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Action in 'D-Day' is real and gritty: Stunt director Tom Struthers

Having directed some of the coolest action sequences of the last two decades, Thomas Struthers speaks to MiD DAY about his experience working with Bollywood actors, about being a stunt director, his memorable stunt and more...

After a series of Hollywood blockbusters, you're having your first stint in Bollywood with 'D-Day'...
It's right to say 'D-Day' was my first stint in Bollywood, and honestly I didn't know what to expect! Honestly, the experience has been fantastic. I had the opportunity to work with a professional crew of the highest calibre and a marvelous cast in Rishi (Kapoor), Irrfan (Khan) and Arjun (Kapoor). In any project the key is good communication and the desire to make a terrific product. I found this to be the case with 'D-Day'. Hollywood, Bollywood – apart from a single letter there's not much difference as the passion, desire and capability to produce great action films unites them both.

Tom Struthers
Tom Struthers

Tell us about your experience working with Nikhil Advani.
Nikhil is a man with passion and vision. From the start he was certain of his aims, but open minded enough to allow, even encourage, my suggestions and input. I would welcome the opportunity to work with Nikhil again.

When it comes to aesthetics, we notice a stark difference between films in Hollywood and Bollywood. Having directed action sequences for both, do you notice the same in the action sequences that the two scripts demand?
When it comes to aesthetics there are not many differences between some Bollywood and Hollywood films. Think about the 'Fast and Furious' franchise for example – the action is heightened to the point of being fantastical. The same could be said of a lot of Bollywood action – it is heightened. However, as long as the film/action has a truth, it is accepted by the audience; as long as they can engage, it works. 

Tom Struthers on the sets of 'D-Day'
Tom Struthers on the sets of 'D-Day'

With 'D-Day', Nikhil wanted to capture action which is 'real' and 'gritty'. This is what I understand is different for Bollywood. I hope the audience sees it as a welcome difference and it finds its place in the market.
As far as the demands in Hollywood and Bollywood go – I think that there is little difference. You still need the same tools to do the job – a competent cast and crew. I have found these things in both.

What kind of difficulties do you face while training actors for the action sequences?
It is possible to encounter two major problems when training actors for action. One - that the actor doesn’t want to put in the work and time it takes to perform well for the demands involved and; two - that the actor might simply not be capable of the physical demands involved. Fortunately we ('D-Day') had a cast who were both passionate and capable. 

Tom Struthers explaining a stunt to Irrfan as Nikhil Advani looks on
Tom Struthers explaining a stunt to Irrfan as Nikhil Advani looks on

Action sequences may lead to injuries. How do you deal with injuries while shooting?
By its very nature, stunt work and performing action for films is hazardous. Part of my job as a stunt co-ordinator/action director is to minimise the risk, bringing it to an acceptable level – after all we are not dare devils; we are professionals who want to get up for work and be able to work day after day! Therefore, prior to rehearsals and shoot we create a ‘risk assessment’ to highlight areas of risk and what we can do to reduce this risk to an acceptable level. Rehearsals are essential to ensure a gradual build-up of the action in a safe and controlled way. 

We aim to 'plan the shoot and shoot the plan'. We work with professional stuntmen and double actors as required – our cast on 'D-Day' are very physically capable, but sometimes we simply cannot put an actor at risk (even if he wants to perform a stunt) because filming would stop if an accident were to occur. When changes occur, and in film this happens often, we stop and regroup to check that all concerned are aware of changes. As I am always stressing – communication is key. If we are unable to satisfactorily reduce risk we have to find an alternative way to capture the action desired.

Having said all this, stunts by its very nature contains an element of risk so accidents can and do sometimes happen. I am happy to say that no injuries occurred whilst shoot 'D-Day'.

Tom Struthers showing a demo of a stunt during rehearsals as Arjun Rampal looks on
Tom Struthers showing a demo of a stunt during rehearsals as Arjun Rampal looks on

With the number of action films being produced till date, and the audience having witnessed so much variety, how do you ensure newness in the stunts?
You're right – it becomes increasingly difficult to impress an audience which has seen so much in the way of action and variety! It is tough to come up with original ideas. All we can do is try to be 'real' – this can apply to action whether it is based in fantasy or fact; rules apply to a superhero just as they apply to any chracter. We basically aim to find a 'truth' and integrate the action with the story. We are always looking to improve and hopefully we do!

What role does a film's budget play while directing action sequences?
It plays a big part but it is not the 'be all and end all'. A smaller budget does not necessarily mean the action will be compromised, just as a huge budget does not ensure that the action will be better. Sometimes less money means we have to focus on what we want to achieve and use our resources in the best possible way to maximum effect. It depends on the genre and whether production involves expensive elements like visual effects and so on.

How did you come to choose this profession?
I fell in to it (laughs). Seriously, it chose me. I was working in Africa training polo ponies and was given the job of taking some horses to a local film set. That film set turned out to be 'The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles' and the stunt coordinator was Simon Crane. Simon saw I could ride well and offered me some work. I thought how great it was to be paid for doing something I loved! One job led to another and I have never looked back.

If you had to make a choice, what would you prefer-acting or direction?
Directing! I like attention as much as the next man – but not that much. I am happy to be behind camera.

Tell us about your most memorable stunt sequence.
One which springs to mind is the 'anti gravity' sequence in 'Inception'. We talked about originality earlier and I am proud to say that this sequence was original – it was brilliantly written and conceived by Chris Nolan and I think we did justice to his vision. I am not allowed to tell you how we achieved the action but I can tell you that it demanded a lot of rehearsal and did not involve visual effects and was done for real 'in camera'.

How do you think have action sequences evolved over the years?
With the increasing sophistication of computer and film technology have evolved action tremendously. Plus general work practices are safer, which is obviously a good thing. However sequences such as the chariot race in Ben Hur performed by the legendary Yakima Cunutt stand the test of time and take some beating – he and pioneers like Buster Keaton set the standards which we all still aspire to today.

Quick five:

How good are you at Hindi?
Not even good. Terrible.

Your favourite Bollywood actor/actress.
I had such fun with all of our actors and admiration for them - I cannot single one out.

Favourite Bollywood film.
'D-Day'

Favourite Indian food.
It would have to be chicken korma

One thing you like best about India.
The energy and ingenuity of its people. It is also a beautiful country.

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