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Interview Team : Kaushik L M

Cinema audiences all over the world have always had a love affair with action scenes and they invariably root for a robust hero who can kick some serious ass. While the hero on-screen garners all the applause and glory, the stunt choreographer with his team of numerous stunt men work tirelessly behind the screens to ensure that the moves look authentic on screen and importantly people are safe in this entire process. Of late, Tamil cinema has been importing acclaimed stunt directors from the West in an effort to make it more exciting for the viewers. Lee Whittaker is one such prominent name from the West who has been plying his trade in Tamil films, particularly the big ones. Lee has his own fan following and is active in his interactions online. In this exclusive email interview, Lee opens up in detail as Kaushik probes.

1. A brief intro about your extensive work in Hollywood and in the West in general. The best among your English films? 


I’ve been working in Hollywood for 22 years now and on such blockbuster films as Batman, Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Die Hard, Fast Five, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and on both sides of the lens.

2. Action Director? Stunt Coordinator? Stunt Performer ? Seen and done them all ? 


I started my entertainment career as a stunt performer. That quickly grew into a Stunt Coordinator and 2nd unit director. After a decade I became an Action Director as I was designing the grand scope of an action sequence from thought all the way to the edit.

3. How did you get introduced to the Tamil film world? Who was the key to your initiation here?


I was introduced to the Tamil Cinema world by Kamal Haasan on his first installment of Vishwaroopam. He was a kind man who had so much physical talent, creative energy, vast knowledge of life and social suppression of speech. It was a great experience working with him.

4. Were you aware of the Tamil scene before coming here? What was your idea of the Tamil industry and India in general? Any homework that you did to get acquainted with the scene ?


I was not really familiar with Indian Cinema. When I first came to India it was a lot different of a process than in the West completely. I did begin to study up on some of Kamal’s work and others before I arrived in India for my first time. 
I also remember being in New York with Kamal (Vishwaroopam) and him smiling and saying, “You should try coming to India and shooting a car sequence. Now that’s a challenge.” I had no idea how true his words were until I shot Arrambam with director Vishnuvardhan and Ajith Kumar. I remember shooting the car sequence in Mumbai and hearing Kamal’s voice in my head. He was correct.

I did begin to study up on some of Kamal’s work and others before I arrived in India for my first time.

5. How is the Tamil industry in terms of safety measures adopted and the other equipment being used? Are we anywhere close to the West?


Safety is always first and foremost my most grand concern. The safety of the actors, crew and the public who always want to surround the set to watch how we make movies, is my first thought. The Indian film culture is still much like the Chinese in regards to safety but they are adapting. I know that when I shoot in India many of the crew and production are not used to my safety measures and sometimes it takes more time for a shot but it’s important, as for me ALL LIFE IS PRECIOUS. We must be thankful for the work opportunity and value ALL PERSONS’ LIVES from actors to cooks, people who clean the trash and again the public.
The equipment being used is not the same as the West and comparatively makes filmmaking quite challenging. I am one of those individuals that really embraces challenge as it sparks a deeper creativity within me. For me my goal is to always get the shots and action that we get in the West no matter what equipment I am given. There should be no excuse for me.

I am one of those individuals that really embraces challenge as it sparks a deeper creativity within me.

6. The thing which has impressed you the most about Tamil film technicians, stuntmen and actors? 


I must say that Sabu Cyril, Art Director, is an incredible human. If you could just sit and chat with him for 5 minutes you would quickly realize how incredibly inspirational he is. His talents are absolutely incredible and the speed at which he gets things completed is mind blowing to me. “Oh you need a train engine built in 2 days. No problem.” He is an engineer of the mind and creative design, and daily I eagerly awaited our evening chats after the wrap on Lingaa and Baahubali.
“On Baahubali we never compromise!” I love this quote from the director Raj (S.S.Rajamouli). I learned so much from him and his amazingly kind, calm crew. What a great experience working with them all as we were creating action never conceived.

If you could just sit and chat with Sabu Cyril for 5 minutes you would quickly realize how incredibly inspirational he is.

7. Your favorite among the Tamil film personalities? Any good friends here? 


I have made many good friends there from actors to crew and people I met along the way. I have completely fallen in love with the Indian Culture and the people.

8. Have you interacted with the leading stunt choreographers in the Tamil space? How impressed are you with their exposure?


I have not met many of the choreographers but the ones that I have met and worked with have all been so eager to help the creative process. We are all here for the same goal and that’s to facilitate the director’s vision to the highest level that we can accomplish. Within the budget I might add.


9. How open are Tamil stars when it comes to taking risks and doing their own stunts? Speak from your personal experience here. 

