Exclusive Interview: Greg Van Borssum – Stunt Co-Ordinator for ‘Mad Max’
I won’t lie, the name Greg Van Borssum was new to me this past Supanova. We took the chance to have a chat with him and, as you’re about to find out, the man is overflowing with amazing stories about insane stunts, Tom Hardy’s secret fear and clubbing penguins. That last one isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Listen or read below!
Funk: We’re the House of Geekery and we’re at Supanova Perth 2015 and we’re talking to…I’ll try to get this right…Greg Van Bassum?
Greg Van Borssum: Nah, got it wrong. Try again.
Funk: Bob Smith?
Funk: Van Borssum.
Greg: It’s like ‘awesome’ with an extra ‘B’. Or a ‘B’ added (laughs)
Funk: Awesome. Extra Borssum. You do a lot a different things around the place – motivational speaking, body building and, what you’re here promoting, you role in Mad Max: Fury Road. Can you tell us what you’ve done with that?
Greg: I don’t have any real ‘role’ with George (Miller – director of the Mad Max series). George and I are friends. We direct films together. We directed Happy Feet 1 and 2 together. When Mad Max came up for me in 1997, when I was a lot younger, I was 27, and we first started setting up the fight stuff it was almost unbelievable what we were trying to achieve. It fell over so many times I started to think we would never achieve it. In the end my chief roles, if you want to call them roles, was the principle fight choreographer, so I designed all the fight scenes and sequences, and I was the weapon supervisor so I designed all the gun scenes. I trained all the actors and all the stunt performers for those fight sequences and the gun fighting. And we had to co-ordinate all that with the motorbike guys, the Crusty (Demons of Dirt) boys. All that different stuff to make it good and solid and real.
Funk: We saw the film when it came out and it is IMMENSE in scale. We’ve heard that there was very little CGI, can you confirm what was done for real?
Greg: Yeah, look at the stunts – they’re practical. That’s essentially it. There’s stuff on the net now that shows behind the scenes and bits with elements that we build on, like background elements and sky, but it’s not the physical action. There’s a couple of moments where you see people are being flung off stuff where you couldn’t put a body on, so we’d use a Real Doll. Thanks to the porn industry for being so good and inventing Real Dolls! Except our ones have closable mouths.
Funk: The interview went south quickly!
Greg: Usually starts south and stays there. They were spring loaded so they’d react when they came off, they’d fling back. There were a couple of sequences where we used those, where someone’ll be flung under a truck. We wanted those to look real but didn’t want to go digital so we used these real dummies.
Funk: Did any of the dummies survive?
Greg: Yeah, they were good for about 12 hits!
Funk: That’s impressive!
Greg: It was really impressive.
Funk: A stuntman couldn’t take that kind of damage.
Greg: No, they do. We’ve got a lot of lads that take a lot of serious hard hits and keep coming back. We’re really stupid people.
Funk: Was there any time when you were filming and the stunts were playing out and you thought ‘oh god, we’ve lost this person’. Situations where it was to dangerous?
Greg: You have situations that are there, but we’re fortunate…well, not fortunate. We’re pragmatic. We have a stunt crew and a rigging crew and ourselves that do the stunt work and the weapon stuff and we are vigilante. If we see something slightly out of time we’ll whack and stop it real quick. A good dear friend of mine almost got killed on The Hangover 2. He was crushed between a truck and car…he was playing Stewie (credited as played by Ed Helms) holding the monkey out the window and as it came around the corner it crushed his head between the vehicles and he almost died. He will never work 100% again, it was a huge accident. Raelene (Chapman) is one of my stunt fighters from Mad Max, his wife, she’s one of my stunt chicks. She’s really cool. A good fighter. It’s her husband going through this, he has non-stop spasms and fits. So we’re very aware of the ramifications of something going wrong. We have moments of ‘ooh, that was close’, but we’re pretty lucky.
