Summer of 2016, on the set of The Commuter inside London’s massive production fortress Pinewood Studios, director Jaume Collet-Serra calls wrap for the day on Liam Neeson. This could be the moment when an A-list actor might be chauffeured to a cushy suite at the nearest five-star hotel to relax. But that is not where Neeson is going. Instead he’s heading upstairs to a makeshift martial arts room for two hours of fight training with his stunt team, led by long-time stunt coordinator, Mark Vanselow.
“The filming days were long, but he always showed up ready to work,” says Vanselow. “Those hours are spent going through each movement in succession so that we can get it as fluid as possible before shooting it the next morning. Everyone knows that those scenes are going to look better with Liam actually doing the fights, and the audience wants to see him in there doing them.”
Neeson’s portrayal of ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in Taken, which Vanselow also worked on, has been cemented in Hollywood history as one of the best action performances you want to see again and again, and the film set in motion a high-demand to see the now 65-year-old actor take out bad guys on the big screen. And while Vanselow first got the job because he had a similar build and look to Neeson, the award-winning stuntman laughs that working for the actor means the times he gets in front of the camera are fewer than you’d expect. “Every once in awhile I step in to get punched or fall down.”
Mens Journal recently caught up with Vanselow at the headquarters of his company, Action Horizons, about what’s like working for the Irish badass, how those Taken fight scenes came together, and more.
How did you start working with Liam as a stunt coordinator?
I was cast as his stunt double while they were doing Gun Shy, and we just continued to work together from there. During production on Taken and The A-Team we got closer, and it became clear that there would be a lot of benefit for everyone if I could assist on the preproduction as well, since I was becoming so familiar with what fit for him in the action scenes. I know what works for his skill set and his size. I was also in a position where I knew what kind of fights we had already done, so that we weren’t repeating a sequence from another movie.
How did the fight scenes for that first Taken come together?
Everyone from the production was really focused on making sure that Liam did as much of the action as possible, especially the fights. The styles we practiced were Wing Chun and a hybrid Pencak Silat. That was a lot of fun because we really started on the economy of motion work. There were weeks spent with the fight coordinator Olivier Schneider to create those pieces, and that is all Liam you see on the screen.
How did that set up the trajectory of future projects?
That set the tone for the projects that we have done since, where we have these long rehearsal processes. No matter where we are in the world we will find places to build fight rooms so that we can get him dialed into a particular sequence. During the filming of Taken 2 in Turkey, we had to shoot this epic final fight, so we booked out an extra room at this beautiful hotel, moved out all the furniture, and spent days mapping it out. The actual fight went down in this amazing 500-year-old Hammam.
That sounds like a lot of work for Liam on top of the shooting schedule.
There is a lot of effort on Liam’s own part to make sure that he has what it takes physically. There is a training routine that he will do at the gym between takes, in the morning and at night. He knows how to keep himself strong and limber. There in the fight room we have a warm-up that we did with the fight choreographer, Roy Taylor, on The Commuter. Every time we have to make sure that he is stretched out and flexible before going through the sequences, because nobody wants him to come up after a long day on set, pull a muscle and shut down production.
I have to know the story behind that kitchen scene in the first Taken movie when he first chases down the guys who kidnapped the daughter.
The story has become a bit of movie lore. They brought in an ex-SAS guy, Mick Gould, and asked him, “How would you clear this room?” Then he methodically went through how he would clear the room. That is how it started, and then we all got in there with the French stunt guys and worked it out strike by strike.
There are some great sequences in The Commuter, but what’s one you are especially proud of?
I have to say there is the one scene with the guitar that we did as a one-shot, continuous filming, that came out really cool. I didn’t step in there once, it’s all Liam. And it was really unique because you have to run through the whole sequence without stopping or cutting. That meant there was a lot of rehearsal time involved with the other actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, as well.
How do these sequences go from planning to execution?
I work with a group called Action Horizons in California. For this movie we were able to flesh out a lot of the fights before we got to London. I shoot my guys going through the motions and send those ideas off to the director, in this case Jaume. Once we have figured out the logistics, that is when Liam gets involved, and that is when it gets fun. He just has a really great mind for it. He will say whether he likes one move over the other, and he will throw in his own suggestions. Then it is time to get into the rehearsal process.
Tell me more about the crazy airplane bathroom fight that goes down in Non-Stop.
That bathroom scene was a lot of fun. We combined a lot of tactics. I had talked to some guys who were in the Secret Service to see what kinds of moves they would use in the field. Then we built a little box that we beat each other up in for a while. When the two stunt doubles are in the spot together, you push things a little harder. You build up that muscle memory and you get stronger as you go. I can say I can take a punch better than I could in the beginning of the process.
There is some gun work in The Commuter as well. I imagine that Liam has gotten pretty comfortable with a pistol at this point.
There was a lot of gun work in the first Taken, but we really got focused on it when we did the A-Team because we had this great military technical advisor, Paul Maurice. That was the first time we got into the high-speed reloads. He opened our eyes to a lot of things. Now it has become second nature. That was the start of us focusing on the weapon work, making sure that the gun tactics were sound. How he used it. There is a lot of time spent on counting bullets, and making sure that we aren’t shooting more than the clips would handle.
The Commuter hits DVD, Blu-Ray, and On Demand from Lionsgate on April 17.