Garrett Warren never set out to work in the business of crashing cars, jumping off rooftops, and designing fight scenes. However, an offer from a producer at the right moment sent him on the path of becoming a stunt professional. Twenty-seven years later, Garrett has lent his talents to over one hundred movies and television series’, including such hits as “Starship Troopers”, “Immortals”, “Ready Player One”, “Martial Law”, “Logan”, “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”, and the biggest grossing movie of all-time, 2009’s “Avatar”.
Garrett’s latest project as stunt coordinator is James Cameron’s long-gestating passion project, “Alita: Battle Angel”. Based upon Yukito Kishiro’s acclaimed manga and anime series, “Alita” is the next big leap forward in visual effects technology, and merges exhilarating martial arts action with extensive use of performance capture to create a world of living anime characters like moviegoers have never seen before.
Now Garrett sits down with KFK to share his beginnings as a stunt man, his work on the game-changing blockbuster, “Avatar”, and a look into the process of giving wings to the superhuman title character of “Alita: Battle Angel” to fly – along with sharing just a host of incredible insights and a pinch on the upcoming sequels to “Avatar”.
Hi Garrett, thanks so much for taking some time out to speak with us. It’s great to connect with you, and we hope you’re keeping well?
Hi Brad, thanks, I’m doing great!
Fantastic, and before we get started, just to get your views briefly on the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
I think it’s awesome!
Thanks a lot. OK, to kick things off, what can you share about your beginnings in martial arts; what different disciplines have you studied?
I’m a fifth dan in Taekwondo, that’s really where my base began, but I’ve been around. I was really involved in competition before I got into stunt work, and I’ve competed in everything from TKD and point Karate to Muay Thai and Jiu-jitsu.
Stunt Career & Films
Extensive background. So, what can you share about how you first got started as a stunt man?
Well, I actually never set out to be a stunt man. I used to own my own school here in California, and I had a lot of big names train there, including people like Wayne Gretzky. Then one day, I had a producer who had heard about me come by asking me to be a double on the TV show “Raven”. I said “Sure, that sounds great” . So I went out to Hawaii for the show, and they had me doubling for Jeffrey Meek, who was playing a white ninja on the show. I worked on “Raven” for two seasons, and I learned everything from car hits to stair falls to high falls and all the in’s and out’s of stunt work while working on that show. So “Raven” was pretty much my training ground for being a stunt man.
Way to mince out everything from an opportunity there! So, what would you say is the most daring stunt you’ve performed in your career?
Oh, there’s a lot. There was one I did on “Walker, Texas Ranger” where I had to jump from a helicopter onto a moving train, that really had my heart racing. Probably the most daring for me was on “Double Team”. I was doubling for Jean-Claude Van Damme for the scene where he’s hanging out of the back of a cargo plane on a net. And because his character didn’t have a parachute on, that meant I couldn’t either. It was also in 1996, before green screens had really become something, so I was hanging out of the back of that plane for real at 17,000 feet and then had to climb back into the plane and start a karate fight. So, that was pretty scary! (laughs)
Gutsy, great kudos for that! On that note, what would you say is the worst injury you’ve ever experienced, and how did you get around it?
That came out of probably another of the most daring stunts I’ve ever done. It was on the movie “Chill Factor”, where I was doing a head-on with an 18-wheeler on a motorcycle. Unfortunately, that stunt didn’t go like we planned it. I hit the 18-wheeler, and it punted me about 60 feet across the desert in Utah where we were filming. That hit ripped my legs to shreds, and it almost killed me. Fortunately, the paramedics were able to revive me, put me into a helicopter, and I spent the next three days in a hospital in Colorado. As far as the recovery, they put a knee brace on me and told me I needed to take it easy for about six months. But, I’m a bit of a thrill seeker, and right after that, I got a call from a friend of mine who was the stunt coordinator on “The Stray” with Michael Madsen, and he asked me if I wanted to come and do a fight scene, and I said “Sure!” So, I didn’t really take the doctor’s advice on that one, but I did try to avoid kicking as much as I could in that fight! (Both laugh)
Sounded like a really nasty injury, glad to hear you were able to bounce back so fast. Moving ahead, what are some of your personal favourite projects that you’ve worked on as a stunt man?