Funk: It looks pretty intense on the screen but when you hear behind the scenes with people getting injured and these close calls, it sounds even more insane. How do you find these people?
Greg: (Laughs) The Yellow Pages. No, it’s a massive trailing test to get the gig. We had people from across the planet come to trail out to become stunt performers. Even the Pole Cats were our stunt guys – Aussie, Kiwi and South African stunt guys. We brought Steve Bland out, who’s an Australian street performer that got so good that he headed up the training the for the Cirque du Soleil in Vegas. He’s incredible, he makes you feel so amateur when he does his stuff. He taught our guys to do the pole work, then our own guys did the pole work in the film. We have incredible who can do stuff that you’d think was super human, but when you’re around them it just feels normal. It’s really strange, it really is, you suddenly think ‘wow, I’m in a bunch of super, normal people,’ you know?
Funk: When you’re talking about the pole work, you’re talking about the characters on the end of the big poles getting hoisted through the air and picking people up…
Greg: Yeah, we did all that. I showed some footage about five minutes ago form behind the scenes in Broken Hill while on the move. The original concept George had was very similar to Olympic pole vaulter poles. But you speak to any pole vaulter you’ll know that they crack after a while and they’ll break and fall down, so we couldn’t go that path. It was Pole and Gibson and a few of the guys who came up with the gimbal idea, with the engine blocks on the bottom and guys swinging on them. It was cool because we could change the height of the landing bay where they stood on the pole. It was like a metronome. You could speed up or slow the tempo of the music, which allowed us to choreograph the sequences. Every sequence I did in the film, I did in a way that George could film it in one shot like Russian Ark. You could film it from beginning to end. No cheats, no this, no that – you could do a single if you wanted. That’s how I planned it, every fight in the film. It gave George the option to cut, not forcing him to cut because of something on set.
Funk: That comes across in the film and it’s part of the reason it’s been such a critical success because people can see that it’s real and authentic. The way you’re explaining it now I can see that it’s not the usual approach of CGI explosions every 2 seconds.
Greg: No, and even the way…even Charlize (Theron) with the backstory of the family and firearms (Theron’s mother shot and killed her father in self defence) and that she’d never touched a gun in her life and was scared of them. To make her Furiosa was a massive challenge. Mentally it was a big challenge because she was inherently fearful of guns and would tremble near them and couldn’t breathe. To make her Furiosa she really had to embody that character – it meant a shitload of push-ups…
Funk: One armed push-ups?
Greg: We got to that. Whenever she did something wrong in the shooting range she got 20-30 push-ups. She’d just swear at me and carry on and do them. She was awesome. She learned a lot. All my actors get trained with live ammunition, I don’t do blank fire. Everyone gets trained with army ammunition, I believe everyone needs to see cause and effect when something gets shot. You need to see metal plates fall down, you need to see what it does, and it teaches you respect. What normally happens is an armourer will hand an actor a gun with very little training, and no disrespect to armourers because they’re all under massive time constraint, and they don’t know how to hold it. They hold it wrong and they push it out wrong and they look at the wrong thing and it just looks terrible. Se we drill them for months, literally months, on the range with Charlize and Tom (Hardy). I banned the film production from being near us because I wanted this to be bonding time. We hung out together and we shot together and did stuff. It was cool. We did this so often that Charlize would ring and say ‘are you on set today? Let’s go shooting,’ and we got to the point where she could out shoot the stunt guys. At 30-40 yards she could ping down plates with an old Glock, she got that good at it. We got her on DM4s and all sorts of machine guns and she nailed it.
Funk: I wasn’t scared of Charlize Theron…I am now.
