Captain America: Winter Soldier — Does Anyone Want Off This Elevator?

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On April 1st, 2013, principal photography started on Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but for the actors in the film, the action began many weeks prior in preparation for the exciting elevator fight sequence shot in the first few days of production. The scene finds Steve Rogers being attacked in a very crowded elevator by several agents. The intense fight sequence would become a trailer moment and showcased the stunt and fight training that Chris Evans and all of his cast mates studied and learned in preparation for the film.

“It was very important to us that all of the actors trained rigorously for the film because we wanted the audience to see our actors executing the action in the film,” says Anthony Russo. “Audiences want to feel that energy and see a fluid fighting technique up on the screen.”

“These guys worked their butts off training for this film, training for months and training for these specific sequences, over and over,” relates Joe Russo. “Everything you see in the film, any time their faces are in camera those are the actors and they’re actually doing the things that they’re doing. We have a great stunt team that works with them and obviously we have to protect our actors, so for things that are too aggressive they’re replaced, but all that fighting in the film is our guys.”

Chris Evans’ desire to take Captain America’s fighting ability to the next level led him to expand the scope of his training for the film. “One of the things we all agreed on was stepping up Captain America’s fighting ability,” says Chris Evans. “In the first film he had just achieved the strength, power and prowess, but we didn’t get the chance to give him any training. In ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’ there were so many new characters, abilities and relationships that needed to be established so you couldn’t afford much screen time individually to any one character. On this film though, we really get to show Cap advancing in his skills and stepping up the fighting techniques much more.”

Evans describes the fighting scenes in the film as having a more “acrobatic approach,” requiring Captain America to be able to move fluidly. “The Russos and I decided that I should start taking gymnastics training,” says Evans. “And it was really great and had a big impact when it came time to shoot fight sequences like the elevator fight.”

Director Joe Russo points to a big action scene on the ship, Lumerian Star, early in the film that highlights Captain America’s new, advanced skills: “You’ll also see in this sequence that Cap’s been training with modern techniques since The Avengers, like Krav Maga—real-world techniques developed to deal with enemy combatants in close quarters. One of our favorite moments from a character-defining standpoint, in terms of moving Cap employing modern techniques, is that he takes a knife from one pirate and throws it through the hand of another, because the second pirate is reaching for the alarm and it’s the only way Cap can stop him. Using your assailant’s weapon against him is a main tenant of Krav Maga.”

Anthony Russo informs that it was also important that Captain America figure out new ways to use his shield, in the spirit of being a modern warrior. “During WWII, a lot of folks fighting in the war had been on the streets of Brooklyn, or wherever they came from, just a few weeks earlier,” explains Anthony. “Very few soldiers were career soldiers. The same with Cap. He was transformed into a super soldier and then called into action before he had any significant training. He had a John Sullivan style of fighting, which was endearing in its simplicity. But now as the decades have progressed, and we’ve turned warfare into a science, Cap has a lot more tools at his disposal to turn him into a modern warrior. We wanted to be very inventive in conceiving new ways for him to use the shield.  Conceiving new fighting techniques. We went through months of staging fights and shooting them and thinking about what excited us about them.”

Joe Russo adds, “What’s great about Cap, and I think what people really respect about him as a Super Hero, is that he has a code and that code is represented by his shield. Steadfast, immovable. The shield is primarily a defensive weapon, but we also wanted to explore its offensive capabilities in this movie. There are two handles on it, so Cap can hold one of the handles and snap it at his opponents, in a manner inspired by an eastern style of fighting. Not unlike a nunchuck. The shield really represents who he is. How he uses it expresses his psyche.”

Stunt coordinator Thomas Robinson Harper explains the styles of fighting used in the sequence and the film. “The fighting techniques that we used in this are a mixture of Parkour, Brazilian Ju Jitzu, karate and boxing,” says Harper.  “So it’s truly a mixed martial arts that we had Chris training for because part of bringing the character into modern day is that Steve Rogers has studied and mastered these modern fighting styles and techniques. It’s very hard to integrate all those fighting styles and techniques together because one generally doesn’t work with another, but we figured out a way to make it flow and show that he has learned these things, and that’s how he has to fight in a modern world.”

