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Reacher Supervising Stunt Coordinator Buster Reeves on How to Stage a Knife Fight on a Fire Escape, Plus That Epic Prison Brawl


Image via Amazon Prime Video

Bestselling author Lee Child has written more than 20 books about Jack Reacher, a former Army MP who is a magnet for trouble, and the character has built an enormous following. In fact, two Reacher novels were previously adapted into Tom Cruise vehicles.

Fans who have been begging for a more physically accurate version of Child’s hero had their prayers answered with Amazon Prime’s eponymous series Reacher. The first thing that writer and executive producer Nick Santora did was to focus on what made the books so compulsively readable — complicated, hyperviolent plotting. Just as key to the success of the series was the casting of Titans star Alan Ritchson, whose hulking physicality mirrored Child’s depiction of a highly-trained behemoth who hurtled through bone-jarring fights, shootouts, and car chases.

Staged by Supervising Stunt Coordinator Buster Reeves, the action in Reacher has an immediacy and impact missing from most TV shows. His work is one of the reasons why Reacher was the first Amazon series to top Nielsen SVOD ratings. Not only is it the most-watched Amazon original series, but a second season is already underway.

Reeves has worked on films as varied as Troy, The Dark Knight Rises (where he also served as Tom Hardy‘s stunt double), and Jason Bourne. He spoke with Below the Line by telephone:

Buster Reeves
Image via IMDb

Below the Line: How much time did you have to prepare for Reacher?

Buster Reeves: We had about seven to eight weeks [of] rehearsal time in the beginning. We had a fight in a prison bathroom in Episode 1 that we knew had to capture Reacher’s fighting style and do justice to the books. We worked with Alan a good four to five weeks on just that fight. In between that, we obviously had fights in the other episodes that we were running in the background.

BTL: How big is your team?

Reeves: We had Jean Frenette, the Stunt Coordinator, and Alexis Barron, the Assistant Stunt Coordinator. Obviously, Alan’s double and backup double. Depending on the scene, we would bring in extra guys, like for the bathroom fight. But normally, four or five could handle most of the choreography.

BTL: So what do you deliver to the departments? Are you shooting all the rehearsals?

Reeves: Yes, we previs everything. Some directors like us to film wide so they can take a look at it, but others, including the networks, like us to do a quick edit with a little bit of special effects so they can get an idea of how it’s going to feel on screen. So we’ll do the wide shot and then punch in and do edits and slick cuts and hopefully the director will sign off on it and we can start teaching the actors.

Image via Amazon Prime Video

BTL: So you can suggest angles, overhead shots, things like that?

Reeves: With something like the fight on the fire escape, we will film it, and then put our own little flare on it. Because we’re trying to sell our action, [we’ll] do more than just film it from the street. We try to give the idea that if you shoot it like this, it will look better. Give everyone an idea of how we made the fire escape work, because it’s a very difficult situation to be working in with camera crews, lighting, etc. We try to iron out the creases, show that we found it better from down here or up top. Anything that looks dynamic.

BTL: How does that translate to the other departments?

Reeves: For production design, we design the fight and then let them know what we would like to be breakaway, what we’d like to be soft, what we’re thinking of banging into. Once we finish choreography, we give it to the director and cinematographer in case they want to make adjustments to how we shot something.

Sometimes what I like to do is bring the camera guys in so they can get a first-hand, boots-on-the-ground look at what we’re doing. When you’re watching on a screen, you don’t know how much the camera has to move around. Our fights become choreography for the cameraman as much as for the stunt guys, especially when you’re doing something in a small space, like the prison bathroom.

BTL: Let’s talk about safety because there are a lot of weapons, a lot of explosions, and a lot of potential hazards on this series, including working with knives.

Reeves: We have what we call “reallies,” which we use for the beauty shots when you’re not actually using the knife or doing any kind of action with it. If it’s being carried, we have a blunt knife. As soon as we get into action, we have flexible rubber knives. And then we have what we call “stubbies,” where we cut the blade off completely and put a green marker on it for the visual effects guys to fill in the blade later.

For guns, the beauty shots will have “reallies” which are handled by the armorer. Normally, they are plugged. If you need to see the components of the gun working, the firing pin will be removed. Any type of running will be with a rubber gun. If we actually have to fire anything like a Glock where the slide has to rack back, we use a CO2-powered Airsoft gun with a plugged barrel.