Greg: (Laughs) You should be. She’s pretty full on. She’s got this nickname – Charlie Beaver – because of the beaver tail of the gun, which could be misread so many ways…
Greg: She embodied it, she pushed hard to become that character. I give her full credit. Tommy had hard shoes to fill t0. You try stepping into the Mel Gibson role…we had a lot of well known actors from the Brad Pitts to the Eminems who wanted to be a part of this thing then saying they might not be able to become what this was. Tom had a certain darkness and depth to him when George met with him. It’s funny because Armie Hammer is a good mate of mine, and he was casting at a similar time as Tom. Armie said walked out of the room, pointed him out to George and said ‘hire that guy,’ and left, which is pretty cool. Tom has the same kind of darkness to his past that Mel has and it played right. He’s got a real depth to him. We’ve been mates since a long time ago, we met first mucking around with Mad Max, he was a lot cheaper then…
Funk: That would be back around Bronson days…
Greg: Yeah, he hadn’t quite gone up four times in value in the film world. He was awesome. He’d put in and commit, and he had big shoes to fill as well. I think he did a great job, I hope people think he did a great job. You have to remember that Mad Max isn’t the instigator of all this stuff, he never has been. He’s the anti-hero, he’s always the guy who things happen around and the world changes by him.
Funk: Yeah, he just gets dragged along.
Greg: That’s it.
Funk: Literally sometimes.
Greg: Exactly! Tom did so much of that stuff, he was so keen. He’s a little bit scared of heights…well, a lot a bit. We still managed to get him up there.
Funk: Right, he was up on the poles as well!
Greg: He wasn’t that thrilled about it. You ever hung a cat off a light or something? They cling on for dear life, he was like that. He got through it, he did all the vehicle stuff where he’s strapped on the front, all that stuff. That’s why his eyes are really teary – we’re fanging on at speeds of 80 or 90khm and he’s squinting and trying to see. He was struggling, but it was great. We were lucky that we got a double that looked so similar, Jacob Tomuri, whose now Tom’s double. We pulled him in from New Zealand because of Danish, he spotted him in Spartacus and saw they looked similar. Jacob went the extra step to, he embodied Tom’s character and his walk and everything. Tom came onto the set talking like Bronson: ‘I’m going to mad at him, and I’m going to mad at this guy, and he’ll come in and mad at this guy’. I had to be like ‘it’s not Bronson, it’s a new film!’ Jacob started doing the same stuff and got just like him, so when Charlotte, Tom’s other half, came on set and they were both dressed up she didn’t know who was who.
Funk: I’m a bit confused about your work history…we’ve got the body building and the martial arts and all the stuff with Mad Max…training with real live ammunition and Charlize Theron’s 100 push-ups a day…Happy Feet?
Greg: It’s a natural progression. The weirdest thing, when George asked me to do Happy Feet we were writing together – I’ve got a couple of films that I’ve written, one’s in production with Candy Miller, and it’s been there a while because we keep getting lumbered with big movies. We were going to do Mad Max back then but it fell over. The Happy Feet thing came so George decided to jump on Happy Feet…they couldn’t find a 2nd unit director, a digital crowd director, it just wasn’t working out. George forced me to do it because of my experience in running teams and working with people, trying to bring out people’s best essentially. I said ‘you realise that you’re talking to a body builder, a lad with absolutely no knowledge of CGI, no knowledge of dancing. I can do a step touch pretty well, but that’s about it’. But he said ‘you’ll work it out’. I sat in the room with the digital director of the movie he’s going ‘we got the B-modes and the bobjects and the vac-files and we’re going to transfer this through the Massive’ and I’m going ‘why am I doing this?’ I seriously had no idea what I was doing, and I was honest. I went to the crew I was working with and said I have no idea what I’m doing, but I know how to set up shots and scenes and stuff and together we’ll make this thing happen. By the end of Happy Feet I was one of the world leaders in motion capture and CG, and it made Happy Feet 2 very easy to make. Don’t get me wrong, but the end of Happy Feet we wanted to kill Mumble. We were joking about setting up an exhibition to Antartica just to club penguins.
Funk: Mad Max V?
Greg: That’s where we were going…we were talking about Mad Mumble. (Laughs)