Tessa Alvarado The Queen of Swords Anthony De Longis

Behind The Scenes And on The Set With Anthony De Longis


As I mentioned in my article, "So you want to be a Sword Master and Stunt Coordinator?", you usually receive the script to the next show while you're filming the current episode. You must quickly read the new script and imagine action sequences that most entertainingly and effectively tell the story the authors have created and that you have the time to film. Your solution won't always be on the page, either. For "Honor Thy Father" we were shooting our fourth episode, prepping our fifth - while trying to schedule shots that were still needed to complete episodes one through three so they could be edited, looped and mixed for airing! In other words, business as usual for an episodic television series.

Anthony At left, DP Alwyn and Anthony discuss one of the shots for the barnyard fight. The thatching on the wall was put up to hide modern elements, like metal pipes and electrical conduits.

"You can write it, but..."

"Honor Thy Father" called for the crucial attempted rape and an unspecified "farm implement" fight between Tessa and Ramon to occur in a stable or barn. The only props available were a hand sickle, a two-handed scythe and a carved wooded pitchfork. I chose the latter as the best option against a sabre.

We didn't have a stable set either in town or at the Hacienda location and there certainly wasn't time in our overcrowded shooting schedule to shift the entire cast, crew and all the necessary equipment to yet another distant location. The tiny construction area that had been hastily dressed for the first scene encounter with Ramon wasn't big enough to stage the story we wanted to tell. There wasn't time to build a new structure in either the Pueblo or the Hacienda locations. The "barn that wasn't" also made it difficult to stage and rehearse the action for a scene that was scheduled to shoot the next day. Physical environment is a major character in any action sequence that must be utilized, not ignored when choreographing. One obvious inspiration is the way Jackie Chan utilizes location and props of opportunity to bring style, humor and drama to his action.

The caballisto handle the horse Photo at right - In order to get the close-ups of Tessa washing the horse, which was getting restless, some of the horsemen helped to "restrain" him, by holding the head, one of the front feet and coaxing him quietly to be calm.

Again, Fernando and his crew worked wonders. Attached to the Hacienda was a dumping area filled with lumber, broken machinery, manure and sundry farm gak. Overnight, they mucked out the manure, applied bamboo thatching to cover a modern-looking corrugated roof, covered metal pipes and electrical conduits, added two wagons, a carriage, a feeder for hay and tethered a horse inside as a prop for the actors. Voila! A working carriage yard!

Changes? There are changes?

I worked out the story and choreography with Tessie's sword double, Roberta Brown and we walked it for Brian Grant and Tessie. I planned simple yet effective action that Tessie could perform herself with Roberta doubling a back roll out of the wagon to escape Raul's attempted rape. I discovered the day of shooting that Brian had decided that morning that he didn't like the dress the wardrobe department had prepared -- the one with a duplicate for the stunt double. This meant there was only one outfit for both Tessie and Roberta to share. Brian's last minute decision would come back to haunt us.

The story of this fight was further complicated by express instructions from the writer/producers. They didn't want Tessa to fight with the skills and training of her "Queen" persona. I pointed out that Raul already knew she was the Queen since he had spotted her changing from her disguise and had informed on her to both Montoya and Grisham. I believe their reasoning had something to do with Tessa being vulnerable due to her memories of her father and the desire to not hurt her attacker while he still had the knowledge she needed so she could avenge her father's murder. I decided this needed to be a fight with weapons of opportunity and a continuously rising crescendo of emotion and violence.

Tessa defends herself Photos at right - Tessa, thinking on her feet, wets Raul's pistol by tossing the contents of her washbucket at him (left), then heaves the empty bucket to drive him away (right).

We start in the Carriage Yard...

Raul enters from the rooftops and jumps onto the padded freight wagon to make his way to ground level. When he decides he wants more than money from Tessa she punches him in the face and knocks him back. I told Raul to pull his pistol and shoot her and instructed Tessa to grab the bucket of water and drench Raul and his pistol with its contents. A flint-lock won't fire with wet powder and it showed a thinking Tessa responding quickly and effectively to his threat.

Raul attacks Photo at left - Undaunted, Raul pursues her, grabbing Tessa by the hair (left) and hauling her over to the carriage. She finally pushes him off of her with her feet (right). This scene was shot with a steadicam to follow the action.

She turns to run and Raul grabs her by the hair and throws her towards the carriage. Lifting her by the legs, he lifts her onto the carriage floor and begins yanking up her skirts. She kicks him and Roberta doubled the back roll through the narrow confines of the carriage floor, our cameras picking up Tessie as her feet drop to the ground.

Tessa escapes the carriage yard Photos at right - To escape the carriage yard, Tessa drives her horse towards Raul (left), and runs out the gate (right). The gate actually leads out to a dirt driveway at the hacienda location, not the hill where the graveyard is located.

She runs for the gate but Raul draws his sword and blocks her escape. Tessa has no weapon at hand, but thinking on her feet, she stampedes the horse into Raul, knocking him down and giving her a chance to race through the gate behind the terrified horse.

...and we end up on the Hill

Brian Grant wanted the rape foiled in the carriage yard but the fight itself to climax at the top of the hill near the graves of Tessa's father and mother. This would definitely make the scene more dramatic and poignant. There was no way we could motivate the 150 yard uphill run from the Hacienda proper, so we had to create "television geography". We shot Tessa following the horse through the gates and away from camera from inside the hacienda carriage yard. There was another livestock pen on the opposite side of the hill just below the graves. We didn't have the time and manpower to clean out and dress another set, so we positioned cameras to only show the exit of the horse and Ramon's pursuit of Tessa. I stuck the wooden pitchfork in a bale of hay outside the doorway so Tessa could grab her weapon of opportunity to even the odds against Raul's cavalry sabre.

As you've probably noticed, this was a very full show with Tessie in virtually every scene. When Tessie wasn't shooting action, she was shooting dialogue and had absolutely no time to rehearse this final fight. She had never seen the sabre vs pitchfork fight before we shot the scene. I wasn't worried about the rape sequence because that was a logical progression of thought and action and we shot it in easy pieces. I told Brian that our lead actress had had no possibility for rehearsal and that I needed as much time as he could give me to teach her the fight. He gave me fifteen minutes.

We had taught the fight to Ramon Camin earlier, and Roberta Brown had rehearsed with him. I was confident she could keep both Ramon and herself safe. Ramon had only a little stage combat in his theatre days and the skills that we were able to cultivate during the course of the show. Roberta could and would adjust to the changes in distance and energy that always happen during the excitement of performance. Neither Tessie nor Ramon had the experience to automatically adjust distance and timing if their partner's performance was a little too wild and uncontrolled. This ability only comes with years of experience. These are precisely the situations when you need an experienced double to partner your actor. To compound the nightmare, I had no sword double for Raul and due to the costume problem I had no convenient double for Tessa either. I told Brian that for safety reasons we absolutely had to shoot the fight one piece at a time. Both fighters were relatively inexperienced, and neither of them really knew the fight. Ramon had never even rehearsed with Tessie. I said that under no circumstances should we attempt any master shots with the principals.

Tessa and Raul fight on the hill Photo at left - The fight continues up on the hilltop. Incited by Raul's emotional baiting, Tessa strikes back at him, aggressively attacking him out of her rage.

We ran the actors and the horse out of our fake carriage yard and up the hill, Tessa grabbing her pitchfork along the way. We'd done our best to make the area actor-friendly but the surface at the graveside was rocky and uneven and the wind was blowing fiercely. We were further hampered by the very critical camera marks Brian Grant had given the actors in order to keep them both in frame for the three cameras he was rolling. We walked the routine slowly for cameras from start to finish and the actors took their positions to shoot the first piece.

The fight was divided into three simple phrases but as soon as they had completed the first phrase, Brian urged the actors to keep going. This wasn't our deal, but they weren't doing too badly so they went into the second, then the final phrase. We got some good pieces but there were some memory problems with dialogue as well as some camera problems so we set up to go again. I reminded Brian that it would be better to focus on Tessie's coverage and shoot one piece over and over again until he was happy with the performance and then move on to the next phrase.

Tessa and Raul fight on hill Photos at right - Tessa parries Raul's headcut (left), then accidentally impales him with the pitchfork (right) when her emotions and reactions take over. It was on a headcut that Tessie got accidentally hit.

As far as I'm concerned, action is storytelling. It drives and articulates your characters or it's meaningless. We are in the business of telling a story and creating an illusion. This requires cooperative not combative energy. When you don't know the moves of a fight, it's like not knowing your lines. It's very difficult to give your best performance when you're struggling to remember your dialogue, or in this case, your next move. It's unfair to the actor, unfair to his partner, unfair to the audience and it's damned dangerous. To their credit, both actors committed totally their emotional choices in the scene. Raw emotion looks great on camera, but without the control and modulation only rehearsal can give, you're an accident waiting to happen.

That was a short wait

Sure enough, on our next take at the point of highest emotion, Ramon was a little too hard with his cut, Tessie was a little off with her parry and the blade bounced away from the tongs of the pitchfork and glanced off her cheek. Brian said, "Keep going, it's great!" I asked Tessie if she was all right. She said, "I'm fine!" I said, "Keep your distance." Tessie said, "We'll miss our marks." I said, "#*#* the marks, it's your face!"

Roberta as Tessa Photo at left - having no double dress, Roberta changed into Tessa's dress on the location, and stepped in to finish Raul's coverage of the fight. With a pin here, a tuck there, and the quick addition of a wig, she pulled the look off admirably in a short period of time.

Again they came together, their weapons hitting much too hard in an effort to make the scene more dramatic. Control and illusion were both gone. Emotion and adrenaline had taken over. This wasn't illusion, it was combat. I called "Cut" and walked in front of the cameras to stop the roll. Tessie's face was fine, the bounce of the blade had just startled her, but she had also tagged her little finger on one of her attacks against Ramon's sword. It was badly bruised and bleeding slightly. We got ice on Tessie's bruises and then our star had to go behind the generator truck on the top of the hill to change out of her dress so Roberta could double her action for Ramon's performance coverage. Just the way we were supposed to shoot the sequence in the first place.

Accidents can happen anytime but this one was so unnecessary. Everybody doing the wrong thing to try and force a situation that simply needed more time. There is a certain amount of risk in every action but you must keep the risk to an acceptable level. This sort of situation is where budget penny-pinching and the constant pressure of the clock can really get someone hurt. And when that someone is the star of your show, whose injury can stop filming all together, what have you really saved? The next day, Ken Gord backed up my decision to stop the action and said, "Anytime it's a safety issue, you go ahead and stop it if you need to." What we really needed was another hour and a little better planning and scheduling all round.

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Copyright 2000-2001 Anthony De Longis. All contents, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Anthony De Longis or used with permission of the copyright owner. All text and photos herein may not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of Anthony De Longis, his official representative, or the copyright owner.

The Queen of Swords is trademark of Fireworks Productions, Toronto, Canada, and is a production of Fireworks (Canada), Amy Productions (UK), Morena Films (Spain) and M6 (France), and is distributed in the United States by Paramount. The Official Queen of Swords Website can be found at


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This page last updated March 18, 2001