I had a chance to interview with Robert Alonzo, the Filipino-American stunt coordinator who’s behind those incredible fight scenes in Warner Bros. Pictures The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Jeffrey Wright and John Turturro.
Synopsis : Batman ventures into Gotham City’s underworld when a sadistic killer leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues. As the evidence begins to lead closer to home and the scale of the perpetrator’s plans become clear, he must forge new relationships, unmask the culprit and bring justice to the abuse of power and corruption that has long plagued the metropolis.
An Exclusive Interview with Stunt Coordinator Robert Alonzo
Q: Your parents are from the Philippines and you were born in Manila, but your family moved to the United States. At what point did you start Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do with Grandmaster Jun Chong? How did that expand into all different types of martial arts?
RA: I was born in the Philippines, but was only 10 days old when I came to the States. My parents put me into the martial arts when I think I was around eight or nine, or something like that, I don’t quite recall. All I remember is that I loved it so much. We — my brother and I — started training under Grandmaster Jun Chong, and it became a passion ever since. I still train to this day.
I expanded my love of martial arts beyond taekwondo and hapkido one day when I started looking into — I remember very clearly — I was sitting in this office after teaching a class, and I started reading Dan Inosanto’s book, “Filipino Martial Arts.” I was about 17 or 18. He walked into the office, and I was a little bit taken aback, thinking he was going to get angry with me reading another style. But he is such an open-minded martial artist.
He said, “What are you reading?” I said the Filipino martial arts book. And he was like, “Why are you reading that?” I said, “Well, sir, I’ve trained so many years in Korean martial arts, and I’m very interested in learning something that has to do with my own culture.” I never even knew there was a Filipino martial art at the time, and I thought he was going to get angry. But he said, “Okay. We’ll get a teacher.”
He was so open-minded, he brought an instructor over to our school, and now it’s all part of his system. At his school, they also offer Eskrima/Kali as instruction, along with jiu jitsu, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kendo, and eido. He’s a very open martial artist, so I had a really good role model in him in regards to not having one particular style to draw from.
I like to learn as many styles as I can, and then, because of that, it allows me, as an artist, to have more colors to my palette whenever I do any type of fight choreography.
Q: You also went to Loyola Marymount University and earned your Bachelor’s degree in Studio Arts and Communication Studies. You had the knowledge of communications and studio arts, and hands-on [experience] in animation. How did you make the transition to stunt performer? Even though you have the skill for martial arts, it must be quite a difficult transition.
RA: Well, not quite because it’s a merging of two passions from when I was a young boy. My first artistic passion was with animation. I used to watch a lot of animated shows. I’d draw characters in flip pages, and created little animated scenes of my own when I was a kid.
Once I started taking martial arts, my passion shifted and I just wanted to do nothing but martial arts. I was a huge fan of martial arts cinema, with Bruce Lee, obviously, and Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and all of the old ’70s, ’80s kung fu and karate movies, martial arts movies.
When I was younger, I remember watching a television show called “Thirtysomething” where there was a lot of creative directors who were showing up to work, getting paid for their ideas while coming in with teeshirts and jeans, not wearing a tie, and I thought, “Ah, that sounds super-interesting and super-fun to do.”
So when I went to college, I went to film school also because I had aspirations of becoming a creative director in the hopes of directing commercials coming right out of college. I studied a lot of arts: graphic design, animation film classes. But then after I started doing an internship at an ad agency, I found that it wasn’t right for me.
So I went back to training and teaching martial arts for Grandmaster Jun Chong. Quite a lot of the students there were in “the business”— in the film and television industry: producers, actors, writers. They would always try to kindof nudge me forward into getting into the business.
My passion for martial arts was so strong at such a young age that it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to open my own school, with the aspiration of becoming like my grandmaster, who had his own schools. But the industry kept calling me, and then I ended up getting a job as a stuntman.
Basically, a producer of a show came into my dojo where I was working, — she was one of the producers of the live-action Power Rangers show. That was my first-ever job in the business as a performer. Then I started dabbling into film and television, doing stunts, and thought it was an extremely fun way to make a living.
