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Friday, 27 December, 2002, 09:13 GMT
Stuntman to the stars
You never quite know where you are with Vic Armstrong, movie stuntman extraordinaire.
Although available at the end of a mobile, Armstrong could be in any country - or situation - as one of the film industry's top stunt experts.
Yes, Armstrong is in demand and over the past 37 years he has worked on more than 250 films.
They include box office smashes Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Charlie's Angels, as well as classics such as A Bridge Too Far.
Armstrong's talents have also earned him an Academy Award and a Bafta lifetime achievement award.
In recent years, Armstrong, 56, has moved away from hands-on stunt work to co-ordinating stunt and action sequences.
Two of his most recent high-profile projects include the latest James Bond adventure, Die Another Day, and Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs of New York.
'Business of illusion'
The stunt co-ordinator's role carries great responsibility, considering how the impact of action scenes can make or break a film's success.
But Armstrong would not have been given his first chance to take the reins as a stunt director - by Indiana Jones director George Lucas - if he had not earned his stripes as a stuntman.
"All stunts are dangerous until you have completed them," Armstrong says. "I have done a 100-foot free fall and a wire rig descender from 350 feet.
"There is nothing I would not do, but modern techniques enable us to make it appear that the viewer has seen something.
"We are in the business of illusion and not to be confused with daredevils."
As a stunt co-ordinator, Armstrong organises all the elements needed for a stunt scene, from hiring the stuntpeople - men and women - to arranging props.
He consults directly with the director and at length with the actors.
Armstrong describes work on both Gangs of New York and Die Another Day as "terrific fun".
But, after seven Bond movies, Gangs offered new experiences - in particular working with Scorsese, who he knows as "Marty".
'Brutal and bloody'
After 16 weeks on the film's Cine Citta set in Rome, Armstrong says Scorsese - the creative force behind films such as Raging Bull - is the genius many people suggest.
"Marty is a walking encyclopaedia of film and just loves the whole process of movie-making," says Armstrong. "We would swap stories and ideas all day long."
Gangs of New York is a three-hour historical drama. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a young hoodlum, who vows to avenge his father's death in 1840s New York.
Armstrong's major contribution to the film was a "brutal and bloody" fight between rival mobs.
Working with hundreds of extras in period dress was a challenge but Armstrong did his homework. He watched hours of movies by the Russian director Sergei M Eisenstein to get a feel for the style Scorsese wanted.
Gangs took a year longer than planned, prompting speculation that the project was "troubled".
However, Armstrong says Scorsese was simply fine-tuning: "It is a work of art by a genius. Marty will not release it until he is satisfied it meets with his vision. He is strong and passionate enough to make sure that happens."
In comparison, Armstrong says working on a Bond movie is always like going back to the family fold. He also believes the 007 series is the Holy Grail of the stunt professional's career.
"Bond films are the ultimate job for a stuntman. It is a labour of love - and I get to try out the cars," says Armstrong.
All the stunts on Die Another Day - filmed partly in Iceland - are the result of Armstrong's creativity and experience.
But the one which gives him most pride is a car chase between Bond and the baddie Zao through an ice hotel. It is a masterful piece of driving and Armstrong advises no one to try it themselves.
"Action sequences can take weeks to prepare for just a few seconds of screen time - that is why the cinema is so magical. It suspends time and belief but, as in Bond, appears achievable," Armstrong says.
In his time, Armstrong has carried out many of the Bond movies' action scenes himself. In You Only Live Twice, he slid down a rope during the volcano attack sequence.
In On Her Majesty's Secret Service he was George Lazenby's stunt double.
And like most stuntpeople, Armstrong has broken several bones. But his family are not, he knows, too worried - most are stuntpeople too.
He even met his wife Wendy when she was the double for Margot Kidder in Superman.
As a boy, he was always copying the action scenes of his father's friend, the actor Richard Todd - star of films like Robin Hood.
Now, with almost four decades of stunt work under his belt, Armstrong says he could not be happier.
"I enjoy what I am doing now as much as when I started... I am paid fabulously well - and I could not do what the actors do."
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