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For stunt coordinator Rob Inch, 20th Century Studios’ The Last Duel was a full-circle moment. Before making it in the stunt world on such projects as The Bourne Ultimatum, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Black Widow, Inch spent his early career working as part of a touring medieval troupe, traveling to theme parks throughout the U.K. to sharpen his skills.
So when he got the call from frequent collaborator Ridley Scott for The Last Duel, he drew upon that knowledge to help craft battle scenes, including the climactic, drag-out fight worthy of the film’s title.
“It was taking me back to my roots because ultimately that’s my background,” explains Inch.
The medieval drama stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris, two former friends put at odds after de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of rape. As recourse, de Carrouges and Marguerite demand a trial by combat.
Scott, who worked with Inch on Prometheus and The Martian, charged his stunt coordinator with creating a duel that would have layer upon layer while also including space for his leading men to bring their dramatic skills to the forefront.
“I’ve got such a good shorthand with him that he lets me have at it. I kind of go away,” says Inch of his relationship with Scott.
Inch and his team got to work, spending two months developing the fights and filming a test version of the duel to show Scott and Damon, who also is a producer and screenwriter (alongside Nicole Holofcener and co-star Ben Affleck) on the film.
“Matt was like, ‘That’s it. I have no notes. That’s it,’ ” recalls Inch, who rarely gets a reaction like that right off the bat. “Normally with a pre-vis, you would do a round robin of three passes at least. And it has to go back to the drawing board several times.”
Scott had one change for the team that was historically inaccurate but made the duel easier for the audience to connect with: He asked that the men’s faces be visible through visors that only half-obscured their faces. Inch, initially, wondered if it was the right call.
“We could keep their helmets on because we could use stunt doubles,” Inch recalls thinking.
But, as it turned out, his leading men were more than game to learn the choreography and did much of the fight themselves, with their competitive nature pushing each other to do more and more.
“Adam Driver never likes to have a stunt double,” says Inch, who worked with the actor on Star Wars. “Matt is driven by that, and he wants to do as much of the action as he can.”
Driver and Damon trained hard to learn the choreography — both with the stunt team as well as with their personal trainers, who were aware of the types of moves they’d be executing.
Next, Scott had two weeks to film the duel. The first week was for the jousting section of the fight that largely was performed by doubles. The next week was Damon and Driver fighting on the ground and swinging axes, swords and knives, all while wearing heavy armor.
“Ninety-five percent of the work on the floor is them,” says Inch, who notes that having actors spend a week in armor was physically tiring, which made the end product better. “It’s actually what would have happened when they are fighting in plate armor,” says Inch. “Most of the stuff would become bludgeoning blows because everybody was tiring so much.”
While Inch and Scott had two weeks to film the climactic duel, the three other battles in the movie were shot under a more compressed timetable of one or two days each — with only a day or two in between. Complicating matters, The Last Duel was shut down during the pandemic. When production resumed, it was important the large battle scene be made as COVID-safe as possible. Inch and a group of 20 stuntmen quarantined so they could limit the number of people who would interact with Driver or Damon during the shoot.
“We choreograph and pre-vis every battle but also do not overload Mr. Damon with too much information to make sure we could focus on one battle,” says Inch. “Once we finished on that battle, we focused on the next battle, and then we were focusing on the duel.”
The film’s first battle is depicted twice thanks to the Rashomon-style storytelling showing it once from de Carrouges’ perspective and once from Le Gris’ — in which each man feels he saved the other. The stunt team found a river in Ireland that they dammed and added a concrete base to so horses could gallop through it.
“The logistics of that was quite tricky,” says Inch. “We shot over a day. It’s super intense. We ultimately had 50 people there. We smoked it up and made it very mysterious.”
Any stunt coordinator will tell you the goal is for each fight to tell a story, but it’s unusual for the fight to be the crux of the actual story. That’s a challenge Inch looks back on fondly.
“The climactic piece is the duel,” he notes. “That’s the total of the movie, and you’ve got to make sure you get it right.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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