Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Craig Miller: The Scottish Epitome of the Finest Chinese Man

He hails from Greenock, a small fishing village just off the west coast of Glasgow, Scotland. Growing up in an environment where everyone was obsessed with football, he became fascinated with martial arts. In fact, he was so enthralled by the behind-the-scenes of Hong Kong cinema and martial arts films that he quit university, packed his bags, and came to Asia - his mother called him crazy. And a crazy life he has begun since. 

Craig Miller is a professional stuntman who has made Hong Kong his home for 13 years now. If asked about his daily routine, he is likely to tell you that there really isn’t one, except rising when birds start chirping at 5am every morning and going to the gym an hour and a half later; otherwise, he could be receiving a work call later this afternoon that would see him flying to the UK or the US or China the next day, like that Sunday afternoon when he came out of the cinema and received an email, asking if he could be in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s house in two hours’ time. “Any kind of normal life is really difficult. It’s hard to have a girlfriend and then be gone for work for six months. It’s equally hard to buy a house, for instance. Now I’ve got gym membership in Scotland, London, and here in Hong Kong. Mobile contracts too. It’s crazy, paying rent here, paying rent there.”

But despite the madness, it won’t be an overstatement to say that Miller loves his job. Coaching and working with the extremely humble Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth, who insisted on doing most of his stunts in Kingsman: The Secret Service, and being awe-struck by the swift changes and construction of massive sets at the neighbouring Warner Brothers Studio stage where The Jungle Book was filmed, are only a few of the perks of Miller’s life as a sought-after stuntman. In fact, he showed up for this interview with his hands covered in fake tan. “It’s always fun. Like last night, I was dressed as an Indian. Crazy costumes, fake tan.” Fake tan that would take a week to come off, but the Scotsman would not let the orangeness get in the way of his regimented martial arts training.

Following a topsy-turvy year flying around the globe for various silver screen and martial arts work, the year 2017, for a change, is looking a comparatively slower one for Miller, bar a motion capture project for Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 5 back home in Scotland. His plan? To finish his book on personal development. Now that’s an epitome of the finest man by traditional Chinese definition: to be well-versed in both martial arts and literature. 

1. Tell us a bit about Craig Miller as a child? 
I come from Greenock, a small fishing village, just off the west coast of Glasgow, Scotland. At school, I would say that I was slightly different to most of the people. I was a good student, it’s just that I wanted to do things that interested me, I wanted to do things on my own terms. For instance, we had to learn French in school, and I was adamant, I wanted to learn Chinese. 

Growing up, I was always fascinated by martial arts, especially the stuff I saw in Hong Kong cinema - you know, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the iconic ones. My father would be playing Bruce Lee movies when I was small, of course on VCR way back then. There were actually a few documentaries that came on the BBC. I remember watching these documentaries about the behind-the-scenes of Hong Kong cinema and martial arts, which fascinated me. I recorded one of those documentaries on VCR and I would watch it many times over! It’s strange, because everyone in western Scotland, where I come from, plays football. My brothers and my friends are passionate about football - it’s all they do. Even at school, I didn’t want to learn any other languages but Chinese, I want to learn kung fu. The teacher thought I was crazy! 

And then I went to college. I was doing sports science and sports management, but I thought, these aren’t really for me. I just wanted to be in Hong Kong, I just wanted to see the Hong Kong cinema scene, and learn martial arts in Hong Kong. So I dropped out of college and came to Hong Kong! I was like, I can’t do university, I need to experience life in Southeast Asia. My mum was not happy, as you can imagine. She was disappointed because she wanted me to go to uni, and it was the normal thing to do. She asked what I planned on doing in Asia, I said I didn’t have a clue, and she said, “Are you crazy?” But my mother and father are very supportive of what I do, and they appreciated that I was a little bit different. When I said that I wanted to abandon university, they didn’t understand it, but they supported it. 

My grandfather was in the ship-building industry, and so is my father and brothers. It’s the same thing across generations, and I thought that wasn’t quite the thing for me. There has to be more to life than that. It didn’t make sense to me. 

