- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Peppermint has all the familiar ingredients of a potent revenge drama. A violent tragedy, a survivor in emotional chaos before choosing to avenge the death of their innocent loved ones. What helps set Peppermint apart is the all-in performance by Jennifer Garner as the aggrieved who, when failed by a corrupt justice system, channels the grief, rage, anger and betrayal into an unflinching commitment to vengeance against the killers and those that let the killers walk free.
The violent revenge exacted upon the guilty is given a visceral sense by Garner’s performance, and from the grounded and gritty fight and stunt sequences in the film. Don Lee, Fight coordinator and Jennifer Garner’s fight trainer, is the talent behind the brutal and more realistic fight sequences. Lee is a man with an impressive resume, with some of his recent credits including stunt performer on Star Trek: Beyond and most recently, as part of the Stunt Coordinator team responsible for the notorious ‘prison fight’ sequence on the third season of Netflix’ Daredevil series.
Home Theater Forum had the privilege to talk to Don Lee about his work on Peppermint, working with Jennifer Garner, and the challenges in the world of fights and stunt on film today.
Peppermint is available now to rent or own on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.
HTF: I had the chance to watch Peppermint last night and it's my kind of movie. I love revenge dramas, especially when they're gritty like that.
Don Lee: I love that!
HTF: When you first got the screenplay, when you first came aboard Peppermint, what's your process? Is it a straight read through of the script and make note of where you'll have time to play, or is it a discussion with the director and/or the screenwriter on their intentions or approach? How does it start for you?
Don Lee: Yeah, that's a great question. You said a lot of the right things, actually. Usually when we break down a script, we get with the director and find what’s the look of the film, since there are a lot of action movies, and we definitely don't want to duplicate other films. There are a lot of films out there so you kind of want to just go for a vibe and you kind of get what the director wants to do. So I usually ask them, "What are your favorite three films that you want this to kind of feel like or look like?" Then they'll give me their answer and I'll talk with Jen and say, "Hey. This is what we're thinking. What are you thinking?" And Jen’s like, "Don, I want to do something that's very practical and efficient. I don't want make-believe things. I want something that's just gritty and dirty. It needs to apply to the character." So, usually in any kind of action film that we do, we always base it on the character of the script. We wouldn't want [to do] something that's very Wushu, very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or movies like that because it doesn't fit this film. So usually the discussion we have is, "What is the film? What is the story? What drives the story? What makes an audience believe this movie?"
HTF: Working with Jennifer Garner, she's got a legacy of fighting prowess from her time on the series Alias. How much does that factor into what you prepare or plan for sequences? Are you agnostic on what an actor may or may not be able to do if you want to achieve a certain things because you’ll just bring in a stunt performer, or does change what you plan for a sequence if the actor themselves is a bit more capable?
"Since she's such a great actress, I really wanted to give her the things that she felt the best at, so that anything we asked her to do, she was up to be able to do it. She's such an athletic person, and she trains hard."
Don Lee: Good question. I actually have kind of an advantage here [because] I actually trained Jen back on Daredevil (2003). It was one of my first jobs having to train her with the swords on that film and then train her on something for Alias, so I have a history with her. And then working with her on Elektra. So it's been about a 10-year reunion since I've seen her. And basically, because I have a history with Jen, I know what works for her. I know what would work or wouldn't work and do suggestions. If people wanted to do something, she was like, "I don't know if the character would drive this way or do this." Since she's such a great actress, I really wanted to give her the things that she felt the best at, so that anything we asked her to do, she was up to be able to do it. She's such an athletic person, and she trains hard. One of the things when we would train fight sequences, other than the choreography, was if we giving her boxing drills, she wanted to fight regular, and then, all of a sudden, she was like, "Hey, Don. I've got to go ahead." She's ambidextrous. So if we did 50 crosses on the right, she would want to do 50 crosses on the left. If she wanted to do 20 roundhouses on her right leg, she wanted to do 20 roundhouses on her left leg. Any given take that the angle looked better in the fight, she would be ready to say, "Hey. Does look better? I can do my left leg." So she's actually kind of the dream actor you would want to work with because she just gave. She's dedicated to the job. She wanted to do the best job, and she wanted to look the best. We don't usually get that lucky. So with Jen, we're very lucky to have her.
HTF: Peppermint, for the most part, is not the most original revenge drama. It's hard to be very original in this kind of field, but what I did find particularly interesting was the focus on the rawness of her emotion at the beginning of the film, and then how she executes [her revenge]. What I also really liked was that when she got hit or cut, she's limping. She's in pain. She's struggling to move. You don't really see that in a lot of action films. It's you get punched, stabbed, or shot, but you're able to run and catch the bad guy. Was that in the script or is that something that you all came up with, that this is going to be raw and visceral and brutal and let's have it play out in the aftereffects of those fight sequences that this characters going to live and breathe that pain?
Don Lee: To be honest with you, that's all Jen and Jen's experience of doing the action and these types of films. And being a mom, coming back, and doing these things. She's like, "When you get hit, it hurts." She took that upon herself to bring that to her character and it just worked. It was just awesome to see somebody who actually took the time to think about these things. And that's what related to me, the story, not the action.
HTF: What's the biggest challenge nowadays? You talked a little bit about not wanting to repeat what someone else has done and to find your own take. But, is the challenge now not necessarily finding all the innovation in the small fight sequence moments, but in crafting longer sequences? We've seen that, lately. The Daredevil TV series, each season has at least one very, very extended fight sequence. I think the first season had the hallway. I think the third seasons has something in a prison, though I’ve not had to chance to see that yet
Don Lee: I just did the prison sequence
HTF: Oh, you did?
