Interview with R.A. Rondell (Supervising Stunt Coordinator) – Part 2 – from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin August 8th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with R.A. Rondell from the official Matrix website.

INTRODUCTION

MATRIX: What has your role been on THE MATRIX 2 and 3?

R.A. RONDELL: Basically I helped design most of the action sequences in the US, and then put the right people in the right places, and the doubles. I work with different departments as far as Special Effects and Wardrobe, and Visual Effects as far as putting together what the Directors want to see.

MATRIX: We spoke to you earlier in the production [November 2000], and you talked about the scope and the scale of the freeway chase; now that that has been done, what were some of your experiences?

R.A. RONDELL: Well, it was every bit as big as I anticipated it to be, and some. I am very pleased at how everything turned out, to be honest with you. It was a big undertaking and, not that there were any self doubts that we could accomplish it, but to do it justice we weren’t quite sure we’d would be able to achieve everything the Directors wanted to see. I think we’ve done very, very well.

I worked with some new stuff I hadn’t really worked with before, as far as the pre-visualization, which really helped us a lot, but it didn’t lock us down to having to try to achieve something that somebody else conceived, and was beyond what we could actually accomplish. Being part of the pre-viz was really great, we’d say, “This is what we want to do on the freeway, can you put together this car sequence for us”. So we started designing the sequence, and they started building the pre-viz around information we were giving them, as far as speeds of traffic, amounts of cars, trucks, vehicles, where they would go, what was an achievable path of the motorcycle or the car, and putting it into real terms. They put the pre-viz together, and then it was up to us to make it happen; having that information in front was great.

I got some of the best compliments of my career after we’d done a few of these events on the freeway – they were very, very close to the pre-viz.

MATRIX: What did you find yourself doing during the US shoot?

R.A. RONDELL: Right now I’m like management. I’ve had three units running at one time: I was doing First Unit, I had Second Unit running full-time, I had Motion Capture going on, and now they’ve all kind of sorted themselves out. First Unit is doing the Temple work, so they don’t need me over there at all, although I might set up some cablecams for them. I’m basically just cleaning up now, I’ve got some elements still around as far as blue screen is concerned. They’re doing a lot of composite work of people flying that are put over the top of explosions, or put in amongst the car chase, so it’s all just little bits and pieces of elements that we’re putting together. Most of my team has gone, and I’m just kind of brooming up now.

MATRIX: How long have you been on the production so far?

R.A. RONDELL: I’ve been on it almost ten months. This is the longest prep I’ve ever had, close to five months of prep. We needed it and loved it. It gave me the opportunity to start pretty much from conception, although Larry and Andy had the movie shot in their head and on storyboards well before I got there. As far as taking their storyboards and putting them into practical terms, and in a practical production setting of how it was going to be achieved, I got to be there from the beginning, which was great. The Directors also listened to ideas. With the traffic patterns, they didn’t have the patterns drawn, they had storyboards of where everybody went from A to B, but not how they actually got through it. So I got to be involved with that and help design it, know where everybody was going, what cars were needed, what preparation was needed, amounts of time it would take to shoot it, special effects etc, so that was a big plus.

MATRIX: Were there other things you maybe expected or didn’t expect?

R.A. RONDELL: I think it was a little overwhelming in the beginning, talking about what they wanted to do, then what they wanted to see started becoming more of a reality. We went through changes from different locations to this thing where we started fine tuning it. I don’t know how it went so smoothly, and as far as I’m concerned it was a real pleasure to do, it wasn’t a struggle by any means. Sometimes you finish a project and you feel a bit let down, like you wish you could have done something better in a certain area, or if you had the time to do it, you would have done it this way or rethought it… you know hindsight, twenty twenty, whatever you want to call it. But this is really cool, it’s great stuff, I think it’s state of the art.

I think it’s going to be something people remember for a long time, and I think it’s going to set new standards for certain things. The blend between Visual Effects and real time in-camera filming was a nice complement for each other. Sometimes that can be kind of irritating, often they don’t quite complement each other because one looks better than the other, and they just don’t quite blend. Although I haven’t seen the composites put together yet, I feel they’re really going to be compatible and really pleasant to the eye. It’s going to be a really nice, thrilling ride. The chases and the fights that Chad [Stahelski, Martial Arts Coordinator] and the Hong Kong team have done are very long, but I don’t think they’re going to be boring at all. I think time is going to whiz by for the audience, they’ll be exhausted, but they’ll be exhilarated, and they’re going to want more. I think it’s going to be a huge success.

