Article by Stunt and Fight Co-ordinator Tony Wolf

The Legend of William Tell was an 16 episode fantasy action/adventure series produced in Wellington for the European 'kidult' market. Loosely based on the exploits of the Swiss folk hero, it was actually closer to Hercules in terms of style and look, with a slightly more futuristic edge.

I was assistant stunt co-ordinator and senior fight co-ordinator for the show, in addition to stunt performance and occasional doubling for the lead actor, Kieren Hutchison. We were actually brought in after production had started! Initially there were some issues to deal with vis-á-vis the production company, who were not familiar with the fight rehearsal requirements for an action-heavy show. The first few episodes reflect this to some extent. After a while, though, things settled down and we were able to produce some good work.

Most of the action consisted of fight scenes, with some horse and fall work. A unique challenge was developing a screen fighting technique for the 'deathwands' which were 'crystal' batons employed as energy weapons in hand to hand combat by the villains - imagine a cross between a cattle prod and a light sabre - and which were actually too fragile to be struck against another weapon, leading to a great deal of creative dodging on the part of the heroes. We also had fun with fantasy broadswords, some quarterstaff, a lot of unarmed, and an episode called 'Gladiators' ('Combat') which features some weapons I designed.

Even lacking the luxury of a second unit dedicated to fight scenes, we were happy with the finished product and look forward to further work in the same genre…

Posted on THE ACTION INSIDER - Wednesday, 12 August 1998

Question and Answer with Tony Wolf

Q: How long have you been in the film business? Are you working on anything right now?
Tony: My first feature film job was as a stuntman in Peter Jackson's "Brain Dead", a cult horror movie released in North America as "Dead Alive". I think it still holds the record as the goriest film ever made. That was in 1989 or thereabouts. Right now my work is divided between fight and stunt co-ordination for features and TV, teaching stage combat and physical theatre through acting schools, and fight directing for plays. I'm also working on another series by Cloud 9 (the WT production house) - this one is called "The Tribe", a sort of Mad-Max-meets-Lord-of-the-Flies futuristic adventure series for teenagers.

Q: Where was the series filmed?
Tony: Various locations and studios within Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand.

Q: Do you happen to know how many episodes were filmed?
Tony: I think there were 16 in all.

Q: Did you have fun working with the actors and actresses?
Tony: In general, yeah. Sometimes we were pressed for time, in which case we had to get right down to business. I was impressed with the cast's professional approach to the fight scenes - they had very little prior experience in any sort of stage fighting or stunt techniques, but most had some experience with martial arts, dance, or other movement disciplines, so they picked up the techniques very quickly. We always stressed that the fights were like exclamation points in the script, which served to bring events to some sort of climax or spin the story off in a different direction. The cast appreciated that the fights were opportunities to act, rather than just being "action for the sake of action".

Q: How long would it take to film a fight scene? I imagine it would vary a lot.
Tony: That depends on a number of factors: the complexity of the scene as it's written in the script, the available shooting time on the day, the amount of prior rehearsal time (crucial!), whether stunt doubles were required for any of the action, etc. By way of example, the final broadsword duel between William and Xax took a full day to shoot.

Q: I read an article that someone had posted from you (see left). In it you mentioned that the deathwands were fragile. What were they made of to be so fragile? And what were some of the things you had to do to work around that in the fight scenes?
Tony: The deathwand blades were made from perspex, so that they could glow when activated - they looked great, but they were brittle and surprisingly heavy. The handles contained a concealed activation stud and a battery pack. Our original brief was that the deathwands could stun with a strike or kill with a thrust, and that only Xax, Kreel, and Xaxian Warriors could operate them. Later we saw William and Aruna master the wands as well. Becauseof the weight and fragility issues, I developed a style in which the wands were never used to block attacks, nor were they ever blocked with another weapon. In practice, this meant a lot of creative ducking and dodging, or parrying with the free hand or forearm, which in turn leant the fight scenes a unique look - fluid and evasive, rather than the high impact, sword to sword style you'd see in Xena or Hercules. I wrote a manual, "the Beginner's Guide to Deathwand Fencing", and passed copies around to the cast and stunt crew to keep a continuity in what the weapons were capable of and how they should be used. So what began as a "style" born of necessity actually developed into something of a motif for the show,and also served to underscore the lethality of the deathwands.

Q: In the same article, you mentioned that you had designed some of the weapons in the "Gladiators" (Combat) episode. Which ones did you design? Where did you draw your inspiration?
Tony: The script called for "sticks and spears", but I felt strongly that we should develop something that offered some unusual possibilities. After all, you're dealing with an alien culture here - actually, several alien cultures. In terms of the weapons for that episode, I contributed the designs for the metallic nets (based on Roman retarii gladiators), the spiked gauntlets (also inspired by ancient Rome), the t'ang-lash (my own name for 8-foot ropes tipped with weights, vaguely based on South American bolas)and a number of small combat shields similar to Elizabethan era bucklers. I think there was also a single-handed, broad-bladed battleaxe in there somewhere. We consciously avoided anything resembling Asian weaponry, because it was felt that they would clash with the show's Fantasy/Medieval European flavour. Also, because the gladiators were in training, it didn't seem logical to give them swords or other deadly weapons. The spiked gauntlets were quite popular with the crew, although the t'ang-lash was my favourite weapon - I was hoping we'd get another opportunity to feature it.

Q: Speaking of designing weapons, who designed Will's crossbow? And what was the inspiration for its unique shape?
Tony: I assume Will's original bow was designed by Dan Hennah, the production designer. I don't know if he had any historical precedent in mind, or if he just liked the look. Fans might have noticed that Will sometimes flips that bow around with the shaft projecting along his forearm, so he can use it in hand-to-hand combat. That was something that Kieren came up with in our early training sessions. The larger, more elaborate crossbow that was introduced later - it might have been in "Doppelganger", I'm not sure - was actually supposed to have been lost or destroyed at the end of the episode, but Kieren liked it so much he arranged for it to replace the original bow.

Q: What's the strangest/funniest thing you remember happening on the set?
Tony: This isn't really strange or funny, but it was kind of cool. It was Katrina Browne's birthday, and the wardrobe and makeup people gave her an amazing action figure of herself as Aruna. I guess it was a Barbie doll or something originally, but they'd obviously spent hours creating an exact copy of her costume in miniature, and an in-character hairstyle and makeup effect ... it was really a beautiful gift.

Q: In your article, you mentioned that the deathwands were made out of prespex. What exactly is perspex?
Tony: Probably a local term, I don't know the American equivalent ... it's a kind of transparent resin that can be molded, in this case to resemble crystal.

Q: Did any of the actors get hurt in doing any stunts or acting?
Tony: No, they were very careful. Anything that was overtly dangerous was handled by stunt doubles. They did perform most of their own fight scenes though.

The Legend of William Tell © Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment / CLT-UFA / RTV

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