But, there was nothing in film school that taught me about that type of action, and how to execute that type of movie magic. I already knew how to storyboard, I took all the script writing and these film classes — I didn’t know that side. I fell in love with that side. As I got older, martial arts got me into being a stuntman, and [with] my college education at Loyola Marymount it was merged into one. It helped me design action from a story and character standpoint.
Q: How did you land this role on “The Batman” as a supervising stunt coordinator as well as second unit director?
RA: I had previously worked with Dylan Clark, who is a producer of “The Batman.” We had worked together on “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise, and I also had served as a supervising stunt coordinator and second unit director on that project. We found out while do the movie that we actually went to the same high school and he was in the grade [ahead of] me.
After that movie, we tried to work together on other projects. He called me for some reshoots for “Planet of the Apes,” but it didn’t work out schedule-wise. He called me again for this and we ended up teaming up again this time with Matt Reeves; before, it was Joseph Kozinski. And now, I am very, very honored to be able to work on this.
Matt and I hopped on the phone, and he started telling me about the project. I was super-excited, of course, and was very in tune with his vision. It was something that I gravitate most towards when it comes to designing action, because it’s very raw, rounded and visceral in approach to this iteration of Batman. So thankfully, I got the opportunity, and the rest is onscreen. I can’t wait to see it. I haven’t seen it myself.
Q: What was Matt Reeves vision for the fight scenes and how did you design the action to execute that vision?
RA: Matt’s vision was to have the action raw and real so that the audience feels every punch, kick, fall, hit, and crash through the emotion of the characters, whether they are enduring extreme amounts of pain or experiencing pleasure and satisfaction while doling it out. With that, I studied each character and their respective journeys throughout the story so that we can design movement based not only on their physical attributes, but also on the emotional state for each specific moment.
Every move had an objective and we strayed away from inefficient action that was “action for the sake of action”. By taking into account each of the varying character personalities, it helped me design distinct styles of action per character for their fighting, driving/riding, and improvisational adaptability to the moment as well as the environment. This way Batman’s objective can remain clearly distinct from the objectives of Catwoman, Penguin, and the Riddler.
This meant that I also had to train the cast in their respective styles of fighting. For example, the goal of fight training with Rob Pattinson was to allow the jeopardy to come in much closer than he’s used to in order to eliminate anticipatory movement and heighten his close proximity reactivity. With this as a primary goal, we trained him in FMA – Escrima/Kali/Arnis, Penjak Silat, Muay Thai, JKD, Boxing, and Kickboxing.
For Rob, we avoided kicking and used more hammer fists, elbows and knees, while also drilling with sticks that would later enable him not only to improve his reaction time in closer pockets of engagement, but also to pick up anything and use it as a weapon. In contrast to this, the character of Selina Kyle/Catwoman felt like she kept everyone at a purposeful distance and was always beguiling in her personality. With that as an overall character focus, we complemented her physicality by training Zoe Kravitz in the styles of TKD, Hapkido, Capoeira, Boxing, Savate, and Muay Thai. Her style was focused more on speed, agility, footwork, feinting, and evasive movement because it requires her comfort level to be much more distance oriented.
Q: How was Matt Reeves as a collaborator?
RA: Matt is fantastic to work with! He cares so much about each character, each moment, each frame. His attention to detail is amazing and he always pushed towards creating a very real world where the audience can believe that Gotham and it’s characters actually exist. Every time we would review a stunt or action sequence, we would always discuss the emotional perspectives of each character to keep everything grounded for each individual character in each specific moment. It’s so rewarding working this way because we were always striving for the consistency of authentic character emotion while matching it with their respective character physicality. It was such a wonderfully challenging experience!
Q: What’s it like working with Robert Pattinson?
RA: Working with Rob was such a fun experience! He came in and fully committed to the approach. He was a sponge and wanted to learn everything from a place of developing and understanding his own character. He was very interested in “why” he would do things rather than simply learning choreographed moves without understanding the purpose. This desire helped me focus Rob’s training on learning real world-practical technique, and we focused a lot on the strategic side of fighting in order for him to learn the advantages and disadvantages of being in an attacking, defensive, or neutral position.
