HBO Max‘s Peacemaker, a spinoff series built around John Cena‘s character from The Suicide Squad, officially brought the DC Extended Universe to television, and the superhero show’s first season required a tremendous amount of work from Stunt Coordinators Gaston Morrison and Wayne Dalglish, who received the series’ sole Emmy nomination.
Below the Line recently spoke to Morrison — Dalglish couldn’t join because he was on set — who discussed the many challenges he and his team faced and the constant revisions that were needed in order to ensure that some ambitious action scenes could be filmed as written by James Gunn. Morrison also described successful collaborations with other departments, including the Visual Effects and Production Design teams, and talked about forcing actors outside of their comfort zones.
Morrison also shared small but important details that audiences should look for when they rewatch the show, as some of his most impressive stunt work may not be visible to the untrained eye, though he wouldn’t have it any other way when it comes to the finished project.
Below the Line: Did you need to have any familiarity with the DC Extended Universe or The Suicide Squad before coming into the show?
Gaston Morrison: Well, it helps, of course, [so] yeah. The Peacemaker character has a little backstory and stuff and his type of approach to fighting and action, [with] his whole attitude. So you want to have some knowledge of that, yes, absolutely.
BTL: Were you familiar with the character ahead of time, and are you a fan of those Squad movies?
Morrison: Yeah, actually, I really do like them. They’re a lot of fun, and I’ve got a couple of kids [in their] early teens, and everybody’s all into that kind of thing. I enjoyed them, for sure.
BTL: Were there important differences in how this show would look or feel when it came to stunts, as compared to the stunt work in The Suicide Squad?
Morrison: We wanted to keep the type of action similar. In the same universe, you don’t want to have drastic variations in [the] style of fighting, so yeah, we try to keep it as similar as the universal vibe was.
BTL: I have some questions about specific things; let’s start with the butterflies.
Morrison: Butterflies. Yeah. [The] butterflies were cool.
BTL: So there are obviously a lot of people swallowing butterflies. How much of that is visual effects, and where do stunts come into something like that?
Morrison: We have a lot of stunt folks that came in and were attacked by the butterflies because we like to see that as a bit of a violent procedure. They’re falling down, and, of course, we use the cast for as much as we can for those pieces, the feature pieces, but it’s a combination. The world of visual FX works hand-in-hand with the actual stunt action. We’re trying to complement each other in that regard.
BTL: And what about Eagly?
Morrison: Eagly! [laughter] Eagly was all visual FX. Eagly was a big star of the show. He turned out really well. And you know what, none of us expected [him] to be quite as good as he was. He was a really great character. One of my favorites in the show as well, and always very loving. And he’s an eagle! How do you go wrong with an eagle? He’s awesome.
BTL: Thinking about the title of the finale, “It’s Cow or Never,” which is an incredible title, by the way, were there animals that were involved in this show in any capacity, and in terms of stunt performing, what’s required to work with animals?
Morrison: Well, in this, Eagly was sort of our main animal character. There wasn’t really much other than that. We did have the fights and the CG cow, [but] that was sort of a different thing. The fights in the cave and falling through the cave and the stairs and all that fun stuff, those were big builds and a lot of fun. Lots of research and development went into those as well.
BTL: Was there anything particularly challenging regarding those scenes?
Morrison: Well, yeah, the whole thing is challenging. We’ve got this huge cave and we had the fight where Adebayo puts on the helmet and jettisons. That was something serious. That was a combination of stunts and actors and the wires in that small cave. We had to redesign sets. First, we talked about how the sets should look, and then we would have to go in and redesign things to accommodate wires and to accommodate rigs that will go into that. Our key rigger, Raf[ael Sola], was great with that. There was a lot of raising and lowering of ceiling heights that we had to accommodate. We would request one thing, and then by the time we would get layers and everything else on there, we would have to raise the ceiling. We would rehearse, things would change, [and] fight action would change. It was an evolution, absolutely.
BTL: Would you say that this project was more intense than others you’ve worked on in the past?
Morrison: Yeah. You know what, HBO puts out a really nice, quality product, and they expected no shortcomings on this. So to do that, we would have to prep and we would have to accommodate, we would have to make sets that would not only be safe, but effective. So, there was a lot of designing the walls and building in padding and a lot of construction. We had a lot of help from the art department. Lisa Soper was great. The poor girl, the [number] of times that we went back to her and said, ‘you know what, this is getting bigger than what we originally anticipated, we need to change this, we need to change that. Pad this over here, push this wall back over there, the ceiling needs to come up.’ All kinds of stuff that we were changing and adjusting [constantly] to try to make the gags work as efficiently and safely as possible.
BTL: I keep thinking about the human torpedo that you were describing and her just going straight into the wall. There’s something so quick about a lot of these stunts. They just happen. I assume the actual process is not nearly as smooth and speedy as it looks.
Morrison: No, not at all, not at all. We had some performers [who] we had to bring in to help that happen and they weren’t the most experienced performers, so there was a lot of working with our performers and helping them grow, and training and rehearsing. A lot of things we had to do to accommodate the scope of what we were going [for].
BTL: Was there anything you tried to do that just couldn’t be accomplished?