MATRIX: Do you regularly go to dailies?

R.A. RONDELL: I have seen quite a few of them, but I only really watched the first couple of weeks of dailies. I watch playback all the time, so I see what’s going on and it’s great, it’s really cool. Then to watch these guys do their composite work that they can literally do right there at ‘Video Village’ [on set playback monitors] now takes the guesswork out of so much of it.

THE THIRD EVENT

MATRIX: In your opinion, what will be one of the most memorable moments in THE MATRIX: RELOADED?

R.A. RONDELL: Well, there are a couple of things. We did three big car wrecks on the freeway, one happened in the first week of the freeway sequence for First Unit, it was event number three, which happened to be on my birthday. It was one of the bigger wrecks I’ve ever been involved with, as far as amounts of people and cars that were involved. We had a lead car come in with a canon in the back that was being towed, and we’d cue the guy to release the car from being towed, blow the canon so the car flips nose down trunk forward, and as it flies up in the air, two cars alongside it go sideways, and two cars T-bone into that. Two cars behind them slide forward that are dragging pipe ramps behind them, with two cars following that actually flip up in the air (this is all happening at sixty to seventy miles an hour), they flip upside down and fly through the frame along with another canon car behind that, which goes sideways and blasts over the top of it, followed up by a jack-knifing truck coming across with intermittent cars amongst all that.

We did the pre-viz on that, and it was amazing how it was being put together, but to watch it unfold was like a ballet. It was like poetry everybody just flowed together, all the moves were at the right places. We did it twice – the first one was perfect – both of them were spot on, exactly the way we wanted to do it, and nobody got hurt. It was amazing, it was beautiful.

To watch the preparation of my team in the morning, everybody getting in their cars and rehearsing it. When you’re going to do something that big with that many vehicles, everybody has to have somebody help them get in their cars with their belts, and there was a certain comradery about what was going to happen. As we got ready and I gave them the thirty minute notice to be ready, you could feel the level start to come up. You’re lucky if you get one of these gags at a time, like one car flips, or two cars flip, or one crash, at any given time. To have a series of seven or eight different crashes in one sequence, or one shot, along with all these other people who it’s intricate where they have to specifically be, along with the cameras and everything else, you just felt the level. I would start at the back of the cars and walk forward, and everybody’s level (I’m getting goose bumps right now), everybody’s level just started coming up and coming up and coming up.

There were two minutes to go then you heard it, it was like Daytona, the cars started up. We had a certain amount of distance to do the stunt in, so I started everybody well down the freeway so they had close to three quarters of a mile to get ready. Everybody was getting up to speed, and you could hear them all lining out, finding their positions. Everybody had mikes underneath their helmets, so they were listening for the aborts or whatever was going to happen, and as we made the final turn to go, it was like the green flag going down, and here they came. Then, boom, boom, boom, they all just started going off and turning over the top of each other and wrecking, as we finally, the last in the camera cars, go round the corner, there was just a tire rolling down the freeway, and debris spread out like that. As I came back around the corner, people were crawling out of cars, and all their safety people were pulling the guys out of the cars and cheering with hands in the air. It was quite a birthday party.

MATRIX: The wheel spinning off – was that planned?

R.A. RONDELL: No. We had a couple of cars that were completely destroyed, they had full cages in them, so the guys were totally safe. But the debris… the freeway walls are nineteen feet tall, there were people on the outside of the freeway just listening to what was happening, and there were actually pieces of cars flying up into their view and then disappearing behind the walls. Debris was scattered out for about three or four hundred yards, nothing but torn up cars and debris.

MATRIX: What massive amounts preparation did it take to create that multiple smash?

R.A. RONDELL: We just designed what I wanted to see. First of all, Larry and Andy [Wachowski, Writers/Directors] had ideas about Trinity’s car – it was all about Trinity’s car – and the crashes behind Trinity were really an afterthought, they weren’t to be featured. It wasn’t like we were laying cameras on the ground and the car was going to crash here. They wanted to be on the subject, which was Trinity and Morpheus, making their move, and seeing the carnage and the havoc that they wreaked behind them. We designed it so that when she’s making swerves with the cars, all these things were happening, like cars were flipping and going up into the air to be above roof heights, so we’d see them, but it was just a subtle thing back there we weren’t really featuring, it was all part of the composition. It worked out really well. We had plenty of time and space to do it going down the freeway, so it was great.