Don Lee: I did Daredevil season three. I did, actually [laughter].
HTF: Well, I'll tell you, everyone I know that watches' Daredevil has said, "For God's sake Neil, get season three under your belt because you've got to watch the prison sequence." That's got to make you feel good that it's a standout moment in what is already a well-thought-of season. But is that the challenge now, how you make it become something unique and special in crafting longer sequences or longer, single shot sequences? There's a brilliant fight sequence in Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron on a staircase as well that comes to mind. Is that fun to try and do that kind of stuff?
For something on ‘Daredevil’ and working with the director Alex Garcia Lopez, he's the one that was kind of like, "Hey, I have an idea. I want to do this." And we were like, "Okay. Cool. How do we go ahead and service that job?"
Don Lee: It definitely is. Different strokes for different folks. And it all depends on the picture you're doing. Something that we're doing for Peppermint, what makes it original is that it's Jen doing it. And it's something that the audience hasn't seen in a while. Jen's always been a fan favorite, especially for women. She's an original badass in everything that's happened in [since] the early 2000s until now. So to see her come back, that's an original thing for Peppermint. For something on Daredevil and working with the director Alex Garcia Lopez, he's the one that was kind of like, "Hey, I have an idea. I want to do this." And we were like, "Okay. Cool. How do we go ahead and service that job?" That's kind of our thing in it to make it work. The coolest thing on that sequence was having it be Charlie Cox. Something on Atomic Blonde, from director Dave Leitch, and he is a former stuntman-he was Brad Pitt's stunt double. So he comes from that stunt background, is where he goes ahead and he's in the chair saying, "I believe in this. This will work." And those shots take a lot of time. And a studio, or production company or someone can be like, "That's a lot of time to rehearse to hopefully get 11 minutes of film, to get 5 minutes of film, and hopefully it all works." It's a lot of trust within the producers and the director and the creative team to make that work. There's a lot that goes on behind it.
HTF: We were talking about the brutality of some of the fight sequences in Peppermint. The first one is that close-quarters fight sequence in the car that opens the film. Is that more challenging-that sort of brutal, real, close-quarters fighting compared to, say, the more elegantly choreographed sequence? Sequences where it's a bit more of a dance? I'll give the example the bathroom fight sequence in Casino Royale, or even the bathroom fight sequence in Mission: Impossible - Fallout as they were both quite brutal but were more ‘elegantly’ choreographed. In Peppermint it's a bit looser because it's not there for elegance. It's there for realism. Is that harder to do? Because you're trying to make it not look like a dance I would imagine?
“To me, that was definitely different. And it wasn't something that was supposed to be elegant. It was supposed to be raw and real.”
Don Lee: Yeah. You're restrained. [In Peppermint’s opening sequence] you're in a seated position and obviously, you can use your legs to press down to pull out of the car, but you're really just using your upper body. To me, that was definitely different. And it wasn't something that was supposed to be elegant. It was supposed to be raw and real. I really did like the way the opening sequence started off, that you thought something else was going on in the car, then it turns out to be there was actually this fight that's going on. To me, that sequence was just fun. I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun doing it. I'm pretty sure Jen did too!
HTF: Some of the bigger computer-generated imagery films, action spectacles, seem to have a trend of using CGI created actors or characters for fights, especially when they're in the air or falling and those kinds of things. Do you ever worry that that's taking away too much from the craft of stunt and fight coordinators? Or do you think there's a balance to be had there? I guess the second part to that question is, have you ever been asked to advise or help animators in creating better-looking CGI fight sequences?
“…Sometimes you have CG people who will be like, "Can we basically do a somersault and then roll backwards and roll forwards?" I'm like, "Gravity and the body don't work that way, so you wouldn't do that."”
Don Lee: Yeah. I think there's definitely a balance because you need something that's believable to start with. If you take something, whether it be a CG character in the world of say, I Am Legend, and strictly the dummies are all CG. I have nothing against that. I think it's great and it's cool and it fits in that world because it all stays consistent that way. But those are stunt performers in mo-cap suits performing. But yeah, there is a balance. I think that you need some type of believability [with] the [actor] starting the shot, lifting off in the air. It should be the CG character flying in the air dealing with the CG people, And then the last 15% [or so] should definitely be human. I think the audience is so sophisticated these days that if you don't have that, it kind of just seems a bit unbelievable. It pulls people out of it. It's the worst thing when you see a lot of the superhero films and the audience is like, "Yeah, right." I love going to the movies and hearing what other people have to say. People either believe it and they're cheering or [they don’t]. It's always interesting to me. So, I don't [worry] fear because I think there's a necessity for both.
[And on the second part of your question about consulting,] we have. It's great. And I love video games and I love playing them. But sometimes you have CG people who will be like, "Can we basically do a somersault and then roll backwards and roll forwards?" I'm like, "Gravity and the body don't work that way, so you wouldn't do that." "Well, he's defying gravity." It doesn't really work. If you want it to look real and believable, unless you have some kind of anti-gravity boots or something to make him reverse the other way, it just wouldn't work. Sometimes we get into those kind of things. It's cool. It's always a fun thing.
HTF: Well, thank you, Don. I appreciate talking with you today. All the best to you!
Don Lee: Likewise, Neil. Thank you!