Well, I definitely have to classify “Alita” as one of my favourite movies that I’ve ever worked on. Robert is one of the greatest directors in the world, and the fight sequences we did are some of my favorites I’ve ever done in my career. Aside from that, “Avatar” is definitely one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. It was such a leap forward in filmmaking and it really pushed me forward as both a stunt coordinator and a filmmaker, and of course, it went on to become the biggest movie of all time. I also really loved working on “Alice in Wonderland” with Tim Burton, it was really a blast to be a part of such a storybook of a movie. And I have to say, “Lincoln” with Steven Spielberg was a real honor to be a part of. They did have to cut down a bit on the opening battle sequence, because what we shot was really gruesome. But it was a great film, and I was really proud of what it meant as a history lesson to the world.
On “Mortal Kombat”
Absolutely. Speaking of your past work, one of your most notable projects as a stunt man is the web series “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”. How was your experience of working on the series?
I loved working on “Mortal Kombat”. It was a real passion project for the director, Kevin Tancharoen, and even though it didn’t have a huge budget, he had this really grand vision for what he wanted the show to be, and he put every idea in his head into it. I was also really fortunate to have gotten to direct the third season of “Mortal Kombat”, and being a director of something, you kind of feel like it’s your kid, in a way. We were able to do some amazing things in season three with the fights and the storyline, and to this day, I’m heartbroken that it’s never been released.
I was just going to get to the third season of “Legacy”, which as fan of “Mortal Kombat” I’d really been looking forward to. Can you share anything about why it hasn’t been released yet?
I can say this – between Warner Bros and NetherRealm Studios, there were certain things that each of them wanted from it, or to use it for. And that’s basically why it hasn’t been released, because each of those entities weren’t really able to settle on what was going to happen with it and for what purpose. Ultimately, for it to be released, fans of Mortal Kombat really need to reach out and say, “Hey, we’d like to see Mortal Kombat season three.”
[OK readers and MK fans, now’s your chance to help make history, say what Garrett’s suggested in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter!] Looking ahead now, you also did stunt work on 2017’s “Logan”. What interesting stories can you share about the experience of making the film with Hugh Jackman in his final portrayal of Wolverine?
On “Logan” with Hugh Jackman
Well, the first thing I can say is that it’s a great movie. I love it to death! (Both laugh) When I was brought into “Logan” as the second-unit director, I wasn’t really all that big on superhero movies, in the sense that a lot of them become a little over-reliant on CGI. But James Mangold let me know upfront that they really wanted to do everything in the camera, and go for an R-rating, so whatever our dark little hearts could dream up, he wanted to put on the screen. With Wolverine, I’d always wanted to see him just chopping up people like a Ginsu knife, and he hadn’t really been able to before because they were always doing a PG-13. But with “Logan”, right off the bat, me and my friend Steve Brown, who was the fight coordinator on the film, got to just unleash everything. So I’d be killing and crucifying people on this side while James would be making the world cry on the other side.
One thing I can share is that there’s stuff we did in the pre-viz that pushed the envelope even further than what was on-screen, but they eventually said, “Okay, enough’s enough!”, but what we kept in was a good balance. It was all story-driven, and it took Wolverine further than he’s ever gone before. Hugh Jackman was absolutely fantastic to work with, and a talented stunt guy in and of himself. You can put him in a harness and throw him against a wall, and he knows how to take the fall and not get hurt doing it. And the little girl, Dafne Keen, could too, and this was her first big movie.
Yes, she was really something as X-23, and “Logan” was an amazing, emotional send off for Hugh Jackman’s iconic portrayal of Wolverine. On that note, you also served as the stunt coordinator on the biggest grossing movie of all time, that of course being, James Cameron’s “Avatar”. What was your experience like of working on such a groundbreaking movie?
“Avatar” changed me not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being. James Cameron isn’t just a great director with a lot of great ideas and money behind him, he’s one of the guys. He’d get up early in the morning and do fight rehearsals with us stunt guys, and he is so good with weapons, whether it’s handguns or rifles. He can run a course and break time limits, and leave military guys with their jaws on the floor with how good he is with weapons. He also knows how every piece of equipment works better than anyone else on set I’ve ever seen. And, of course, he’s a masterful storyteller, and he knows how to make an audience feel whatever emotion he wants at any point in the film. You read the script and come away thinking, “Man, this has people flying on birds and plugging their ponytails into them, this is just crazy!”, but by the end, he’s made you a believer in the story he’s telling.
