His name may not bring immediate recognition, but if you are a martial arts action fan (or an action fan in general), you’ve likely seen some of his work and if you haven’t, after reading this interview, go out and buy some of these movies. Unfortunately many guys behind the scenes are not well-known, yet without them, the awesome fights and stunts you see onscreen would likely never materialize. Hopefully after this interview you will realize you’ve seen some of his work and also know that he is on a course for bigger and better things. Larnell Stovall has been involved in stunts and coordinating stunts and fights (and even more recent, he’s had the esteemed role of Second Unit Director) since around 2001 and has done so in such movies as “The One”, “The Rundown”, “Jarhead”, “Black Dynamite”, “Blood and Bone”, “Undisputed III: Redemption”, “The Other Guys”, “The Mechanic”, “Never Back Down 2”, “Green Lantern”, “Dragon Eyes” and most recently, the John Hyams directed Scott Adkins/Van Damme actioner, “Universal Soldier: A New Dimension.” He was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions to give the fans an insight into the inner workings of Hollywood action movies.
Jonathan Urban: Larnell, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your career. What is your martial arts background and what made you get into martial arts?
Larnell Stovall: I started in Shotokan, Aikido, and then briefly did Ninjitsu. It was the competition circuit that changed my technique into more flashy stuff to keep up. I got into martial arts due to there was this kid in my class when I was thirteen who was quiet and a straight A student. I was a class clown but I respected him. He told me he was a black belt and I visited the school “Blue Lion Karate Academy” and the rest was history. I was hooked.
JU: How’d you get involved in the movie business?
LS: A buddy of mine invited me out to L.A. to hustle the stunt scene. I took him up on the offer, flew out, did a short fight scene for a promo trailer then moved to L.A. Four months thereafter, Chuck Jeffreys, who is an awesome fight choreographer, invited me out to possibly work on “Blade 2.” For business reasons Chuck became de-attached but I went to L.A. anyway and decided to take my chances. “Blade 2” made me believe that it was possible to use martial arts as a vehicle to get into the industry.
JU: You started your career with acting. What made you transition into the stunt/fight coordinator role?
LS: Funny thing is that was not by choice. My heart was set for stunts, but due to lack of work and opportunities I had to try other things. The fight choreography thing came about due to too much time on my hands. (laughing) I created a short, starred in it and choreographed it. “STEEL” won a few awards and my peers noticed I had a inkling of talent in the area of choreography. My big opportunity came through my good friend J.J. Perry who asked me to step in on his behalf for “Undisputed III” due to he was busy on another film. (Interviewer’s Note: Perry was responsible for the choreography on “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing.”)
JU: With actor, stuntman, stunt/fight choreographer under your belt you’ve also acted as second unit director on the highly acclaimed martial arts movie “Undisputed III: Redemption” (you mentioned above) and the soon-to-be released “Never Back Down 2” and as producer of the “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” web series. Do you have a preference of the hats that you have worn?
LS: I prefer action directing/second unit. Eventually, I hope to make a transition into full time director. For now, though, I want to build a legacy of consistent great action scenes with each film I am a part of.
JU: You have an extensive resume in a fairly short time. You’re kind of the “go-to-guy” for stunt/fight coordinator now on big films and smaller ones. On Internet Movie Database you’re listed as being a stuntman on 2001’s “The One.” Was that your first stuntman gig and did you get to work directly with Jet Li?
LS: I was fortunate to even be on that set. I had no resume but was in the right place at the right time. Jet was great and cool to be around and it was a dream come true working with him. I’m nowhere near being the go to guy for fight scenes. The big wigs don’t recognize me yet; it takes doing a huge blockbuster film to really get their attention. Eventually I’ll earn a big film but for right now I’m cool with my small films kicking the big films’ ass in terms of consistent high quality fight scenes/action.
JU: Larnell, you’ve had the chance to work on movies that have a lot of great action actors like Jet Li, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Jason Statham, and last but not least, Jean-Claude Van Damme. What is it like working with these guys that are all known for being in shape and doing many of their own fight scenes?
