'Arrow' Stunt Team Breaks Down 'Braveheart'-Esque Season Finale Action Sequence

Fight coordinator James Bamford and stunt coordinator J.J. Makaro dive deep into what it took to create Oliver's (Stephen Amell) season four finale battle with Damien Dahrk (Neil McDonough).
Bettina Strauss/The CW

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's season four finale of Arrow, "Schism."]

When it comes to bringing larger-than-life action sequences to life on TV, few can compete with Arrow. And yet, The CW's first foray into DC Comics fare has yet to receive any major awards recognition for its movie-quality stunts.

"We don't get the same kind of exposure that other shows get," stunt coordinator J.J. Makaro tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We made great headway in doing that, but it's a pretty big hill to climb."

Fight coordinator James Bamford agrees with Makaro that the show's network, The CW, might be to blame. "We're not getting as many pairs of eyes as, say, a Netflix show. It's just a numbers thing," Bamford says. "We're definitely competitive with every other action show on television, but people have to see it. Forget winning an Emmy, it would be nice to be nominated for an Emmy. (Laughs.) I'd settle for a nomination."

Both Bamford and Makaro cite the fast-paced schedule of a TV show as their biggest foe when it comes to pulling off the action sequences Arrow has become known for.

"Our bosses know that having these action sequences and stunts are a key element of the show so it's out of their desire to have as good of stunts that we're giving them where they help us accomplish what we need as efficiently as we can," Makaro says. "My knowledge has doubled from my time on this show because we're constantly doing more and pushing ourselves more to accomplish more."

Despite the timing and budgetary challenges they face constantly, Bamford reveals they have not yet failed to create a stunt or action sequence they've set out to accomplish.

"A few times last season we had to go to everyone and ask for more time, and they gave it to us and we were able to pull it all off," Bamford says. "But who's to say? Maybe next year, with all the challenges they throw at us, they might finally make the bar a little too high for us. But that's always our goal: to try and outdo what we've already done in episodes previous and seasons previous."

Arrow is a unique show in the fact that most of its actors have taken on the stunts themselves, adding an increase in risk management on set. Star Stephen Amell constantly posts videos to social media of him taking on dangerous parkour workouts to add authenticity to his onscreen stunts. 

"We're very safe with the actors and we make sure the environment they're working in is safe so they can give their all and just focus on the acting," Makaro says. "But I'm constantly worrying that someone is going to get hurt somewhere, so I'm always watching out for that. God willing, we're just going to keep going with the safety record we have."

Bamford adds, "We're going into our fifth season now and just the sheer number of punches thrown, I've lost count. Our safety record is very clean, especially with our actors. But it is a very high action show, so people get bumps and bruises. It's accepted. It's part of the deal. As far as major injuries go, we are few and far between."

One of the biggest action sequences Arrow has ever shot was for Wednesday's season four finale, "Schism." The final showdown between Oliver (Amell) and season four's big bad villain Damien Dahrk (Neil McDonough) took up more than an entire act of the episode, and included hundreds of extras.

Below, THR got Bamford and Makaro to dive deep into what it took to bring this complicated and layered action sequence to life. 

When did you first start planning out the choreography of that scene?

Makaro: First we all get together, and we have a writer's room mentality as soon as we get a script. A group of five of us read it and analyze it and come at it from different ways. What shows have done something like this before? How can we do this in a new way? What would be cooler? All rules are out the door. We have to do that, because this show is going to go forever and we can't just do the same things over and over.

Bamford: As soon as we get a script, if we can, we get a beat sheet early which outlines the episode and gives us a fair amount of ideas as to what we're to expect. If we get a beat sheet early, and if we're told it's pretty close to the end script, like one or two episodes early, we start getting wheels turning and working on conceptual ideas. We don't start real choreography or building or rehearsing bigger stunts until we have a firm script and we've gone through the script together in a brainstorming session. We have meetings with our directors and our writers and our producers. Once we gather all the information and added our own special flavor and make our own suggestions, then we start the rehearsal process.

How long do you rehearse each episode's sequences before filming begins?

Bamford: That can be anywhere from a week and a half away from the shooting day to three days before the shooting day. We try very, very hard to ensure that we have the time allotted to plot our action out, both successfully and safely, for choreography of fights stunts to wire work, sometimes for car stunts. It really depends on the locations available to us and what we're prepping. This particular showdown had several layers to it. The first thing after our meetings, J.J. and our whole team made our way down to our proposed location. We had gone searching for locations with our director John Behring and our locations department and picked several different city streets for what had the best scope and look and where we could accomplish our wire stunts sufficiently and get the largeness that a finale deserves. Once we mapped out a general game plan or war plan, we then go away and start working on the individual pieces within the battle plan.

Quite often then I'll go and work on the choreography, Eli [Zagoudakis] will go and work on the wire work or the high falls, and at this point, we've all learned how to read each other's minds. We're all interchangeable. This scene starts out with Damien Dahrk magically throwing Oliver around the street and wearing him down to the point where he basically is trying to teach him a lesson by giving him a beating before he finishes him off. Character-wise, Damien really enjoys the pain that he's giving out. We have several wire stunts, four to be exact, and they're all different. They are the introduction to the main battle, the fight between the two boys. While Eli was out planning all the different throws that Damien does to Oliver, I was out choreographing the mano-a-mano fight between the two boys, Damien vs. Oliver.