Morrison: Well, there’s one thing that we actually thought was one of our bigger obstacles to overcome, and that was when the human torpedo, Adebayo, shot up into the cow, guts spill out, and she comes flopping out of there. So that was an extreme challenge because our performer was, like I said, not one of our seasoned performers [who] we just kind of put in anywhere. So we had to really work with her cautiously. She wasn’t a fan of heights and she wasn’t a fan of water. So once we started, what we did is — and it’s a little bit sad because you don’t really see this one that well in the end product because it’s so covered up by the guts that spill from the cow — but we had her in a wrap so she would unravel in two different directions and flop down to the ground, [followed by] a vat of goo.
So, first we would rehearse the unraveling and have her drop through and drop down, and then we would introduce the next element, which would be a bucket of water above her that would all come down with her. So as she’s unraveling and coming down, all the goo and everything’s coming down as well. And the detail, the magnitude of how many spins and rotations she was doing on the way down, we didn’t really capture that. And it was covered by a lot of the goo and the guts that came out of the cow. So that detail was a little bit of a challenge to get at, and there were some emotional things that we were overcoming throughout that whole thing for the performer because it was a bit of a trigger — the whole water thing and the height.
So there are real serious obstacles to overcome with that action, to get that detail. And, unfortunately, like I said, we didn’t really see that clearly. Which happens a lot. For stunts, that’s 90 percent of your job. The stuff you do, the hardest hits, it ends up on the cutting-room floor. You don’t often make it to the screen.
BTL: But I assume you also want it to look seamless, so you don’t want to really be able to pick apart how something happened, or are you able to do that because you’re in this field and you can tell how things might have been coordinated and staged?
Morrison: That’s part of the disadvantage of being a filmmaker — when you watch a film, you get into dissection mode, right? Sometimes that’s hard to step away from, as a filmmaker-type. You know you’re in a good movie when you can let that go and just enjoy the process. But yes, you do kind of see where the pieces happen and your brain goes to work on stitches and things like that. ‘How did they do that?’ So the piece where Peacemaker is blasted through a wall in the first fight with our young lady when they’re both [throwing] bare elbows in their underwear. That was a challenging fight because you got a lot of your cast working in the shot and they’re in their underwear. So how do you make it a safe environment for people fighting in their underwear where they’re not going to get cut and bruised?
That was a serious challenge as well, but we did a stitch where we throw him through [a] wall [and] then he runs and jumps out of the window. As we do that, the camera follows him out the window and down over the edge. So that’s a stitch piece between when the camera breaches the plane of the window and as we follow him down and out, so there are pieces we did on a stage where we match that together with our camera guy on a wire, with our double going down the thing, and then there’s also another blend to the exterior shot of him busting through the awning and hitting the floor. Those things, you look at them, and you’re like, ‘oh, wait a second, there wasn’t a cut in there, how did you do that?’ That lands on the filmmaker, but the average audience? I’m not sure if everybody grasps what happened there. It’s just cool. It looks good, right?
BTL: For the Emmys, I know that Peacemaker is considered a comedy, but is there something to the stunts that makes them seem especially comedy-oriented, or is it just an action project to you, and this is what it needs, and it doesn’t matter what the genre is?
Morrison: Well, no, actually, [comedic] action is tricky and it can be a little bit more difficult than just regular action because you want to provide that little [extra] payoff. They often hurt a lot more [and] they’re a lot more violent because the violent stuff is what makes people laugh. [Comedic] action definitely has its own level of intensity.
BTL: You’re in good company with Hawkeye and Barry, which can also be dark and painful, at least more than the other nominees.
Morrison: Yeah, a little more serious but still good action.
BTL: What is your collaboration like with Wayne?
Morrison: It was great working with Wayne. Initially, James Gunn picked Wayne as his guy, and Wayne came here and picked me as his guy. So I worked hand-in-hand with Wayne. This is home turf for me in Vancouver, so I’ve got the teams and the equipment, that kind of stuff. Wayne was great to work with. Unfortunately, he’s not here now with us. We can talk some bad stuff about him now that he’s not here! But no, there’s nothing really bad to say about the guy. He was collaborative and creative, and he had a lot of great knowledge. Really good guy.
BTL: Do you know what he’s working on right now?
Morrison: No, I don’t. But I do know he just finished the last Guardians of the Galaxy with James Gunn. I know they’re off in Atlanta doing that one. He jumped onto something else. With stunt performers, quite often, we’ll be jumping around from show to show. Last week, I worked on probably three different shows. It’s a combination of stuff all the time.
BTL: Will you be involved with Season 2 of Peacemaker?
Morrison: I’m not sure. Depends on where it shoots. In my imagination, chances are it might be in Atlanta or something. So I mean, if it’s up here, you know what, we’ll see. We’ll see how things work out.
BTL: Is there anything else you’re working on right now that you’d like to share?
Morrison: Jumping around on a few things. No major projects. [I’m] working on Percy Jackson, which is a lot of fun. That’s another big production, right? And a couple of smaller shows. I’m jumping around. I’m doing some live shows and stuff as well, which is a lot of fun for me because we [get] to showcase the stuff that we just want to do, the action that we love to do, so it’s a bunch of live-vehicle stuff [and] that’s a lot of fun.
BTL: Well, thank you for taking some time to speak with me. I’ll make sure to watch that exploding cow and look for all the turns now.
Morrison: [laughs] And you know what else you might want to try to pick up on is the padded set that we use for that opening scene fight, because that was pretty much wall-to-wall pads in there. Floors, doorways, door jams, it was quite the process to make that happen.
Season 1 of Peacemaker is now streaming on HBO Max.