Disney's Maleficent offers a live-action re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty, giving a new perspective on the tale's big bad fairy. Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent in the flesh and in a way we'd never seen this horned villainess before: with wings. And we've got an inside line on how director Robert Stromberg made them look like an enviable weapon that could level an army.
In a major action sequence early on in Maleficent, the titular anti-heroine is forced to face off against a magic-hating King Henry and his vast army of armed and armored soldiers. She calls upon the inhabitants of the The Moor, where the faries rule. But more importantly, she uses her massive and powerful wings to throw herself into battle and throw back those who would raze her homeland.
You can get a glimpse of this sprawling battle scene in the Maleficent trailer:
As Maleficent boasts a wide array of computer-generated beasties and landscapes, you might assume that much of the battle sequence was likewise CGI soldiers. But we spoke with Bobby Holland Hanton, a celebrated stunts performer who has doubled for Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Chris Hemsworth (Thor: The Dark World), and Chris Evans (Avengers: Age of Ultron). In Maleficent, he was called in to bring his unique skills of flying and falling into play for the movie's biggest battle. And he told us just how it came together.
Bobby Holland Hanton got the call to work on Maleficent from stunt co-ordinator Eunice Huthart, who'd previously worked as Angelina Jolie's stunt double on the Tomb Raider movies, as well as Mr. & Mrs. Smith. She'd asked Hanton to come in for five-weeks to do what he described as "generic stunts where Maleficent flies down and takes out a sea of soldiers." Realizing he could wedge Maleficent's shoot into his schedule before production began for him on Thor: The Dark World, Hanton became one of those soldiers. This meant two-weeks of rehearsal before taking to the location shoot, a field with backdrops of green screen, where Angelina Jolie's enraged warrior fairy was replaced by a green object hurdling at them on its own rig.
"So, it was kind of hard hits and a green object that would be coming on a mechanical kind of arm at quite some speed and we’d have to take reactions and get hit by it and stuff like that."
Initially, Hanton was reluctant to go into too many details. A true professional, he didn't want to drop spoilers. I had an advantage on Hanton, as he hadn't actually seen the finished film yet. (It's not open in England, where he is currently on set for Avengers: Age of Ultron). But once I explained that his scene was early on in the film and also teased heavily in the trailers, he opened up.
"We were actually outside on location for it, but with green screen around and huge stunt rigging rigs and grids above us where we could work the wire. So, we were actually outside with huge cranes, in a lovely field in London. So, we could get a bit of both. You get the real thing [for locations], and then also [got] the green screen that’s behind and to the side. They can then obviously project whatever they need onto it."
He compared the green screen arm that stood in for Angelina Jolie as one he'd seen before working on Green Lantern:
"I’m sure Angie did do a lot of the flying stuff as well, because that stuff is needed, But sometimes it could be a big mechanical arm coming at you at some speed. I remember when we did Green Lantern out in New Orleans, and at the party scene, the helicopter crashes and comes through and takes out tables in a party. That was just a huge green shape of a helicopter on a track. That was on a ramp that kind of runs ... I think that was running, like, 40 miles and hour. So something coming at you at that speed and you’re getting hit by it and jumping out of the way and stuff like that is, it can be pretty full on. You have to be on top of it, and stunt guys have to be very much awake and look out for each other. So, when you see kind of shots like that, sometimes it can be a mechanical bull, if you’d like to call it."
Disney has recently released a featurette on this battle from Maleficent, and you can see some of the rigs and falls to which Bobby Holland Hanton refers, as well as Angelina Jolie in a flying rig of her own.
As someone not very well-versed in the ins and outs of stuntwork, I expressed surprise that a sequence that takes up just a few minutes of screen time took so much time to rehearse for and shoot. Hanton explained that it's not just the screen time they are prepping for. A lot of it is making the stunts as safe as possible.
"I think I rehearsed for two weeks for that big battle scene, in and out for a couple of weeks. And then it was another couple weeks of shooting. And then we did another week somewhere else, and bits and pieces, the charge scene, the soldiers and stuff coming through the fields with the horses. So, generally, what we try to do is to eliminate as much danger as possible. Which sounds silly. But that is difficult, just the nature of what we do. Working in stunts is dangerous. But what we try to do is eliminate as much danger as possible with the rehearsal time. Getting the correct team and the correct stunt rigging team. Working together and looking out for each other is so important to us, because anyone can do a stunt once. It’s about being able to do it over and over again."
Maleficent is now in theaters.