But this scene had so much more than just Damien vs. Oliver. What went into planning out how all the extras fit into that action scene?

Bamford: Yeah, the fight then ends up being the whole city of civilians including Diggle and Lyla vs. Damien Dahrk and an army of his ghosts as well. But the main core of the fight, of course, is Damien vs. Oliver in the center of it. We always start with the core fight, the hero fight, and that was designed purely as a one-against-one battle. As we progress and that fight is solidified, then we start layering in where the rest of the battle will go, proximity wise. We get there on the day, and we had only two days to do this. This is one of the times we required more time than originally expected, since this was a very, very, very big sequence in scope. It's like a feature film-sized sequence with so much wire work. We're all extremely proud of what we accomplished here. It's some of the best wire work we've done in the series. After the fight begins, the two boys begin fighting, fisticuffs wise. And then the rest of the city and the ghosts show up and it becomes a major battle sequence. Braveheart, if you will.

Makaro: This action sequence is a good example of the support we get from everybody. It's the biggest crowd scene battle I've ever seen on television and it just goes on forever. I'm looking at it right now trying to figure out what pieces I can put in our Emmy submission reel and the thing is just so massive and long. I want to put it all in but it almost takes up the whole reel by itself. There's not a moment of it where you're not interested in watching it. You never get tired of it or want the scene to end. You just want to see more. It's a really well done piece and I couldn't be prouder of how it turned out.

Bamford: The multiple layers just keep going on and on. We had a certain amount of stunt performers within the center core of the fight, with our two heroes fighting, several civilians fighting several ghosts, and then we had a lot of extras, and quite often that is the most difficult part. We had hundreds in this sequence.

Why are the extras the most difficult part in planning out the scene? I would think it would be the other way around.

Bamford: Extras aren't allowed to fight. So the trick of that is to blend the extras in in some capacity into the action while keeping them safe, and to maintain the intensity of the scene. We spent a lot of time studying crowd scenes in other TV shows and movies to learn a lot from what other people haven't done. I myself am particularly very cognizant of issues that we don't want to repeat or see within our action. We want to make sure there is nobody just standing there. There's a famous scene in Scarface where there is one little man in that riot scene wandering around with a two-by-four, just swinging at the air, walking back and forth. I pick him out every time I watch that film. I use that as an example of action with no reason behind it. I bring that up whenever we put together a huge crowd scene like this. I don't want to see any wasted motion. You can really tell, in a crowd with hundreds of people, if one or two people aren't fighting, or if one or two people aren't engaged in some form of intense movement. They stand out like a sore thumb.

Makaro: In the midst of planning out every little movement, you always have this fear that you're going to miss somebody and then they'll get away with it. But as soon as the cameras stop rolling and we start editing, your eye is just drawn right to it. Those are the flaws we try to hide and try to keep from happening.

Looking back at the process of pulling off that intense and lengthy fight scene, is there anything you would change about it if you could?

Makaro: Huh. (Pause.) Normally I have an answer for that right away. I'm very critical. But there is nothing in this one that I can point at, and I've been looking at it really, really hard for the last three or four days, and I can honestly say that I'm totally happy.

Bamford: For me, there's one or two really tiny things, but not anything that anyone would notice other than myself. But I'm continually critiquing our work, so I'm never 100 percent happy. It's painful sometimes for me, because I want to be able to walk away and go, "Yeah, that was fantastic!" I did in this instance, but the more I look at it, the more I'm extremely proud of it, but what if we had three days instead of two days? If we could have more time, that would be great.

Makaro: We always want more time. In the feature world, you get more time to polish and polish and polish. There's something to be said for the little intricacies you discover when you have that time. You discover more nuances within the action. So if we had more time, who knows what else we could accomplish? But the strength we have developed with the team that works on Arrow is that we can polish way faster than other people have in feature land. We came in with a feature attitude and make bigger, more creative decisions. We've managed to cut down the error in the trial and error so much that things go a lot faster for us now and you can see that on the screen.

Bamford: We've already encountered any and every issue you could encounter pretty much before going into it, so we really make the best use of the time we do have. We've eliminated problems before we get there, quite frankly, because we've already encountered them before. We've become much more efficient, out of necessity.

Makaro: And pride.

Is there one fight scene or stunt from all four seasons of Arrow you are most proud to have pulled off?

Makaro: I have about five, but my opinion on how I judge them now is more about the scope of the complete sequence instead of just the gag itself. Like this scene, the action takes up an entire act, or even an act and a half. To be able to deliver that kind of quality of work that fast, that we can actually fill a whole act with it, I'm so proud of that. There's one scene we did with two actors running through a building while it's collapsing and it was so hard to do something of that magnitude on television. That's where time gets in your way, but James pulled it off like a champion.

Bamford: There is one that's really close to my heart because it's a shot that I've wanted to do for years, and we finally got to do it this year in [episode] 407. I really can't narrow it down to just one for so many reasons, but if I had to pick one, I'd pick the elevator fight, because that was a real triumph for me personally.

Arrow returns for season five this fall on The CW.

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