LS: I have been blessed to work with some greats in such a short amount of time. I haven’t choreographed anything Dwayne, Jet or Statham has done yet. If I had the chance, though, I would like to add my flare to their talents. Recently working with Dolph was great due to he has been in the game and gave me a compliment on my choreography—that was very humbling.
JU: As you mentioned earlier, “Undisputed III: Redemption” saw you taking over the responsibility of stunt/fight coordinator from your esteemed peer, J.J. Perry, who in his own right is a very popular coordinator in the film business. It also gave you the opportunity to work with director Isaac Florentine and actor, Scott Adkins. The movie was a DTV success and one of the best fighter style movies I’ve seen and it won you a Best Fight Choreographer award at the 2010 Actionfest and Florentine a Best Director award. How’d it feel to be recognized like that after being in the business for some years?
LS: It was mind blowing due to the category had some stiff competition. Yee Jaa was in there for “Chocolate”, but more importantly Donnie Yen was in there too with “14 Blades.” I was floored to find out I was chosen. This by NO means makes me on any of my peers level. I have a loooong way to go in this business and am just beginning.
JU: The fights in the movie are not fast cut, shaky cam editing which is all too common in films today. You can actually see the whole fight and the fighter from head to toe. Was this important to you and Florentine and what was your goal in designing the fights?
LS: This was all Isaac’s doing; he gets it as a director and as an action editor. He knows where the camera should be and he is basically editing as he shoots. I learned so much from him, I consider Isaac a great friend and would love to do another film with him soon if not UD4.
JU: The character of ‘Boyka’ seemed a bit different in “Undisputed III: Redemption” as he was not as villainous, but his fighting style looked to be basically the same. Did you make any changes to his fighting style?
LS: No real changes to ‘Boyka.’ Scott’s a beast. I wanted to put my stamp on it and that was to push for longer takes and have more choreography within the fights. If people want to see quick knockouts then I apologize due to my job is to entertain and give exciting fight scenes.
JU: “Never Back Down 2” is another martial arts movie that will be released sometime this year that you were involved in and it was Michael Jai White’s directorial debut. Tell us about this movie and how White did directing.
LS: MJW, my big brother, did a great job. I am very excited to see him take the directing reigns and do an awesome job. We talked about NBD2 months before we ever started filming. I wanted to wrap my head around what he was looking for and deliver. I hope the audience enjoys it due to it will feel and look different than part 1. It won’t be anywhere near Undisputed 3 fights scenes due to I kept them more gritty and within what could “possibly” happen in a real MMA match.
JU: In 2010, you did a video short, “Mortal Kombat: Rebirth,” which drew excitement from MK fans all over the globe. This year, you brought us “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” which builds on the short and fleshes out the whole MK world like the movies never did with hardcore action and scenes of violence. Was this a dream project and how did the short and these web series come to be?
LS: Once again J.J. was busy and passed this to me. (laughing) That’s my road dawg though. Kevin Tanchaeron and I sat down and discussed the short and his vision. Yes, I was excited due to this being MK and all but when I read the treatment I wanted to do all I could to help it out. I loved the concept and fresh take of “Rebirth”. Once it went viral I knew he was on to something and there was more to come. The web series had great timing due to we filmed it and were able to get it picked up and released in time for the new game which sold very well.
JU: What are some of the things you were proud of in the series and some of the things you’d change if you could go back?
LS: I’m proud of the look and overall performances from everyone. I WISH I had more time for the fight scenes. I didn’t want to disappoint the fans and mostly myself by having a weak product. MK has to have a story but if the fights are weak then I failed. Unfortunately with a web series, 70-80% of the day can be spent on acting, then I have to make a miracle and film an entire fight scene of high quality in 2-3 hrs. I did what I could in that time but I hope next time around will be different.
JU: Will all the episodes be collected and put onto blu-ray for release this year?
LS: I believe so. The final episode involving the robots Sektor/Cyrax will be released at Comic Con. Hopefully there will be an announcement concerning season one and more.
JU: Most recently, you’ve worked with director John Hyams, on “Dragon Eyes” and are finishing up with him on “Universal Soldier: A New Dimension.” How did you get involved on these projects and describe what it’s like to work on a John Hyam’s film?
