Black Adam Fight Coordinator Chris Brewster On How To Stage An Epic Superhero Fight [Exclusive Interview]

Chris Brewster has performed stunts since he was a teenager. Brewster, who started learning martial arts at the age of four, has performed in a variety of movies and shows over the last decade. He was a stuntman in "Captain America: Civil War," "Daredevil," HBO's "Watchmen," and even took a punch from Russell Crowe in "The Nice Guys." For "Daredevil," he was also the fight choreographer, in addition to doubling for lead actor Charlie Cox. His credits as fight choreographer, stunt coordinator, and stunt performer also include "Loki," "Ms Marvel," "Doom Patrol," "Lovecraft Country," "Black Panther," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Django Unchained," and so much more. 

Not to mention, Brewster was once set on fire for the "Fright Night" remake.

For "Black Adam," he was the fight coordinator and worked with fellow stunt coordinator Thomas Harper. "A legend," as Brewster accurately says of his colleague. With the titular character of Black Adam and the Justice Society of America, including Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Brewster brought his arsenal of knowledge and talents in designing action faithful to the characters. 

Recently, the in-demand fight coordinator took time to share his experience on "Black Adam" (and "Daredevil" and "Captain America" and more) with /Film.

'If nothing can hurt you, you would have no need to defend yourself'

Was it a big advantage for you the fact that your main star has wrestled, and with Aldis Hodge, someone with martial arts background? 

Absolutely. Working with those two specifically, you've got Dwayne Johnson playing the biggest, strongest, most badass superhero there is and he happens to be the biggest, strongest, most badass human there is on the planet. It was a very easy transformation for him. For Aldis, Hawkman is somebody who has lived a million different lives and each life he has perfected a different martial art and learned different styles along the way. To be able to teach somebody choreography for Hawkman who didn't have some kind of background in martial arts and somebody who couldn't watch choreography and immediately adapt to that movement, it would've been impossible. So we got really blessed with both Dwayne Johnson and with Aldis.

Which styles of martial arts did you use for Hawkman?

Well, the cool thing about a character like Hawkman is, in order to show the fact that he has done so many different martial arts, we had to pull from the most extreme styles of martial arts. Most Japanese martial arts have very similar style of flow. Japanese is mostly known for very hard style, low stances, strong single techniques. Whereas Chinese martial arts are a little bit flower-y. They have more of a kung fu energy to them.

So we tried to take a little bit of kung fu, we took some Wing Chun, we took some traditional Japanese karate, kind of like a Shōrin-ryū style. And then we incorporated some capoeira, which is a Brazilian kind of dance martial art, and really just reached for the most polar opposite martial arts we could find. He does a lot of weaponry. So we got really into Kali and Arnis, got really into just different kinds of stick fighting and things that somebody who walks around with different weapons would actually use in their arsenal.

Even when you have those two characters fighting in the sky, how much do you still try to ground it in realism? For example, with those martial arts styles, how would Hawkman block a right hook from someone like Black Adam? 

Well, as far as superheroes go, there's always a lot of leeway as far as the real world and what you would actually do. But what's really cool is trying to find the truth in the movements. And what was really fun to work on is the dichotomy between Black Adam and Hawkman. Because Black Adam, he's style-less. He doesn't need any kind of style. If you're impenetrable, if nothing can hurt you, you would have no need to defend yourself. You would never block anything. You would never need to have a specific martial art to defend yourself. He could take any punishment and then hit somebody once and they're dust. It was cool to create a style-less style and then the most stylized style you can have. 

Black Adam has never been challenged at this point, I mean he's virtually untouchable, so he's got a very, very confident style and way about him. Whereas it's cool to play with Hawkman's arsenal where he will come with one attack and if that doesn't work, you will see him actually re-engage and configure a new plan of attack, a new way to try to break through. Even in the mid-air fight sequences, you can see a lot of character in every single movement that each one of them do.

Do you have any conversations with VFX team about how stay consistent in terms of those fighting styles?

There's a very good communication going on every step of the way between the stunt team and the VFX team. We go back and forth. A lot of times VFX will come up with an animation of a concept of what a fight would look like in the air. And then we will basically take their idea and add on to it. We'd add actual movement to it. We would watch any animation where they have two characters fighting in the air, and then we'd say, "Okay, well, if this character grabs this guy, this is how he would knock his hand off and this would be the first attack that he does." And then they would basically take our stunt previs and kind of reanimate that into their animation. Then by the time we went to camera, we had a pretty eclectic blend of their animation and our stunt previs put together. You could actually get a good vibe for the real energy that you would feel in the action sequence.