Something else about working on “Avatar” that really changed me as a person – since Jim spent so long developing the film, I worked on it for five years, and I never once saw a cell phone in Jim’s hand. Not once. He was all over the stage all the time, and he did not want a cell phone, nor carry one with him at all that whole time, and I thought that was just awesome to see that kind of focus. And it changed me as a filmmaker, too, because after working on “Avatar”, anything else is easy!
And the results clearly spoke for themselves. Tying into the leap forward in visual effects that “Avatar” made, what do you think is the evolution of human movement and how might it be shown on film?
Well, I’m a big fan of the rise of performance capture, because it retains the element of reality. If I see one animated character throw another to the ground, I can tell that it’s animated. When you do that with performance capture, it’s going to take time, its going to take effort, and you’ll be able to clearly see that. So you can see all the power of Superman or Spider-Man or Thor, but it retains the reality of life, and that’s what I really love about where movement is headed now with the use of performance capture.
On “Alita: Battle Angel” Action & Fights
It’s really brought together visual effects with traditional action and revolutionized how action is created on film. And perfect segue, you served as stunt coordinator for James Cameron’s recently released pet project, “Alita: Battle Angel”? What interesting stories can you share about how you came aboard the film and the experience of making it?
I came on to “Alita” while we were working on “Avatar”. Jim showed me the manga and asked me if I was familiar with it, and I’m already a big fan of manga in general, and I said “Oh yeah!” And right off the bat, one of the things about “Alita” Jim was really enthusiastic about was bringing the sport of Motorball to life from the manga. But, of course, we were making “Avatar” at the time, and Jim was developing the “Avatar” sequels afterwards, so that kind of left “Alita” on the backburner for a bit until Jim brought in Robert Rodriguez to direct. And I knew right away that was a great move on Jim’s part.
Just based on “Desperado”, which is one of the greatest action movies of all time, I knew Rob was the right man for the job, and I knew from everything else he’s done, like “From Dusk Till Dawn”, he knows how to bring a lot of grit and reality to a movie. Plus, he always has a bar fight, which is something I’ve always wanted to do, so I was stoked for that! And then, just making “Alita”, I kept waking up thinking, “There’s gotta be one bad day coming”, because when you make a movie, there’s always that one day where you have to deal with something not being ready and the world falling apart. And not one day on “Alita” did anything fall apart. Rob came on to “Alita” and just had everything he wanted in place, and lot of times, he’d ask me, “Hey, is there anything you think we can add here?” and would just bounce ideas off of me because that’s the kind of filmmaker he is. Working on “Alita” was an absolute blast!
Rodriguez really knows what he’s doing, for sure. So, what can you share about the process of designing action and stunts for a film like “Alita” which involves such extensive use of performance capture?
Well, it’s a very different process, obviously. For example, with the alley fight, we do a pre-viz way before we actually shoot, and Robert had those all worked out beforehand. So that makes my job really easy, because I just have to recreate all the movements from the pre-viz on the set. Obviously, Alita and a lot of other characters like Grewishka and Nyssiana are going to be done with performance capture, so that involved both the actors and the stunt people in the alley. For Nyssiana, we had a stunt woman in a red cloak, and for Grewishka, we had a seven foot-tall stunt guy on stilts that put him up to nine feet so we had a moving eyeline for the actors to perform against. So, the only things that weren’t really there on set were the characters that are placed on top of the performers, and that’s what made that such a great fight.
When it came to the bar fight, that was so much fun to create. We had a whole lot of stunt people and fighters in there with the actors, and it was such a different kind of bar fight because it was a bunch of cyborgs that had all kinds of weapons and abilities. That was also the fight where I got to bounce a lot of different ideas I had off of Rob, like when Alita slams Zapan’s head into the table, or when she throws one character’s hand into another’s face sparking the whole fight. That part in particular was really gratifying for me, because I’d always wanted to hit one character with another character’s hand and cause the whole room to get pi**ed off (Both laugh)
When it came to creating Motorball scenes, that was all done practically, and it was all separately designed, according to what we needed to do. We had a whole bunch of world champion skaters for that scene, but because their skates are supposed to be motorized, they can’t push off the ground to move. So, we had these huge dropping ramps, and we’d just start all of them at the top and then just drop them, and they’d hit 25mph right away. We would also put them on these computerized winches that hook them up to wires, and we’d just whip them around that set at mach speed. And then, for the final Motorball sequence at the end, we brought the skaters onto the performance capture stage, and we’d have them on wires for the parts where they come down on each other with axe kicks or separate each others’ arms. So, a lot went into designing the Motorball sequences, and they really came out fantastic.
