It is often said that fight scenes in movies resemble dances more than actual fights. It’s a sentiment Clayton Barber certainly endorses. “It’s really a violent ballet,” says the American The Independentwhile reflecting on his 30-year career in film and television – a career during which he has worked as a choreographer, stuntman and actor.
In recent years, two of his most prominent choreography credits came to the 2015s Rocky spin off Believeand the latest part of the series creed 3. Following its release this month, the third installment in the spin-off trilogy secured the most successful opening weekend in the history of the Rocky franchise, and it has grossed $182 million worldwide at the time of writing.
The movie how Believe and 2018 creed 2, playing Michael B. Jordan in the lead role of Adonis Creed, also marking the 36-year-old’s directorial debut. Starring alongside Jordan is Jonathan Majors, who rose to fame this year for his portrayal of Marvel villain Kang, aged 33 ant man 3.
Barber talked to me The Independent about what it was like working with Jordan and Majors and what it takes for a “violent ballet” to find its rhythm.
You have practiced martial arts since you were young. Were your existing skills sufficient to choreograph boxing, or did you enlist the help of professional boxers along the way?
I think my martial arts experience always helped me in Hollywood because when it comes to fight choreography, whether you use your fist, your feet, or a weapon, it’s always the same story: a violent ballet. Boxing is by far the hardest in my opinion because it’s not lying – two people in the ring with two fists and a square each. The setting dictates the story, and it’s difficult to be original and truthful.
I like to bring real boxers to help the actors with the basics of training. They bring truth and trust so I can focus with the director on the story, the camera, and the characters. Real boxers act as trainers and security blanket in setting up the fight.
What’s the first thing you say to someone working on a fight scene for the first time?
“Don’t worry, trust the process and the team and we will guide you.” I look them in the eye and say, “We will sweat, suffer and bleed together.” That is the journey and the expectation for all of us. We shake hands and conclude a contract of success. Then I hug her tight and say, “Let’s get to work!”
How quickly did Michael B. Jordan get used to this style of choreography in the first film and what was it like? Jonathan Majors at this movie?
Michael is now a pro at this. He’s been doing this for 10 years and three films with this character, and he’s basically an expert in choreography and performance. I’ve never worked with an actor who had better movement memory or a stronger work ethic. It’s amazing to look at and makes my job a little easier.
Jonathan Majors was new to a boxing film, but he hit it head on and embraced the journey. We called him “the machine” because he never left the gym. He was there from morning to night, always working on something. He still wanted to do one more round, one more replay, talk about the story and try to find magic. Kudos to these guys for their work ethic and dedication. They really were the perfect couple for this film.
What are some of the most difficult elements for you and also for the actors involved in these scenes?
One of the most difficult elements for me is getting everyone to join this process. After getting my directions from the director, I go out and write the physical and visual language, like a rough draft of a screenplay.
Once we agree on that direction, I need to get production design, props, makeup, wardrobe and all on the same page. Cameraman and DP are the most important partners for my work. My goal is for the operator to be on the same team as the stunts, so we work together and rehearse everything.
When everyone knows the plot script, the actors are comfortable, the cameras are ready, and so on. This is a very efficient way of working, because time is not your friend in production. Magic happens when you prepare, prepare, prepare. There is only a certain number of takes that you can ask the actors to do before they run out of gas.
What are some of the funniest items?
The fun is when that process works, and I see everyone grow and do something they really thought they couldn’t do. Then the journey is real.
Are there any stories that stand out from the shooting? creed 3when it came to the fight scenes?
I really couldn’t believe what happened while we were shooting. I knew something special was happening to Michael’s vision for the film and I believe they did too, so Michael and Jonathan pushed each other hard. But they never went under. At the end we all looked at each other and said, “This just happened!” We suffered through this journey together and embraced it. Much credit to these guys for what they have done and been through.
Many people say that fight choreography is more like dancing than fights. Do you agree with this analogy or would you summarize it differently?
Yes, fight choreography is more like a dance than a real fight. It really is a brutal ballet. Everything has to be rehearsed, memorized and executed a thousand times, because the movements have to work perfectly to be safe. All departments need to come together, top down. When the two actors dance together in this process, you find true magic.