Photo Credit: Ali Goldstein/Netflix
This is the second entry in our Iron Fist on-the-sets articles. The first part is a conversation with Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick, the stars behind the two main characters – Danny Rand, and Colleen Wing. The second part, below, discusses the action sequences, costumes, and making of the sets.
If you've seen the first trailer for Marvel's Iron Fist, you might have missed the shot of Colleen Wing – played by Jessica Henwick, Game of Thrones’ Nymeria Sand – duelling it out with a katana in heavy rain at night. We don’t blame you; that particular scene appears for a split-second on screen, and it’s not as eye-catching as some of the other moments in the two-minute trailer. But for the cast and crew, filming it was a complex affair, with each take requiring multiple minutes.
For one, it involved the use of multiple rain machines to simulate the look the showrunner Scott Buck and his writing team wanted. And two, Henwick and her fight partner were performing their stunts using wires, to augment their physical capabilities and give the scene a grander look, along with the Bethesda Fountain in the background.
Both those things present their own problems, and more so in conjunction. Where rain machines operate with a delay, owing to how they function, with the water making it tougher for the actors to move about freely, the wire-work puts synchronisation on the forefront. If your jumps are off by even half a second, the audience can sense that something is clearly wrong.
And even though Iron Fist makes heavy use of martial arts, Netflix insisted from the get-go that it had to be grounded, to fit the nature of its other Marvel properties. "They didn't want it to seem like it's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” series stunt coordinator Brett Chan told Gadgets 360. He has previously worked on Marco Polo for Netflix, and also served as second unit director on Iron Fist, in addition to fight choreography. “We have very little use of wires, so that we can keep it very grounded, and use the performance of our doubles."
For the aforementioned scene, Chan added, it was the actors themselves who did all the leg work: “And they have done the whole fight themselves, which is fantastic.” Henwick had to work hard to be able to do that, taking part in aikido classes in England the moment she got the role, and learning to wield a katana once production began in New York.
Creating memorable fight sequences
At the same time, Chan had to provide something that would elevate the action beyond what audiences have already seen on shows like Daredevil. "That is the million-dollar question,” he noted. “It is very hard, especially with the different minds of Marvel, and Netflix. What makes it easier for us is the fact that we've created a personal style.”
The Iron Fist style, essentially, is a fusion of different martial arts from around the world. Chan hired people on his stunt team to ensure variety – there’s karate, judo, ninjutsu, capoeira, and silat among other influences. “We have a good mixture,” Chan added, "so it doesn't look like it's a karate movie, or it's a kung fu movie. Every character has something a little bit different to offer, and it gives a little bit of flavour to the show.”
His team also drew on other work they like, such as The Bourne Identity, The Last Samurai, Dragon Tiger Gate, and tons of other Korean/ Chinese films. To bring it all together, Chan was assisted by co-stunt coordinator and stuntman Simon Rhee, who has lent his talents to Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Westworld, and Jessica Jones in the past.
The Marvel-Netflix collaborations prior to this have had some memorable fight sequences, from the hallway fight scene in Daredevil season one and the stairway sequence in season two, to the Crispus Attucks Complex raid in Luke Cage, laid on Wu Tang Clan’s hip-hop hit Bring Da Ruckus. Asked if Iron Fist would have one of its own, Chan thought for a second, before saying yes. When we visited in September, the scene was still at the rehearsal stage – it’s a long sequence, and involves 30 people – but you can now catch a small glimpse in the trailer.
Choreography in 4K HDR, and the usefulness of spandex
Before the scene is shot on a live set, it’s Chan’s responsibility to craft a complete mock version, down to the exact camera position. “So when the script comes out, we have six to seven concept meetings between Netflix and Marvel,” he said. “And then the director comes into play. With the showrunner, they will decide how they want it to go. Once they tell me, my team will conceptualise what the fight looks like. And once they agree to that style of fighting, once they agree to the choreo[graphy], we will go and shoot it. We will shoot our angles, we will have a full short-list, and we will give it to the director.”
Beyond that, Chan added, it’s up to the episode director to decide whether he follows what the stunt-team provided, or sees fit to alter it as he wishes. And with different directors on most episodes, as is the case with TV productions, they have to juggle “all those different visions”, he said.
It can take hours to shoot mere minutes of edited footage, what with the multiple camera angles, the number of characters involved in a scene, and having to factor in the presence of newest technologies – Iron Fist will be available in 4K HDR, which means even the smallest of infractions can end up being glaring. For costume designer Stephanie Maslansky, though, it’s a case of adapting the clothing.