I have to give a lot of credit to the VFX team because a lot of times the stunt team and the VFX team are a little more segregated where it's like, "You do your version and we'll do our version," and the director will pick which one he wants. This was a lot more collaborative where they would give ideas to us and then we would shoot our version of it and then they would take that and animate what we were doing on the ground, but they would animate it up in the air. And then a lot of times we would actually choreograph fights while we had people on wires fighting in the air. They would basically take that, get rid of the background and put in the sky behind them so you could see what it would actually look like if they were thousands of feet up in the air.

'Every year the level of wire work is just magnified by a million'

Has wirework gotten any easier over the years? Any notable advancements? 

Oh, well, every year the level of wire work is just magnified by a million. Luckily, we're in a generation where all the generations before us have done a lot of trial and error with wirework. A lot of the proper stunt veterans have taken some really, really gnarly wire gags and have learned it's not the safest way to do it. They've kind of reprogrammed the system to find safer ways to do dynamic action in the air and still land in a very controlled, safe manner.

Now we're able to do action sequences and wire gags with the actors that stunt people weren't even able to do 20 years ago. We've got high speed winches, which are just giant robot machines flinging people through the air at crazy speeds. But we've got them built to such a science now that we've got Dwayne Johnson and Aldis Hodge flying all over and landing softly in one spot.

Nice. Say for Black Adam's introduction, what else did you want to establish right off the bat about both his character and power?

To me, Black Adam fighting humans would be like an adult football player in a bouncy house with a bunch of children attacking him. They're nothing, just smack them all out of the way. Obviously, you want the action to be cool. You don't want him just flicking people and then flying away. But we had to show that an entire army is nothing for this man. He could take out half the world like that.

As you said, you have more leeway with superheroes when it comes to departing from reality, but for characters like Captain America and Daredevil, do you have different rules for those characters?

Well, with Daredevil specifically, yes, 100%. Captain America, again, you kind of play that. You're walking the line of super serum, he's stronger than any human. He is faster than any human. He's basically human plus 25%. Daredevil's human. I mean, he's got super senses. He's honed his hearing, he's honed his sense of smell. But he's human. He can't jump higher than your average person. He can't take bullets and walk away. He's just human all the way.

So whereas somebody like Black Adam or even Captain America, they're virtually indestructible, so they're a lot more aggressive, they're a lot more forward in their fighting. Obviously, more so Black Adam, because he kind of plays that thin line between good guy and anti-hero. Captain America's good guy through and through. Everything he does is prim and proper so he doesn't need to defend himself, but he just kind of stands proud. Black Adam is always on the attack, and Daredevil has to block. He has to defend himself.

'It takes one person in the background of a fight to ruin the entire fight'

The elevator fight in "Captain America: Winter Soldier" is great. When you're performing in such a limited space, what are the challenges?

So one of the coolest things about the elevator fight scene, Tommy Harper was the stunt coordinator of "Captain America: Winter Soldier." He was also the main stunt coordinator for "Black Adam." I started as his fight coordinator and then he kind of brought me up to be one of the coordinators alongside him. But he's the guy. He is the legend. He is the absolute top of the stunt world, my idol and the person who's paved the road for me to do what I do.

So he called me up basically the day that he got the job to coordinate "Captain America: Winter Soldier." He was like, "We want to shoot a pre-vis and it's a very, very difficult scene to envision. There are 10 people attacking Captain America in a very small elevator." We literally built the elevator out of boxes and pads and everything, and we just started walking through the space seeing what was doable. 

Again, you always want to find the trailer moments, but at the same time, there's nothing worse than a very unrealistic move. There's nothing worse than seeing somebody do a big setup for a move and seeing three people just waiting for them to do the move instead of hitting them while they're setting up. We try to find the reality in the movement, but still stylize it and make it as flashy and dynamic and exciting as we possibly can.

We like to choreograph a fight scene and obviously think of the hero and the main characters first, but then we'll go through the fight scene and play every single character in the fight. What are you doing at this moment? Because it takes one person in the background of a fight to ruin the entire fight. As soon as you see the main character go by them and they do nothing, it's like, "No, that guy would've done something." If there's ever a moment that feels forced or fake, we're like, "No, we have to fix that." We'll go back and redesign until everything makes sense to us.

For "Black Adam," what were some scenes where you and [cinematographer] Lawrence Sher discussed where the best place is to position the camera for a fight scene?

Well, my favorite thing about a high level DP like Lawrence is the collaborative energy of it all. There are a lot of DPs who go in very single focused, "This is what we're going to be doing." Obviously, somebody who's done "Joker" and massive, massive films, you'd expect him to come in with a little more ego, a little more, "This is exactly how I'm going to do it. Don't get in my way." But somebody like him comes in with enough confidence to say, "What do you think? This is an action shot. What do you think is the best shot for it?" We spent a lot of time sitting and talking and saying, "I'd put a camera right here. I think this is where you get the best energy coming at the camera and stuff." 