The preparation was the same thing I would normally do for any of the cars as far as the cages, and the Special Effects Department did a fantastic job. They made the cars so safe that every one of my guys, when they got in, was going to give me a hundred and ten percent because they knew the cars were bullet proof. They had everything they wanted in them. We actually built the cages in the cars, then I came out and rehearsed a week before we shot, and then I gave everybody an opportunity to go to the Effects shop with their car and do any fine-tuning they wanted to do. If they wanted an extra bar in it, an extra belt in it, if they wanted lexan in the window, something bolted down, something taken out, they could do it then, so there were no excuses when they came to the playing field.

MATRIX: You used an interesting choice of words when you said ‘bullet proof’, because the cars get riddled with bullets; did that affect the stunt driving?

R.A. RONDELL: No, it didn’t affect us at all. We had to do a lot of timing as far as that, especially when the twins were firing their weapons, because we’d be in mid-chase and they were doing a lot of tricky camera angles of the actual gun fire from the twins to the residual gunfire in Trinity’s car and vice versa. Trying to tie those together was a bit complicated, but it really paid off.

THE MOTORCYCLE CHASE

MATRIX: What was the next big thing on the freeway?

R.A. RONDELL: The freeway went on for quite a while, from the car chase it went to a motorcycle chase, which I think is going to be something people will never forget. Again, with the pre-viz I helped them put together a path for a motorcycle that was realistic to a point, but they wanted to push it well beyond what was realistic, that a person was really capable of doing but not so cartoony that it was unbelievable. So we had to set a traffic pattern with real cars, but allow space in those areas to put virtual cars that Trinity’s path would cross that were just nicking the bumpers, and she’s going against traffic.

When she’s doing forty miles an hour in her direction, and the traffic’s going forty miles an hour in the other direction, it’s an eighty mile an hour impact, and she’s totally exposed – she’s on a motorcycle and she’s packing double [carrying a passenger]. Debbie Evans [Motorcycle Stunt Trinity] was just amazing. She was laying this bike all the way over on its side like a road racer, just going in and out of cars and through trucks and all around them, and laying all that out with Visual Effects with markers to do the exact pass they wanted her to do so they could put their virtual cars in there. It’s going to be a ride for the audience, I think the audience will be totally exhausted when the sequence is over.

MATRIX: How many cars were on the freeway?

R.A. RONDELL: As far as background cars and everything else, we had as many as a hundred and forty, with another thirty, thirty-five stunt cars at one time, which fills 1.4 miles both sides continuously. During the bigger stunt sequence, we had all thirty-five or forty stunt cars working and chasing and sliding and crashing amongst the hundred and twenty-odd cars. As many as twenty or twenty-five big rig trucks were involved, and the motorcycle of course. There was always something going on, there weren’t any dead spots in there at all. The freeway was really deceiving because it’s huge and it’s small too, when you think about what the size of it is, but when you get on there and all the traffic’s moving and the lights work and everything, you swear you’re on some metropolitan freeway. In the middle of nowhere you’ve got people going off off-ramps, on-ramps, overpasses… so many things going on you’re just amazed.

MATRIX: Cars are not necessarily small props you can move around and shift; what kind of massive orchestration is the car choreography?

R.A. RONDELL: It actually worked out really well. They designed the freeway, then we sat down to think about it, because one of the concerns I had for the brothers, as far as patience was concerned, was how long it was going to take us to reset. The way it worked out, with two off-ramps, two on-ramps and of course the east and west sides of getting on the freeway, we would do big circular motions with the background traffic and we got it down to resets of six minutes. We could reset a hundred and fifty cars in six minutes, with everybody lined up. So by the time the brothers got back, reviewed the tape, and we said reset, we were ready to go again. I was anticipating these twenty, twenty-five minute resets, which can be very painful, especially for their patience and wanting to get ready to get going, and they weren’t waiting on us for the background at all.

All the local background players were really great; they had their own camps! It was amazing, there were people in between shots playing music, there were massages going on, there were friendships – it was like a whole gypsy camp going on – and they were all great friends. Ten weeks later on Second Unit, we were still on the freeway, and these people were all still there smiling. On the last day of filming they all fired up their cars and drove down the freeway waving, doing a parade lap for their last run down the freeway. They probably put about two or three hundred miles on this freeway, always in really good spirits, they were all really happy to be here.