"Because of all the fighting that happens in these shows, we have to customise the clothing they wear,” so the actors can freely move around, she explained. Maslansky has earlier worked on Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the first season of Daredevil, so she clearly knows what is required. “I mean, everybody doesn't just show up in spandex and sweatpants all the time. If they did, it would be a lot easier,” she adds, with a laugh. “But a lot of these characters have big fights in suits, or blue jeans with leather jackets."
To provide flexibility to the clothing, Maslansky and her team make the use of gussets, diamond-shaped pieces of fabric that can be stretched all four ways. Those are then dyed, or painted to match the colour and fabric of whatever the character is wearing, and then inserted in the places that matter most, such as the groin region, or the armpits. Sometimes, they’ll even rely on larger-sized shirts, and then place pads underneath.
“You really have to help these actors out, and the stunt-people out, in order for them to be comfortable, and be able to do the kind of movement that stunts require,” Maslansky noted.
From Midtown to Chinatown, all in Brooklyn
Like all Marvel-Netflix shows before this, Iron Fist too is set in New York. There’s an obvious reason to it, as the two studios are building towards the summer get-together Marvel’s The Defenders, which unites all of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, to fight a bigger enemy.
Danny Rand is the man with the iron fist. He’s played by Finn Jones, who’s also a Thrones alum like Henwick. Rand returns to the US after fifteen years, during which time he was assumed dead, thanks in part to a plane crash. Instead, he was the lone survivor.
Rand’s late father was the founder and owner of Rand Corporation, with his friend and partner Harold Meachum (David Wenham). The company is now run by his children, Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey). “In the Marvel world, [the company is] pretty much on par with Stark Industries, so we've to give it a really, bold strong look, to feel like it's a place of some architecture and design that would befit a multi-billion-dollar international corporation. [That’s] not easy to do on a television budget,” production designer Loren Weeks says, with a laugh. He too has worked on the same shows as Maslansky, previously.
We got a chance to look at and roam around the Rand Corporation set, and it was certainly impressive. There were a total of three offices in that set, one each for Danny, Joy, and Ward. The Meachums don’t even recognise Rand when he first walks in after being gone over a decade – in scruffy clothes, unshaven, and barefoot. "Eventually, [Danny] moves into his father's old office,” explained Weeks. “Ward Meachum has his father's old office. So there's that sort of circular aspect to it.”
Apart from the offices, the set also had a central foyer overlooking midtown New York from the forty-fifth floor. It was just a photographic backdrop though; the actual set was built on a lot in Brooklyn. Adjoining it was another set for the Meachum apartment, which in the show is "in the heart of Manhattan”. It was beautiful and extravagant, with a couple of big sophisticated paintings dressing the room, a dining table a few steps up in the back, a lounge sofa in the middle, and a private office next door.
The third and final set Netflix showed us was Colleen Wing’s dōjō and studio, which is located at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown. Weeks and his team found a real-life building to serve as the exterior drop of Wing’s apartment, which means it has an actual address – 43 Monroe St – that was even printed on business cards found on the set. In terms of aesthetics though, the dōjō and the Rand office are a complete contrast.
"So with the [dōjō] set, what I wanted to do, was keep it grounded in what she could actually afford, but also give it a sense of - like a traditional dojo, from what I could gather in my research,” Weeks said. “So I tried to introduce some natural elements, like the wood columns, [and] the exposed joints, all of which are also very typical. She also lives here, in what is basically a one-room studio apartment, again to sort of emphasise the fact that she doesn't make much money."
With the offices, Weeks relied on premium-looking materials, such as bamboo panels made by San Francisco-based Plyboo. “It's just extremely beautiful, and rich, and textured, and warm,” he added. “And because those panels are pre-finished, ready to go, it saves me labour elsewhere." Between the various sets, the differences are also down to personalities of the characters. Where Danny’s and Joy’s are warmer, Ward’s office and the Meachum apartment are much colder.
Suit and tie
Having characters who are billionaires allowed Maslansky to explore custom suits and dresses, in addition to shopping at high-end consignment stores, and borrowing accessories from great jewellery designers. “I'm a costume designer who likes the clothes to be noticed,” she said. “I don't want them to distract from the story, but I like people to be able to take in the wholeness of the character, the story, the sets."
