Vic Armstrong may be the World's Greatest Stuntman, but he faced a major challenge when he became a second unit director on Total Recall.
He had to make Arnold Schwarzenegger seem to get sucked out onto the Martian surface. He had to organize a knock-down fight between Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin. He had to organize huge crazy fights. And most of all, he had to deal with the temperamental director, Paul Verhoeven. Here's an excerpt from Armstrong's autobiography, The True Adventures of The World's Greatest Stuntman.
Paul Verhoeven had an amazing reputation as a fiery director. I remember asking him how he got started. ‘I was doing films in Holland like Soldier of Orange and Turkish Delight,' he said, ‘and I wanted to break into movies in America, so my agent was trying to get me a script and then I got this thing called RoboCop. I said to my wife, "This is a heap of shit, I can't go over and do this," and my wife said, "Look, Paul, just take it, go over there and do the best you can, at least it'll get you to America."' So he took her advice and it turned out to be quite a hit. The next thing he got was Total Recall, a science fiction actioner with Arnold Schwarzenegger, filmed out in Mexico City at the massive Churubusco Studio.
At the beginning of the movie Paul was adamant that he didn't want a second unit because he'd had three second units on RoboCop, fired each one in succession and ended up shooting it all himself. But the producers insisted he had a second unit on Total Recall, headed by myself. So now I was on a real hiding to nothing because I was being forced upon him. I'd had to beg and borrow a little monitor and the first thing he gave me, my first shot on the movie, I'll never forget, was Arnie on the building site at the beginning and it was a close-up of the drill tip hitting the cement. That's all it was. By the end of the shoot, five months later, I had four cameras, a huge tent, four monitors; the works. Paul absolutely adored what I did. After the film wrapped he told me I'd done 1200 set-ups that were in the movie. I did an amazing amount of shooting, all the fight sequences. I was working full-blown.
Verhoeven's a real character. I remember on the first day I got all the stunt crew together and we were picking guys to play the baddies, and he was standing in front of them going, ‘OK what I want, ya, is when you get shot, bang, you go "Arghh!!"' He was throwing himself all over the place, and this set was made out of volcanic rock, which was razor sharp, and he was just bouncing off it and falling about. All the stunt guys were going, Jesus Christ, if the director's doing that, with no protective pads on, just a short-sleeved shirt, what's he going to expect us to do when we shoot?
We did have a few clashes and disagreements though. All directors try to push you to do things their way, which may not be the best or safest way in your opinion. I first met Verhoeven in Amsterdam at Schipol airport; I flew in for the meeting and then flew out again. We went through the script from beginning to end and we went through the notes I'd made about all the action in it. I built up a good repartee with him. We got to the part where the two women, Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone, have a fight outside an elevator and I said, ‘This is one chance Paul where we can do a really good fight between women, where they actually land punches instead of pulling their hair and tearing their blouses and all that old nonsense.' And he went, ‘Ya, ya, that's good.' You could see his eyes light up; he liked the idea of that. I knew we couldn't hide pads under the skimpy costumes the actresses were wearing, so decided instead to pad the walls of the set and have very high compression padding under the carpet, so you could hit the floor and bounce around. I worked out a really good fight routine, but the key to it was having one actress and one stunt person at a time, unless it was a special shot where you saw both girl's faces and they weren't doing anything really physical. There were some throws and other stuff where you could easily break an arm if you didn't know what you were doing, if you did a Grace Jones and went crazy.
On this particular shot one of the girls had to throw the other one over her back and Paul insisted that both actresses did it. ‘No,' I said. ‘It's got to be a stunt girl whichever way around you want it, but one stunt girl, one actress.' But he kept on insisting and insisting. ‘No, in my opinion it would be much better…' And at the end of it he looked at me and said, ‘Basically what you're telling me is I'm a fucking idiot.' I said, ‘Now, that's a catchy phrase you've used there Paul, not that I'd use it myself.' And he fell about laughing.
Sharon Stone was funny. We all thought that Rachel Ticotin was going to be the big star, she was a fabulous actress, looked gorgeous and yet she went nowhere. Sharon Stone you couldn't drag into the gym, she just didn't want to train, didn't want to do anything, yet she became a superstar in Basic Instinct. Wendy was doubling Rachel and Donna Evans doubled Sharon and did all the kicks and everything else really, we mainly shot Sharon for close-ups. Though I must say she looked dynamite in those close-ups!
Back at that meeting in Schipol I had mentioned to Paul how we were going to shoot the sequence where Arnie and Rachel are getting sucked out onto the Martian surface. I broke it all down. Now you have to remember this was in the days when wire removal was a problem, and very expensive to do digitally. In the first part, where they're getting pulled along the ground, we'd drag them by wires. Then when they're hanging on for dear life and flapping about in the wind, we'd fly them by wires on hip harnesses, shooting them from the waist upwards. And finally for the wider shots we'd build a vertical set and put the camera on its side, so when they let go it looks like they're literally flying into space. This way the body language would be correct and you could not sense that they were on wires, because the pick points were not where you would expect them to be. ‘Ya, ya,' said Verhoeven.
Months later on the set I heard this loud commotion on the other stage. ‘Go and see Paul Verhoeven,' an assistant said. ‘He's having a screaming fit.' I went over and he was raging. ‘The fucking wires, I see the fucking wires Vic! You said this would work, it's not fucking working!' I said, ‘I know Paul, but you're only supposed to shoot them from the waist upwards. Once we have them fully suspended from the ground we go to a vertical set, don't you remember?' He said, ‘Ya, ya.' There was a pause. ‘What do you mean a vertical set?' I said, ‘What I meant was we build the set on end.' ‘OK, tell the fucking producers that.' So I told them and they said, ‘We can't afford that.' I said, ‘Guys, at all the production meetings this is what I said we'd do.' In the end they gave in because the only way you could shoot it was with a vertical set. And it's one of the most memorable parts of the movie, audiences were wondering, ‘How the hell did they do that?! It looks as if they were levitating!' And it was a trick I learnt from Alf Joint; they did those sorts of things on old movies like The Thief of Baghdad back in silent movie days. But people don't use techniques like that nowadays.
I hadn't worked with Arnie since Red Sonja, so it was lovely meeting him again. Since then he'd made it really big, but he hadn't changed at all. Some little TV show came over to interview me and they wanted some shots of Arnie too. He stood there talking to them and really laying it down thick about how great I was and then when he finished he turned to me and said, ‘That's what you told me to say wasn't it Vic?' He was just brilliant. We had such fun on that movie, and some of the best parties I've ever been to. And Arnie was the instigator. The wrap party was fantastic. Arnie bought everybody water pistols; everybody had a stack of them on their table, a recipe for disaster. We had the dinner and Paul Verhoeven stood up and was very complimentary about my second unit and me. And then the party got wilder and wilder. By the end you had people running round with big water pistols full of vodka, shooting it in people's faces, and red wine being sprayed everywhere, it was absolute mayhem, just a blast. And that was Arnie.
The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman: My Life As Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and other movie heroes
by Vic Armstrong is out now from Titan Books.