‘Belfast’ Stunt Coordinator Talks Being ‘An Action Designer’ For Films

James O’Donnell’s stuntman resume includes many of the biggest names in action: James Bond, Jason Bourne, “Game of Thrones,” “The Dark Knight,” “Harry Potter,” Marvel. As a stunt coordinator he’s overseen movies from “Kick Ass” to “The 355” but he also revels in more story-driven projects like “Stan & Ollie,” “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and, most recently, Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical “Belfast,” which was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture.

For O’Donnell, who also worked on Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Belfast” feels personal. While he was raised in England, his mother is Protestant from Northern Ireland while his father is Catholic.

“My Nana didn’t go to my mom’s wedding and some close cousins returned the invitations writing, ‘The curse of a mixed marriage’ and ‘Don’t do it,’” recalls O’Donnell. “Later, during the Troubles, I had relatives still in Northern Ireland and I remember my mom saying, ‘Your aunt had a bomb outside her house’ or ‘There was a shooting down the road.’”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is your job different on a movie like “Belfast” than an action movie?

I’m listed as a stunt coordinator but what I am is an action designer. My job is to interpret the script and the spirit of what the director wants, whether it’s a big action movie where we’re blowing stuff up or on a movie like this. For Ken, every second of the film must have meaning to the story. He thinks very deeply about these things. Action movies are pure entertainment, but the discipline is the same.

There’s not a lot of actual violence in “Belfast” so that opening scene really has to loom large in the viewer’s mind. Ken wanted to look at this from a 9-year-old child’s perspective. He described the opening scene [when Buddy sees the approaching rioters] to me as sounding like buzzing bees. Ken was 9 and had never seen real violence before. As he came around the corner it really sounded like buzzing bees and when he saw everyone he first thought it was some sort of a parade. Then suddenly a petrol bomb blows up.

We were re-creating what Ken witnessed. He had a vivid memory of someone smashing a drain cover. I smashed a family’s window during that scene — he knew a family who had that happen. My job was easy, I’d get everyone ready and then Ken would say, “Yes that’s how it felt,” or “Can we do more of this or that?”

We did shoot some fighting but Ken took it out in the edit because it really was more about destroying property, creating chaos and fear.

The climax of that scene is the blowing up of a car. Was that the biggest challenge?

The car was an issue — we only had one go at blowing it up. So there was a lot of planning and preparation. David Watkins, the brilliant special effects supervisor, Ken and I had discussed the best angles to shoot from. And we planned everything in manageable chunks, knowing we could stitch it together later — all three of us were always ready to say “Stop the sequence” and re-set, knowing we haven’t got the money for a second try.

The car didn’t have an engine in it. We had a real car drive around the corner and then we replaced it with the special effects car, which we towed in, keeping the van just out of camera. We put all the sound on in post.

The big moment at the finale is when Buddy’s brother flips a brick to his dad who throws it, knocking the gun out of Billy Clanton’s hand. It’s not your typical climax. What went into that?

Ken loved cowboy movies and wanted it to feel like classic standoff. It’s the only bit not from his life — it’s a metaphor for how he felt. We had a few options for this moment but landed on this. The toss and throw were quite easy. I had the hard part — I was off camera throwing the brick at the hand with the gun. We used a soft brick, but it couldn’t be too soft because you’d see that. I had to hit the gun with the brick. I must have done 23 takes. But eventually you get it right.

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