Square up with ‘American Badger’ director/stuntman Kirk Caouette
Kirk Caouette has been dazzling audiences for 25 years. As a stunt performer, coordinator, and choreographer, Caouette’s work has appeared in blockbuster hits like Elektra and the second and third X-Men films. As a writer, actor, and director, Caouette is responsible for the indie film Hit ‘n Strum and the thriller American Badger, where he plays a tortured hitman. American Badger premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in March 2021.
Caouette melded his stunt and directorial expertise with American Badger, as the film boasted an impressive roster of 120 stunt performers. He’s already hard at work on the sequel, titled American Velvet, which is set for release in September. Film Daily was fortunate enough to chat with Kirk Caouette about his legendary stunt career, his shift to directing, and his plans for the future. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your history with stunt work. How did you start your journey?
I started stunt work way back in 1993. I was living in Whistler at the time and I was competing in extreme sports. My friend told me that he met a real life Hollywood stuntman in Vancouver who was there working on a movie. This was pre-internet days, so it was difficult to find information about it, but eventually I discovered that Hollywood was shooting films in Canada. I said goodbye to Whistler and moved to Vancouver to pursue a career as a stuntman. My first jobs were all snowboarding, skateboarding and mountain biking.
Do you have certain routines or exercises you do before you perform a stunt?
I don’t really have certain exercises or routines before I do a stunt. Over the years I have sometimes been in incredible shape before a stunt, and sometimes I am dealing with multiple injuries and various weaknesses. When you do it as long as I have, you learn to adapt to whatever is in front of you.
The body language of a character can communicate a lot. How closely do you work with the actors on matching this body language?
A good stunt double should have a solid understanding of the script and the character. They should collaborate with the actor and understand what physicality the actor wants the character to convey — not just in the action scenes, but even how the character walks and stands. A good stunt performer helps bring the character to life.
What have been your favorite stunt assignments to date?
I am best known for my work on the X-Men franchise and various superhero type films, but my favorite project ever was called Los Luchadores. It was a Fox Kids series about Mexican Luchador wrestlers. We spent most of the time in the ring doing silly movies and flipping each other around. It was hilarious because it was a kids show and nobody took themselves too seriously. It only lasted one season, but it was the funnest season of television I’ve ever had. We all had tears in our eyes when we said goodbye.
Who are some of the notable movie stars you’ve worked with?
I have had the privilege of working with most of the major Hollywood stars. Vancouver is the best place on earth to shoot action films because our talent pool is huge and the government is very accommodative. The list of stars I’ve worked with is a mile long, but my favorite people are probably Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Garner, and Halle Berry. Halle is an absolute gem.
What would you say is the most difficult part of being a stunt performer?
The most difficult part about being a stunt performer is the uncertainty of absolutely everything. You never know when your next job will come. You never know for sure what a stunt is going to be until a few minutes before the cameras roll. You can be mentally and physically prepared and then have everything change at the very last second.
It is the only job in North America with a 100% injury rate, so you never know if you’re going to leave work with a smile on your face or leave work in an ambulance. If you are someone who likes a routine or job security, then being a stunt performer is definitely not for you.
You wrote, directed, and starred in the indie film Hit ‘n Strum. Did you always have plans to get behind the camera and tell your own stories?
I always knew I would transition from stunt performing into writing and directing. But it hasn’t been easy living in Canada. I wrote my first script when I was still a teenager and my 2nd script when I was 23. My 2nd script was optioned by Lionsgate when I was only 24. It was kind of amazing really. I have been writing now for 31 years! I wrote a few really good screenplays, but in the old days when you told a Hollywood agent that the writer/director is a stuntman, they would laugh you out of the room.
They would laugh even harder if you were a Canadian. There has always been extreme prejudice in America against Canadian actors/writers/directors. I don’t blame them really… the movie industry is the same as every industry in America — everything is outsourced —we’ve stolen all their jobs. By constantly pushing the narrative that all Canadians are useless, it safeguards American content creators and the celebrity culture.
Funny really, since a disproportionate number of the biggest stars in Hollywood are Canadian. Keanu Reeves, Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, and dozens more — all Canadian. If you choose to live in Canada and you want to be a director, you really need to just step up and start making films yourself. Or move to LA… yeah, no thanks!
Did you pick up any tips on the set of blockbusters X2: X-Men United & Elektra that you were able to apply to your own film?
Not many people know that the vast majority of the action in action movies isn’t directed by the director. The stunt department directs it. Much of the time the director isn’t even there, even though they take full credit for it. Actors do all their own stunts and directors shoot all their own action — haha, yeah right!
Oh the magic of Hollywood! I think because I was both an experienced screenplay writer and an action director, the transition to the main unit was easier than most. If you know how to shoot action, but you don’t know how to write a story, then you probably shouldn’t be directing the main unit.
Your second feature film, American Badger, recently premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival. What was the initial inspiration behind the project?
American Badger recently premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival. The film was very much inspired by the earlier works of the legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. Not many people in America know who he is, but the European Film Critic Society has rated his film In the Mood for Love as the greatest movie ever made.
In his earlier, more experimental films, I loved how he combined slow moving film noir with explosive action scenes. I love how his movies almost feel like an impressionistic painting. I’ve never seen anything like it in American cinema, so I wanted to play with the genre and see what would happen.
In addition to writing, directing, and acting, you led a team of 120 stuntmen on the set of American Badger. Is that the largest stunt team you’ve ever overseen?
