In the most recent episode of Cinemax's military adventure series "Strike Back," Section 20 soldiers Stonebridge and Scott advance on a militia that outnumbers them. And against the odds, they manage to send the militia scrambling.
That's not an unusual scenario for the special operatives soldiers upon which Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton base their characters, the actors have told me.
We've talked about the extensive training they receive from the show's military advisers, but it goes far beyond how to handle weapons. They're drilled heavily on military tactics as well, sometimes in live-fire situations.
"The first time that we did that in our training ... we put on bulletproof vests and our military adviser looked at us and said, 'You got live rounds, don't shoot each other. Make it look good,'" Winchester said, laughing. "So Sully and I were like, 'OK. Well there you go. Don't shoot me in the head, I guess, but anywhere in the torso is fine.'
"We just applied that to the show; we applied that to how Scott and Stonebridge move."
Those tactics (including something called pepper-potting he talks about below) became almost second nature to the actors, so much so that when director Paul Wilmshurst was setting up the Ep. 4 battle scene, he asked them what Scott and Stonebridge would do. The actors basically choreographed the battle themselves.
"It was one of my favorite bits in the whole season actually, because we were into the season enough to have a grasp of what we were doing again," Winchester said. "And it was the first time that a director let us kind of run free and do what we do."
Winchester talks more about how the battle was choreographed and filmed below, but before that check out the behind-the-scenes clip from Cinemax showing "How to Flip a Flaming Truck."
"Strike Back" airs new episodes each Friday at 9 p.m. CT on Cinemax.
Let's talk about battle choreography a bit. In the fourth episode this season, there's a battle with El Soldat's militia where Scott and Stonebridge push forward toward the militia, then retreat. Does production plan battles like that or do they say, "OK, well, you trained for this for a month, now do what you know?"
[Laughs.] Yes. In a nutshell, that's exactly what happens. We've done all this training and we have tactically in our heads an idea of how we move as our characters and also how we move as a two-man team, which is what it comes down to in the field. Unless we're out with Richmond or Baxter or other Section 20 operatives, Sully and I know how we move in the field.
That's the thing with the training that we did; we did live-fire tactical advances. We did live-fire tactical retreats. We did live-fire kill rooms. So Sully and I were stacking up on each other like you see in the show, but with real rounds in our guns and firing at targets together and trusting each other and changing mags and trusting each other--dropping and giving cover fire while the other one retreats. All this was happening for real.
So when we do it on set, the directors literally came up and said, "All right guys, here's the scenario. You're going to hit from your left flank or from 9 o'clock, how would you deal with that?" And Sully and I walk it through with our military advisor just to double check things and then we shoot it, and it's just as simple as that.
With that one in Episode 4 (or 14, depending on how you're counting), we got there and Paul Wilmshurst, our director, had said, "Would you guys take cover, would you guys do this?"
The thing about these guys being different [from regular soldiers], about them being special operatives, is they push forward. They take the attack to the attackers. So we said, "No, let's take the fight to them." So we created this whole scenario where we're getting hit from 9 o'clock and we turn to them; we tactically advance.
I don't know if you noticed but I drop down to a knee and I cover Sully as he moves forward, and he covers me as I move forward. And it's all about pepper-potting, they call it, and tactically moving forward. So you're covering your buddy.
You very well might get shot, but what happens is one of you is either in cover or one of you is laying down cover fire while the other one is moving forward or backward ...
The aggression that these guys--there is no off-switch unless every one of those guys attacking is down. Unless they're in a safe place they will not stop. That's the mindset of these guys; there is no "I'm done." There is no giving up; you go, you go, you go, you go, you go. We wanted that to be very much in the show.
At the beginning of Ep. 4, we push in on El Soldat's men. They're pushing forward, we're pushing forward; we're tactically advancing. There are grenades. ... So we had a ball. We choreographed it in like half an hour or 45 minutes and then we spent the rest of the day running around, sliding in the dirt, shooting guns, which was great. [Laughs.]
When you guys shoot a battle like that, are you able to do that in one take or do you stop and start a lot?
We do shoot it through wide, but it depends on the director, to tell you the truth. With Paul he would let us run the whole thing. So by the end of that day, we were just tanked because we ran that scene probably 10, 12 times from different angles and close-ups. And then once you get in tighter, you don't run the whole thing.
But that's the other thing about these; even when you're pretending, there's adrenaline. They talk about when you come under fire you get tunnel vision, you lose dexterity, and all this stuff is happening to us and we're just pretending. So I can't even imagine what it's like to be in an actual firefight, to be actually pepper-potting and moving forward into the fire of oncoming people. It's just crazy.
So you guys couldn't do this for real?
[Laughs.] No way. I don't think we could. We're getting better at making it look good, but there's certainly a big difference between making it look good and doing it for real. When you talk to our military guys or you sit down with the real deals, you just go, "I'm an actor; you're an actual SAS [British Special Air Service] guy."
I'll speak for myself; I don't think we would [make it in a real battle]. It's a mind-set; it's training. It's years and years and years of professionalism and soldiering and being in the real thing.
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