We discussed the pros and cons of each position so that he can understand things from an applied methodology rather than a more surfaced approach focused on aesthetic form. He loved it… And so did I! As a former martial arts instructor, I’ve always had a passion to develop training programs for actors with this approach. And it has always been my hope that the actors I train would continue to pursue some type of training on their own beyond the film. I always believe that if you practice with a passion, you will always have the passion to practice. And Rob definitely exhibited these traits. It was such a rewarding experience.
Q: Was there a conscious effort to differentiate his fighting style from previous Batman films?
RA: There was definitely a conscious effort to differentiate his fighting style from previous Batman films. The effort was not merely put into how we trained Rob but also how we designed Batman’s suit, cowl, and cape. Matt, Rob and I talked about the limitation of Batman’s mobility due to the stiffness of the costume in previous films. We wanted this version of Batman to be super agile so we worked on creating a suit and cowl that would enable him to roll, jump, kick, hang, and turn his head in every direction so that it felt like he could do as much movement in camera as possible rather than be limited by the aesthetic structure. Moreover, Matt and I discussed designing Batman’s fight sequences with an approach that avoided infallibility.
Because of this I always tried to keep the fights more realistic by having Batman get hit when the opportunity naturally presented itself in his movement and positioning in relation to his opponents. In addition to this, I would strive to maintain the real world elements of exhaustion so that the audience never forgets that Batman is only human. He doesn’t have super strength, hyper speed, x-ray vision, etc. He definitely has his cool gadgets, but he feels pain just like everyone else does. That said, Batman’s almost sociopathic desire to avenge the wrongdoings of criminals constantly fueled the fortitude and mental edge over his opponents, and the predicaments he has to endure.
That is why we really wanted to focus on closer proximity fighting styles because the longer someone stays in the pocket of engagement, the more they will get hit. And for Batman, it’s never about not getting hit, it’s more about how he reacts when he gets hit. Bruce Wayne knows he is going to have to endure some considerable amount of pain every time he puts on the suit. But Batman does it willingly and with unwavering passion, so for the audience, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty in his violence.
Q: In the production notes, it was mentioned that Zoe Kravitz practically knows you all her life, ever since you taught her Tae kwon do when she was 7. What is that dynamic like? Having been her teacher back then, and now designing action scenes for her?
RA: I’ve known Zoe for such a long time. She was one of my students that took regular group classes and also did private lessons with me on a regular basis. She was really good and was so driven and focused, even at such a young age, when I noticed a lot of kids were so easily distracted. I recall the moment she first came into the dojo with her dad holding her hand. I found it hard to contain my excitement at the time because I am a huge fan of Lenny Kravitz. Let Love Rule is still one of my favorite albums of all time! But I remember pulling myself together as I looked at the little rocker girl by his side. I noticed that Zoe already had a presence back then.
And it was once she stepped on the mat with her uniform on and I saw her doing drills and forms that I realized how special she was going to be. I remember saying to my fellow instructors back then, “watch out for that one…she is going to be a force when she gets older.” And it came true! So when I finally heard the news that she was cast as the iconic Selina Kyle, I was super excited! Then when she showed up to our first training session, we hugged it out and took a stroll down memory lane with an already an established level of comfort and trust. She even texted me a picture of us back then that her mom took of us in class together. It brought back some pretty cool memories. I’ve trained actors before, but I’ve never trained an actor that used to be my student. It was something I’ve never experienced.
And once we began training it was electric hearing the gunshot smack on the mits and pads, feeling the power of her kicks and punches once again. But this time her focus and intensity had elevated to a whole other level as she quickly recalled her understanding of the practicality and strategy of the movement. It was so great because it felt like we were picking up right where we left off. However, the challenge ahead of us was that we had to train in more complex movement that reflected her character throughline. In some instances, it was movement that she had never done before.
But as she did when she was younger, she picked up quick… It was so gratifying seeing all that training from when she was younger come full circle. Designing her sequences was one of my favorite parts of this journey because it was very challenging to make sure her movement was strong and fierce, while maintaining the power in her femininity. We talked a lot about that and it helped that we were on the same page with her intentions from moment to moment. It was such a great experience directing her action scenes because I knew how to tap in and get the best out of her performance because of the comfort level that was established over 20 years ago. I can’t wait to see all her hard work on the big screen and what she does with this character in the future. It will definitely be something special!
Here’s the trailer of the film.