if you’ll excuse the pun, blunted. Still, it was more fighting than I’ve been getting in lately, and I had to frequently remind myself to relax and have fun in the moment instead of getting distracted thinking about how much I miss this part of my life.

I managed not to be a weird fangirl, although when Tony mentioned that he also teaches fighting on horseback, at that point I may have blurted out “BE MY FRIEND.” His combat haven Rancho Indalo is right here in Southern California,  too — tantalizingly close! Also, to my eternal frustration, my copy of Braun’s book is in my storage unit up north, or I would have asked him to sign it! But pictures did happen:

 

With Tony (left) and Braun (right).
I don’t have any Highlander-specific gear,
but a Queen t-shirt comes pretty close, non?

 

I wish I could have stayed for more fight workshops or some of the con events! In particular, I would love to chat with Peter Wingfield, who in addition to playing fan favorite Methos on the show, recently resumed his interrupted medical career and is now a resident down in San Diego — how wildly cool is that?! — #lifegoals part deux! But right after the workshop, it was back on the bus and back to school just in time for my afternoon lab session. I was so, so happy to be able to go at all, though, and as always, I love to take classes on off-the-wall topics that give me something to think about — especially from two (lifetong?) friends who clearly love what they do, and who have made things that are very dear to me. 🙂

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For the millionth time, HIRE A FIGHT DIRECTOR

November 8, 2017

I’ve written about why you should hire a fight director even if it’s “just a slap”; I’ve written about the potential benefits of hiring a fight director, even an inexperienced one, instead of hiring nobody. Now I’m going to write about some goddamn common sense.

Last April, though I only saw the article recently, two New Zealand high school students sustained serious injuries during a production of Sweeney Todd, when unsafe props were brought in and then improperly rehearsed and deployed. I’m talking, of course, about the straight razor the Demon Barber uses to dispatch his victims.

Feel that little chill go up your spine at the thought of children slitting each other’s throats? Okay, good. Now, why did the adults in charge of this production not have the same aversion to that scenario?

CNN reported,

In comments broadcast on TVNZ, school head Stephen Cole told reporters Thursday that the students were wounded by a prop razor “covered in all sorts of duct tape and foam and paper.”
“It’s a razor, but it’s been filed down and bound with various things,” he said, adding that the prop did not have a sharp edge and had been used during rehearsals without any problem.
“It was deemed important to make it as realistic as possible,” he told reporters.

Cole sounds like he works for the Trump administration: it was filed down, but also covered, and there was tape and foam and paper, and somehow it still looked more “realistic” than a prop razor?

Right. Okay.

headache

Taping sharp edges works when you’re trying to prevent accidental grazes — not onstage, but in the knife bin at a thrift store or when throwing away X-acto blades. In these scenarios, no one is applying force against the tape with the sharp edge of the knife; when you tape a knife and then use it on someone, you’re doing exactly what the knife needs in order to cut through your “protective” layer. That is how knives work. (Fight directors are not the only keepers of this particular piece of knowledge, or so I thought.)

Asked by a reporter whether a plastic prop blade should have been used instead, [Cole] replied, “In hindsight that may be a reasonable point.”

Hindsight, hell; according to the Theatre People article, the school was warned beforehand by a local prop supplier.

Guys, please, I am begging you, listen to experts.

Say you go to see a doctor because your knee hurts and she asks if you’ve had any blurry vision lately. You have, so you’re like MY KNEE IS NOT EVEN CONNECTED TO MY EYE HOW DID YOU READ MY MIND!?!?! She didn’t. She had special knowledge of what to look for. Any idiot can read the Wikipedia article on reactive arthritis and think, “duh, it’s part of the classic triad of symptoms!”, but the hard part is acquiring and applying a body of knowledge in real time. When you say your knee hurts, a doctor doesn’t look only at your knee; similarly, a fight director isn’t just there for the big set-piece sword fights. When I’m working on a show, I notice every time someone drops or throws a prop, discards a piece of clothing onstage, or stands on a table. If you’re looking at a taped-up razor thinking, “duh, just don’t press too hard,” a fight director will look at the same thing and think of how everyone speeds up and hits harder once there’s an audience. A fight director will think to ask if we’re rehearsing with the actual props. Our body of knowledge allows us to see problems before anyone gets hurt.

A fight director is only a luxury if safety is a luxury.

