18 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Stunt Co-ordinator Donal O’Farrell talks to IFTN
19 Jan 2015 : Seán Brosnan
Among Donal's many credits is Lenny Abrahamson's critically acclaimed 'Frank'
With credits to his name ranging from large scale Oscar fodder such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Braveheart’ and ‘In the Name of the Father’ to smaller budget productions such as ‘What Richard Did’ and the upcoming ‘Sing Street’ and ‘Mammal’, Donal O’Farrell has carved out quite a career for himself since answering an advert in the paper for stunt men over 30 years ago.

Here, he talks to IFTN about his work in the industry – starting out as one of very few Irish co-ordinators in the 80’s to being one of the main men behind the action scenes of some of Ireland’s biggest productions today – including the acclaimed IFTA-winning series ‘Love/Hate’ and ‘The Fall’.

IFTN: Tell us about your work on your current projects ?

DONAL O’FARRELL:‘Over the last couple of months/years I’ve been involved with some great projects. I’ve only recently completed work on ‘Sing Street’, ‘A Dangerous Fortune’ and a mini-series called ‘Clean Break’, and am currently working on ‘The Secret Scripture’ and ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles’. A short while back I collaborated with the magician Keith Barry, on a live performance show, being responsible for securing his safe suspension, upside-down, 100 feet in the air in the constraints of a straight jacket! The magician thrilled the audience with his escapology. I have been busy again this year with work that included lots of stunt work on the very well received, and recently screened projects of 'Love Hate’ and ‘The Fall’. Often, by the time (my) work gets shown (big screen or small) I’ve moved on to other productions, so it’s great to see the end result of work that was finished months earlier. Work, as you can see, whether current, past or in preparation is varied. That’s both the challenge and the satisfaction!’

What training/education did you receive to become a stunt co-ordinator?

‘When I started in the industry - 30 years ago - there were very few of people involved in stunt work. The industry was much smaller - action wise - than it is now. Performers were sourced from abroad mainly. Training was more or less ‘on the job’. I answered an advert in the paper ‘do you want to be a stunt performer’ and that’s how I met other like-minded people. We were focused and dedicated to developing this form of (stunt) work. We rehearsed and trained by creating fight and fire scenarios, high falls, hangings, sword fights and so on. We performed live shows at venues like Mondello Park. I rolled my first car there on ramps made by one of the other stunt guys. People had other jobs/careers as there was little prospect of immediate employment. My own background is in commercial diving. Maintaining high / professional standards including fitness is very important and for that you have to stay focused and very self-motivated. On a day-to-day basis, running and swimming are the mainstay of my own keep fit schedule.’

‘One of the first TV gigs I worked on as a performer was ‘Strumpet City’. I was ‘wide eyed’. Everything was new, and of course at this point I had little or no experience of performing in front of camera, but it was thrilling and exciting. I fought in many riot scenes, rotating between a ‘policeman' and then a ‘rioter’. My first Film was ‘Excalibur’ where I fought in armour with various weapons against fellow knights on foot or on horseback. Here I got to do my first paid job, performing a high fall from the walls of Cahir Castle into a ‘box rig’. I remember thinking this was great. The real work had arrived. It was however a slow developing industry. Stunt work was scarce and infrequent. This led to a lot of ‘down time’, otherwise known as ‘resting’ or ‘waiting’.

What do you enjoy most about being a stunt co-ordinator? And what do you consider the greatest challenges?

‘I enjoy lots of aspects about my profession. At the beginning of a project it’s coming up with ideas / stunts that are creative; imaginative; workable; surprising, and sometimes, hopefully, shocking! Then it’s the satisfaction of delivering on all these levels but within budget, resources, time, script and directorial constraints. Taking scenes from a script and either producing what’s on the page (as is sometimes required) or working with the actors to develop the scene/s, around a required outcome and making what’s on the page, surprising, unexpected, exciting, individual. When that happens it’s great to look at and very satisfying to know I was involved in it. The greatest challenges of the job can come from any and all areas. Being dropped from the fifth floor in a lift shaft, while suspended upside down, and free falling for three floors before the fall is slowed down to a stop! Or when I worked on a film, shot in Spain where I was attached to a wire and jumped off a two hundred foot cliff with a dummy on my back! These are the ‘big action’ scenes that pose many challenges because the pace, timing, safety and the Wow factor all have to be combined in a high intensity environment ! Major physical, mental and technical challenges but exhilarating! Then there are other less obvious and lower impact scenes that can still be quite a challenge. Take for example a fight scene between two actors requiring just a few moves. The challenge for me as the coordinator is to deliver on standards, with whatever resources are available to me. This could involve showing actors who may not be particularly physical, how to punch or react to a punch. A scene may require an actor to fall down. This has to be done safely as well as believably and though this may sound very simple it can actually be quite a challenge. Being on set, in that moment, I have to deliver and produce a result under time restraints with a director who is expecting results - pressure!’