MATRIX: I know some of the cars are now being destroyed; do you deal with any of that?

R.A. RONDELL: No, that’s transportation. I just get in ‘em, drive ‘em, wreck ‘em and leave ‘em.

HONG KONG WIRE TEAM

MATRIX: Were you at all involved with the Park Set?

R.A. RONDELL: The Hong Kong wire team designed the whole fight sequence, all I was involved with was helping them get the rigging they needed put together inside there. I also brought an American rigging team in, which was nice how they complemented each other. The Hong Kong team deals basically in hand pulls – sheaves, ropes and wire – which they’re really great at, but the US team brought some machines, some power winches, decelerators, air ramps, and ratchets they hadn’t really seen before. We showed this equipment to the Hong Kong team back at Venice Beach in the training center, and they were interested in it, so I brought these guys along for some other things I wanted to do that were non-fight oriented. Then they got a taste for what the Hong Kong team was doing, and they started designing some things around it, so I brought them over to the Park Set. They did some amazing travelers, where Neo is flying and doing somersaults thirty, forty feet across the Park Set.

So I helped them with that and, as far as being a liaison for the wire team as well, I talked to the Art Department. We made the floor out of quarter inch rubber matting painted like cement – we incorporated that in so it wasn’t as rough on the stunt players or the actors while they were fighting. I did things like that as well as helping the Special Effects department, helping the fight team get the pieces they’d need from whatever department was necessary. There’s a certain language barrier, in that they have certain ways they work in the Orient that are different than the Americans are accustomed to. So I worked with them, and I knew what their needs were from working with them, and I would go ahead and go to the departments and be a liaison for them.

MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to work in Asia at all?

R.A. RONDELL: No I haven’t. I’d worked with a few of these members of the wire team on a previous film, and I got a feel for what they were doing. I’ve worked in other countries before, and not that our way is the right way and theirs is the wrong, but there are different styles of how people ask for things or expect things. I tried to help foresee the things they needed well in advance, so they had what they wanted. It was production wise, and it wasn’t offensive to anybody, which it can be when you’re a last minute person, not for any other reason than you put another department on the spot when you say, “I need a coat right now for this shot”. “Well you didn’t tell me you needed a coat. I would have bought you a coat, if I knew in advance.” That’s just a poor example.

As I saw how their training and their rehearsals were going, and working with Chad Stahelski, who is Keanu’s double [and the Martial Arts Coordinator] who works with them a lot, I would help him force the issue with them a little bit about what they really needed well in advance. That meant I could go to the proper departments and get anything built or made or purchased for them. I also worked with production about the amount of time these guys really needed to rehearse: Were they over rehearsing? Were they taking too much time? Were they getting enough time? Everybody has their own preconceptions on how something should be done, and sometimes production is production – they’re not really aware of how much time or how much money or whatever it really takes to make it right. So what I have been doing is also kind of like producing, to an extent.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: We covered this in your first interview, but could you recap what brought you into the film industry.

R.A. RONDELL: I’ve been working for twenty-six years, actually twenty-seven years this August, I’m a third generation stuntman – father, grandfather, and brothers in the industry, as well as cousins and uncles. So there really wasn’t anything else I was going to do. I come from an athletic background, so it was pretty natural for me to fall right into it. My father taught me everything he ever knew as far as athletics – motorcycles or skiing or surfing or whatever. I spent a lot of time with him, I was a set brat; I used to go to the sets to watch what happened and why it was going on. I went to most of his training areas when he was teaching other people, so it pretty much was a natural progression for me.

MATRIX: Do you remember any of the earlier movies your dad worked on?

R.A. RONDELL: The Devil’s Brigade, Beau Geste, Hellfighters, he started in ‘57 or ’55, or whatever. As a kid, six and seven years old, I would go on distant locations with him, and he would sneak me into the bar fight areas and put me up in the high perimeters so I could watch all the stunt guys do what they were doing. The grips would take care of me up there, or the electricians, or whoever. The movie and entertainment industry, in general, is a really good family. I mean, we’re a bunch of gypsies, and we run all over the place and do some wild things, but it is a family and I was glad to be born into it.

MATRIX: How young were you when you did your first stunt?

