The stunt man talks working with Joss Whedon, getting hurt on Highlander 4 and his work on the Mortal Kombat series
In between coordinating stunt scenes, doing stunts, directing second unit photography on major motion pictures, John Medlen also finds time to act. Obviously, this is someone who isn’t fazed by the sometimes daunting prospect of multitasking. Best known in Hollywood as a stunt coordinator, Medlen has coordinated stunts on such films as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
He has also lent his talents to the small screen and this was the focus of our discussion as Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Complete Series Collection was recently released on DVD. Not only does the 40 disc set offer some great dramatic moments between all the characters, it also offers a lot of supercharged action sequences. During our interview, Medlen discussed working on the show, Joss Whedon, Mortal Kombat and what it is exactly that a stunt coordinator does.
What exactly does a stunt coordinator do?
John Medlen: A stunt coordinator is the person that comes in... first he’s given a script from the writer and the producers. He reviews the action that is within the script. What I do is, I go through it and I highlight all action sequences and then I review that and I determine what I need as far as equipment, stunt people and the budget it’s gonna take to get that stunt, described in the script, performed. And then we go into production meetings or many meetings and we discuss the terms and if there’s enough time. Or, if there’s enough money in the budget to perform these stunts.
From that point on, once we get the greenlight, I go ahead and call the stunt performers, and I schedule for the equipment to arrive. If there is rehearsal dates set or I may give them the schedule of the shoot dates and hopefully everything sticks from that point on. Then we’ll rehearse the fight sequence, or a stunt action sequence until it’s perfected and can be safely done without any injuries. Starting from crawling to jumping. Once that’s satisfied, we’ll make a video of it and present it to the creators of the show and the producers. And then on the day of shooting, we go ahead and do the stunts and put it on film and hopefully the audience will be entertained.
So then actors have a double rehearsal? For their roles in the movie and then what they have to do with someone like yourself?
John Medlen: That’s right. It all depends on the intensity of the scene. Some actors may be a little more experienced in physical combat... everything would require some type of rehearsal even if it’s a few minutes before they shoot. We always like to have them days before or even weeks before, depending on how much they have to learn. To prepare them and see what will be safe for them to do. Then we would of course supply them with a stunt person to do the extreme dangerous stuff. To make sure it’s safely performed and they can survive and we all have a job!
Movie PictureHow did you come to work on Buffy?
John Medlen: I was actually working on a film called To End All Wars starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle over in Hawaii. It was a little, independent film about World War II and the captured POWs. During that I got word that they were in need of a coordinator for Season 5 and I was instructed to call them. From that point on they wanted to review my work, and then they said, “Well, when are you flying home?” And I said, “I’ll be home on Sunday. I’m finished with this film.” And they said, “Come in, Monday.” So that’s how it came about. Actually, Joss Whedon reviewed my directing tapes and my choreography, and I guess it was to his liking so he brought me aboard.
So did you start working the day after you got home?
John Medlen: Yeah, I actually went in and had a group meeting with everybody, and at the end of the meeting we shook hands and started.
Was it difficult training the actors to do certain stunts? Was there ever an issue of them wanting to do a stunt that you didn’t think they should perform?
John Medlen: Sometimes you have that issue. Everybody, in all of us, we all have this thrill seeking part of us that wants to do something fun. And of course some stunts look extremely fun but can be extremely dangerous. Sometimes we have to hold some of the actors back that are a little anxious and want to do it, but I think after they’re performing for awhile and they realize how much is involved with them on set for many hours a day, studying their lines, preparing for the scenes... trying to stay emotionally in tuned with what they’re supposed to be doing and do a stunt... occasionally they tend to say, “You know what? I’m glad I’ve got a stunt double.”
How do the stunts you do on a show like Buffy differ from the stunts you might do on a movie like Monster-in-Law?
John Medlen:Buffy was just so much fun. First off, the crew was extremely great. That starts off the day right when you’ve got a great crew because you know you’re not going to be butting heads with the different departments. So, everyone worked as a team. You had great actors and they were willing to play along. And a great stunt crew as well. Joss Whedon would give me flexibility to come up with some fun and creative stuff. Of course I’d always like to run it by him, due to respect and he is the creator of the show, and I don’t want to step out of the realm of Buffy. He was really open-minded to a lot of action sequences that I got to set up and perform for the show.
It was fun and creative, you know? We could be really out there and just set some fun things up. For Buffy to run up walls or dive through a crowd of vampires and then roll off and do a flip and start staking them all.
What’s the worst you’ve ever gotten hurt performing a stunt? Either on Buffy or...?
John Medlen: Oh gosh, that was on Highlander 4 out in Romania. Guys on motorcycles are supposed to come through a boarded up window where they couldn’t see. Of course, this is on a complete soundstage and they actually had open walls to the outside atmosphere. We were doing a take where the motorcycles were flying up into Duncan MacLeod’s old apartment that was abandoned, and I was doubling Duncan at that time and he had to dive out of the way. When that would happen the motorcycle would be a near miss.
So they were blowing atmosphere smoke and at one point the wind must have caught it, and blew the smoke all into the area where the gentlemen's were riding the motorcycles up and all of the sudden they could not see the wall. So when they came crashing through off the ramps they couldn’t see where they were at just that moment, because we were already in the action. I could not see the headlights through the crease of the boards because they’d gotten white with smoke. At that point I decided to go again and he didn’t raise up as he was jumping through and it was a midair collision with the motorcycle. It was pretty much like getting tackled by a motorcycle in midair.
That just sounds painful.
John Medlen: I just went to the ground and laid there for a little bit wondering why I’m here. Eventually, you start getting tingling back in your legs. It’s just like anything else. I consider stunts to be an extreme sport that these stunt players, who are professionals of course, get to experience on their side of the job. Like motorcycles or gymnastics or race car driving, and so all those skills put together and then we get to go and put them into films as professionals and get paid for it. It’s just an amazing opportunity.
What are you currently working on? What’s next?
John Medlen: I’m scheduled to do Mortal Kombat 3. That doesn’t have a start date. The producer Larry Kasanoff, he’s pushing for his other animation feature, it’s computer animated called Foodfight!. I think that’s the first thing on the list. And then when the right time happens, Mortal Kombat will kick in.
I know that you were in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Will you be acting in Mortal Kombat 3 or just doing stunt coordinating?
John Medlen: That hasn’t been determined yet. When the time comes, depending on how much I have to deal with, as far as coordinating and if I’m going to second unit direct. That’s gonna be a very busy show because I think they’re running simultaneously, first and second units just because of the way they want to schedule it. So it’s gonna be very busy. Of course I’d love to perform, just for having a good time... so I’m hoping it happens but I’m not gonna be disappointed if it doesn’t.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Complete Series Collection is “staked” in DVD stores everywhere.