Stage Combat is primarily taught to actors who study the art of looking like they’re beating the hell out of someone when they haven’t even made contact. When filming violent scenes, being educated in Stage Combat can come in extremely handy.

Ryan’s Daughter is a 1970 film made by epic master filmmaker David Lean. There is a scene on a beach between Trevor Howard and Sarah Miles. Prior to shooting an emotional confrontation climaxing in a powerful face-slap, Sarah told Trevor that if he felt the scene was going well, he should let loose and really let her have it. And he does. It positively looks real.

Because it is. Stage Combat was not employed.

Ms. Miles goes down. To her knees. Teetering on being knocked out cold.

Over the next couple of days, I’m betting old Sarah was rooting around for an aspirin or two.

The first time I saw Stage Combat close up, it shook me to my core. It was on the set of a movie we made called Cold Readings. Filmed in the Hampton Roads area.

I was filming a distraught couple having an argument in their parked car. The scene involves a wife being backhanded by her husband. We’d rehearsed the lines, but not the slap. They whispered to each other before I rolled tape.

“So, are we all cool on trying the physical part?” I asked.

They nodded yes. Leave it to them. They’d worked something out.

Their acting was top-notch. Their intensity was laser beam focused. When the backhand clocked in, I was convinced my male actor had violently assaulted the woman actor, especially when I saw her head snap back. He walloped her.

I lowered the camera. “Oh, my God, are you alright?”

Both of them turned to me and smiled. They’d been trained in Stage Combat. She answered, “I’m fine. He never touched me.”

How could that be? I was standing no more than 2 feet away behind the camera. It sure as hell looked real to me.

Cold Readings was shot over a couple of months in the spring of 2003. It’s mostly in black and white. On purpose. Film noir. Very dark with atmospheric lighting choices. The story follows a shady guy who becomes a fake psychic to make money, but through a series of circumstances, he gets the power for real and then has to struggle with his own morality.

The shoot was arduous. We toiled into the wee hours on work nights and put in 16-20 hour days on weekends. One of the most interesting nights centered on me dragging an actress named Virginia.

Virginia was committed. Who else would let you wrap them in an Army blanket in the middle of the night and drag them by their feet through mud, sticks, and rocks without moaning about it? Virginia is what we in the business call a trouper.

I shot a lot of Cold Readings myself, but I also had a hand from some folks that did a nice job filming when it was impractical for me to be behind the camera. One of those who did a big share of the scenes was my wife Judy. She has an eye for what looks good in the frame. She’s experienced enough with actors to know how to direct a scene and keep control of it. I feel safe when she’s onboard.

One night while filming in our kitchen, Virginia slapped me across the face. Multiple times. It was in the script. Basically, she threatens to expose me as a phony to the public and we have a big blowout fight while I’m drunk which leads to me shoving and accidentally killing her. At the height of our argument, she was supposed to haul off and slap me. Her striking me was the impetus for me to retaliate physically. The slap was critical.

I wanted the fight to begin in our kitchen, travel through our dining room, and end up in our living room. All in one take. All in one tracking shot. I did not want to cut away and subtract from the intensity. Virginia and I stood in the kitchen and Judy took hold of the camera.

I can’t emphasize enough how hard Judy’s job was. Like I said – Film Noir – the rooms are intentionally dark. The areas we filmed in were fully furnished and not particularly easy to navigate, especially when lugging a camera. Attempting not to bump into anything, and doing this while staring through the lens with limited peripheral vision, Judy slipped around us to capture moments and angles of the fight. Without interruption. Not only did she film the 2-minute sequence brilliantly, she managed the task by becoming almost invisible which allowed Virginia and me the space to be in the moment without worrying about any of the technical stuff.

It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Before we rolled, I suggested to Virginia that we just walk through it for our sake and Judy’s. We might have even filmed the rehearsal stroll through the scene. I’d have to go back and look. But I remember at the end, Virginia did a pretty light-weighted cuff that poked a hole through the emotional momentum we’d been building during the preceding argument.

“What was that?” I laughed.