You guys really hit it out of the park with the Motorball scenes, they were out of this world! What were some of the challenges that came with designing the action of “Alita” being such an effects-heavy film? How does the process of designing performance capture-based action differ from more conventional means of designing action?
Well, the biggest challenge for Alita was really in creating a new fighting style. Any time you design action, it’s always based on what the story calls for, but with “Alita”, we always also had to think back to “Does this feel like something out of Panzer Kunst?” The concept behind Panzer Kunst is that it’s a martial art designed for these heavily armored cyborgs, so the process is to draw off of all the different methods of fighting that we’ve already seen and tool them to what works for that idea. A lot of it is based around the fact that she has this metal body and heightened strength. So, the idea was that, when Alita fights people, she’s not just going to go out there and punch people, she’s going to grab one guy by the arm, throw herself into someone else’s body, push off of that guy, and come back to kick another guy. So we really based the methodology of Panzer Kunst around designing the action like that.
On that note, which is your personal favourite among Alita’s fight sequences in the film?
It’s really hard to pick a favourite, because I’m just so proud of the whole movie. I do have to say, the bar fight is one of my proudest amongst my whole career, because everything had to be married to the idea that this is all Panzer Kunst. It gave me an entirely new challenge that I’d never really had before, and I’m so proud of the end result. And plus, come on! what stunt man doesn’t want to design a really amazing bar fight? (Both laugh)
Indeed! So, with all the action in the film, were there any injuries or mishaps in the making of “Alita”?
Nope, nobody got hurt, and what we were doing with the Motorball sequences was really daring. There’s one part in the first Motorball scene on the street where Alita sweeps Tanji, and he flips backwards and plants his face right into the ground. It was a padded surface that was painted to look like concrete, but he was still taking quite a fall. We had the stunt guy on wires to pick him up and flip him in the air, and then they just let that wire go, and he went straight down to the ground hard, but he didn’t get hurt.
That was a really dramatic fall in that scene. Good to hear no one was injured doing that. So, what other projects do you have in the pipeline now after “Alita: Battle Angel”?
“Avatar” 2 and 3
Right after “Alita”, I jumped onto “Avatar” 2 and 3, and I’m working on those right now. What I can share is that, as a filmmaker, the script and story of the sequels are some of the best I’ve ever read in my life. I’m so proud to be a part of the “Avatar” sequels, and I think everyone is going to love them!
We definitely look forward to seeing “Avatar 2” when it arrives in 2020. Garrett, what are a few of your personal all-time favourite martial-arts movies?
Garrett’s Favourite Martial-Arts Movies & Fights
“The Matrix” is definitely one of them, and “Ip Man” is one of my all time favourites, as well. I also really loved “Ong Bak” and “The Raid”, and I have to say, I think “The Karate Kid” is one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. Everything from the acting and the story to the way they sold weird and silly fight moves to be real was just brilliant.
Along with that iconic crane kick…With that in mind, what are some of your all-time favourite movie fight scenes?
I think “Seven Samurai” and “Conan The Barbarian” have some of the best sword fights ever filmed. “The Matrix” also had a lot of amazing fights, and the original “Rocky” of course had Rocky’s epic fight with Apollo that shook the world. I also really loved how story-driven a lot of the fights in “Fight Club” were, and I have to say, “True Romance” has got to have one of the best movie fights of all time with the bout between Gandolfini and Arquette. That just had everything, and I never saw that ending coming!
Great choices all round there. Thanks Garrett, it’s been a real privilege to speak with you about “Alita: Battle Angel” behind the scenes. We wish you all the best of success with the “Avatar” sequels, and look forward to seeing your future action endeavours!
Thanks, Brad and it’s been a real pleasure to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom!