Working Hollywood: Crossing swords with Brian Danner
Film and TV watchers best be on guard. Swords have become a weapon of choice for Hollywood, where blades are flashing in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Showtime’s “The Borgias” as well as movies including “Thor,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Your Highness” and “The Three Musketeers.”
“It comes in cycles, but recently there’s been a bigger upswing,” said Brian Danner, owner of Sword Fights Inc., specializing in combat training, fight choreography, weapons, costumes, battle reenactments and ready-to-rumble stunt actors. (He also owns Best. Party. Ever., which provides themed entertainment for children’s events.) “The ‘Pirates’ movies are out; the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies a couple years ago really did a giant thing for sword fighting; and now with everything being super heroic and fantasy, people want to learn how to fight.”
Those people include Natalie Portman — the warrior princess of “Your Highness” — and musketeer Logan Lerman, who each sharpened their sword skills with Danner before heading to the sets. Throughout the years, Danner has also worked with Russell Crowe, Paul Rudd, Sandra Bullock and Madonna, to name a few of his most coordinated protégés.
For Danner, there are three stages of training — footwork, defense and offense.
“Balance is the first thing,” said Danner, who honed his sense of equilibrium by growing up as a gymnast and wrestler. “I’ll teach an actor or stunt person how to stand properly in the en-guarde position, and then I’ll teach them footwork — advances, retreats, crossing forward and crossing back, lunging. And they learn footwork before they even get a weapon in their hands.”
In phase two, Danner’s students must resist the natural human urge to pick up their swords and swing wildly — even though this is a lot of fun.
“What we want to do is curb that instinct and make sure he or she knows the proper parries — a parry’s basically a block, how you defend yourself,” he said. “Universally, there are about eight or 10 parries. One starts at your left leg, two goes to your right leg, three goes to your right shoulder, four goes to your left shoulder. That’s if you’re a right-handed swordsperson.”
Phase three is offense, which consists of cuts using the edge of the blade and thrusts using the tip. Danner focuses on safety, encouraging his students to think of sword fighting as a violent dance done with a partner, not an opponent.
“It’s a strategic dance, for sure,” he said. “It’s almost like human Tetris. If that hand’s going to go here, then I need to move that body part back because I don’t want to get hit there. I’m just not going to dip my partner at the end if I’m doing a sword fight.”
Learning these techniques can be a lifelong pursuit: Danner began sword fighting when he was cast in a theatrical production of “The Madman and the Nun” at the University of Texas at Austin and hasn’t stopped his blade-slinging since. Still, he tends to have a relatively short time to train actors — ranging from 15 minutes to a few months. For “Your Highness,” he worked with Portman for a week, and his daily sessions were under two hours each.
Luckily, Portman was in the right frame of mind for violent dancing when she trained with Danner: She was simultaneously doing hours of daily ballet in preparation for “Black Swan.” This gave her an advantage in the footwork department as did her training with Danner before in preparation for a Japanese shampoo commercial.
For “Your Highness,” Danner taught Portman to wield a broadsword, a two-handed, thick-bladed medieval weapon, ranging from 3 to 6 feet in length and forged in bronze or iron. “Braveheart” used a version of this weapon called a claymore, which Danner called “a really big sword.”
Broadsword technique favors thrusts over cuts.As a warrior princess, Portman had to move quickly and aggressively, but Danner caught glimpses of her softer side.
“Natalie has the greatest little dog in the world, and he’s such a bundle of energy,” Danner said. “There were times when if we were training, he might run through every once in a while and bark or just look so adorably cute. And watching her go from this super awesome warrior princess to this loving mom of this little puppy was just such a great split. That made me giggle a little bit.”
“The Three Musketeers,” set in 1625, focused on rapiers — shorter, one-handed swords with hand guards. “Sometimes you have a bell cup on top, which looks like half a bell that sits above your hand,” Danner said. “Sometimes you have just a plain knuckle guard, which looks like a capital B shape over your fingers. And every once in a while, you’ll get what we call a swept hilt, which has a cage around your hand.”
Danner also trains using lighter weapons such as the three typical fencing swords — the foil, saber and epee. He recently taught Rico Rodriguez to fence for an episode of ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Megan Nguyen, Danner’s student and a member of his combat team since 2003, considers sword fighting a fun, empowering way to apply her dance background. “We fight with broadsword, cutlass, rapier, dagger, longsword, shortsword, katana, quarter staff — all kinds of weapons both Eastern and Western style,” she said. “My personal favorite is the rapier and dagger. I’m very light on my feet and very quick. The rapier and dagger is like the ‘Princess Bride’ — more finesse, more grace.”
For combat team practice as well as the shows that he equips with weapons, Danner relies on blacksmith Tony Swatton from Burbank’s Sword & Stone, who uses shiny, light-weight aircraft aluminum to make easy-to-wield blades. Occasionally, Danner also uses rubber and wooden swords for safety.
While swords can be divisive — in more ways than one — Danner likes to focus on how they bring people together.
“When I teach at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (where I’m the director of stage combat), I always start off by letting the students know that despite their races, despite their religious beliefs, despite their cultural backgrounds or their sexual preferences, every one of them has an ancestor who at one point dealt with an edged weapon,” he said. “It’s always been in our history. The same can’t be said for jet fighter planes or machine guns or missiles. So the thing that I absolutely love about it is it’s a common thread for us.”
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