Coordinator Jo McLaren talks Maleficent, Cats and an Oscar for stunts

In 2019, Jo McLaren lent her expertise to both Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Cats. Here, the stunt coordinator talks what the job entails.

From Avengers: Endgame and John Wick 3 to Hobbs and Shaw and Cats (!), stunt coordination had a banner year in 2019. (Not to mention Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a movie, in part, about a stunt man.) And yet, somehow, in a movie era dominated by superhero movies and action adventures, stunt coordination still does not quite get the respect it deserves. Yes, the number of features on the need for an Academy Award for stunt coordination grows each year, but op-eds aren’t Oscars.

Stunt coordinator Jo McLaren talked to FanSided about her work on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, out on digital Dec. 31 and Blu-ray/DVD Jan. 14, the surprising responsibilities that fall under stunts and that pesky lack of Oscar category.

FanSided: To get us started, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what a stunt coordinator does.

Jo McLaren: So a stunt coordinator — we get the script, we break it down. We talk to the director and we create what the director sees, what he envisages.

So we’re not just, it’s not just about, you know, crashing cars up and things like that, sometimes it’s like, with the fey [the winged, horned creatures in Maleficent], it’s creating how they fly, things like that. So I would, you know, I’d have to oversee putting all the wire team together, putting the stunt performers together, making sure you’ve got the right stunt performers for the job, making sure you got a great wire team that can execute the action.

Also, all the health and safety aspects. Many, many levels of a stunt coordinator. There’s a lot of paperwork as well, meetings, filming, pre-vis. It’s a busy job.

Is there one responsibility or one type of action that people might be surprised to learn falls under stunt coordination?

Well, you know, sometimes some of the smallest stuff would involve the stunt department. Because we would have to be there to oversee stuff — safety you know, just looking after a lot of actors’ safety. Whether that’s you know, that they’re walking at-height or all
kinds of things.

For instance, I did Cats the movie and there was so much stunt presence on that, that you know, an audience might not necessarily think it, but you know, you’ve got dancers and you know, gymnasts in Cats working at-height.

There’s a lot, there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t always on screen as well.

And this question applies both to Maleficent and Cats, but what are some of the challenges or opportunities of working on a project that blends live action and CGI or animation?

Well, it’s great because you’re not working under such strict boundaries, you can be more creative, certainly with a fantasy film. You can get creative and work closely with the visual effects department.

So, it’s, you know, we would quite often do the landings and takeoffs and some of the mid-flight and then you would think, oh, it would be nice if this character… and then you know, visual effects, things can happen, because the visual effects can take over and sometimes make an action sequence amazing by filling in the gaps when something is not quite humanly possible.

And you mentioned before working with the directors and executing their vision, how much either creative control or creative input do you typically have?

Yeah, I mean, obviously, you’ve got your director who has a vision of the whole movie, you’ve got the visual effects supervisor who will be creating pre-vises.

But there will always be gaps where it will be over to stunt department. A lot of the time that will be in battle sequences or fights or, you know, things like that. And then that’s where we can really get creative. And it is a very, it’s a very creative, you know, job.  So we’ll be putting fights together or wirework sequences, and then present those to the director. And then he’ll say, yeah, I love that, or can we just change this a bit? So there’s a lot of creativity in our role.

You mentioned fights. Do you have any personal preference between choreographing fights versus maybe something that’s more like dance with Cats? Do you have, I guess, a action that’s your favorite to choreograph?

You know, what’s lovely is when you get a variety in your job, where no thing is the same. So that’s what I’ve been lucky enough to pretty much go through all genres of film. And I like it when I’m presented with something new that I haven’t done before. You know, so working with Cats, I hadn’t done that before. But equally, I love real action as well.

So, I couldn’t say that I have a preference. I love the variety. And I hope that my career continues in that and I don’t get stuck in one genre film because the variety just keeps it exciting and you know, when you’re always looking to develop and create new ideas.

For sure. Can you tell me a little bit in more detail about a sequence in Maleficent that you’re most proud of?

I loved working with all the fey, they were great. There’s a sequence when they’re all taking off, they’re going into battle, and they all leap off this cliff and to me that was — we had so many fey on wires, we also had stunt performers and they’re jumping free into box rigs, and they’re all sort of simultaneously, or beat after each other. And it was just, you know, it took some working out some, you know, some precise choreography with the wire team, but I just thought it looks so beautiful.

And then obviously the battle scene was very exciting. When the fey are coming in and they’re smashing soldiers over the parapet, making that look all real, that they weren’t just being pulled on wires, it actually looks like a big wing has come in and taken them off. And also things like when the bear — when all the soldiers are on the bear and then the bear grows and flings them off. It was lots of exciting moments, particularly when it worked, it was very, you know, very satisfying.

And how hard was it to work around the feys’ wings? Because those look massive in the movie.

Yeah, we always had to be aware. Sometimes we would do stuff on wires and you’d think, ah, we can’t do that, we can’t do that because of the huge wingspan. Also when you’ve got two actors talking side by side, so like Angelina [Jolie] and Chiwetel [Ejiofor], having a conversation while they’re in mid-flight, you know, you always have to be conscious of the wings and how fast they’re flying. Are they just gliding, what are their wings doing?

We had some, like wing reference, so some stubs that we would put on the back, particularly when we were developing, when we were rehearsing. We would get the stunt doubles to put these wings on, because that would give us an idea of how our wires were moving with the wing.

Very cool. So, the Academy Awards are yet to recognize stunt coordination, but if they did, what would be your picks for nominations this year? In other words, what was your favorite stunt coordination in 2019?

Oh gosh, well, I hope one day it is recognized because obviously what stunt coordinators are doing is very much part of what we see on screen today. What makes movies exciting.

The Mission Impossible films — the stunts in those are always phenomenal. Wade Eastwood [the stunt coordinator on the Mission Impossible films] deserves an Oscar. His stuff is great. And you know, Spider Man, the action in Spider Man. There’s been some epic, epic stuff. 1917 I just saw, the camera work in that is quite something else, it’s phenomenal. So many talented people out there, you know.

And then, to wrap this up what’s next for you? 

My next project is I just finished Enola Homes, which was lovely job last summer. My next one I’m starting, so starting early prep for, is the new Doctor Strange. 

Oh very cool, that sounds awesome.

Yeah, yeah. That’s very exciting. I’m really looking forward to that. The first movie was great so, it’s, yeah, really excited to my teeth stuck into that one.

Will that be your first time working on a Marvel movie?

Yes, yeah, as a stunt coordinator, yeah.

Another one with great sort of visual effects support!

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And I’m really looking forward to that. I can’t divulge anything about it,
but it’s gonna be a great movie. Yeah, it’s gonna be very exciting.

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