Mark Bedell is well known in the film industry. If you don’t recognize his name, you may recognize his work in TV shows like “Alias” and “24” or movies like “The Eighteenth Hour,” and even locally from the Haunted Mansion at Funtown/Spalshtown USA.
Still don’t recognize the name? That may be because Bedell is a stunt coordinator, working with actors and sometimes acting himself in fight scenes to coordinate the explosive punches, kicks and flips that look dynamic onscreen but don’t actually hurt.
This weekend, Bedell will be teaching two courses on staged combat at Acorn Studios in Westbrook, one for children and one for adults. Bedell spoke to the American Journal about his classes, how he got his start and some techniques he uses when on the job.
Q: What are your connections to Westbrook and how did you link up with Acorn Studios to put on these upcoming workshops?
A: The origins of Acorn Studios were Oak Street Theater in Portland. Mike Levine made that theater a success, but he was not the first to run it. It started with Mark Mannette in 1991. I installed his original lighting grid, I fight directed all his shows and generally helped him out the best I could. Then Mike Levine took it over and under his direction it blossomed. I did many, many shows there as a director, fight director, actor, tech director, FX coordinator, FX make-up artist and probably more that I’m not thinking of. Mike and I have been friends and colleagues since he took over Oak Street Theater. When he moved to Westbrook, I moved with him and in 2006 I started the Maine Academy of Staged Combat at Acorn Studios.
Q: Tell us a little about what a staged combat fighter does?
A: Well, you’ve all seen it. Anytime you’re watching a play, a movie, a television show, in some cases even a documentary and there is any type of personal conflict in the story, that is staged combat. Sometimes there doesn’t even need to be a fight. Physical comedy, falls, trips, etc., all fall under the realm of the “fight director.”
If a weapon is used, it needs to be used appropriately for that character. For instance, if an accountant is unwittingly thrust into a gunfight and picks up a dropped handgun, that person is probably not going to handle the weapon correctly. So in the case of that character, not correct is correct. But if a character is a police officer or current or former military, there is a very specific way that weapon will be handled. That specific “way” depends on the time period. You correctly handle a weapon differently in 2013 than you did in 1972. Punches need to sell from the audience or camera perspective, but not actually make contact with any face punches or kicks. There’s a different technique for every angle. Chokes and neck breaks use a system called “negative resistance.” This will be covered in the intro class. Then there is taking punches. Taking a punch or kick is an art within itself. There are so many factors and techniques and different methods that I don’t even know where to begin. If you want those secrets, you’ll have to take the intro class.
There is a lot of misdirection in what I teach. Nowadays, everyone is making an Internet series or short, but they do what they think stunt people do and I hear every day about people getting needlessly hurt on amateur sets. What we do does not look like what we do, that’s the whole point of it. So trying to do what you think it looks like is an accident waiting to happen. Those who study with me don’t have that problem.
Q: How did you get in to staged fighting?
A: Oh my, set the Way-Back Machine to 1981. Remember the Haunted Mansion and Funtown USA? If you don’t you’re probably under 30. When I worked there, everyone else just jumped out and scared people. I would swing across the “dungeon” on a chain, fly off and rattle the bars. I’d do dynamic falls on to concrete and when people thought I was really hurt I’d jump up and terrify them. Those were good times. In 1985, I performed a fight in City Theater of Biddeford’s “West Side Story.” That made me the most qualified person to fight direct a sword fight scene with wooden Scimitars in the Children’s Theatre of Maine’s “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” also in 1985. My career continued this way. I started real training in 1999 and continue to learn. To date I’ve studied with the best fight directors and stunt coordinators that New York City or Hollywood have to offer; that’s one of the reasons I’m a good staged combat teacher. I’ve had to change my own “style” so often that now I can fight in any style: left handed, right handed, European, Asian, American Indian, and any time period. I can adapt to give justice to that style of fighting. I don’t teach any one style, all styles have their uses.
Q: What type of training goes in to becoming a performance fighter?
A: Anything and everything. Martial arts is great, but be prepared to lose some bad habits many martial artists have. Gymnastics is very valuable. Studying any musical instrument helps with timing and detail, dance helps with flexibility and knowing your body in its space, acting is, of course, of necessity. There are lots of actors who aren’t stunt people, but all stunt people are actors.
Q: What are some of your favorite scenes from your career?
A: Film wise: “Tears of the Sun,” “Ray of Sunshine,” “The Eighteenth Hour” and “Trapped” have some good fight stuff. Television: “Alias,” “24” and “Numbers” all feature some of my work. Theate: There are many, but one that stands out is Heartwood Regional Theatre’s “Macbeth” that just closed this past May. I got to work with some awesome actors: Chris Davis and JP Guimont and they brought my fights to life beautifully.
Q: Is your focus now more on teaching or are you continuing to put on performances?
A: I keep trying to retire as an actor and stay a trainer and coordinator, but I keep getting called to perform. The last three big stunt shows I did, I was not supposed to perform in but wound up in the lead role: “The Wiley West Stunt Show” in Minnesota, “Pirate’s Voyage” in South Carolina and “Buccaneers” in the Dominican Republic.
I’m nearly 50 now and while I still have the moves, all those years of landing “not quite right” (before I was properly trained) do take a toll. I keep saying “yes,” though, so we’ll see. My untrained years may have taken a toll on my body but it makes me a better teacher/coordinator. I have students all over the U.S. but in Maine my top students from 2006 to 2011 were Ned Donovan, Benedetto Robinson, Andrew Silver and Charlotte Brooks. I had other students, of course, but these were my die-hard students. All of them are now working as fight directors and staged combat teachers. Next summer we will all be entering five different fights in the national Staged Combat competition in Ohio.
Q: Do you have any upcoming performances?
A: I’ll be coordinating fights and perhaps be appearing in a fighting role for the “Pirates of the Dark Rose Battle of Camden” at the Windjammer Festival in Camden this Sept. 1. After that I’ll be doing a western feature in Georgia for a major cable network.
Q: Have you ever been injured on the job?
A: Some, but mostly my injuries were done in training and not in performance. By the time I get to performance I generally have the “bugs” worked out. None of my students have ever been injured from staged combat or stunts in any way, bruises and small nicks don’t count.
A CLOSER LOOK
Mark Bedell will teach two stunt classes at Acorn Studio in Westbrook this weekend. A student class takes place on Saturday, Aug. 24, from noon-4 p.m., and an adult course is offered on Sunday, Aug. 25, from noon to 4 p.m. Classes are $50. For more information, see www.acorn-productions.org or call 854-0065.