R.A. RONDELL: I actually didn’t do my first stunt until I was seventeen years old, although I was asked if I wanted to participate younger than that, but I really didn’t have an interest at the time. I was surfing, flying my hang-glider, riding my motorcycle, and basically faking my way through school, making enough money doing odd jobs to go skiing or do whatever I wanted to do. Then from my motorcycle background I got approached to go do a commercial, so I got my A card [Screen Actors Guild Card] to do this motorcycle commercial. My then senior in high school, David Ellis, our US Second Unit Director as a matter of fact, was [stunt] coordinating a film called Baby Blue Marine, and he asked me if I wanted to come up and double jam Michael Vincent swimming in McLeod River. So I went up there and swam the river, then started working – I got right out of high school and never looked back. I coordinated my first film when I was nineteen, and have been a working stuntman ever since.

MATRIX: In the time you’ve been working in the industry, what are some of the changes you’ve recognized in the Stunt Department?

R.A. RONDELL: Everything has really become highly technical. First of all it used to be, hit the door through the window and go to the ground – you didn’t look at it, you didn’t prepare it, per se. You might have scored the wood, or something like that, but it was pretty much just hitting the ground. Now it could be no door there whatsoever, Visual Effects blasts the window out, and you go through to a rubber mat. It’s changed along the way, but the biggest thing is the audience has become so sophisticated now, they’ve seen everything. So there are certain stunts that are always going to be those kind of stunts, but now we try to put a certain flair on them, to try and give the audience a little more of it is what the challenge is now.

MATRIX: When you watch a film, do you tend to pick it apart stunt-wise?

R.A. RONDELL: Yes, we’re all critical, and if that’s my department, of course. But I go to movies to be entertained, some people look at movies and thumbs down hate something, saying, wasn’t that terrible. If I’m entertained for ten minutes, it’s worth it, if there’s something in there that’s a ride. If you’re looking at the action anyway, that entertains me, I’m satisfied. Everybody’s expectations get way too high, and then you lose sight of what it’s about – it’s entertainment.

MATRIX: More recently, what projects have you done prior to The Matrix?

R.A. RONDELL: I was on Exit Wounds, Steven Seagal’s picture prior to coming here. I did The Patriot two years ago, which was a pleasure, it was huge and that was a lot of fun. Godzilla. My biggest break, or what brought me from medium-sized movies to doing A-scale movies was Waterworld, I was on that for over a year, had two birthdays on the same film. I had fifty-five guys on my staff for seven and a half months, and that was huge, all on water. It had its own set of problems, that was a huge challenge.

MATRIX: How do THE MATRIX sequels compare to the past A-list movies you’ve worked on?

R.A. RONDELL: It’s right up there, and it’s just been a real pleasure. This crew has been great, everybody is fabulous, and the brothers are cool. It’s huge, I think it’s bigger than I’ll even know. I’ve been part of it, but it goes well beyond anything I’m even privy to, as far as what they’ve got in store for it with editing, and more visual effects and other things that are secret. I’m sure I’ll be totally amazed when I see it.

MATRIX: What did you think when you read the scripts?

R.A. RONDELL: They’re great, I loved the first one. I mean, it was a real page turner when I was reading it. Of course I was really digging into the action, that’s where I was concentrating the most, but I think people are really going to enjoy it.

MATRIX: Had anyone prepped you about the action going on in those scripts?

R.A. RONDELL: I had no idea. I actually had to read it in the office and not let it go anywhere, so I had to read it really quickly, just to get it to go. I actually had my interview with the brothers and had no idea what the movie was even about. No idea, it was a total cold reading.

What was your reaction to reading some of those stunts?

A lump in my throat. How am I going to do that? Are they insane? When I’m first reading a script, I think practically, so that was the thing about the visual effects – I thought, how am I going to do this, there’s no way! How’s this going to take place? It took me about three or four times going through it to really digest it to a certain point, and then hours with the brothers. They put a certain confidence in you right away, because they tell you how they’re going to do it. They’re very, very knowledgeable, and they were very specific about each shot. If you asked them, they would tell you how the element worked, whether it was referring to in-camera or a visual effect, whether it was real time or a composite, or whatever it might be. They were pretty quick to tell you, and being a visual effects movie pretty much, you have free rein. I’ve been on plenty of films where they have no visual effects budget or very little, here it’s pretty much whatever you can dream up, or however you want to work it, you have the ability to make it happen.

MATRIX: Thanks R.A.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2001

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply