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Tessa Alvarado The Queen of Swords Anthony De Longis

Behind The Scenes And on The Set With Anthony De Longis

"Vengeance"


It Sounded So Easy On Paper

Which brings us to the climactic double duel at the end of the show. Now two choreographers will always have different ideas on how to tell the story. I'll start with mine. When you work in television it's important to be as prepared as possible because there will always be last minute changes. No matter what they tell you they want and where they want it, chances are when you get to the day, it will all change. The "Vengeance" episode is a text book example of the curve balls they whizz at your head when you step into the batter's box in the majors.

At left - the location originally chosen for the climactic fights, included an area strewn with bouldered levels on which the sword fight between Helm and Latham could progress (left) and a flat area that would allow a whip-vs-sword fight between the Queen and Montoya.

Let's start with the location for the final fight. Brian Grant had wanted a visual metaphor to underscore the theme of the scene. Helm has nowhere left to run and he must turn and fight his past if he's going to have any future. While I was still filming "Death to the Queen" Brian and I had done an extensive location scout of the areas surrounding the pueblo. Brian had assurred me we could film the fight between Helm and Latham separate from Montoya vs the Queen. This meant I could stage the fights in different areas and we could focus on shooting the scenes one at a time. I scouted an area from horseback that I called "Lands End." There was flat ground beneath a sheer canyon wall that would work for the whip fight. Several large boulders flattened on top provided a terraced stair progression that would outline the Helm and Latham conflict against either the sky or the cliff backdrop. Brian liked the location and I finished the choregraphy based on this choice.

Rocky arena for fight At right - The rocky amphitheatre used as the location for the final fights.

The next day Brian borrowed our digital camera to provide easy computer visuals for all his location choices. Later that day he showed me his new choice of location for the climactic double duel. At lunch break we walked the ground and it was indeed spectacular. A notched riverbed inclined rapidly into a steep, boulder strewn box canyon. The rocks in the riverbed were exposed and slick from flash flood erosion and the climb wasn't easy, but since we could cut from one fight to another it looked like we could make it work and give the director the visual backdrop he wanted. Brian agreed that we didn't have to shoot any full masters and could just enter and exit frame to link the scenes.

When we arrived on set to film, Brian informed me that we would not be shooting in the areas previously selected because he had too much dialogue to cover before and after the action and he was afraid to get caught inside the canyon walls and lose his light. A legitimate concern, of course, but it meant that we were now shooting in locations that were completely different and that had to be prepared as best we could to be actor friendly. My crew and I frantically chopped brush and tried to smooth the area for the whip vs sword Montoya/Queen encounter but the actors still had to contend with uneven footing, exposed rocks, whip tangling brush and a substantial slope to their playing area. Meanwhile, down in the river bed, we pried out the smaller boulders and shifted dirt and sand to provide an area with decent footing for the Helm/Latham duel.

On the set, the director is king. He sees the big picture and is ultimately responsible for bringing all the pieces together. You must trust his vision and help him to make the right decisions. But you can't expect the director will always listen to your good advice.

First we shot Helm's arrival and his verbal confrontation with Latham. The horses weren't cooperating and it took more time than expected to get Latham's initial dialogue on horseback. We progressed to the dismount and the verbal confrontation with Helm and all the CU coverage for each actor. Then the Queen came into the scene to disarm Latham's crossbow with her whip. Tessie's practice paid off and she easily wrapped the whip around the crossbow and yanked it from James' hand herself. Latham drew his sword to fight the Queen. Helm says, "It's me you want," and the Queen threw him her sword and they exited frame to duel to the death. Valentine entered, dismounted, drew his sword and advanced to confront the Queen who had only her whip wrapped around her body and seemingly unavailable for offense. We broke for lunch and by the time we were ready to start filming the crucial double climactic fight between our major characters, it was the middle of the afternoon. Brian still had to shoot the scenes where Montoya saves the doctor from Latham, the doctor gives the Queen a chance to escape and Montoya and Helm wax philosophical as they walk back to town together. Two to three days minimum on a feature film to shoot; a standard impossible day's work for an episodic television show.

We started with the fight between Helm and Latham. I always try to build acting beats into my choreography. This helps draw focus to the important scene elements and allows the actors to remember story beats instead of mechanical sword moves. It also makes the dialogue easier to shoot and breaks up the action into bite size pieces for both actor and camera coverage. Since the final moment was so important, I staged a tension freeze with Latham behind Helm pulling the edge of his blade toward Helm's throat while spewing out the hatred he feels for the man who killed his brother. "Still have a taste for blood, doctor?" This ensured that the camera could capture both Peter and James in a dynamic two shot and simplifying coverage and saving camera time.

Helm faces off against Latham photo at right - Frame from the original Helm vs. Latham sword fight. Click on the image to download a Quicktime video of the fight (this mpeg file is 1.7 Mb). This video breaks the fight into 3 phrases. Note: not all moves are easily visible due to distance and obstruction by scenery and equipment.

Peter and I had rehearsed every moment we could grab earlier in the schedule and he was ready. James Innes-Smith was brand new to the sword and was a bit overwhelmed by the combination of choreography, location difficulties and the usual pressure of having three cameras and forty people watching your every move. Sword skills take time and rehearsal, they are not something you can learn overnight. I had told Brian that a full master with both actors would be impossible but that we could work our way through the fight one phrase at a time. I had no double for Peter, but I was dressed and in makeup as Latham to double James and give Peter a chance to perform with an intensity that James couldn't be expected to handle. Unfortuately, Brian wouldn't allow me to double for James, even when James had obviously reached his limit and was having trouble remembering the moves. This was unfortunate and unfair to Peter but until it became unacceptably hazardous, it was Brian's call.

We moved on to the fight between Tessie and Valentine. Valentine had expressed concern that his character not look foolish during what was at the time, his first sword encounter with the Queen. He felt Montoya should be an expert and very dangerous duelist. We both agreed that this would give the writer's much more to work with in the coming episodes. As an actor myself, I know what a great opportunity action can offer an actor to tell his character's story and as a choreographer I always consult the actor about his ideas for the scene. The actor must believe the story we are telling or the action is just a bunch of gymnastic moves. If Montoya looked foolish his credibility would be seriously damaged for the rest of the season. Of course the Queen had to win and look great doing it. So I constructed a fight that allowed the Queen to triumph with style and humor while maintaining Montoya's crucial sense of danger.

Queen squares off with Montoya photo at left - Frames from the original Queen vs. Montoya fight. This fight featured Montoya with a smallsword fighting against the Queen with a bullwhip. Click on the image to download a Quicktime video of the fight (this mpeg file is 832 Kb). This video breaks the fight into 3 phrases. Note: not all phrases are complete.

Having thrown her sword to Helm so he could defend himself against Latham, she was seemingly unarmed and defenseless with the whip still curled around her body. Deftly, the Queen avoids and deflects Montoya's opening attacks before spinning to uncoil her whip and drive him back. Montoya catches her next attack around his blade and grabs the whip with his left hand holding her weapon as he gloats and maneuvers for his coup de grace. The Queen defends with the whip's handle and smashes his wrist to free her weapon. She envelops Montoya's thrust and flings his blade away. Their attention is seized by the stark image of Helm's sword pressed to Latham's throat and Helm's critical decision on whether or not to take Latham's life. This final tableau was the image Brian described in our early story discussions. Val and I worked the whip fight early in the week and he liked the story. We rehearsed as often as we could and he filmed it on his own video camera so he could practice the moves at home - a great idea.

Light was failing and filming the fight between Tessie and Valentine was rushed. The sloping surface was slippery and difficult and Tessie was further distracted by the necessity to dodge both crew and equipment jammed to the edges of her playing area. Mary and I had rehearsed Tessie during the week in between shooting her dialogue scenes after the big knife fight at the church. I had rehearsed Valentine and Roberta together but Tessie and Valentine didn't get to work together until the day we shot. It's always tougher to dance with your partner in performance when you havn't practiced with their rhythm.

Anthony and Michelle Pfeiffer on set At left - Anthony working with Michelle Pfeiffer and her whip choreography on the set of Batman Returns.

I hoped to shoot a flashy multiple crack whip sequence in between Tessie and Val's choreographed phrases. Since there was no time to teach them to Tessie, I planned to double this action with Roberta. The tip of the whip shatters the sound barrier at over 700 mph, faster than eye or camera can follow. Most whip practioners add to the problem by yanking the whip through frame and very little story or character is revealed. I have developed a unique rolling style that slows the action of the whip for use on film. Michelle Pfeiffer utilized my teachings to good effect for her role as "Catwoman" in Batman Returns. Tessie had worked hard to develop this style and I'd been working with Roberta since her arrival so she could adjust her own whip work to to be a visual match for Tessie. Roberta practiced very hard all week and throughout the day her whip could be heard cracking off to one side to be ready to shoot a multiple crack series if there was time to shoot them. Of course this sequence was never shot and both Roberta and I spent the day dressed in wardrobe without ever stepping in front of the camera. But like the pros they are, Tessie and Valentine rose to the challenge and we got the shots we needed under difficult conditions. We've included a couple of MPEGs of my original fight choreography. They are unedited and missing Tessie's two opening whip defenses but they'll give you an idea of what I tried to achieve. Enjoy.

Brian now wanted a shot to tie the two fight actions together. He said Helm and Latham would be so far in the background we'd never be able to follow their action. He just wanted to see sword blades flashing behind the action in the foreground. Brian insisted that the actors not do the rehearsed choreography, but rather they should make something up on their own to save time. I thought this was a terrible and potentially dangerous idea, but Brian said one quick shot was all he needed. He wouldn't let me double Peter so I focused on Tessie and Valentine's performance in the foreground of shot.

