From John Wayne To Brooklyn Nine Nine – Stunt Coordinator Norman Howell
Ensuring actors Terry Crews (left) and Andy Samberg (right) are safe during stunts is a priority for stunt coordinator Norman Howell. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television
By: Marjorie Galas
Norman Howell credits John Wayne as one of his teachers. The Emmy winning stunt coordinator began his career in the 80s as a stuntman. In fact, he continues to perform stunts; recently seen in Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Since John Wayne taught him to throw a punch -his earliest entry into the stunt word – Howell’s been hit by and thrown off moving horses, vehicles and wagons. He’s jumped from a horse onto, and rode on top of, an airplane. The lessons he’s learned throughout the years have informed every decision he makes when creating stunt sequences others will perform.
“I learned a very valuable lesson in Africa while doing a fire gag in the Kenyan desert. I didn’t have my own safety guy watching my back and I was medivaced out for 3rd degree burns,” said Howell. “Experience is the best teacher”.
Howell not only brings the experience he earned as a performer to every job he takes, he brings the valuable lessons he learned from watching the decision making processes of A-list directors he’s worked with, including Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and James Cameron. Noting they “all had the same drive to make every frame cinematic,” his own attention to detail earned him an Emmy win for the stunts he crafted in season two of “Brooklyn Nine Nine.” Howell is quick to note the stunts he creates always emerge from the script.
“The brilliant creators, Dan Goor and Michael Schur, and their writing team come up with the look they want. I take what they come up with and when schedules permit I will do a test,” said Howell. “For instance, (actor) Terry Crews had to lift a car. Dan wanted to make sure it looked authentic so we tested the day before the shoot and everything turned out great.”
The tight time constraints of television often don’t accommodate testing time. In these circumstances, Howell will craft a number of variations of the stunt so Goor and Schur have multiple choices in the edit suite. Howell works with every department, from hair and makeup to technical advisors to art and camera departments to ensure all aspects of the stunt play authentically for the viewer. Paramount to any stunt, either rehearsed or spontaneous, is safety.
The moment he arrives on set Howell verifies all safety equipment, such as padding for the ground and the actors, is in place. Frequently, the action shifts in the spontaneity of rehearsal. Lead actor Andy Samberg has a strong sense of comic timing and often makes adjustments to sharpen the scene, resulting in his, and his fellow actors, shift in positions. Howell has to think on his feet and adjust the stunt equipment accordingly. When there are larger and more dangerous stunts such as a car hit or fire gag, Howell holds a safety meeting for cast and crew beforehand. For a scene that called for actor Joe Lo Truglio to bend over a toaster resulting in his jacket fringe catching on fire, Howell staged a rehearsal with a stunt man that illustrated the stunt step by step. While the producers, director and star signed off on the stunt, the network ultimately requested a stunt man perform the fire gag. Howell had the fire safety and effects teams on hand as he “turned up the fire” on the stunt double.
Since season one of “Brooklyn Nine Nine” Howell has been working closely with the actors to provide training that both keeps them and everyone on set safe during any form of stunt. Their dedication to perfection has delighted the seasoned stunt coordinator.
“Andre Braugher worked very hard to do a ‘Bourne’ style fight. He did so well I didn’t even use his stunt double,” said Howell. “Stephanie Beatriz had to spin around, practically aim blind at Andy Samburg, who was placed behind her, without actually punching him. I taught her the punch John Wayne taught me on my first movie, ‘The Cowboys.’ Stephanie worked with me for a week every day during her lunch to perfect the Duke’s punch. I was very impressed with her dedication.”
Howell finds he puts as much effort into the stunts used on “Brooklyn Nine Nine” as he would in a feature film despite TV’s tight time constraints. Although he admits the action is unique for a half hour comedy series, he credits the actors for “selling it so well.” Howell was surprised work on a comic series would be recognized by Emmy voters. Extremely humbled to be recognized by his peers, his greatest moment came upon returning to the “Brooklyn Nine Nine” set after receiving his Emmy.
“When I came in Monday after the Emmy weekend, I was called to set and met with cheers and demands for a speech. I don’t like to be in the spotlight so I quickly deferred to Andy,” said Howell. “That moment was one of the highlights of my career. I’m blessed to be asked back for ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’. Right now I’m focusing on that.”
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