Esquire - Raiders of the Lost Ark is the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking because Steven Spielberg deals in optical illusions. Editing, suggestion creates energy. We see high angles, low angles, villain shots, hero shots, punches in close-up, beads of sweat punched in even tighter, then — boom — a danger-filled stunt packed in a wide frame. It's calculated and thrilling.
There aren't car flips, bare-knuckle brawling or explosions exploding out of explosions in the subdued hit Fifty Shades of Grey, and yet the film's sexual encounters speak the same language as an Indiana Jones movie. The experimental passion that erupts between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and bondage connoisseur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is artful and precise, building sensations out of implication rather than sustained, gratuitous moves. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson comes from the visual art world, where her body of work has been praised for examining "the split between being and appearance, often placing her human subjects – either singly or in groups – in situations where the line between interior and external sense of self is in conflict." That's Fifty Shades too, a meticulous orchestration of portraiture and movement, cobbled together with Spielberg bravado.
Like Raiders, Fifty Shades is a movie where the stunts make or break the action's magnetic quality. To believe Christian and Anastasia's relationship is to buy Dornan and Johnson in the Red Room, ties, floggers, and anything else in play. To execute these physically and emotionally involved sequences, Fifty Shades recruited stunt coordinator Melissa Stubbs, whose resume includes The Last Samurai, the X-Men series, stunt-doubling for Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the upcoming Terminator Genisys and over 25 years executing stunts for jobs big and small. Speaking to Esquire from Los Angeles, Stubbs likened the sex in Fifty Shades to a coordinated fight scene, planned and ingrained in the actors' minds.
"It was a lot of working with Sam Taylor-Johnson and the actors, getting to a place where [Jamie Dornan] could play dominant," Stubbs said. "They wanted it to look realistic and keep it true to the book. So my purpose was helping the actors to get there without hurting them. My job description can be anything to a martial arts teacher to rolling a car. This was a completely different thing. It was about helping the actors getting to where they needed to go."
Stubbs recalled that she and the Fifty Shades team spent two weeks researching and developing a layout for Christian's Red Room, learning what accessories their lead character would keep in his home and weighing each item's visual appeal. In a mock Red Room layout, Stubbs became her own Anastasia stand-in, engaging with various setups to see how they would play on screen. The stuntwoman worked with a bondage tech advisor that instructed the production on tools, devices, and ropes used in regular practice. Stubbs and the design team toiled over the simplest knots. "We played with them, [finding] visual ideas for Sam," she said. "If you look at Sam's work as a visual artist and photographer, you'll see interesting images of human art, physical art, of subjects hanging."
There's only so much that a stunt team can fake when a scene requires two bare actors and a series of rough maneuvers. The rack where Christian hangs Anastasia had few modifications, save for some off-camera comforts. The duo's actual "play" couldn't fake contact. Props had to move like real bondage toys to give Taylor-Johnson options in the editing room. Stubbs worked with prop master Dan Sissons to design whips that had soft leather or rabbit fur tips to avoid hurting Johnson, or leaving a mark on her. Takes involving Dornan and Johnson varied from calm to quite violent (a salaciousness that rarely shows its face in the finished film).
Stubbs couldn't laud Johnson's commitment to the Red Room scenes enough. "She was completely naked and vulnerable," said Stubbs. "It's fine if it's an intimate setting with your actor and director, but you have an entire film crew in the room. There were shots where she was flogged, but in the most gentle, controlled manner possible. It was a tough couple of weeks for her."
While the glimpse of a whip may provoke audience reactions, many of Fifty Shades provocative beats were dependent on Dornan and Johnson's performances. Body language was as important as bodily reactions. Stubbs talked about a scene where Jamie crops Dakota to stage combat. "If someone gets punched, we don't actually punch someone," she said. "It's a swing and a miss, but the use the actor's reaction sells that they were struck." Very little of the sex in Fifty Shades was "blocked," leaving intimate movements up the actors and their character motivations. Stubbs said that there was pre-shoot training, but it was all in preparation to work "freestyle," ingraining this behind-closed-doors acts into the actors' repertoire. "My job is not how to tell Jamie how to move sexually," she said. "It's his decision and a private one."
As a stunt coordinator, Stubbs was on standby throughout the shoot, a pair of eyes who could step in when a move wasn't working. She could offer alternatives, descriptive explanation. "Sometimes you're a fly on the wall and gently get them pointed on the right direction from their character point, from a safety point," she says. Dornan and Johnson's simulated moves had to look convincing, and, even more importantly, they had to be repeatable. Each shot could take four hours.
Despite surface appearances, nothing in the Red Room was as painful for Johnson as one of the film's minor, fully-clothed moments. When she walks into Christian's office for the first time, Anastasia takes a nasty pratfall on to the marble floor — which was completely real. "That's 100 percent Dakota and she probably did 23 takes of falling on her face to the ground." Stubbs thought Dakota was anticipating the fall, losing the spontaneity of the gag. The more takes she did, the more mechanical it became. So, knowing Dakota was committed to making it work, Stubbs hid behind lens, grabbed her foot, and assisted her fall. "It's the little things that can be the most difficult sometimes, and not making things more than they need to be," Stubbs says. "[Dakota] is a trooper. She was fully committed."
Stubbs' contributions to Fifty Shades of Grey are hard to trace. She prides herself on it. A move that went too soft could pull a viewer out of the movie and have them questioning the core relationship. Too hard of a hit sends the movie into camp territory, a movie that's about bondage as opposed to challenged by the lifestyle. Like Spielberg's whirlwind car chases, the sex in Fifty Shades just… happens. And, with the film killing it at the box office, it'll likely happen again. Stubbs says, if production sticks the course, cameras will roll on the Fifty Shades sequel in June. Whether the coordinator be on board a second time is uncertain, but she expects the on-set stunt methodology to remain the same: Work safe, work smart, and above all else, sell the illusion.