2. Your first impression of Asia and Hong Kong?  
The first time I came to Asia, I toured around Thailand in 1999. I came to Hong Kong for the first time in 2001. My aunt has lived here for 30 years; she’s an architect. Back then we didn’t have emails, so I wrote her a letter, told her what I wanted to do, and she invited me to stay with her for six months. Mostly I was just training martial arts and exploring Hong Kong, spent the whole time lost. I had no GPS, all I had was an old map. It was a complete culture shock for me, but that was part of the fun, to be able to get off at any MTR station and get lost. The experience was new and fresh to me, everything was just incredible. 

3. What surprised you the most about Hong Kong?
When I first arrived, my aunt picked up me at the airport. She was driving and we went straight up to the Peak. It must have been about 9pm. I was mind-blown, looking at the beautiful skyline. Because where I am from, I don’t think there are any buildings more than five- or six-storey high. I was looking at this concrete jungle with all the lights on. It was fascinating, even the buildings that were sticking out of the mountains. It got me wondering, how did they manage to stay on the mountains without getting blown over? But about half-way, I realised it was quite hot, and humid - Scotland is always freezing cold. 

The scale of the buildings, the architecture, the smells, the atmosphere, it was incredible. The smells range from the absolutely horrible stinky tofu, char siu (one of my favourite Hong Kong food), and the smell you get at the harbour front, at the coast, which reminds me of home - without all the concrete and madness, of course. I love the sea smell, especially when I’m taking the Star Ferry. 

I still enjoy going back home, visiting my three nephews, trying to inspire them into doing what they want to do, not what they have to do. Compared to Hong Kong, everything back home seems like slow-motion. It’s nice to be home, with all the space, and when I come back to Hong Kong it’s madness 24/7 - the pace, the work! The moment I get off the aeroplane it’s like going from zero to 100. My mother and father came to Hong Kong once, and I told them, “You have to just go with the flow, otherwise you’ll be left behind." My father would be caught up with something, and we’d be gone, and I’d have to look for him! I remember telling him, “I told you, you have to keep up, otherwise you’ll get lost!” I like being back home, it’s nice to see my family, but after a week or so I’d find it too quiet, that there’s too much space, and I knew I had to come back to Hong Kong.

4. What happened after spending six months in Hong Kong? 
I went back home. I found a stunt school, and I met some people who put me in movies so I got the first experience in my life doing fight scenes and stunts. But I really wanted to work in Hong Kong, in Hong Kong cinematic actions and things like that. I met a stunt coordinator in the UK. He is an English guy who was trained in Hong Kong when he was 18. The funny thing is that he was actually on the martial arts documentary that I watched when I was young! His name sounded familiar but I didn’t have a clue, but I sent an email to him anyway. I got a reply, and he said, “I actually need guys for a movie right now, if you’re interested?” I thought that was awesome, I’d never worked in the UK before, so I went to London. The movie involved some kung fu mix, and the experience was completely different. The UK way of doing martial arts movies the western way…I don’t know how they get anything done! Say, if we’re shooting a movie here in Hong Kong, we’ve got 10 days for the whole movie. In that movie in the UK, we spent three months just designing the choreography and stunts, and teaching the actors and actresses the fight scenes for a three-minute scene. They have so much time and money and particulars. People back there (in the UK) were saying movie life in Hong Kong is crazy, but I feel it’s a breeze, it’s so easy I tell them that they should try movies in Hong Kong!

It wasn’t until around 2007 or 2008 when I first started training at a stunt school in Hong Kong, but I was going back and forth from Hong Kong to the UK in between for training. Over the past five years I’ve been going back and forth non-stop, but it’s in Hong Kong where I’m based. Last year was crazy. I was all over Thailand, here, the UK, China. It was good fun, but I need to get myself in shape all the time. After doing years of stair falls, getting hit by cars, I’m not doing stuff quite as fast as I used to be able to do. I can still do what a 19-year-old can do, but I can’t do it every day. 