Fight Song: “Tik Tak”

September 19, 2017

Kesha’s new album came up in conversation the other day, and I remembered that I’ve had this little parody sitting in my email drafts folder for like three years. I have the whole music video storyboarded in my head, but sadly, it’s probably going to stay there — I’m not a filmmaker, and medical school has this thing where they want you to study all the time. I’m extra sad because the real music video for “Tik Tak” is pretty low-budget and we could definitely get the same vibe going for a parody video, just, you know, with more swords and doublets.
kesha inigo

 

“Tik Tak”

Wake up in the mornin’ feelin’ like Musashi
(I said good day, sir)
Grab my oar, I’m out the door, lookin’ for Tycho Brahe
(I am for you)
Yeah, you’re rich and yeah, you’re right, but that means Samurai Jack
Cause I can fight five rings around you with one arm at my back

I’m writin’ poetry about my nose, nose
Keepin’ you on your toes, toes
Cuttin’ buttons off your clothes, clothes

Drop chop and flirtin’ with all the ladies
Goin’ up to the parties
Tryna get up in thatduende

[CHORUS]
Don’t stop, pommel pop
Better get your parries up
All right, gonna fight
At the break of daylight

Tik tak, drive ’em back
Better stay on the attack, oh
Woah-oh oh oh
Woah-oh oh oh

Ain’t got a care in world cause I got plenty of steel
Bet all the money in my pocket I could make you kneel
Now, the dudes are linin’ up cause they hear we got swagger
But we’ll cut ’em to the quick with our rapier and dagger

I’m talkin’ bout everybody gettin’ tight, tight
Snaps are flyin’ left and right, right
Gonna smack him if he doesn’t wanna fight, fight

Now, now, we goin’ til they kick us out, out
Or the watchmen shut us down, down
Watchmen shut us down, down
Prince gon’ shut us… down
(Rebellious subjects! Enemies to peace!)

[CHORUS]

[BRIDGE]
You work me up
You cut me down
My heart, it pounds
Yeah, you got me
With my hands up
You got me now
You win that round
Yeah, you got me

You work me up
You cut me down
My heart, it pounds
Yeah, you got me
With my hands up
Put your guard up
Put your guard up

Now, the party don’t start till I walk in

[CHORUS]

[FIN]

I initially thought of writing this because my old renfaire fight director called an extended series of moving 3-4-3-4 attacks “tic tacs,” but I’ve never heard the term anywhere else. Have you?

56 cuts in 30 seconds?!

July 14, 2017

Cuts as in “edits,” sadly, not cuts as in “wow, that guy with the knife is really fast.” 😛

I’m generally a fan of the Netflix Marvel shows, but Iron Fist was a hot mess, and Sam and I decided to stop watching before I formulated thoughts one way or another about the fights. But recently I’ve been on a kick of listening to Kevin Smith’s reviews, and when he was talking about Iron Fist, he mentioned that a particular 30-second fight scene contains more than 50 camera cuts, which piqued my interest. Here’s the clip:

 

I tried to count… and I got lost right away. So I downloaded the clip, opened it in my video editor, and counted with the benefit of frame-by-frame advancing. Ha! And as long as I was there, I added a running tally in the corner and a fun “ding!” sound to help highlight where the changes are. I only got to 54 cuts, where the original post said 56, but potayto, potahto. This scene needs maybe more cuts than average, because of the way the shelves break up the space, but this is nuts! My sound effect was 1.1 seconds long, and there were only two shots in the whole clip that lasted longer than that. Here it is again, with numbers and dings:

 

Then I went back and made the numbers red when I was pretty sure we’re looking at Finn Jones’s stunt double, David Armstrong:

 

Out of 54 shots, Iron Fist appears in 43, and it looks like about 3/4 of those are Jones and 1/4 Armstrong, doing the usual stunt guy things: getting a shelf dropped on his head, having something pointy aimed at him, swinging through a wall of boxes, and delivering the moves that are most likely to be dangerous to the other guy. Finn Jones’s face is actually in a lot of the scene, and I think they made the choice to have a choppy-looking fight that was obviously mostly Jones, rather than designing longer shots around a stunt double. A lot has been written about Iron Fist‘s tight schedule, and the relative difficulty of shooting a superhero whose trademark fighting style is highly technical but who, unlike Daredevil, doesn’t wear a mask. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to this fight. Unfortunately, the writing has no such excuses, although maybe he’ll be better as part of the Defenders — and maybe without that crunched shooting schedule, they’ll give Finn Jones some more time to train and learn the fights, and we won’t get fight salad like this again.

The Late Late Show needs a fight director

March 26, 2017

Med school leaves me with very little free time, but I’ve gotten into the habit of watching clips from late-night television — they’re just the right length to accompany a study break and a snack. When I saw this one just now…

 

 

…I yelled at my computer screen, “WHAT THE HELL JAMES YOU ARE A THEATER PERSON YOU ONLY HAVE TO TURN IT LIKE 15 DEGREES!”

Unlike most late-night talk shows, this one tapes in L.A. Hit me up next time, guys. 🙂

And I thought I could not love Tim Gunn any more

November 26, 2016

Fighters young and old

August 19, 2016

This little guy had me crying with laughter:

 

And this fierce lady is my newest role model: