Film and TV

The Brawler of Hell's Kitchen: Daredevil's Fight Coordinator Talks Season Two's Greatest Battle

Superhero fans may not know stunt coordinator Philip J Silvera's name, but they do know his work. Silvera's choreography turned heads in such recent comic-book adaptations as the Arkham Knight and Arkham Origins Batman video games, the record-breaking Deadpool film and Netflix's Daredevil. Silvera's imaginative, brutal work on Daredevil's first season, particularly the now-famous, Oldboy-esque hallway fight, proved that he's a master of brawls. For the show's second season, he's not just the stunt and fight coordinator: Silvera's also a second-unit director, giving him much more control over how cameramen and cinematographers light and shoot his work. We talked to Silvera about season two's grueling five-minute fight scene, tricky staircase camerawork and old-school crane shots.

[Comics creator] Frank Miller once described Daredevil as an "effort character": If Daredevil stops working out, he's not a superhero anymore. How does the character's finite stamina affect the way you choreograph his fights?

You see a lot of that in season one, particularly in the one-shot hallway fight. We try to make sure that there's a practicality to everything we do. If I'm fighting four guys, I'd get tired, so I want to show that. Or if he's going hand-to-hand with somebody, we won't shoot him from a distance. We always try to put some real-world logic into everything we do.

Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) are on the same spectrum, but on opposite ends: One is willing to cross a line, and the other one isn't. That plays out in the hallway fight. When they described it to me, the show-runners were adamant in describing it as a descent into hell. That's why I take you down a staircase. That sequence is very different from last year's one-shot fight scene, because that was a different story we were telling. He's trying to save a child in that scene, and he's injured, broken and beaten. This time, he's fighting to remain who he is. Because you never know if he's going to cross that line on the way down.

What were the challenges and priorities for that scene?

We're always fighting against time. We're doing a 13-hour movie on a TV time schedule. It was a completely different story last year, when we did season one's hallway fight. We had a camera rigged that would rotate and follow the guys on overhead tracks. That was filmed in a set, so we controlled that environment. We were able to spend half a day blocking with the camera and the stunt guys. We took about 13 or 14 takes until we finally got it.

But with this season, we had a practical location, so I spent about three or four days pre-vizing [short for “pre-visualization”] and a good day and a half trying to film it. Which is much harder because, again, for season one's hallway fight, we were able to pull out walls and set the camera overhead. But this is an actual space and it's very narrow, too. We had to know the timing very well so we didn't hit the guys or get hit by the guys. One of our camera guys, Rod Calarco, and myself were both holding cameras, shooting the sequence ourselves. We were passing the camera back and forth for certain stretches just to make it work out the way it did.

I can't tell you the rest of it, or I'd be giving away my secrets. But just know that when you're going up and down a staircase, you have to be very conscious of where you're stepping at all times. You need to make sure that you're seeing the action — because these guys are working their butts off, and you don't want to make them redo anything. There was a moment at the bottom of the staircase where I almost tripped up one of the guys. We were thankfully able to stay in the moment, though.

Who are your teachers and role models?

We all come into stunts with a specialty, then become well-rounded in different fields. We start out as really good car people, or we have a gymnastics background, or are fight specialists. Then we learn how to drive cars, or we learn how to set people people on fire, or be set on fire. You learn car hits or wire gags.

How are you involved in the presentation of your fights in terms of lighting and camera placement?

As second-unit director, I have a huge say in how the action is filmed. I have an assistant stunt coordinator, and when I'm directing, they step up to coordinate. So for scenes like season one’s hallway fight, I'll go to various meetings, including concept and story meetings. Then I'll do a concept design of the action scene. Then I'll bring in my assistant fight and stunt coordinators Roberto Gutierrez and Eric Linden, and then the stunt doubles: Chris Brewster, who is Charlie Cox's double, and Linden, who doubles for Jon Bernthal, too. So we'll block that out with the stuntmen and map out a pre-viz of the scene. We do the pre-viz the day before we shoot, but without our crew there with us. We line up the shots, film the whole thing from beginning to end and then present our footage to the producers. Based on that, we'll make small changes based on how they feel about it. That becomes our shot list for before we go into production. We film the whole scene before we film with everyone present.

Jackie Chan fondly recalls a time before advanced technology and relatively strict stuntmen's unions. Instead of getting a crane shot with a crane, he would take a camera up a ladder on the edge of a cliff. Are there ever times where you wish you had a little more freedom?

[laughs] There's a particular crane shot that we did in Daredevil season two. I was the second-unit director on that scene. The crane would follow the stuntman and swing behind him. But the crane can't move fast enough to get that move. So [stunt-rigging coordinator] Joe Ross strapped me and the camera into this old-school rig. Chris Brewster, doubling for Daredevil, swings around the city for the first time [with the aid of his billy club and grappling hook], and I'm coming right behind him at full speed. You don't always get the opportunity to do that.
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Simon Abrams is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.