Back To One: Reflections from a Beginning Stunt Performer
When you first meet Stephen Koepfer, you can’t tell if you’re intimidated or intrigued. With one year under his belt as a union performer, Koepfer is an up and coming rookie in the stunt community. Yet, during this conversation, he stressed his taking time to get to know those around him and their own experiences. Koepfer is a self described sponge, and every new encounter is a new opportunity for sharing and learning from others.
Koepfer’s passion for stunts is palpable, and while he’s eager to continue his education in the trade, his knowledge is already extensive. He has made a name for himself in combat sports, most notable in Combat Sambo and Mixed Martial Arts, and this background has played nicely into his new career path of stunts. In fact, they tend to influence each other. He is, however, the first person to tell you that just because you can fight well does not mean you will be a great stunt performer, or vice versa. It’s important to Koepfer that there is a distinction between the two, to give each profession their proper due.
When it comes to film fighting and stunts, there is so much more that goes into it than beautiful sequences on screen. It might not be romantic looking behind the curtain, but for Koepfer, that’s the fun part. Just spend a few moments with him and you are introduced to a whole world you never knew existed, and you immediately understand where his passion comes from.
This passion is the main motivation behind his documentary (with co-director Matthew Kaplowitz) Concrete and Crashpads: Stunts in New York (currently available on UltraFlix, Amazon and Vimeo On Demand). This documentary was his way to bring new eyes onto the community, not only for awareness but to share in his passion. This point is important to IDTV Acton Fest, that the stunt communities are the real heroes of the action world, and its time the majority knows it.
Below is a recent Q&A I was able to participate in with Koepfer. After trying to figure out a way to incorporate it into a journalistic profile, I became lost for words. The feelings I experienced of protectiveness and love for the stunt community mixed with new knowledge was too powerful for me to deny others of. We travel throughout life gaining teachers at unexpected turns, and my continuing knowledge of this phenomenal community was made better by my interaction with Koepfer. I would hate to take this new inspiration away from someone else.
Q: Being a martial artist, was it a natural progression for you to get involved in stunts for film?
It certainly feels like that, as martial arts was my “in,” but being a good martial artist may not help and could hurt a rookie performer in some ways. The way one moves in a real fight is completely opposite to the way one moves in a screen fight. Conversely, and this may sound brutal, but if you have never been hit in the face, it might be tough to sell getting hit in the face. It is clearly not an absolute requirement, but I do feel like it is a “you got to know the rules to break the rules” situation with regard to martial arts and fighting on film.
Secondly, being a stunt performer is more than knowing how to screen fight. In the last three years, aside from training to make my fighting skill “screen friendly,” I have spent vast amounts of time training new skills like wire work, new and different falls (high falls and stair falls for example), tumbling, cinematography, editing, rappelling, rigging, acting, auditioning, etc. And I still have very much more to work on…like driving for example. And I am still not nearly competent enough in most of these to claim anything more than basic skill and understanding of them.
Q: While you do work in film, you also have an influential presence in combat sports. How did that evolution happen, or was that something you’ve always been involved with?
Before ever perusing stunts I was producing movies, working as an adviser in television, and getting lots of experience and exposure as a martial artist and coach in various media outlets. All that prior experience has really helped me with stunts. All that knowledge has absolutely made me a better stunt performer. Having been on sets, knowing how production works, understanding basic editing, having a solid work ethic, being able to hit the ground hard, etc., has added to my value as a stunt performer.
Similarly, I think one thing I have to offer the stunt community is my understanding of developing and implementing safety protocol. I have literally spent two decades building my knowledge of health & safety concerns and protocol in combat sports, which from my limited experience seems more attentive than the protocols (or lack of) I see in the stunt profession at times. The lack of attention to some very basic safety issues in the stunt world was honestly quite shocking to me, having come from the highly regulated world of combat sports.
Q: With there being a plentiful history of poetic fight scenes on film, how do you combine the harshness of combat with cinematic action?
For me, everything starts and ends with the story. The action must act in service of the story, the characters, etc. Action should never be choreographed or added to a scene simply for action’s sake. The best way to make sure the action you create is the right balance of harsh and cinematic for your story is to constantly practice choreography; constantly shoot practice fights; constantly practice editing; learn cinematography, etc. Write stories and shoot fights as much as you can. On a big production, you may not ever fill those roles, but understanding those aspects is critical for the new performer like me. In the end filmmaking is collaboration and the more we all know and respect each other’s roles, the better the final product will be.
We stunt pros should always train hard for the job that may or may not ever come. As professionals we need to stay fresh and ready. It is our job to do so. Having said that though, most stunt work is not what we see in Deadpool. The vast majority of stunt performers will never get to do what Chris Brewster does on Daredevil or what Jackson Spidell does as Captain America or John Wick. It is misguided to think that. Stunts are not the X-Games, they are the Tough Mudder!
Q: As a technical expert, how involved are you on set with the action sequences? What is your relationship to the choreographer and coordinator?
Honestly, I suppose that all depends on the production. As a rookie, I have had less input, but that is actually what I want. At this stage in my career, when I get a job, I shut up, listen, learn and do what I am hired to do. If asked, I will offer my opinion of course. For example, on John Wick: Chapter Two, I was hired to show the stunt team some Sambo style throws and grappling. Chad Stahelski was kind enough to bring me in for a few days and stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry, was generous enough to spend time with me walking me through their process and asking my opinions on a few moves they planned to use. I was an extremely small piece of that very large production, and I learned much more than I contributed. Watching J.J., Jackson Spidell, Justin Yu and Eric Brown work with Keanu Reeves in rehearsal was such an enlightening experience. These guys are elite level. I aspire to be on that level and was thankful to be able to offer a new move or two when asked. I was very happy to be a sponge and soak up knowledge.
Q: Is that why you and Matthew (Kaplowitz) wanted to bring Concrete and Crashpads to the screen, to shed light on the world behind the action?
Matt is an incredible documentarian and filmmaker. His ability to tell stories visually is amazing, and I think his future career will bear this out. I had appeared in some of his past combat sports projects, and came on to his documentary Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story (now on Amazon, go watch it!) as a producer, but we had never really collaborated on a project like Concrete and Crashpads. I was excited to shed some light on the community I was falling in love with and it was a new direction for him as a non-combat sport film. It was a new direction for both of us to collaborate on that level. It is always a risk to work with new people so intimately. We all have egos, personalities, etc., and sometimes they don’t mix well. But, I think it worked out fantastic.
Q: What projects do you have coming up in 2018?
Two productions I worked on last year will drop in 2018. One is an action short called We Got You Covered. The other is a really cool indie drama called Little Hope. They will be hitting the festival circuit this year, so keep an eye out! Other than that, this year is about continuing the hustle for work. So anyone reading this who wants to work with a middle aged martial art & stunt guy who can hit the ground well, please give me a ring! I don’t do windows…unless you are throwing me through them ;)
Concrete and Crashpads: Stunts in New York is currently available on UltraFlix, Amazon and Vimeo On Demand.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images provided by Stephen Koepfer