Now the end of this story is that with all our efforts under very trying conditions, we got our coverage and judicious editing would have told our story. Brian was justly proud that he'd completed over ninety-seven camera setups that day, almost everything he'd hoped to get. We heard a week later that twelve rolls of undeveloped negative film were lost enroute to post-production in Toronto. Almost all of the fight scene we had shot was gone forever. One of the only pieces of footage to survive was a lovely shot of the Queen and Montoya's whip battle with James and Peter in the background quite clearly "making it up" and just trying to survive. This was unfair to the actors and, of course, it looked awful.

After episode six, "Duel With A Stranger," the mantle passed to the French choreographers. I waited for my guest episode in "The Hanged Man" and planned to see some of the country. I knew they had to reshoot the double duel and offered to show the new coordinator the fight in case he wanted to utilize any elements the actors had already learned. Of course he was welcome to use what he liked and change what he didn't. I also offered to help with the whip fight because this is not a weapon you just pick up and wield with skill you gotta work at it.

Ken Gord told me the French would re-choreograph the sword duel with Helm and Latham but that he would gladly accept my help with the whip action and he very much appreciated my willingness to assist. Tessie was too busy shooting to rehearse so Mary and I spent the weekend practicing so she could double if necessary for the Tuesday shoot. Monday morning, Girard, the French line producer called me to say they were dropping the whip section entirely and my help would not be needed. I did not want credit for someone else's work and indicated to Ken that I might want my name removed from the credits for that week. However, since all of the choreography and action with the exception of the final fight was mine, including the knife fight and the clifftop rescue of Ramon, I suggested to Ken that Albert Goldberg and I share credit for the episode. Ken agreed that this was a logical solution but apparently things got confused in the translation back to titles in post-production. Ah well.

Location of final fight. At left - Full view of the rocky amphitheatre used for the final fights.

I just watched the episode and saw the new climactic double duel. I was a little puzzled why an expert duelist like Montoya wielding arguably the fastest and most efficient killing weapon in the sword arsenal - the small sword - would immediately retreat from a dagger. His reach exceeds hers by nearly two and a half feet. Holding the knife in the inverted position just increases this disparity. Obviously, Montoya has the advantage of distance. The Queen is only a threat if she can get inside his reach where the close range advantage of the dagger can be brought into play. But this is a story you've got to set up for the audience or they will have trouble accepting your premise. Both actors did their best to make this work. Valentine spent most of his time in a reverse, left foot forward guard with his blade held behind his body. This helped to negate the distance disparity but it was a huge leap of faith for the audience to make. Especially since Montoya disarms her whip so quickly and adeptly.

Continuity and editing were also a big problem. Valentine yanked the Queen's whip to the right, the double, Phillippe twisted his body left to pull Gaelle off balance and the editor cut back to Valentine in close up finishing his twist to the right. That's called "crossing the line." Twice in the same shot has to be a record.

It's also very difficult to follow the story of a fight when you continually cut from close-up to close-up. You rob the performer of his most powerful storytelling tool - the body. You also cheat the audience. There is a belief among many editors and producers that close-ups add immediacy to the action. If overused, they have the opposite effect. If you don't understand what's happening and the logic of your hero's reversals from adversity to victory, how are you supposed to cheer her ordeal and celebrate her triumph? The knife switches were especially difficult to follow. By hiding when the dagger switched from the left to the right hand and back again and why, it seemed more like a mistake than a character and story device to help us appreciate the intelligence and superior ability of our heroine. Not good.

Peter and James' double, Albert Goldberg had a flashy series of short phrases as they lept from rock to rock in their progression up the ravine that was our original location for filming. The dramatic changes in levels made for some terrific shots and outlined Peter and James against the sky and the rocks to good effect.

The one shot that survived the lost footage is Tessie's first whip crack with James and Peter "making it up" behind her. I find my eye drawn to the inaction in the background rather than the story in front of us. I especially missed the footage after Peter has defeated James and forced Montoya to put drop his crossbow. Val executed a very cool simultaneous dive and shoot to save Dr. Helm's life. The reshoot wasn't nearly as dynamic. I think Montoya has a lot of panache and this was a very stylish moment.

Well that's all the news that's fit to print. The Tuesday of the shoot, Mary and I started our road trip odyssey of Spain. We visited Albacete, toured the capital city of Madrid, the church in Cordoba, the world's largest cathedral in Seville, the gypsum caves of Sorbas and the magnificent "Alhambra" palace in Granada before returning to Almeria to film "The Hanged Man." It was a brief but breathtaking journey through a land of beauty and mystery, a land rich in history and tradition. Another jewel in the treasure that was our adventure on "The Queen of Swords."

Best Always, Anthony De Longis

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INDEX | BIOGRAPHY | ACTING RESUME |FIGHT DIRECTOR RESUME

PHOTO GALLERY | VIDEOS & CLASSES | NEWS | CONTACT

Copyright 2000 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 http://www.thequeenofswords.com.

 

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This page last updated December 12, 2000