I have to be in good physical condition because my body is my product, essentially I’m selling myself as a product for movies. I have to maintain it every day. It sounds a bit sad but I wake up at 5am every morning, do my morning workout, mostly martial arts things, and then I go to the gym at 6:30am, for two hours. Then, depends if I’m working that day, if I’m not working, I’ll get some studying done, get some rest, and I’m always looking to get good nutrition and relaxation. Like today, I’ll be doing martial arts coaching as well. Mobility, flexibility, and nutrition are very important for me. I don’t follow any particular diet but I do try to stay as healthy as possible. My friends back home are used to lots of pizzas and beers but I have to follow my own diet. I have a ‘cheat day’ every Sunday though. I can’t be sticking to my routine 100% all the time, I need to cut loose every Sunday, have some ice cream and enjoy life. Life gets a bit tough sometimes. Like last night, I was working, got home by midnight, woke up at 5am and then went to the gym again. I can’t really do what everybody else is doing, I need to stay focused, but I enjoy doing it - I love it.

5. How has your career as a stuntman unfolded? 
The first big project I did as a stuntman was the movie called Beach Spike, a Cantonese movie with Charissie Chau and Jessica C. There was a mix of beach volleyball and kung fu, it was good fun. I did a few other local projects, smaller ones, and then my career started picking up. It started getting good with The White Storm, with Cheung Ka-fai, Lau Ching-wan, and Louis Koo. Working with actors like them was incredible, Cheung was such a nice guy. Fighting and playing with each other on set was a good experience, especially because I met some nice contacts and people in the industry. In Hong Kong, I find that networking is huge. Most of the jobs I’ve come across here are through the people I’ve worked with in one movie or another. In the UK, it’s a little bit different. But it’s good because now I know people who coordinate in the movies, and they bring me in, independently. 

The past four or five years in the UK, I did the Kingsman: The Secret Service movie with Colin Firth. I was on it for four months, choreographing all the fights and actions, and teaching the actors how to perform the martial arts sequences. Colin Firth was amazing. But Colin Firth in an action movie? At first I was like, “Do you mean Colin Farrell?” But Colin Firth pulled off all the actions, it was amazing to say the least. In Kingsman, he did most of all of his own stunts, not all, but most. I did Dracula Untold, Wonder Woman, Transformers: The Last Knight, big movies like that. I was really busy last year. 

As a regular job, I do motion capture for Rockstar Games. I don’t play games at all but I do all the actions for games like Grand Theft Auto, by wearing the motion capture suit, doing all the actions in a studio, and they animate it. The Rockstar Games is based in Scotland. In fact, I’m going there next Tuesday to shoot for them on a new game - I’ve been working for them for three years now. I’d do a series of action stunts for them, and then I’d come back here while they animate the actions, until they need me again. It’s good, because Rockstar Games is one of the biggest video games companies in the world. It’s nice that I’m doing Grand Theft Auto 5, it’s huge. The studio is just a big, empty space with 47 cameras all around on top. They’d tell me that they need me to do punches, they need me to fall down, or they need me to ride horses or drive cars, and I’ll perform the actions they need. The director would be watching on a screen. He can see me as the character in the video games. It’s so much fun. It’s funny when I do the motion capture, and there are these guys working on post-production. I’ve seen one of them working - he’s got four monitors and two keyboards, I could feel my brain melting, I had a headache just watching him do that! I said to that guy, “I have no idea how you do this stuff!” And he said to me, “Well, I don’t have an idea how you do your kind of stuff!”
6. How was it like training Colin Firth?
All the actors and actresses in movies need to get basic martial arts training, and then they come to us and learn specific manoeuvres they need for the movie, like shooting guns, stabbing people. At first we thought we might have to use a stunt double for Colin Firth, because he was getting older, at around 54 the time of filming, but he wanted to try it. He did his own stunt for the scene where one guy smashed a vase in his face, and we were like, “Wow, well-played, but that’s a stuntman’s job!” And he’s a leading actor, an Oscar-winning actor. 

He was always so humble, such a gentleman. He was nice to everyone even though he was under extreme pressure - sometimes we would do 20 to 25 takes, and the director was very strict, everything had to be perfect. Actually, that scene won a Taurus Award, which is the stunt’s version of the Oscars, for the Best Fight Scene. It was teamwork, and it was pretty cool because we spent a few months designing the choreography. For a guy like Colin Firth, he could have easily gotten agitated because of the pressure, but he was calm and nice, even when there was an accident happening at the set - the old English church where we were filming caught on fire, and we had to close for the day. It was crazy! And yet Colin was doing his role despite twisting his knee, just straight back to work. He was incredible to work with. He had no ego, just humble and nice. 

7. But Colin Firth isn’t very athletic?
Not athletic at all! But I guess that’s what added to his character. 

8. Is it difficult training people with no sports background?
It can be tough, but actually, sometimes it makes things easier. I’ve worked with some people who have done martial arts, but martial arts for real life and for the movies is completely different. Because they know some stuff already, it’s actually harder to teach them. I’ve also worked with really strict military guys. We’d be shooting guns, and they’d be telling me the proper way to shoot guns. And then I’d say, but it’s in a movie and this guy’s been paid million dollars to show his face, can we just adjust it a little bit? Colin, given that he had no background in martial arts, made life easier. He just absorbed it, but his physicality was something that we had to work on. But man, did he pull it off!

I worked with a guy who is a mixed martial arts fighter. He could not throw a punch that looks real on camera - the punch has to be bigger in movies. He couldn’t grasp the choreography. It’s really difficult to teach those trained guys. Fight scenes for movies have to be bigger, more dramatic, bolder and sharper to express the action. The rhythm is different as well, because there are always breaks for cameras to change angles before the fight continues. So a blank slate like Colin Firth would be easier to work with, because actors like him don’t have the experience and muscle memory that need to be untrained. 

9. What does it take to be a good stuntman? 
Any kind of normal life is really difficult. It’s hard to have a girlfriend and then be gone for work for six months. It’s equally hard to buy a house, for instance. Now I’ve got gym membership in Scotland, London, and here in Hong Kong. Mobile contracts too. It’s crazy, paying rent here, paying rent there. 

I worked on Wonder Woman for four months, every day was spent at the Warner Brothers Studio in London. There were four other movies going on - Harry Potter, The Jungle Book, and some other movie - with different sets. But there was only one canteen, so when I went to the canteen, all I saw were people in costumes, every day was like Halloween! It was insane. There were massive sets too. When they did Jungle Book we were already there. We were in stage 10 and they were in stage 9, so there was a big aeroplane hanging in the set, the next day, it changed into a huge forest! It made me wonder how did they build that in one day? It’s quite bizarre. 

Stunt life can be tough going sometimes. I’ve seen some serious injuries to the men and women I’ve worked with. One girl, who was doing Resident Evil, she was doubling for the leading actress, on a motorbike with no helmet, and hit the camera. Her arm came off, broken rib, she was a mess. Every day, there are always cuts and bruises, twisted ankles…thankfully, I have nothing too serious. 

10. Memorable experiences in your career so far? 
Just three weeks ago, I was invited to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s house, he wanted to teach some guys some defences. I came out of the cinema one Sunday afternoon and got an email from a friend, and he said, “Can you be here at Jean-Claude Van Damme’s house in two hours?” And I said, it’s a bit strange, but yeah, okay. So I got home to get my training gear and went to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s house. They just released the footage yesterday. So yeh, those types of things are just bonkers. 

Even with Transformers, I just happened to be in the UK, and a friend called me and he said - that was a Thursday afternoon - “We start at 9am tomorrow morning, can you be in London?” I was with my friends for a coffee, and then I said to them, “Sorry guys, I need to run!” To which my friends asked, “When will you be back?” “Hmm…three weeks?” It’s madness. You just have to be available, and be ready to go anywhere tomorrow, anytime. 

11. What’s the best thing about being Craig Miller right now? 
Right now, I’ve got no work plans other than the Rockstar shoot, which should be no more than four weeks. Last year, I was all over the world, non-stop. I’m going to do a lot of writing - I’ve been trying to write a series of books for what seems like six years now, because work just keeps being so busy that I haven’t really had the chance to finish it. 

12. What are those books about?
A series with personal development theme. I like reading, and most of the books I read are for learning - personal development, psychology, nutrition, fitness, martial arts. I prefer reading to studying on the computer. I’m a note pad-and-pen guy, I’m absolutely hopeless when it comes to technology. 

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