The art of fight choreography is like a dance where every move is precise and counted out to the last beat to achieve the utmost goal of being badass, but most importantly so nobody gets hurt. Fight Choreographer Laurent Demianoff carved out a career mastering this skill. He studied martial arts from early childhood in lieu of soccer, at the behest of his famous father Georges Demianoff, who was known as the pioneer of Kung Fu in France. The discipline certainly paid off, as his training has led to becoming a stunt performer, namely in Taken 2 and Lucy, graduating to a stunt coordinator, and ultimately a fight choreographer for numerous films.
His current project Gunpowder Milkshake on Netflix really shakes things up, combining his expertise in delivering action with the creative use of props to kick the bad guy’s butts. There is also an element of comedic choreography involved in the fight sequences which feature Karen Gillan, a towering presence, who was still in fighting shape from Jumanji: The Next Level. That training came in handy as the daughter of an elite assassin (Lena Headey) who grows up in her mother’s footsteps to become a ruthless hit-woman. Her lethal partners, known as The Librarians, are Michelle Yeoh, a seasoned martial artist herself, along with Angela Bassett and Carla Gugino, who gave it their all. They weren’t being precious about possible scrapes and bruises, pushing through to master the moves Demianoff created.
Taking his cues from Director and Co-Writer Navot Papushado, as to the style of each fight, Demianoff put the actors through their paces. The result was throwing impressive punches and kicks, giving it as good as they got it.
Demianoff spoke with Below The Line from the Berlin set, where he was shooting another project, to discuss the inspiration behind some Gunpowder Milkshake’s key fight sequences. (SPOILER ALERT!)
Below the Line: The fight scenes are very impressive for the women in this film, primarily Karen Gillan who plays the assassin. Do you choreograph differently for women vs. men?
Laurent Demianoff: In reality, it’s not so different. For an actor or an actress, the process is the same. We are doing the same thing, but it depends on the background the actors have. If they have done martial arts before or sports combat, it’s always easier. In the case of Karen, she never did martial arts before, but she’s such a hard worker that it was perfect. She did great.
BTL: How do you decipher what your actors can do in terms of the steps in fight choreography?
Demianoff: For the first couple of days for Karen, she came in really good shape, because she was shooting action before in Jumanji. The first step is to see what she was capable of doing, if she’s flexible, if she has a good memory and her energy level. Then we figure out how we can train her and what kind of choreography we can work on. She arrived as a very quiet person, very gentle, but she was like a tiger with a lot of energy, so that really helped a lot. The other thing was her memory. Maybe she did dance because she remembered big pieces of choreography. For the big fight entrance we had a tracking shot with her where normally we have six beats maximum for a good action actor. For her, it was like a dance, so it was easy to put the details on it because she picked up the steps quickly.
BTL: Where did your inspiration come from to create some of these moves?
Demianoff: When I read the script, I saw scenes that were funny and dark. The first big inspiration came when I talked with the director Navot Papushado, who also wrote the script. We totally connected on what he had in mind, and we were on the same page. We had three big pieces, one with Jackie Chan action with some humor. The second piece was totally different, it was crazy, so we were thinking about how many crazy things we could do with the fight. The last one was more classic and dark with all the Librarians fighting with Karen and Lena fighting together. It was more about expressing the character.
BTL: Describe the use of props in the library fight scene.
Demianoff: Michelle Yeoh is a martial artist, but she never fought before with chains, so we tried to find something very stylish with her. With Angela, we tried to have a violent energy like a lion where she would be very quiet, but then start to move, so she had the hammer. Carla Gugino had this ax, and Karen and Lena used these gold bar pieces. It was a reunion because in the film because they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so they all came together with mother and daughter fighting together.
BTL: How did the ladies meet up to your expectations?
Demianoff: The way all the actresses were working on this movie was so awesome. I think it’s the best movie I’ve done and the best experience I’ve had because the actors weren’t precious. They all wanted to kick ass, so it was really easy to work with them. I knew Michelle Yeoh from before but when you have a martial artist like her, it was a bit scary because you think maybe she will change movements, but she was really happy with the choreography. Angela Bassett is famous, and she was training every day. She tweaked her ankle on the second day a little bit, but she wasn’t complaining. All the actresses were very motivated.
BTL: Talk about the bowling alley scene, which doesn’t look like a very fair fight between Karen and the three goons.
Demianoff: The first fight was really an introduction for Karen, so we had something funny. The reference for the goons who were fighting her was “the bad guys on Roger Rabbit.” So this was Jackie Chan Kung Fu fighting style but also cartoony. So we had these electric prods against the bowling ball and the bowling ball case.
BTL: There is a unique fight scene that takes place in the dentist office. Can you describe how you created that?
Demianoff: That was a big challenge, because when I read the script the first time with this fight in the clinic getting her arms paralyzed and having three guys against her with one in a wheelchair, that was crazy to imagine. I had to imagine a girl without arms. I got my team in the training studio and told my stunt double to not use the arms. We did the exact figuration that was going to be in the movie with the girl and the guy in the wheelchair, and from there we started to create. The movement was that if she turns, we have the arms just following the body. There is a scene in Ace Ventura where [Jim Carrey] gets shot in the neck and is paralyzed, which we used as a reference where he has no use of his arms, so that was pretty funny to create. Karen did everything except flipping off the wall in the chair. She did 90% of the fights. The hardest thing is to find a good stunt double that is the same size [Karen is 5’11”.] Everything was pretty easy for her. If we had time, I bet she could do it, but that was my stunt double.
BTL: Let’s talk about your background. You started as a stunt coordinator. Do you need to do that first before you can choreograph?
Demianoff: It’s hard for a choreographer if you don’t know the real problems a stunt performer can have. It’s a normal step to start on the entry-level to be a stunt performer, and then you can do choreography. It makes you better.
BTL: Did you father who was the pioneer of Kung Fu in France get a chance to see your success?
Demianoff: My childhood was a little bit stressful. [laughs] I wanted to play soccer with my friends and the only way to play was I had to train Kung Fu first and then do any sports I want. It’s in my blood, so it’s a normal thing for me to practice martial arts. He passed away five years ago, but he got to see my work in films, and he was proud.
Gunpowder Milkshake is currently playing on Netflix.
All photos courtesy Netflix and Studiocanal. Photographer: Reiner Bajo.