Interview Exclusive HTF Inteview with Jo McLaren (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil)

Neil Middlemiss

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I had the pleasure of speaking with Jo McLaren, Veteran stunt performer and coordinator, back in 2018 following her work on director Alex Garland’s cerebral psychological science-fiction drama, Annihilation, and she continues to be a sought after by some of the biggest names in the industry.

McLaren has worked on an impressive variety of productions, including British television dramas like Grantchester, and some of the biggest franchise films like Fast & Furious 6 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. She’s a highly respective veteran of her field.

McLaren served as Stunt Coordinator for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 2019’s follow-up to the Sleeping Beauty prequel, Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning, and spoke to us about bringing her expertise to the film’s heavy wire-work and battle sequences.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now available on Digital, Blu-ray and 4K UHD Disc.

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HTF: It's great to talk to you again. What was the most challenging part of working on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil?

Jo McLaren: I think the biggest challenge was probably the battle sequence because we had to create all the Fey coming into battle and get the movement of the soldiers being struck by the Fey's wings and making that look realistic, like they were not being pulled on wires but tossed in the air over the parapets by the wings. The other thing was making all the Fey's movement look like they were flying not by wires but like they had wings attached to them and creating a natural feel to their body movement.

HTF: And so the movement of the Fey was largely created with the actors on the wires, because I'll tell you, one of the challenges I have in watching films these days is knowing when I'm looking at something that's real and when I'm looking at where a digital hand has taken over. There was one moment in particular, where Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Conall takes a step back from Angelina Jolie's character, he turns and takes off, and it was a seamless transition, and I wondered, "Did I just see a digital replacement of the actor, or did I just see some seamless wirework.” But you achieved most of that movement, at least the close-up, through wirework?

“what you saw was seamless wirework, incredible wire team, and the actors doing all the takeoffs, landings, and a lot of the flying on tuning forks themselves.”

Jo McLaren: Yeah. I mean, what you saw was seamless wirework, incredible wire team, and the actors doing all the takeoffs, landings, and a lot of the flying on tuning forks themselves. But with the wirework, that was a big challenge because you didn't want people just taking off straight. They needed to move and, like you say, turn and go off into different directions. It was a lot of research, a lot of just development, R&D, and seeing what looked good, and then sometimes having to put all those wires in, very quickly if, suddenly, [we needed] another character coming in and landing here and taking off. Most of the time it was all done for real. It was only when you see the big wide shots, that's when you get the digital takeovers.

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HTF: And when you're looking at a film and the stunt coordination and performance, you typically think crashing or flipping a car, or being thrown through a wall, you don't necessarily think about all the bits and pieces in between that.

Jo McLaren: Exactly. Yeah.

HTF: Did you find that on this film a good portion of the work was that sort of “bits in between,” or was it more of the bigger, crashing through a wall type of need?

Jo McLaren: We had a lot of the, I say, smaller stuff but it was still involved and technical. Because all the fey have wings, whenever they appear or disappear, they're not walking in and out of a door, they're taking off. So primarily, a lot of it was all that sort of stuff. Obviously, then we had the big battle sequence, which was more intense and more of the bigger action. Even things like with the Princess Aurora, at the beginning when her crown's stolen, she's chasing, and then she falls into the river, there was lots of sort of things like that. But we had something pretty much every day on set. It was a busy show for us.

HTF: On a production like this which relies so heavily on digital environments, does that expand the toolset you have, does it make it easier or harder for you? I guess what I'm thinking of is when you're dealing with a digital environment, you know that there's going to be CGI “trickery,” I'll call it, brought to bear anyway because the environments are not real, so does it make it more a challenge because you're not in the real world? You're not out on location where you can set up rigs and use that to inspire how you might do the action. You have to imagine what the environment might look like or looking at an image of it and then designing some stunts or some performance work around that. Is it harder or easier, or you don't really notice a difference?

“We would rehearse a sequence and then automatically, first call, go to director and then visual effects to see if it works for what they're creating digitally. So, they complement each other.”

Jo McLaren: I would say if you've got good Pre-vis and a visual effects department where you can go and look at the imagery of the kind of backdrops you’ll have when they've done their work, if you're on a blue screen, you will know. So, I would already know where we were, if we were just flying in the sky or if we're in the castle. And we had a lot of big sets there, So, I didn't find that so challenging if you're in great communication with your Visual Effects Supervisor, and we worked closely with them and the director as well. We would rehearse a sequence and then automatically, first call, go to director and then visual effects to see if it works for what they're creating digitally. So, they complement each other.

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HTF: That's interesting. When we were talking about Annihilation last year, I asked you a reverse of this question which was whether or not it was harder or easier dealing with dramatic films or more serious films and sort of the stunt work that goes into that versus adventure or fantasy or comedy. So, when you're working on a fantasy adventure like this, do you find you have more freedom, or more opportunity, to expand and experiment with stunt ideas? When you're in a grounded film, you're more tied to reality, the real physics of a thing, but in a fantasy, you don't want to go completely out the window with gravity and physics, but you certainly have, when you're dealing with magical creatures, a lot more leeway to sort of experiment or expand how something might play. Is it easier or more fun on a fantasy adventure, or do you like the challenge regardless of the production you're on?

"I really enjoyed [this production] because you do get to push the boundaries with creativity. You're not just dictated by what a human can achieve."

Jo McLaren: Yeah. I mean, I think the latter. I like the challenge. I like reality. Maleficent is probably my first big fantasy. I have tended previously to do a lot of real action. And it was nice. I really enjoyed [this production] because you do get to push the boundaries with creativity. You're not just dictated by what a human can achieve. You can have a lot of fun with, when they're flying, almost creating a ballet. So, I loved it. But if you had to ask me now if I had a preference, it's very, very difficult. It's all in the script. If you've got a great script and a great story, then I'm in.

HTF: That's a good way to look at it. Talk to me how you come aboard new projects. How does that come to you? Someone who's known your work and they want to work with you, or they've worked with you before, so you go back and work with them again?

Jo McLaren: A lot of the work, certainly for me, is you start working with particular directors, and you build a portfolio, and then you get recommended - they will recommend you for another production, or those people that worked on that production will go onto another production and they'll say, "We have this girl or this guy," and then you interview. You always go and interview with the director. You read your scripts and then you go and talk about your ideas with the director and the producers. And all my work has really come in from me building up a lot of work over the years and people knowing what I do and knowing how I work. I mean, occasionally, it comes from something completely new. Somebody, say, could have seen Annihilation. They go, "I loved that. Can we see if that person's available to come and talk to us?" It tends to happen like that. And obviously, if you do a good job and your ability to do the bigger feature films. Maleficent was with Disney [and] I'm going on to another Disney project. So, it really goes from the catalog of work that you build up and the success, the success of how you worked with the production.

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HTF: It's a résumé and a reputation and those two things combined.

Jo McLaren: Exactly. Yeah. And safety as well!

HTF: Right!

Jo McLaren: Yeah, your record matters.

HTF: When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to write, and so my career has taken me on paths that let me write. Did you always know this was the field that you wanted to go into, or was this happenstance? Because I'm curious, at what point did you go, "That's what I want to do"? Did you always know?

“My fight director at the drama school said, "You should be a stunt girl because it's so up your street." And I hadn't really thought of the job at that point. I think I was 18 years old. And then suddenly, it was like, "Now I know what I want to do."”

Jo McLaren: No, no, not at all. I started off, as a kid, [as] a dancer and an actress, so I was at the theater my whole life. I was always working in the theater doing a production, and it was only when I discovered sword fighting at drama school, and I always rode horses as well, but I discovered sword fighting, and then you couldn't get me away. I was always creating shows, fighting shows, and then I got into my martial arts. And my fight director at the drama school said, "You should be a stunt girl because it's so up your street." And I hadn't really thought of the job at that point. I think I was 18 years old. And then suddenly, it was like, "Now I know what I want to do."

HTF: Oh, that's fascinating.

Jo McLaren: And that's when I did all my training. I wrote to lots of stunt coordinators saying, "Can I come down and observe and watch and everything?" And then as soon as I went on to set and saw all the stunt guys and what they were doing, I knew that was for me. I then spent the next 20 years or so performing and probably about 7 or 8 years ago, wanted to start creating and became a stunt coordinator.

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HTF: Is there a filmmaker out there that you would love to work with that you just haven't had the opportunity yet, like a Christopher Nolan?

Jo McLaren: Yeah. That's one.

HTF: And I bring him up because I know he favors the practical. But is there anyone out there that you're like, "Gosh, if I get the chance to work with that person, I'm in"?

Jo McLaren: Sam Mendes. Yeah. I really like his movies, and I've just seen 1917. I'm like, "Wow, that's really cool." I love war films. I love World War I and World War II stuff. There are so many amazing directors out there, like Sam Mendes, and Tarantino, obviously, and Scorsese as well.

HTF: That is a terrific list. Well, Jo, thanks. It was great to talk to you again.

Jo McLaren: Thank you. [It was a] pleasure to talk to you.
 
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