Vic Armstrong has made a career out of jumping from helicopters, falling off horses and leaping from trains — and he's got the scars to prove it. He tells stories from his long career on set in The True Adventures Of The World's Greatest Stuntman.
Armstrong tells NPR's Neal Conan that he got one of his first filmmaking gigs in You Only Live Twice, the 1967 James Bond film.
"As a budding young stuntman," Armstrong says, "Bond was the movie genre to get into."
Armstrong remembers that when he first arrived on-set, he could hardly believe his eyes.
"There was a building as big as St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which was all made out of scaffolding," he explains. "Inside was this amazing interior of a volcano, with a rocket-launching machine in there [and] a helipad. The roof opened and the helicopter could actually fly in."
The film's stunt coordinators took a look at Armstrong and issued a challenge: Slide from the top of the roof down to the ground on a rope while firing a machine gun.
"I looked at it, and it was 125 feet, and I said of course I can," Armstrong recalls, "thinking, 'They are completely mad. There's no way.' "
But he got the job and was ultimately asked to climb 125 feet above the scene and enter it as a ninja.
"You were up there and you're sweating bullets. There's safety wires. You're just sitting on these little girders," he says.
Crawling into position, Armstrong heard his colleague Joe Powell muttering as he set up the stunt, knotting the ropes that were responsible for keeping Armstrong from falling to his death. He remembers Powell jokingly ask himself, "Is it left over right, or right over left? Oh, that'll be all right."
Stunt Double To The Stars
Armstrong's ultimate goal was to be a stunt double for a famous actor, and he got his chance with one of the Indiana Jones movies. In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Armstrong jumped from a horse onto a tank as Harrison Ford's stunt double,
"Harrison Ford has been a great friend of the stunt community," Armstrong says. But he says Ford deserves a lot of credit for also doing stunts himself.
In a filming of Superman, a villain was supposed to throw a manhole cover at Superman, played by Christopher Reeve, hitting him in the stomach and knocking him back into a car.
According to Armstrong, Reeve liked doing his own stunts.
"Chris was one of the guys that desperately wanted to be every ounce of his character on-screen," he says.
So, he recounts, when Armstrong was called in to double as Reeve in the manhole stunt, Reeve insisted on doing it himself. Armstrong bantered with Reeve, imploring him not get in the way of his paycheck for a hard day's work, and they eventually shot the take with Armstrong.
By the end of the evening, Armstrong was pretty beaten up. He says he remembers Reeve walking by and saying, "Hey Vic, I'm really glad I didn't do that, buddy. Thank you."
Everything In Moderation
Today, Armstrong works in stunt coordinating and directing action units, which means he is instrumental in setting up action sequences, shot by shot.
He says that unless a director uses computer-generated images, or CGI, actors have to do some or part of the stunts so the camera can get shots of their faces.
So when Pierce Brosnan is seen going down the Thames River in a motorboat in one of the James Bond films, some of those shots are actually him. Armstrong says the tremendously dangerous stunts — like the boat's barrel roll — is where his team steps in.
And though CGI can be useful, Armstrong says that in the upcoming Superman — one of his latest projects — he's taking his stunts back to the basics.
He says the shots in Superman will be enhanced with some CGI, but only in moderation. He likens the technology to morphine.
"[It's] a fantastic drug for what it was invented for," Armstrong says, "but if you abuse it or overuse it, it's a killer."