“How To Build A Better Boy” – Creating Stunts With Director Paul Hoen and Stunt Coordinator Branko Racki
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Paul Hoen may not have the official title of “mentor” on his filmography, but the director has been imparting valuable lessons to young performers for years. Recognized with six nominations (and two wins, for 2007s “Jump In!” and 2012s “Let is Shine”) for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programs by the Directors Guild of America, Hoen has worked with many rising stars including Demi Lovato, Alyson Stoner and Shia LaBeouf. He recently applied his youth-oriented directorial skills to a new batch of fresh faces in Disney Channel’s latest movie, “How to Build a Better Boy.”
“When you are working with young actors, it is important that they understand the arcs their character goes through during the course of the story,” said Hoen. “It’s important to understand what is happening in a real way, and find a reality in their experience they are able to apply to make the character relatable to them.”
For Marshall Williams, a young actor stepping into a lead role for the first time, creating a believable reality for his character, Albert Banks, was particularly unique. Albert is the creation of tech whiz Gabby Harrison (China Anne McClain) who helps friend Mae Hartley (Kelli Berglund) fabricate a perfect boyfriend. Unexpectedly tapping into the government’s military software, Albert is not only the perfect athlete, perfect student and perfect date; he is the perfect soldier as well. Williams had to find a reality to his character that balanced his robotic sensibilities, physical prowess, and above all, likability.
“We tried out many actors and didn’t know who would be the best fit. Marshall had come in to read the role of Jaden and I suggested he try out for the role (of Albert),” said Hoen. “He had the physicality, the aspect of a soldier and was a great football player. He had done mostly modeling previously, but he worked really hard to find his character, and made this creation really lovable. He had what it took to make the audience believe that he was a robot but also real enough for Mae to love.”
Finding the right actor to portray Albert was only half of the equation behind creating the perfect Albert. Hoen required a stunt coordinator that he could work with to define the physicality of a military robot, craft the stunts, and ensure the actors could safely and believable portray the action. Many members of Hoen’s production team had worked with stunt coordinator Branko Racki on previous films including “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Pompeii” and highly recommended him. After meeting with Racki, Hoen knew he would be the perfect fit.
“He has a great attitude and excitement, and he loves the challenges of creating great stunts,” said Hoen. “He’s a fun guy to work with. He has the willingness to do it right, and doesn’t promise more than what can be delivered.”
Racki began his process by speaking with Hoen to discover the director’s vision for the stunts necessary for the story. Working to accommodate Hoen’s vision, Racki then got a sense of the actors’ physical strengths and weaknesses.
“Directors want the actors to do the stunts, but some just aren’t capable, so you have to create a stunt around their abilities to make it work,” said Racki. “Marshall surprised me with his capabilities, he’s a really good athlete, and he wanted to work at it to make it right.”
In any stunt situation, safety is always a priority. It becomes especially paramount when working with young actors. Stunt doubles with physical similarities of all actors involved were always present to step in whenever necessary. Racki also wrote out a complete plan used to orchestrate the stunt so everyone had a complete understanding of the action. For a youth movie like “How to Build a Better Boy,” fight sequences were designed with a comic edge to minimize hard hits and extreme contact.
“With fights we didn’t do any hits to the face. The sequences are mostly blocks,” said Racki. “You try to make it funny and add some comedy instead of making it realistic.”
While every choreographed stunt sequence offers challenges, the creation of certain sequences gave Hoen great anxiety. One in particular required Albert to run down a football field with five or six opponents clinging to him. With a twenty-five day shooting schedule and only seven hours a day allotted for his young actors to perform on camera, there was little room for error. Hoen discussed a number of options with Racki, including attaching the players with wires that would pull them down the field or attaching the camera to a green treadmill. After conducting some research and planning, Racki utilized a special Commodore vehicle outfitted with padding. The players would run, hit the padding, then hang on to the padding as it moved them down the field A POV shot of the same players was taken through a helmet as the players hit and hung on. CGI and well-crafted editing provided the finish touches to the final stunt.
After the first screening of “How to Build a Better Boy,” audiences roared with laughter at the football scene. Hoen took the response as a stamp of success between the efforts of Racki, his production crew and his actors.
“We were able to pull of this technical stunt and make it believable enough that people laughed. Laughter in the room, now that to me is very satisfying,” said Hoen.
Added Racki, “I’ve been doing stunts for a long time. You find ways to make it work. When actors rise to the challenge, it makes it fun and makes life easier.”
“This kids show up ready to learn and work hard, that’s why I got into this job, and I’m so happy to have this job,” concluded Hoen.
“How to Build a Better Boy” premieres tonight, FRIDAY, AUGUST 15 (8:00 pm ET/PT) on Disney Channel.
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