For breakaways, we’ll have a table made out of balsa wood, or we’ll score the legs so they collapse. Back in the old days, we used to use sugar glass, but that had a tendency to shard, so it could cut or penetrate. Now we used tempered glass that we shatter with small charges.

Image via Amazon Prime Video

BTL: What I love about the action in this series is that you’re in very close to the actors, you pay attention to the geography of the scene, and you often play the stunts out in one shot.

Reeves: We like to design our action so it can be followed in one shot, or it can be cut up. Some think a shaky camera and quick cuts — that’s the easy way to film action. I think action is an art form, it’s something I’ve devoted my life to, and I think it can be done quickly and efficiently where viewers can see what’s happening.

BTL: Can you talk about establishing rhythm and pacing, because they are crucial in this series.

Reeves: The story and the emotions are big factors. When you talk about pacing and timing, a fight scene is like a violently choreographed dance. That’s the best way I can put it. It has a tempo, beats, acting moments.

If you’re listening to music, it’s what happens between the notes that count. If you play the notes without any tempo or beat or rhythm, it will sound like gobbledygook. Once you break it up into eighths, sixteenths, then it has a pace. You can have a lull, you can speed up, you can go quiet or loud. That’s how I like to choreograph my action, like a violent piece of music.

BTL: So take us through the prison bathroom fight in Episode 1, where it’s Reacher against a half-dozen guys.

Reeves: He knows someone’s been eyeballing him. He doesn’t want to create a scene in the prison yard, so he goes somewhere quiet and secluded, a bathroom inside. Will it be a choreographed attack, or are a bunch of guys going to come in and shiv him to death? That’s why I have him walk around through the shower room first. We have him pick up a hand towel that he can use as a whip or to tie somebody up. And then all the guys come in.

We didn’t make it easy on ourselves, like the old kung fu movies where everybody’s standing around.

BTL: Waiting their turn.

Reeves: Right. Once you start the fight, I asked our guys, ‘Who can get a shot in?’ A stunt guy says he could, so I’m like, ‘Okay, instead of just punching him, have him move into another guy’s way.’ So that opens up another target. Then it’s, ‘Who’s willing to get beat up next?’

It took us about two weeks to iron out all the blank spots. I don’t want anybody just standing around. If you are, it’s because you’ve had somebody thrown into you and they’ve jammed your leg. I want something going on constantly so it looks like a proper fight. Plus, I want to be able to have the cameraman move wherever he wants.

That’s why at the end of that scene, Reacher is fighting two guys at once, pinning the big guy against the wall while punching the other guy. He’s punching with his left hand while elbowing the guy against the wall.

BTL: It sounds like a very organic process where everyone has to trust each other.

Reeves: If you ever look at footage of real fights, like surveillance monitors, police fights rarely go past 15-20 seconds. It’s over in an instant. It’s like a pack of wolves attacks and runs away. We try to take advantage of that. Every hit here is a malicious one. It’s not a 12-round boxing match, you’re in a fight for your life. Which makes Reacher look even more skilled because he’s not trying to show off. He’s trying to dispatch the enemy as fast as possible.

Image via Amazon Prime Video

BTL: You stage a knife fight on a fire escape, a confined space that must have been difficult to work in.

Reeves: We created the outline of the fire escape with boxes in the rehearsal studio. At first, they’re fighting with a knife and a bicycle tire. Usually, it’s staged in a kung fu way, where everything’s circular. We tried to do more of a jujitsu style, an arm lock, a wrist lock.

We got to rehearse on the fire escape where the Ontario fire department trains, then we found a similar set-up in Toronto where we were filming. We choreographed it for a good two weeks. It took us another week to refine it, [and] probably three or four days to rehearse on set. Then three days to film it. So you’re talking about a good four weeks total.

Alan did a fantastic job on that. So did Max Savaria, the stunt man performing with him. He’s one of my core stunt guys. He would run it with Alan constantly, they both worked really hard on it.

BTL: Do you think stunt people deserve an Oscar category?

Reeves: Personally, I think we should be together with the effects groups — the visual effects and the special effects. Because without us in there, it would just be effects. Not real.

BTL: What’s your next project?

Reeves: We’re working on Season 2 right now.

Season 1 of Reacher is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan is a producer and writer living in New York City.
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