Harper also brought in some of the best fight specialists in the business including Chris Carnel and James Young to help train and choreograph the visually dynamic fight sequences throughout the film. “The first fight sequence we shot was the elevator fight, which included Brock Rumlow and ten guys in a crowded elevator with Captain America, and the challenge was how much choreography could we squeeze into a very small space,” explains fight coordinator Chris Carnell. “We built in some great gags as we let Cap use his hands and feet a little bit in close quarters with the idea being that these guys know what they’re doing and have a plan when they come in the elevator, so Cap is on the defensive first and foremost.”

“Once Captain America gets a little bit of room he can do a lot of damage very quickly and that’s when it gets to be a really fun fight,” adds Jeet Kune Do fighting expert James Young. “The scene is definitely the most chaotic fight I’ve done and it’s pretty incredible.”

For Harper and his fight coordinators getting the cast ready for the fight sequences was made easier by the fact that they had actors to work with who were willing to put in the time and effort to learn. “All of the actors came in every day at different times during pre-production to learn and train in the various disciplines,” says the stunt coordinator. “It really helps that they come in pretty psyched up about the whole thing and then we get them sweating and teach them the choreography and show them video of our stunt performers doing what they will eventually be doing.”

“Chris Evans picks up fight choreography faster than anyone I’ve ever seen,” adds Chris Carnel.  “Watching him do a full-on fight while maintaining the character qualities of Captain America was really impressive and we were absolutely blown away. The elevator fight is a very difficult fight with just being one-on-one, but then throw in ten guys in the elevator and it gets incredibly difficult very quickly. But he got it straightaway and he’s just phenomenal to work with.”

Harper and his team were equally impressed with the fighting prowess of Frank Grillo whose character Brock Rumlow goes toe-to-toe with Captain America in the elevator. “We called Frank Grillo Frank the Tank, because he has the heaviest hands for an actor that I have seen in a long time,” says Harper. “We knew that he had boxing experience, but he came in on his first day and was crushing the heavy bag in half.”

“The building vibrated when he hit the heavy bag, and we’re all like ‘wow,’” adds Chris Carnel. “The other funny thing about Frank Grillo is you can tell him to throw a punch at quarter speed, or half speed, but when it comes time to put it on camera it’s always 110% no matter what speed you say. He’s a hell of a fighter and its impressive to watch him box.”

“When you have two actors who are really fighting each other, it brings an authenticity to the film,” says Frank Grillo. “When you have Chris Evans or Anthony Mackie and me fighting, you can’t manufacture being hit—you just have to get hit. I think people are going to really fall in love with this style of fighting in the film.”

The stunt teams fight training also included Sebastian Stan who enjoyed his Winter Soldier fight training immensely. “I really got into the fight training as it was important for me to feel comfortable with that dimension of the character,” says Sebastian Stan.  “When you start training, it really feels like Cowboys and Indians that you played when you were six or seven years old. It actually took me a while to stop making sound effects noises when I was getting hit.”

The actor took a lot of good-natured kidding from his friends for his dedication to learning how to handle a knife. “During my fight training for the film my friends would make fun of me because I would walk around the house all day flipping this plastic knife around and practicing my moves,” laughs Stan. “I wanted my movements to feel natural and I wanted to be able to perform these sequences without thinking about it.”

For Scarlett Johansson, her role as Black Widow in the film involves a lot of running, wire work and rappelling. “A lot of the fighting that I do is basically reaction stuff like taking punches, throwing punches, that kind of thing, and then I leave it up to my stunt double, Heidi Moneymaker, to bounce 20-feet in the air and do four cartwheels.”

But the actress says that the envelope is always pushed with her stunts in each film, but there are certain signature moves that the fans like to see. “There already are established moves that people recognize and are really into, so we get to play with that a little bit. Having done three films so far with Marvel with the same stunt crew I know the ins and outs; I feel way more comfortable in my body and I feel way more comfortable fighting. I even feel way more comfortable hanging 60-feet in the air. I trust these guys with my life and that trust is something I think you establish over time.”

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