The thing that has really stood out to me about the actors in Indian cinema is their humble attitude and willingness to do their own action without complaints. The actors I’ve worked with have been such amazing human beings and I have made many close friends among them. 
Kamal performed a stunt in Vish 2 that his double couldn’t even demonstrate. I was in awe. Ajith was such a vital key with his driving experience, I could put him in a car or a boat and I’d get my shot because of his incredible ability to fully comprehend a vehicle’s performance. 
Rajinikanth, I am speechless. That man is incredible and has so much energy and willingness to achieve great heights! I was so excited when we were shooting the train sequence. We all knew we had something special there. 
Anushka was ready to hop into her uncomfortable harness with no question and hang from great heights from a spinning hot air balloon basket. I remember being in the basket with the camera in my hand as we spun many times and she was so focused and emotionally connected to her character.
Prabhas. Wow what a big man with a tender soul. I’m not kidding when I say he has done all his stunts for me in Baahubali and they were HUGE and complicated!!! He would just look me in the eyes and say, “Ok Lee I’m ready.” 
Tamannaah performed her stunts with elegance and grace that had such beauty and flow in the camera. She was quite hypnotizing and I’ve never seen that. 
And then there was Rana. He and Prabhas are the biggest guys but with the kindest of hearts and huge amounts of courage to perform their own action. I remember doing many takes with Rana where most stunt men would have said they needed a break, but Rana never! 
Vikram was another kind man who was eager to jump into an uncomfortable harness and perform a stunt that was huge. You know, it’s not easy getting on a ledge about 80 ft off the ground and just jumping towards something that is moving fast and as big as a building. The audience and people should really give a lot of credit to these brave hard working actors.

Tamannaah was quite hypnotizing and I’ve never seen that.

10. Which style of stunts do you specialize in ? 


Many people ask what I specialize in with action. I don’t consider myself specializing in only one specific category. I think that is where I am different than most. I design different styles of action for film. From CARS, TRAINS, BOATS, FIGHTS, SWORDS, FIRE, JUMPING OFF MOUNTAINS. You name it, I’m going to do it and find the best way to shoot it like never before.

11. Tell us about the train stunt in Superstar Rajini's Lingaa. DoP Randy told me that you are now a close friend of his. How was it to collaborate with the Lingaa tech. team and Rajini sir? 


For the Train sequence in Lingaa we had a lot of fun. Just getting the bad guys on top of the train by running face first down a mountain and diving off to the train was a great thrill ride that we’ve never even seen done in the West. I had a great time designing that with the fight in Los Angeles before coming to India. 
Randy… there’s a man that is dear to me and has become a close friend. When he looks through the lens he sees a canvas on which to paint! We have a lot of the same creative thoughts and personal need to expand cinematic shots. How far can we push the shot with artistic expression that fulfills our highest expectation. We were always bouncing ideas off of each other and he would say, “Can we do that?” I would simply answer, “give me the camera my brother.” Next thing you know I’m running down a mountain and diving off while filming these brave stuntmen flying through the air. 
For the top of the train sequence, Randy and I both had connections over with the people at stereovision and we talked the director into using the Phantom camera. Shooting at over 897 frames per second. Yah, serious mind blowing action when Rajini is flying through the air and taking out bad guys.

Randy… there’s a man that is dear to me and has become a close friend.


12. What difference can we expect from Vishwaroopam 2 in the stunt department, compared to the first part? 

You know you can always count on Kamal to push the boundary and create something new for his audiences.

13. How is the going with Chiyaan Vikram in 10 Enradhukulla? What can we expect? How easy is Chiyaan to choreograph stunts for?


I believe the Tamil audience will really enjoy this style of car action we did here. Milton the director was great to work with and we experimented with new ways of capturing action by the use of new equipment. Drones and RC cars played a big part. I would call the RC guys my Street Dawgs. They were some of the top RC drivers in India and so helpful with pushing the comfort zone to get the shot. There were some close calls where I thought for sure we were going to smash one of them but the drivers were so good that in the split second they could maneuver safely.

Drones and RC cars played a big part in the action of 10 Enradhukulla.

14. Any work ahead in the other Indian language film industries ? Future Tamil projects ? 


I have been in talks to possibly do a sequence block in Vijay’s fantasy project. Nothing is final yet but I have already shot a previs with my team in Los Angeles that I’m excited about. We shall see though because schedules do not always line up.

15. Finally, do you feel that stunt choreography is a thankless job ? What can be done to improve the safety, standing and respect for this fraternity ? 


A thankless job? No I don’t see that way. Our job is to be mysteriously silent so as to not ruin the movie going experience. Though I do believe more credit is due to the designers of action and the men and women putting their lives on the line for our films. For instance in award ceremonies. Without us there is no action movie, no danger, no exploding car, no hero to save the day and bring hope in something that is in all of us, which is to be bold and brave. We need more heroes in the world today and heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages, cultures both men and women.