Vic Armstrong is something of a movie legend. You may not know the name, but you’ve undoubtedly seen his work. Armstrong started out as a movie stuntman, working on the Gregory Peck film Arabesqe, before he began his longstanding association with the James Bond franchise in You Only Live Twice (he was the first ninja down the rope into Blofeld’s volcanic lair). He also doubled for Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner's Superman before moving on to become a stunt co-ordinator and then second unit director. Armstrong is also a director in his own right, with an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the Dolph Lundgren film Joshua Tree to his credit.
Over the years Armstrong has worked with many of Hollywood’s greatest; from old school directors like David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, to more modern masters like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, to name but a few. In fact, Armstrong has been one of Hollywood's main “go to” stunt professionals for over the last forty years.
Our two-part interview with Armstrong that follows offers details on his life, career in big-budget features (documented in his autobiography My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Action Heroes: The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman) as well as his upcoming work on The Amazing Spider-Man.
SCREEN RANT: Do you think that your childhood and your upbringing had an impact on your career?
Vic Armstrong: "I travelled a lot and I grew up with horses which gives you a certain amount of responsibility."
Not only did your parents drive you into horse-racing but the travelling seems to have fed into that and gave you independence. So, it was a theatrical family without it actually being theatrical?
You’ve now brought your family into it, so it’s now a family business for you?
"We’ve got Armstrong Action – we’ve got the whole family in on it."
You must feel very proud, but a bit nervous at times – do you?
"Absolutely. It’s all about how you approach it from job to job and how you act, perform and everything like that. These kids have grown up with that. I’m very, very proud and absolutely terrified. I’ve just done Green Hornet and my brother did a cannon turn over, it fires and it flips the car over. That’s the first night. And on the second night my son Scott did a head-on crash with a pickup which was on fire and then went head-on into a bus."
Going back to the start of your career, your first major film was You Only live Twice. It must have been quite intimidating to be on a Bond movie and walking onto that iconic set?
"It was a tremendous moment in my career because at that moment Bond was almost an institution. To walk up to the set at Pinewood Studios, and to see the huge great scaffolding construction which turned out to be the inside of a volcano was just breathtaking and as a young stuntman, I was in total awe. It’s a huge step, because once you’ve done one you go on to another film and they go “oh my gosh, you've done Bond” so you go up in their estimations, so on and so forth."
You’ve had a long career and association with Bond movies – even the Brosnan films where you did a lot of second unit work. Did you feel that your career had come full circle when you ended up back with Bond?
"I did feel that things had come full circle. From ’66 on You Only Live Twice when I was on £65 a week, to the three Brosnan films and I’m responsible for twenty, thirty million of the company’s money. I felt very, very proud."
The Brosnan films have great stunts.
Out of the recent Bond’s, Tomorrow Never Dies is my particular favorite. It gives you everything you want from the start right through to the end. Just great action – so thank you for that one.
"That’s what we’re trying to do, real bang for your bucks. Get in there - see Bond at his best, blowing things up. I’m very, very proud of Tomorrow Never Dies."
Having read your book, I have to agree that the CGI in Die Another Day was terrible! I love the stunts, and reading your book, you say the same thing that I have said - which is that CGI isn’t really Bond, it takes you away from it.
"Exactly, Exactly (laughing)."
I have to agree that I felt that Brosnan had another couple of movies in him as well.
"He’s got old enough and weathered enough but he’s still suave and sophisticated and I just thought that he looked really mature and perfect for it, but hey never mind - you know."
Looking at your list of films and the directors you’ve worked with – Spielberg, Polanski, Kubrick, even Blake Edwards, Ridley Scott, Don Siegel and Richard Donner - I know you’ve moved into directing yourself, but you must have picked up so much over the years, yes?
"Absolutely. I’m a great people watcher and I do like watching people work and you can’t help but learn from them, even with David Lean on Ryan’s Daughter. I’ve watched people from afar and in my occupation I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been very lucky. I feel that helped in my education."
You’re known for your stunts, but you also look at some of the other second unit things you’ve done, and there’s some interesting stuff in there like Miracle, The Holiday, Quills and Black Beauty. I know from your book that you’re not just interested in action – is drama a place you would like to go directing-wise?
"Oh, one hundred percent. The Young Indiana Jones - George Lucas said that was his favorite episode and there’s hardly any action in that, you know. It’s all dramatics in that. I thoroughly enjoy doing dramatics with Quills and like you said Black Beauty and Miracle, another great one. I thoroughly enjoy dramatics. Basically a director is a storyteller and that’s what I’m looking for. I do enjoy the creativeness. I enjoy working out sequences and getting stories across and translating them into pictures - I always enjoy it and get a kick out of.
I find action very hard because you try not to copy yourself or anybody else. It takes a lot of creativity and it’s a really hard thing to come up with nowadays because you feel that you’ve done most things to get a different angle on things and it’s very hard to come up with new and interesting action, which is how I came up with the boat chase (in The World Is Not Enough). They thought “what the heck, he’s doing a boat chase?” The ice chase in Die Another Day was another one in Iceland with two cars on an empty lake, just with ice. I do like storytelling and I find it much easier to do dramatics because it’s easier to tell a story when you’ve got dialogue to help the story along."
Part 2 of our interview sees Vic Armstrong talking about working with Harrison Ford on the Indiana Jones films, the difficulties of stunt work, Superman and the how The Amazing Spider-Man will differ from Sam Raimi's films. Stay tuned.