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use?

‘Don’t have one I’m afraid. Days can vary so much depending on how many projects I’m involved with at any one time. Every project requires preparation and planning. There’s a lot of office work even for a Stunt Coordinator! Last year I worked on the TV drama ‘Line of Duty’. There was a short scene involving two stunt performers exiting a flame-engulfed car. This stunt was planned over a number of weeks and involved several meetings with the director, producers, art department, locations, special effects, action vehicles, stunt performers. Once decisions were made and details agreed regarding the when, where, how, who, then a number of rehearsals took place. When I was satisfied with how they went we were ready to move to the next stage. The shoot day involves all department’s being appraised of: How the scene will play out Where the performers start and end positions are What safety procedures are in place and there’s a recheck of equipment What emergency steps are in place, Ambulance, fire brigade etc. Then on set a number of ‘front of camera’ rehearsals were done without the ‘fire element’ to allow the camera operators confirm start positions, action sequence and end positions for performers. Final communication checks are done, the performers prepared, then … 'Action'.’

What filmmaker/Stunt Coordinator has influenced you?

‘Influence isn’t a word that applies in my case. Not for any specific reason I just don’t have any. Not directly anyway. There are coordinators though that admire and respect for their work methods/ ethnics and their high standards. I worked with Simon Crane (British Coordinator) on ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’. On the film ‘Braveheart’ I, and several other stunt performers had rehearsed for a scene involving a number of hangings that were to take place in Trim on the walls of the castle. When we got to the set to shoot the scene there was a camera set up in ‘my hanging’ position! This meant I didn’t get to perform what we call ‘an stunt’ (a specific stunt that pays a bonus). I remember being there on the battlement walls and Simon quietly acknowledging my situation and reassuring me that there would be other ‘adjustment’ performances for me. Later in the shoot (again for reasons out of my control) I missed out on another adjustable stunt! A couple of weeks later however, Simon, true to his word put me up for an (adjustable) fire stunt on the battlefield in the Curragh. I remember being impressed with his commitment to his performers and his sense of fairness.'

‘Another Co-ordinator, old school from East end London, was Rocky Taylor. I worked with him years ago and I remember standing with him watching a performer rehearsing a fight scene. It was not good and Rocky was not impressed. He said ‘Taking and delivering punches (visually on screen) is ‘bread and butter’ in the industry, and if you can’t do that you should be thinking about another line of work. (I’m paraphrasing). In his opinion, and mine, certain standards apply even at the very basic level to ensure the integrity of the profession.’

What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘One of the Films, not Irish I’m afraid, I would have loved to have worked on was 'The Abyss' (1989). I have a background in Commercial Diving, both offshore and in shore where I worked in the North Sea out of Norway, Holland, England. I also worked here in Ireland in numerous rivers, power stations, gas tanks, pipes, and lakes. Type of work included, videoing, inspections, cleaning, concreting, burning, ultrasonic’s, photography. After years in the Film Industry the two careers merged when I undertook to do water safety on a production, and many productions since. When watching The Abyss I was intrigued at how they might have shot scenes, built sets, moved equipment around, etc. I would love to have been involved in helping set up sequences, working with actors to develop their ‘water legs’ so to speak. There is one particular scene in the film (I won’t give all the details in case readers haven’t seen) when one of the characters does something to save two lives. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled when I saw it. It’s one of the few films I would like to have seen on the big screen but regrettably didn’t. A credit on it would have been even better!!’

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

‘I have no specific shows to mention. I never really planned to get into the industry and have no memory of a ‘eureka’ moment.’

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

‘There can be differences of course, including language, work method, local knowledge and culture. When working with a foreign crew either at home or abroad the major difference for me has been the language. With that in mind, I tend to have things over explained both to me and by me! Ensuring clarity is essential to help reduce misunderstandings and eliminate any gaps in communication. When people arrive on set we need everyone to have the same expectations as to what is happen. Pre-production meetings always help because this is where differences manifest themselves and can be further clarified and sorted before shooting takes place. When possible on an ‘away’ shoot I travel with a stunt crew composed of people known to me but I also try to hire locally. With required equipment I may bring some with me but more often than not I tap into local providers. When working at home in Ireland the key advantage is local knowledge so it’s important to do my homework extra well for foreign shoots! When we shot scenes for ‘Neverland’ in Genoa, I travelled a number of Irish and English performers with me but also got to hire several local Stunt performers. The collaboration worked out very well.’

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into stunt work?

‘Go for it!’

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