He's a genius. 90% of the time he was like, "Oh yeah, no, I was planning on putting a camera there. I already got one kind of where you're saying" and stuff. And then he always had really cool add-ons. If I was like, "Hey, this is the best spot for an impact shot, you're going to see him hit the ground and we're going to break through the floor and do all this stuff, so we should have a camera right here," he was like, "Oh, absolutely. We'll have one right there, but I want to follow him this way all the way into the ground and then we'll cut into your shot." It was a very fun, collaborative experience to throw ideas back and forth with somebody of that level.

'He's just got it down to a science'

There's a nod to Sergio Leone in "Black Adam." What was the fun in bringing that action scene to life?

To me, that's the biggest evolution in the fight coordinating world in the last 10 years or so. It's like a dancer team with martial arts techniques. Over the years, it's become much more action design where we're pre-vis, we're giving a concept for the way we think it should be shot. So, we're getting a lot more involved with those character moments. The difference between a good fight scene and an amazing fight scene, an amazing fight scene is what will pull the audience in. It'll make the audience feel what the main character is feeling, and the only way to do that is to give those moments. We always try to find really, really good moments to show what the character is feeling so the audience can go on the journey with that character.

Is it true Dwayne Johnson memorizes his moves in 30 seconds?

Oh, he's unreal. So Aldis came in and trained with us for about three or four months. Hard. He trained six, eight hours every single day for three months before we even started prepping the film. Dwayne Johnson was going movie to movie and doing all the things that he does, so he started with us two weeks before we started filming. And in most cases I would show him the fight scene on set while we were getting ready to do that fight scene. We had two scenes that we really got to break down and work a little more in depth with him. Most of the fight scenes that he did, we would show him that day and he would watch it and go, "Okay. Okay, good. So that starts with the right hand and then I grab with my left? Okay, got it." He had it dialed that easily. His years and years of wrestling and then obviously years and years of being one of the biggest action actors of our time, he's just got it down to a science. It's incredible.

What were the two action scenes you both had more time to work on? 

We had a little bit more time working on the apartment scene just because there's a lot of wire work involved with that. Every time he's throwing Hawkman around the room, Hawkman's on a wire, getting ratcheted all over. So we had to have a little bit more time just to dial in. Once you grab him, it's very important that you step on this side of the wire before you throw him across the room just to keep it safe and everything. We had, when I say a little more time, we literally had one day with him on that one. And then the JSA fight when the Justice Society first meets him and they come out of the Hawk Cruiser, we had about a day and a half to dial that in.

'I got completely knocked out on the fifth take'

"Daredevil" had such fun one takes. For the hallway fight, how was that experience? 

Man, for the hallway, I got completely knocked out on the fifth take. They wanted to call it. We had an almost perfect take on the fourth take, and then on the fifth one we were like, "Oh, we want to tweak these little things. It's almost perfect, but we can do better." On the fifth one, I got knocked out. I was out cold and they wanted to bring me to the hospital, but I was like, "No, no, just give me a few minutes." And literally after that take, I had way more energy. All of the endorphins were kicking in and everything like that. So we did seven more takes and it was the 12th take that was the perfect, perfect take. I mean, it's just a moment that I will never, ever forget.

Then going into season 3, my deal with the producers was I will definitely sign on for season 3 but you have to give me a chance to beat the oner from season 1 because everyone's always going to say, "We want another oner." I'm like, "We're always going to be trying to match season one. I don't want to match it. I want to beat it. You got to give me the chance to just blow season one out of the water and come up with something bigger and better." It was awesome.

Back when we thought that Netflix Marvel was going to be doing season 4, I had put together literally the most epic oner in history. I still have it in a notebook. I've got every detail from the camera movements to the choreography to wire gags that are literally pre-placed and everything and, hopefully, it works out [for] "Daredevil: Born Again."

My last question for you: Stunt artists and coordinators usually have the best anecdotes, so do you have a go-to water cooler story about a day on the job?

It's about one of my first days of work ever. One of my mentors in the business, Bob Brown, basically I get a call to come in and do a fight scene. And he's like, "Hey, how tall are you?" I'm like, "I'm five ten." He goes, "Five nine? Great. What do you weigh?" At the time I weighed 160. "About 160." He goes, "Five nine, 150. Perfect. Come on in. I'm going to have you fight Jackie tomorrow." I go, "Okay." So I flew out to New Mexico and I thought Jackie was just some guy in the stunt team that I was supposed to know and whatever. And I got there and it was Jackie Chan. He came over, introduced himself to me, and I went completely starstruck. I couldn't even say my name and then followed him around. About five minutes later I was actually able to introduce myself. Then I got to do a pretty awesome fight scene with Jackie Chan. So, that was my intro to the stunt world.

"Black Adam" is now playing in theaters.