Virginia laughed, too. “Sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Ryan’s Daughter and that scene on the beach came to mind. Except in this scenario, Virginia was Trevor Howard and I was Sarah Miles. I felt like getting my David Lean on. As far as I was concerned, we were going to do this for real. It never occurred to me to ask Virginia if she knew Stage Combat. In retrospect, I should have mentioned it.

I summoned my best Sarah Miles spirit. “Don’t worry about hurting me. If it feels like the scene is working, just go for it.”

Virginia added, “Also I’m left-handed and I’m hitting you with my right hand because of the way the action is blocked.”

I turned to Judy. “Let’s just change the blocking and you can shoot her from another angle to get the slap.” I was making a difficult job more difficult, but Judy adapted without a word of dissent.

We walked back to the starting point in the kitchen to shoot the scene for real.
Judy picked up the camera and turned it on.

Right before we began, I looked at Virginia and encouraged her. “Seriously, if it looks like it’s going well, just go for it. It’s okay to hit me.”

Be careful what you wish for.

There are only 2 official takes.

We started the first one. Things were going smashingly well, if you’ll pardon the expression. All 3 of us were feeling it from the kitchen, through the dining room, and finally into the living room for the culmination of the scene.

Virginia did not hold back. Her southpaw technique was killer. She cracked me across the side of my face so hard, I saw stars. That’s no bullshit. I literally saw stars. There was little acting involved in my shoving response that kills her. My acting challenge in that moment was to govern my level of emotional response. It was all I could do to keep a grip on myself.

But you talk about intense?

The scene was over. The room was hushed. It had gone that well. Then I heard Judy clear her throat.

“Umm…I’m not sure I got that. I banged my hip walking by the edge of the dining room table and I think it bumped the camera.”

You’re effing kidding me. I didn’t say that out loud, I just thought it. Directors should always at least make an attempt to remain calm, even when they’re not.

Judy suggested we use what we had since it was so good and just film a quick close-up to insert where the bump occurred.

“No, I want it all in one continuous shot,” I insisted.

Judy took another tact. “Maybe you can’t tell in the footage. It was a small bump, I felt it, but maybe it doesn’t show. Let’s look at the playback.”

We were losing the moment and Virginia and I were trying to stay on the adrenaline train. “No, let’s just go again, right now.”

We went immediately into the second take with an extremely high collective testosterone level swirling around us.

As we began the 2nd take, saying the lines made my jaw smart – it was letting me know I’d been slugged. I coupled this with the knowledge I was roughly 2 minutes away from sustaining another instructive blow to the head. But no way was I going to lose the vibe for the sake of caution. Still, there was a part of me that wished I’d signed up for Stage Combat somewhere along the way.

It took all my muster to not anticipate the slap when we got near the end of the take. I was good. I didn’t flinch. And that was tough to do, because now I definitely had a feel for what she was packing.

When Virginia slaps me in that second take, she brings it home. You can tell by the look on my gob-smacked face that the force surprises even me. And I’d already been surprised enough the first time. The second time around, I wasn’t just seeing stars, I was seeing galaxies forming through the Hubble telescope.

As a filmmaker and an actor, I’d lived a moment of great authenticity.

The 2nd time around, there were no bumps. The take was perfect, perhaps slightly better than the first attempt. We got the shot, as they like to say.

The next morning at work, the right side of my face was sore. I had to remind myself why throughout the day.

Two and three days later, I was still rooting around for Advil.

Larry Fine was my favorite Stooge. Moe often slapped him silly. In later life, Larry revealed they did not necessarily stick to Stage Combat methods. Larry got whacked a lot. Hard. In later life, the left side of Larry’s face was permanently calloused.

The comedic perfection of Larry taking a slap was that he always acted like he never saw it coming. Moe could telegraph an impending strike for miles and Larry always acted surprised when Moe scored a direct hit.

In homage to Larry, I’d like to say I was able to channel him that one time when I had to act like I never saw it coming. He would have been proud of my authenticity.

Sarah Miles is 77 as I type this. By now, I’m sure she’s been able to look back and laugh about that scene on the beach, albeit potentially only out of one side of her face.

Hey, but who cares?

As long as you get the shot, right?