Archery coach Stephen Ralphs discusses teaching Russell Crowe in Robin Hood
There's a good chance that if you've seen a movie which features archery in the past few years, you're witnessing the handiwork of archery coach Stephen Ralphs. He has worked as an archery master or an armorer on such films as Troy, King Arthur, Kingdom Of Heaven, Eragon and recently brought his skills to the set of Robin Hood, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 21.
I had the chance to speak with Stephen Ralphs about his work on the Ridley Scott movie, where he trained Russell Crowe and other key cast members in archery, and here's what he had to say:
Could you first give me a bit of your background in archery and how you first got into the movie world?
Stephen Ralphs: Well, it all goes back to when I was a kid. It was my fifth birthday and I was given a copy of a little book called The Adventures of Robin Hood, which was written by a man named Roger Lancelyn Green. I remember looking and the pictures and thinking it was interesting. That was it. I was sold down the river. I was that boy that cut off all the branches off all the trees, always in trouble, always with the bow and arrow. I was making bows and it became sort of a lifelong obsession, weaving its way in and out of my life. I started making bows for friends then people started offering to buy them, so it went from there. I met a few people who did theater and they got me involved in the movie world. I met Simon Atherton, the armorer on Robin Hood, and every time he got one of these big films, he'd give me a call (Laughs). We'd discuss what was going to happen and I'd end up making hundreds of bows for him.
I guess this film made everything come full-circle for you then.
Stephen Ralphs: Yeah, yeah. To me, working on the film, I had always said I wanted to be Robin Hood, but I ended up making his bows and arrows. It's got to be the next best thing (Laughs).
I had read that Russell Crowe had been an experienced horseman but that he didn't have a lot of experience with archery. Can you talk about working with him and how he took to the archery side of Robin Hood?
Stephen Ralphs: Well, he had a little bit of coaching from a guy in Australia, but the guy in Australia wasn't teaching him the historical side. I was asked to go out to add on to the coaching he was getting. I had met him on Gladiator. We had a chat about guitars because we're both really into guitars. So I went out and when I got there I discovered he had done a tremendous amount of research and he wanted to get someone who knew as much about the men and the weapons and the way it was built, as much as how to shoot it. He had a grounding when I got there, but we had to start again. He was learning archery, but not medieval archery.
As far as the actual making of the bows, how much research went into that and can you talk about the kinds of bows that were used back then?
Stephen Ralphs: There were three kinds of bows in the medieval period, three types of longbows. There was the country bow, the county bow and the war bow. The country bow is the kind that a local guy would just go out and cut from the tree and would go out and kill a rabbit for dinner. It wasn't a great weapon for killing, it was just a small hunting bow. Then there was the county bow, which was a slightly better bow. It was a little more powerful and it was what the local militia would've used. We get to the war bow, which is the big, massive bow of the high medieval period. The period we were talking about, which was about 150 years that were compressed in the film, was the start of this war bow, the crossover from this county bow to the war bow. We had to make it as accurate as we could. There's no such thing as a "toy bow." Even a toy bow and arrow could do damage.
I actually just talked to Arthur Max the production designer, and he spoke about how they used much more practical sets than CGI. Can you talk about working in this world which was all meticulously constructed that reflected the time period?
Stephen Ralphs: Oh yeah. That's what people don't understand. People will go see a movie and will dismiss it, whether they like it or not. That was a year of someone's life. It wasn't just the time we filmed. I started ordering wood probably six to eight months before we even made a bow on the film and we did a lot of research. You can't just get away with giving any old stick to somebody. It's like if you wanted to make a World War II movie now, you'd have to use World War II guns, World War II tanks. You can't do what we did in the 50s and 60s, where you could paint a cross on it and it was German. Now people know. The information highway is so great that they need to see the real thing, so we do. We make it as genuine as we can, which is why Russell Crowe wanted to learn to shoot like that, which is why I was called in.
I'm always curious, with archery in movies, on what the actual range of these are. With this war bow, in those times, how far could those fly?
Stephen Ralphs: Archers always talk about "the magic 300," which is 300 yards. If you ever get your hands on a bow that can do 300 yards, you don't let go of it, because that is the peach. You're talking about 150 to 200 yards. The heavier arrows with the heavy heads weren't designed to be shot far. That was much later in the medieval period. The period we're talking about, in the medieval forest, you probably couldn't even see 50 yards. So you're talking about a punchier bow that's designed more for accuracy than distance.
How good of a shot would you say that Russell Crowe became during the film?
Stephen Ralphs:Russell is competitive in anything he does. If he can't do it well, he doesn't bother doing it. The determination is paramount to him achieving his goal. It's like, he didn't want Scott Grimes to be a better shot than him (Laughs). They had this thing all the time. I'd tell them not to hit something and I'd turn my back and, low and behold, they all wanted to shoot at it. No matter what I'd tell them not to shoot at, they'd go, 'Well, let's see if I can hit it.' There's this little thing going where each one would tell you they were the better archer, but they were all about the same. They were all good. Russell became very good, and he's kept it up since then. I've spoken to him since and he still goes out shooting. I made his sons bows for Christmas last year. When this archery bug bites you, it bites deep. It's something you never forget, like riding a bike. It's more of a skill that you learn and that you don't forget and I think he got it because he understood it. Some people don't understand it, but he got it.
Ridley Scott is obviously an amazing director and I was curious what your take was on the archery when you saw the final product? How would you say the archery stood up compared to other films?
Stephen Ralphs: Well, I have to say, it was fantastic. By now, I'm sort of known as the "bow and arrow man" in the film world. Believe you me, if there was bad archery, my mailbox would be full. I'd have people sending me letters and everybody said the archery was fantastic, the way Ridley filmed it. Archery is a sport you just can't cheat at. You can't cheat archery. You can't cheat yourself. You're either a good shot or you're a lousy shot. There's no in-between. Everything you see, every arrow that you see, there is no machine doing it. All of the archery is actually done. I spent two weeks teaching guys before we went down. I took a team down with me of eight guys, who I knew were good and we sent them in. They were in costume at various points, for trick shots. Every single time Russell Crowe fires an arrow, that's him. Every single time Scott Grimes fires an arrow, it's him. That's how much they wanted to do it.
Is there anything that you're lining up for the future that you can talk about?
Stephen Ralphs: I'm hopefully going to be working on a thing called Game of Thrones, a TV series. I've made the bows for it and I'm talking to the armorer now about how we're going to do those particular scenes. Hopefully that will come to fruition in the next couple of weeks.
That's about all I have for you. Thanks a lot for your time and best of luck with Game of Thrones and whatever else you have coming up.
Stephen Ralphs: Thank you.
You can watch all the slings (and bows) and arrows of Robin Hood when it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray shelves September 21.