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Fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez on The Old Guard's epic action - Exclusive interview

The Old Guard is a hit for Netflix, with over 70 million viewers in its first week of release, owing much to the combined efforts of Oscar-winning star Charlize Theron, director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and writer Greg Rucka, adapting from his own comic book of the same name. With its gritty, visceral, eye-level handheld camera action and up-close-and-personal brawls, The Old Guard is perhaps just as indebted to its stunt crew, including fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez. 

He's worked in various stunt and fight-related roles behind-the-scenes on John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2; The Expendables and The Expendables 2; three of the four Avengers movies; Thor: Ragnarok; Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley QuinnFate of the Furious; Machete Kills; and Jurassic World, to name just a few. 

In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Looper, he talks about the dedication of The Old Guard cast, practical stunts and CG; ancient weapons and guns; preparation and choreography; and what Charlize has in common with Keanu Reeves.

Prepping The Old Guard cast

The Old Guard features characters who have been fighting for hundreds and in some cases even thousands of years. What sort of prep goes into devising the masterplan for the fighting styles?

Right away we get the script and break it down, reading through it. We also talk to the director about what kind of film she wants, from the conceptual to the choreography.

Given that they were all coming from different backgrounds, different timelines, we had to research all different kinds of martial arts; HEMA [Historical European Martial Arts], Krav Maga, Arnis [also known as] Eskrima/Escrima. I could name a bunch. But just going in and just really taking apart in pieces and bringing them together to train and to come up with this story, within the choreography, and train the actors with it. 

Then we meet the actors and assess them, see what their abilities are, seeing what we can do within the four months of training that we have with them. We have even less with some of them.

As a choreographer, I really like to do things that I know the actor can do and still tell the story. I love having the actor doing a hundred percent of all their fights and not putting in doubles. A lot of times, for my personal taste, when you're putting in cheats, shooting behind somebody, and a there's double doing anything, it kind of takes me out of the experience. I like the audience to really be in tune and really see the actor physically perform.

Up close and personal

You certainly can see the actors quite a bit more than in a lot of movies that are stunt-heavy, especially with all the close-quarters fighting. There's a lot of up close and personal stuff.

Yeah, that was cool. I really liked that. It was for me the first time to actually incorporate the old medieval weaponry within modern-day, you know, guns, modern-day weaponry, and how that'd be incorporated. And how you actually would have to close the distance to be able to use their archaic weaponry. So that to me was really cool.

And then from there, showing the different styles, we thought of it like a digression. Charlize had her pistol and whatnot, and as they went through the fight scene, they digress from their weaponry, so they went from modern to Charlize at 6,000 years old with her ax. 

I loved how you had them using the guns as blunt-force instruments.

Absolutely. Thanks. Yeah, absolutely, and why not? Which it can be, they're as lethal as it would be getting shot. Those guns, they're heavy. They can definitely do significant damage to the opponent. And what it does, it's like being in close quarters, especially with the weapon they had, it's sometimes kind of hard to shoot somebody. It's easier, especially with multiple opponents. 

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne's airplane fight

Tell me a little bit about the planning and ideas that went into that particular scene on the airplane, where Charlize and KiKi fight it out in close-quarters. 

That one took the most planning and the most training for both of them, since they're being actor versus actor, in a close space, on a gimbal, on a plane that tilts side to side. We had a lot of elements to deal with, so we really hit it hard, right away, with that. We were already conceptualizing and getting it signed off as fast as we could. We broke it up into segments for Charlize and KiKi and just trained them until they were able to get the whole thing. We were just repping out like hundreds and thousands of times. And being in there, which is interesting, because you said it, it's close-quarters, and what can we do in there? How can they do the fight scene and also filming with cameras inside of there? Those are obstacles we had to deal with in there, but we were able to pull it off with a lot of preparation, especially conceptualizing with Gina and [cinematographer] Tami [Reiker], like how to put the cameras in there and to have them go at it, and to have them to do it a hundred percent then, which was awesome.

That's crazy. And from the insurance perspective too, you're like, "Yeah, I'm going to have Charlize Theron get in this fight. Sorry, insurance company."

Yeah, absolutely. And she was game, man. She's such a pleasure to work with, my favorite for sure. If I can pick two favorites, it would be her and Keanu [Reeves] for sure. Their willingness and their wanting-ness to learn, but not just specifically to learn moves just to learn the moves, but they really want to learn martial arts. Like they really were in it. They really enjoyed it, man, and that to me was so special, to have that type of person, like they were actually throwing people and really doing actual martial arts. I can't explain how happy I was to work with her with that.

That's been my impression of both of those performers as both a fan and journalist. Whether they came to it through the movies, they've embraced the lifestyle. They're both all in on this. As you said, they're not just training to choreograph a particular scene. They love it.

Yeah, they're taking it as a [lifestyle]. They practice it. When this coronavirus hit, everything slowed down, but Charlize wants to keep training and to keep learning martial arts because she just loved it. To me, that was really special to have a person to take that. [Martial artists] know how much greatness and what a gift it gives to us. For them to have this gift that we have is a special thing within itself.

Daniel's adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Baron Mordo in Doctor Strange, is in The Old Guard, but he's not really fighting. It did get me thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially knowing you worked a little bit on Thor: Ragnarok. Which scenes in Ragnarok were yours?

We did pickup scenes. I've got to reflect back on that for a second. What scenes did we do? Oh yeah, the fight between Loki and, I can't remember the character's name right now —

Valkyrie?

Yes, Valkyrie! Sorry.

Yeah, I thought so, and you know why? That's a close-quarters fight on a plane, a spaceship, but...

Yeah, exactly. 

And they have knives, which I love.

Yeah, I love that too. We just did a little refining on that. My friend Jon Valera did most of that stuff. And then we did a little bit of stuff when what's-his-name was coming out of the plane with his two guns and shooting and fighting everybody —

Karl Urban, as Skurge?

Yeah, we did those two scenes.

Ragnarok is the superhero movie I've watched probably more than any other, save for The Crow. Watching The Old Guard, my mind went right to that fight between Loki and Valkyrie.

Absolutely, and that was the same, confined space, absolutely. Jon Valera, who fight choreographed that one, he's from my team, 87eleven, so it's the kind of training methods and the same mindset as we do our movies. It's a group of us in 87. It's myself, Jon Valera, Jonathan Eusebio, under Chad [Stahelski] and David [Leitch]. We just continue to try to break the mold, man, just try to create great action scenes.

Practical Action vs CGI

What would you say are the biggest differences coordinating stuff for the superhero genre, like the MCU movies, and more straightforward action films? You could, of course, argue that John Wick and even the Fast and the Furious movies, and of course this movie, with its supernatural element, that they're more closely related than we might think. But there are different limitations when you're dealing with the real world versus outer space.

Dealing with the outer space stuff, like dealing with the superhero stuff, like Avengers, you're really heavily relying a lot on CG, especially flying and hitting somebody and making them fly. We have some wire work, but there's a lot of CG help on that, and there are limitations for working on the PG-13 stuff. You can't go all out as you would on a rated R, so I feel held back sometimes with that. I do enjoy it. It does definitely give like great moments and stuff like that, but for me, being a martial artist, I like the raw and nitty-gritty stuff like John WickThe Old Guard, and Atomic Blonde. I'm a really big fan of that because you're actually really seeing and producing actors doing longer fight scenes. And I think it's challenging on both. I feel more satisfied and complete when dealing with real stuff, like real martial arts and real hand to hand combat, and able to express my choreography directing that. 

Charlize and "the kill room"

I've read that Charlize was actually injured on The Old Guard. What would you say was the most dangerous thing to put together?

Yeah, she got injured. She got injured a [few] times. I would say that definitely the kill room is a little trickier to be dealing with. It's dark, with the lighting, it was kind of hard to see.

That's the scene toward the beginning, right?

Correct, with all four of them going out there, all four actors. I would say the plane is really difficult, too. They're both different in their difficulty. The plane one, you're having an actor versus actor, on a moving gimbal, throwing punches, with cameras, everything's really tight. A tight space, you can easily roll an ankle or punch each other. That was more what I was worried about, them like really smacking each other in the face or something.

But being in the kill room, you have a lot more elements to deal with. You have squibs. There are more stunt elements. You have blank rounds going off. You have guns, and you also have weaponry, like swords and an ax, and more actors with the stunt. It was a lot more to worry about with that one. They prepped really hard for it, and the stunt guys were just amazing on there. It worked out really, really well. 

The same with the plane. KiKi and Charlize did get bruised up. Let me tell you, their arms, a little bit of the stomach, a little bit of the back, they were whacking each other a little bit. We padded them as much as we can, but sometimes when that adrenaline's going, boy, oh, they were going. They were throwing bombs at each other. A couple times, I was worried. "Did she smack you in the face?" but they didn't, thank goodness. 

They really did a really good job.

Improvised weapons, Jackie Chan and Dolph Lundgren

Where does improvised weaponry / environmental stuff come into the picture? Is that in the script, like "She sees an ax on the wall and she grabs it," or does that come up in the choreography?

That one came within the script. I'm a fan of that too, using the environment... I'm a Jackie Chan fan, of course, and he's a master of using the environment. But yeah, that one was definitely in the script.

One of the things that first got me super interested in that idea is there's a great scene in Rapid Fire when Brandon Lee slides under a table and then kicks the table up into a guy's face. I'd never seen anything like that before, and I was just like, "Oh yeah, you can use the room!" That whole movie is him using the environment in all of the fights.

Exactly. He was such a big star. Man, what a loss. I loved him in Showdown in Little Tokyo. I was watching Brandon, too. I was like, "Wow." Huge Bruce Lee fan, too, of course, like you, I'm sure. It's just good stuff right there.

I know you did some work on The Expendables. When I interviewed Dolph Lundgren, one of my heroes, I brought up Showdown in Little Tokyo. He was like, "How about that hot tub scene?"

He's a cool dude. A big thing for me, because like I'm a big Rocky fan as well, I got to coordinate Creed II. I was so stoked. I got my picture of a lifetime. I got [Sylvester Stallone] and Dolph, Rocky IV right there, with me. To me, dude, that was one of the highlights of my career so far, being a fan junkie. "I got to work with you guys!" It was really cool.

And you were around for the process when they were finding Victor Drago, right, the son?

Yes, I was. I was around during that. And it was Sly's pick, man. Sly found him and picked him out, just like he found Dolph Lundgren, the same thing, and boom. And Florian [Munteanu] did a really good job. He was really game. He was awesome. He was really good. I mean, he came in and he's a real fighter, so he came in really hitting, hitting the pads. I go, "Florian, this ain't going to be a real fight, bro. You're not going to be fighting him 100 percent. You'll end this movie, bro." He was funny.

Why action movie fans will love The Old Guard

What do you think are the biggest selling points about The Old Guard for action movie fans like us?

The selling points would definitely be the incredible action that an Oscar-winning actor is doing. I think for sure the storytelling within itself, within the fights. I think the scripted stuff is really good. I love the comic book. It's really cool. I think comic book fans are going to love it. For the martial arts junkies out there, I think it's going to be a very eye-pleasing thing to see, to see all the different martial arts all come together, collaborate as one. John Wick fans, they're going to see a little piece of that. But also but with the people who are fans with the weaponry of swords and axes, I think it has [ a lot to offer]. And I think for females as well, it's going to be a good selling point for that, to see actually female actors perform and kick ass. And people are going to believe they're doing it because they are doing it. I think those are the big selling points on that, for sure.