Netflix

The Secret Weapon: How Daredevil Stunt Coordinator Philip Silvera Elevates Fight Scenes Above Mere Violence

"If It doesn't tell the story, it's just punches and kicks."

Philip Silvera arrives for a Los Feliz brunch on a cloudy morning in February wearing a Deadpool crew t-shirt on the same day Deadpool comes out in theaters. While it’s understood in the music industry that it’s a goober move to sport your own merch, the film world doesn’t follow the same rules. Besides, Silvera has good reason to be flaunting his participation in the movie — its sequel has already been greenlit and anticipation is high. By the end of its opening weekend it will make more than $132 million, the most by far for an R-rated film. And it’s Silvera’s work as Deadpool’s stunt and fight coordinator that shapes the film’s orgiastic celebration of violence and mayhem. All that limb-severing, mutant-punching, sword-slashing action is his job, and it's his comedic carnage that drew in those record-breaking crowds.

A former competitor on the Chinese martial arts circuit, the Bronx-born Silvera got into the stunt world over a decade ago. His first job was working on jazz artist Fred Ho’s off-Broadway play Voice of the Dragon, and since then he’s done everything from getting knocked across the screen by a water whip in The Last Airbender to doing a full body burn in a YouTube video directed by Freddie Wong. With an easygoing charm and his own superhero physique, Silvera has been a part of Marvel adaptations since 2011, when he stunt-doubled as Riptide in X-Men: First Class. Since then he’s been blown off the side of a crane for Iron Man 3, taken a beating in an elevator during Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and coordinated the prologue scene for Thor: The Dark World. He was also involved with Deadpool since its earliest stages. In the test footage that star Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller put together over four years ago — a leaked glimpse that eventually got the film approved — it was actually Silvera who was wearing the performance-capture equipment during the fights.

Courtesy of Philip Silvera

Though fans freaked out over the madcap approach to ultraviolence that Silvera brings to Deadpool, he truly demonstrates his talents with a deeper take on fight and stunt work in Daredevil, whose second season arrives on Netflix today. Silvera has been a comic book fan since he was kid with ADD and an overactive imagination, and in 2014, when word got around that Marvel was going for a grittier feel on the series, he was determined to get the job. Before there was even a script available, he put together an unsolicited audition sequence, renting out a space and flying in a group of stuntmen to make a conceptual pre-visualization — a kind of elevated storyboard where coordinators film and edit a sequence so directors know what a scene should eventually look like. The results — which showed an imagined training sequence between Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — got him a meeting with the show’s creators, who asked him make another pre-viz for a scene that would be in the show’s first episode. He turned it around in a day and a week later he had the job. “I stalked Daredevil down,” Silvera says. “I went after it and fought tooth and nail for it.”

Daredevil features plenty of flipping kicks and snapping bones, but a careful watch reveals that the fight sequences are more than just easy thrills — they’re an integral part in showing character development. In the first season, when Charlie Cox’s Daredevil battles his former mentor Stick (played by Scott Glenn), their strained surrogate father-son relationship plays out with them at first performing predictably; over time, each reveals what they’ve withheld from the other or learned while separated. Even the season’s marquee moment — a nearly five-minute, single-shot hallway rumble that action fans consider one of the best fight sequences of 2015 — is more than just showing off. As Daredevil is worn down while taking on a crew of Russian gangsters, he starts to rely more on the brawling style favored by his actual dad, a no-luck boxer whose demise was presented in flashback throughout the episode. “If it doesn't tell the story, it's just punches and kicks,” Silvera says. “There’s no emotional content to it. That doesn't draw in your audience. Whether they're a fan or not a fan, they have to be able to relate to it somehow.” (Silvera also got involved on camera, going full-ninja to body double the entire stab-wound-heavy fight between Daredevil and Nobu of the Hand. He did, however, let someone else get set on fire for the conflict’s climax.)

That hallway scene has been compared to the iconic single-shot sequence in the 2003 South Korean cult classic Oldboy, and Silvera’s work on Daredevil is often linked to other recent exports of Asian cinema, like the films in the Raid series. While those movies might be an influence — in conversation he singles out the work of older masters Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen — Silvera also draws from some unexpected sources. When discussing the moments last season when Vincent D'Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk would explode from his hulking awkwardness into displays of rage and do something like, say, separate a man’s head from his body with a car door, Silvera explains, "I wanted to give it this Goodfellas feeling, show a different level of brutality."

Daredevil’s new showrunners, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, worked as writers on the debut season and were already impressed with Silvera before they took it over. "He's so invested in who the characters are, what they want from each other," says Petrie. "It is so carefully choreographed. It’s this ballet of power struggle and violence and story."

As the Daredevil writing staff develops each episode, the scripts detail what happens in each fight and stunt sequence and what beats need to be hit, giving Silvera specifics to work with. He then adds his own embellishments and makes alterations before creating a pre-viz for Petrie and Ramirez. From there the group will further refine the idea before Silvera fully choreographs it with the actors and they film the final version. For Daredevil’s second season, Silvera was also given even greater responsibility, taking on second-unit director duties for many of the action scenes.

Courtesy of Philip Silvera

While the new episodes of Daredevil don’t feature a season-long, looming villain like Wilson Fisk, they do introduce Elektra and Frank Castle (The Punisher), two characters with whom Daredevil has complex relationships. With them comes two new fighting styles that Silvera developed — Castle’s being more tactical and military-based, while Elektra’s is similar to Daredevil’s, but more dismissive of her opponents and more open to killing them. Co-showrunner Ramirez explains that one of the defining characteristics of Silvera’s fight sequences for Daredevil is that our hero always seems to be catching a beating and it seems like there’s a possibility he might actually lose because the people he’s up against are just as talented as him. "You’re not watching Power Rangers," he says. "No one ever comes across as a second-rate goon. Everyone always seems like they have a good chance of whooping ass, because everyone seems really smart."

"It’s like the fight version of great, witty dialogue that goes back and forth," Petrie adds. "Everybody has a rejoinder. Every punch that gets thrown, someone's going to react in a very specific, very smart way."

In creating the action sequences for the second season, Silvera knew expectations would be high, but that trying to top himself just for the sake of creating a spectacle would go against the ethos of the show. Still, the third episode features another extended single-shot sequence, this time traveling down four floors of a building and featuring Daredevil with one hand around a long stretch of chain and the other duct-taped to a gun. Silvera says that he was given the directive that the scene was supposed to be "a descent into hell" and he played up this season’s theme of Daredevil testing how far he’s willing to go in his campaign to protect the people of the city. While it definitely pays homage to the hallway scene from the first season, this one is harsher and more grueling. By the end, you’re more exhausted than thrilled. "It doesn't have to outdo something we did before," Silvera says. "We just have to do something unique to the story at all times."


VMAs 2017