For Pelphrey’s Ward, she looked to slim-fitting suits from Dolce & Gabbana, and Burberry, and coupled them with “very powerful-looking ties, that were wider than Danny's ties”. “Danny's look is more of an urban Cali-look, far more youthful,” she noted, “whereas Ward wore very classic-looking suits.” Pelphrey called the experience ‘amazing’ and ‘crazy’, as he’d go for a costume fitting and find these “ridiculously expensive, beautiful suits that are then hand-tailored to my body”.
“I’ve never had that much money on person before,” he said, with a laugh. “And it makes you feel different. It really does. Suddenly, you’re standing up straighter. The way you move, the way you’re handling yourself is informed.”
As for Stroup’s Joy, Maslansky went to Karl Lagerfeld, Marni, Prada, and Zac Posen, in addition to the previous ones. The costume designer remarked that she “absolutely loved” dressing Stroup, because she not only has an “amazing figure”, but the actress herself loved wearing said clothes.
With Henwick’s Wing though, she said, there’s a huge difference. “She runs a dōjō, she's teaching kids martial arts, and she has to have a look that [says] she doesn't really care that much about fashion, but about being comfortable. She's got a really cool, downtown edgy look, that's not self-conscious at all.” Henwick and Maslansky collaborated on her look, a bit more than usual because people have “a lot of opinions” about female characters.
She compared Wing’s look to Claire’s (Rosario Dawson), whom she meets and has a relationship with, as friends. “Their looks are, I think, similar. In fact, there's a certain point where," she paused, to carefully word her response so as to not reveal spoilers, "somebody might have to borrow something from somebody else.”
Translating comic books for the screen
For most Marvel fans though, the biggest question will probably be: Will Danny Rand don a costume during the season? From what we saw during our time on the sets, there doesn’t seem to be one. With Daredevil, the costume only made an appearance in the final episode of the first season, but considering we witnessed filming of parts of the twelfth and thirteenth episodes, it seems unlikely. Just like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Iron Fist might just always be seen in street clothes.
Maslansky didn’t talk about a costume either, except to say that they have incorporated themes from the comic books, in the form of certain colours, or ideas. As for the challenge of coming up with a look for Iron Fist, she said: “We are taking him from a comic book, where he's an illustration, and depending upon who the illustrator is, the illustration either looks more realistic, or looks very comic.
“And we take this guy, and try to make him into a three-dimensional human being. So that is a challenge. At the same time, I feel as though I owe a lot, and I respect the fans, who are going to be watching these shows, and have their own opinions, and are going to be very judgemental, and critical [of] what it is we are doing. And I want them to be pleased."
On Iron Fist, Maslansky added, she contributed much more of her own ideas than before. "I think that, at this point, certainly with the people we are working with, both at Marvel and Netflix, we all have gotten to know one another, and there's a trust there,” she explained. Owing to the success of the shows she’s worked on in the past – from Daredevil to Luke Cage – she feels “emboldened” to make suggestions more often.
“Whereas when I started, I was more inclined to wait for encouragement,” she added. “I've come to discover that they are really excited to hear my ideas, and more than willing to listen. They don't always agree, but there's no fighting. It's great, and I love it."
Nothing lasts forever
When we met Weeks at the end of September, he jokingly remarked how his sets always get demolished in the season finale. "[The Iron Fist set is] being torn apart right now, because, as we do on all of our series, we destroy my sets in the thirteenth episode," he said to laughter. "Daredevil season one, I was distressed. Jessica Jones, I gritted my teeth. Luke Cage, I said let's go for it."
The production designer wouldn’t be tied down to a response on whether he’d take up Marvel’s The Defenders, if it came his way. "If I were to do The Defenders, I think it would be important, clearly, a lot of the sets that have been established in previous four shows, will reoccur,” he said. “I'd think that Matt Murdoch's apartment would still be [his] apartment, Alias [Investigations] will still be where that is.”
“Although we try to give each show its own look, it was also important to maintain a consistency to all four shows,” Weeks added. “You didn't want to feel like, when you [went from] Jessica Jones to Luke Cage, that you were in a totally different kind of environment. I think the challenge with The Defenders would be, how do you give it some unique identity when you've got these four characters who have been established, in their own locales."
With the show now deep into production, we know he’s serving in the same role for The Defenders, which is currently scheduled for a summer 2017 release. One thing is for sure then – expect the sets to be blown to smithereens in the finale.
Marvel’s Iron Fist hits Netflix on March 17. If you missed the earlier entry in our Iron Fist on-the-sets mini-series, you can read it here.
Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent’s travel and accommodation for the duration of the visit.