LS: John’s a great guy and an awesome director. I like his approach to fights; he wants them bloody, brutal, and real. He takes the time to make sure they are covered correctly and captures the story moments within the fights.
JU: In “Dragon Eyes” you have Cung Le (a champion MMA fighter) and Jean-Claude Van Damme. How was your experience working with Le and Van Damme and did you learn anything about Van Damme that you didn’t know before?
LS: Cung Le is a great guy, very professional and a hard worker. You will see him in many more films to come. This was my first time working with Van Damme and he was very open to my choreography and overall it was a great experience working with him.
JU: How was Van Damme in the fight scenes and did he give you input while filming? What do you think of Van Damme as a martial artist?
LS: Van Damme of course has his input and we were able to meet on common ground with moves he was comfortable with. Van Damme is a legend in the game, no one can deny that. He has accomplished so much and has influenced so many. He still has many years left to give out some Van Dammage and I look forward to whatever he has next.
JU: We’ve all seen the clip from “Behind Closed Doors” where the extra/stuntman gets kicked in the face by Van Damme as apparently the extra/stuntman missed his mark. Is it frustrating to choreograph a scene and then it doesn’t go right? Any other close calls on the set?
LS: Actually that was the only one and also the guy wasn’t a stunt guy. His timing was off which led to J.C. kicking him. It happens in the stunt industry and all I ask is that we get it on film if it does happen!! Why waste a real hit…(laughing).
JU: John Hyams put himself on the map with “The Smashing Machine” martial arts documentary and then cemented himself as the “new kid on the DTV block” with the acclaimed “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” Now you are working with him on the sequel, “Universal Soldier: A New Dimension.” I understand this is to be a 3D movie, shot with the same 3D rigs that the new Spiderman movie is being shot with. What is it like filming in 3D and does it change how you have to choreograph your fights and stunts?
LS: 3D changes how many set ups you can have in one day. It takes more time for lens changes, etc. This was my first movie in 3D doing the choreography so some of the hits have to be closer to the face for the camera. No one got hit or hurt. Overall it was a good experience due to the camera crew was great and moved quickly to get more set ups in.
JU: Since this movie is still in production, is there anything you can say about it, or perhaps you could give everyone an idea of the style of fights we can expect?
LS: Bloody, brutal, gritty, and exciting.
JU: You are working with Adkins, Van Damme, Andre Arlovski, and Dolph Lundgren—basically your own “Expendables” cast of DTV stars. What is it like choreographing all the different fighting styles and what else are you responsible for on set?
LS: I’m responsible for the execution of the choreography, safety and being able to change things on the spot. Sometimes the location or set may be different than how we rehearsed it in the gym. It’s funny “The Expendables” was mentioned due to I “might” be helping on that [the sequel] but if I don’t then I’m satisfied with US4. I believe in this movie and it will stand toe to toe with some of the bigger action films in 2012/13 that might be similar in tone.
JU: Have you seen any of the shots in 3D and, if so, can you tell us how we might expect 3D to be used in an action film? Obviously it won’t be like in a CGI movie like “Avatar.”
LS: John is not a fan of the obvious 3D where it’s cheesy and things come flying at you. We did not do the whole punch comes at the audience or his foot appears in your face. He took a subtle approach with the use of 3D and I believe it will work.
JU: You also, recently, choreographed fights for Nicholas Cage in “Medallion.” What was it like working with him?
LS: Nic was cool, very open and seemed to have liked what I choreographed for his film. He only had a few request and they were all ideas that made the fights he had to do better and more relatable to his character. It was a great experience working with him.
JU: Larnell, any other movies in the pipeline you’d like to tell us about or give mention to?
LS: Many things are in the pipeline but nothing solid I can reveal yet. Hopefully that will change soon now that I am wrapped on US4. I’m still waiting for my comic book movie (which will happen) and I think I am ready to do a supernatural type of film with martial arts action. I’ll make announcements on twitter @larnellstovall or through my Facebook.
– JONATHAN URBAN