On American Badger we had a massive stunt team. I have stunt coordinated a few comic book franchise films, and if I’m not mistaken, the stunt team on American Badger was bigger than any Hollywood film I’ve ever coordinated. Pretty amazing really, considering our budget was less than 1% of a comic book film.
Has directing improved or changed your approach to stunt work at all?
Directing indie feature films gives me insight into all the different aspects of filmmaking. When I’m working on set as a stunt person, I know when a director is going to get their day and when they are going to sink. My job is to help them get their day. And I think editing has made me a better stunt performer because when you spend hundreds of hours editing, you really do learn a lot. When I started as a performer I didn’t even look to see where the cameras were. Now all I think about is how to make it look good for the lens.
Your upcoming film, American Velvet, is a sequel to American Badger in that it tells the same story through a different character’s eyes. Did you always plan to make a companion film or was this something that came about organically?
My next film American Velvet stems from a concept for a project that I came up with many years ago. I remember once, after going through a bad break-up, I heard my ex-girlfriend was trash talking me behind my back. From my perspective what she was saying was totally false. Her point of view was obviously very different from mine. The feeling inside my heart sparked an idea for a film where I would tell different versions of the same story told through the eyes of opposing characters.
The idea was of course shot down because it is too expensive and too difficult to market, but while we were editing American Badger it became apparent that this could be my opportunity to do it. We did a couple reshoots and then I split the film down the middle and made two completely different versions. The story in American Badger is like sitting in a room and having the Badger character tell you his version of what happened.
American Velvet is like sitting in a room with the Velvet character and hearing her version of the events. I think it is a fascinating concept. It took enormous creativity and a year of post production, but I’m very happy to say that it worked. American Velvet is in sound design right now and will be released later this year or early next spring.
Do you think your experience as an actor and stunt man has made you better equipped to deal with actors?
My experience as an actor definitely helps me connect with other actors on set and offset. I have empathy for their journey and for their suffering. When I am training an actor for a fight scene, I can more easily recognize where they are at mentally. I know how hard to push them and how to coax a physical performance out of them if they are insecure. If you want to understand someone, walk a day in their shoes.
Who are your biggest filmmaking influences?
Wong Kar Wai would start shooting a film and half way through, if the film wasn’t working, he would change the film completely; he would throw away the story and keep shooting until he came up with something that worked. This highly artistic approach created several masterpieces. It is truly fascinating how great scripts often make really bad movies. What we read on paper is just a rough blueprint and our imaginations fill in the blanks.
But what the camera captures is almost never what we have in our imaginations. Wong Kar Wai knew this better than anyone. This type of filmmaking isn’t really possible anymore, but understanding his creative process definitely helps us understand the true art form that is filmmaking. But heck, I still love a good Michael Bay action flick. And pretty much every Pixar film ever made is a masterpiece. So my influences are very broad.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I had several people in stunts who I would call mentors. I don’t think anyone could survive and thrive in the stunt world without having someone show them the ropes. But as a director I haven’t had a mentor of any kind. It is very difficult for a Canadian to have a mentor because 99% of the directors on set are Americans. Plus most directors are barely making a living — only about 2% of the directors in the guilds are working at any given time.
Given your career background, do you think you’ll always incorporate some element of stunt work into the films you direct?
Managers, Agents, Publicists all want to brand me as an action movie director. And I get it — action films make a lot of money. But I also have a deep burning desire to continue telling stories. I would be the perfect candidate to helm the next X-Men movie, but I would be just as passionate to direct another micro budget film that brings something beautiful into the world. Ultimately, I will focus my passion for filmmaking on what is in front of me… whatever that may be.
What would you consider to be your greatest success?
My greatest success, as cliché as it sounds, is when I was given the humanitarian of the year award in 2017. It all started ten years earlier when I had pushed myself to the brink of extinction doing stunt work. One day I finally collapsed, had a seizure, and was rushed to the hospital. I focused the next two years on recovering and while I was unable to work I began teaching fight choreography to my colleagues. What started out as a few guys jamming and training, turned into full blown classes.
I wasn’t charging anything at first, but then I asked my students to make donations to their favorite charity before they could come to class. Out of the classes spawned the Film Fu Foundation. Over the course of the last ten years we’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars to help earthquake victims in Haiti, provide money to drill fresh water wells in rural Mozambique, and open an animal shelter in Vietnam. I have never taken a penny for my time. No amount of success in the world feels as good as giving.
What advice do you have for aspiring directors and stunt men?
If you want to be a stunt performer you really need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Be prepared to be constantly working with injuries, constantly working without sleep, constantly putting yourself in harms way for a paycheck. And realize that there are no awards, no recognition, and no studio or TV Network in the world wants to acknowledge your existence. Oh yeah, and wear a helmet.
Finally, what do you consider to be the most impressive stunt of all time?
It is impossible to say what the most impressive stunt of all time is — because the most groundbreaking stunts 30 years ago are now commonplace. One of the most impressive stunts I’ve ever seen was a gag my friend Rob Hayter did. He did a stunt where a car slid sideways into him at high speed. He just had to stand there and not move. It hit him so hard it looked like it killed him. I mean he literally flew. He hit the pavement and cartwheeled across the ground.
Then he got up, dusted himself off and walked away. Soon after that he stopped performing and became a stunt coordinator. I can’t imagine why! It’s a gnarly way to make a living. I wish the industry knew more about the stunt department. The physical abuse we take, the creativity we share, and the humbleness at the core of the profession. I really am surrounded by a lot of remarkable humans.