Victoria Clow - what's it like to be a female fight director?

Victoria Clow is the first of the amazing women on our team who we interviewed. She tells us all about how she got into stunts, the work that inspires her, and what it's like to be a woman in the fight industry.

So, Victoria, how would you describe your job as a fight director?

I choreograph fights for stage and film, and I teach people how to not hit each other - perfectly.

How come you decided to get into the world of fights & stunts?

Oh! I have to tell you a story for this answer. So, back in 2011, I broke my back really badly. I broke it a little bit, and unfortunately it was so little that no one noticed the break in any x-rays. At the time I was an international gymnastics competitor, and so because they told me nothing was wrong with my back, I kept training on it. From the time of breaking it, roughly the end of January, things started to get worse and worse. I’d put my school bag on at school and my legs would give out, it was really bad. Eventually they scanned it again, and the doctor’s quote was ‘It’s destroyed.’ They did experimental surgery they’d never done before - they had to construct two new vertebrae out of titanium, and a bunch of fake ligaments and tendons and things. When I was recovering from this, they did say I wouldn’t be the same, but they wanted to get me back to normal. They did the surgery so I could return to gymnastics, but they couldn’t guarantee at what level I could train, and they basically said my future was uncertain. The surgery happened in June (that’s how long I’d been walking around on a broken back for), and I think back on it and I don’t have a clue how I got through it. But it is what it is - I couldn’t get an extension on my exams, so I went in and took them.

After that summer, I had four days in hospital, and I was relearning how to walk, how to jump, all these things. I was about to go into my sixth year of school by the end of summer, when I’d relearned all the basic things I needed to do for school. So they’d asked me the sort of thing I’d want to do, and I’d decided to take drama as an Advanced Higher [equivalent to A-Level], and I’d decided I wanted to go to drama school. But people did ask, should I do that, given my back? And they were right - there was going to be a lot of rolling around on the floor, and strange exercises your back might not be happy with. And from there, I came across East 15 and the Stage Combat course and immediately turned to my mum and said ‘I’m gonna do that!’, and she just went ‘Okay dear. You do that.’ She knew better than to tell me I wasn’t going to do it. But the whole point of why I got into this is that I didn’t want to accept what people were telling me that my future was uncertain - I might not be able to run, or do things after the age of 30, and all these restrictions they were placing on me in the future. So I thought I’d best get on with the most active thing I can do, and work on what I can do at the moment.

Next year is gonna be ten years on, and I feel like I’ve proved everybody wrong in that time. I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do in that ten years - from deciding I wanted to go to East 15, and doing another Commonwealth Games, and all these things - I did it because I wanted to move and be happy moving, and show other people that it doesn’t matter what happened previously, you can do the things you want to do. I think the thing that got me into fighting was the attitude of it as well. Everybody loves the scenes where the hero’s down-and-out, and is the underdog, and something happens where they find some new fight and grit and it comes into the fight and the character - those make up the best scenes. It’s a real identification with that and a want to inspire people like that, because physically it’s not been an easy road in, but it’s been everything I’ve ever wanted to do.

What's the most exciting thing you've worked on?

The most exciting was the Alien 3: The Unfilmed Script with Scare Scotland - it was so cool! It had this big scene where there were six or seven deaths in it, and the alien went round killing everybody. The alien has this huge mask on, and the guy inside can’t see - he can only see about a metre in front of him by looking at the floor, so you had to choreograph it so intricately, and have every actor remember if the alien aims low, you’ll have to adapt and change how you die. He’s gonna aim at your face, but honestly, it might be your stomach, so just go with it.

The alien rehearsed his movements so much, and we worked with people who hadn’t done a lot of stage combat, so we did a lot of work, distance games, learning to stop at the exact right distance away without a check, and managing all that before we got into it. I was in it as well, which wasn’t planned, but someone dropped out and they said ‘Hey, you know the script’, and I said ‘Yeah, bring it! How fun!’. And the music was so good - they’d given us an original track to do the choreography to. I’m a gymnast, so I love choreographing to music, and there’s a dude in a cool costume over there. It’s something you can really sink your teeth into with the fact that he’s basically blind, but seven or eight people on stage need to die, and they all need to die in different ways to make it interesting, and fully showcase everything this Alien can do. For me it was so exciting, and such an interesting thing to do, and it was a little bit insane, which is always fun.

What's it like for you working a female fight director?

Outside of the theatre, it’s immensely a boy’s game. I’ve been turned down from jobs where they’re desperately seeking fighters because they only want men with beards. I just think, ‘I cannot be that. I apologise. I will leave.’ They say they need a horse rider with fight skills, and I go for it, but they say ‘No, you don’t have a beard.’ I want them to do that thing they did with Lord of the Rings - just glue it on, it’ll be fine!

It’s been so irritating at points, because they’ve chosen people from my HEMA [Historical European Martial Arts] group to go and be in these films, and not me. It’s gender based, and it’s so frustrating. But there’s nothing you can really do about it. With acting you can discriminate on gender because you kind of have to at points. And they’ll always play that historical card of ‘Oh, women didn’t fight’, but, that’s not true. That’s just the Hollywood side of it, where in these historical films only the men went to war. Well, if you’re talking about World War One and Two, definitely only the men went to war, but before that with the Vikings? It wasn’t just them. The Jacobite Rebellion - women fought there. It’s sad we get pushed to the side.

I think when it comes down to it, everyone’s very tight knit, and everyone knows everybody, so it’s difficult to get into as well. It feels like you have to walk in and prove yourself. It depends on the room, I’ve had some amazing rooms where I’ve walked in and said ‘Hey everyone, I’m doing your fights today’ and everyone’s gone ‘Right! Cool, okay then’, because they are aware that they don’t know anything about it, and if I’m hired as the professional they’ll go ‘Alright, you know something about it, off you go,’ but there are some rooms where you’ve got a battle on your hands before you even start, because you walk in and they’ve all got opinions. Especially in the west of Scotland - because the HEMA scene and the stage combat scene overlap, it’s difficult.

I have literally had people telling me I shouldn’t be doing HEMA because I’m a woman.

When I was in my HEMA club, that’s a statement that’s been made: women shouldn’t do HEMA. It’s astounding, but it’s also astounding that people still think like that, and it’s a weird point in your head where you think ‘I have to handle this situation well and professionally,’ but how do you handle the situation professionally when someone has just said that to you? Oftentimes you’re the only female in the room.

It’s a bit of an anecdotal story, but when that was said in the HEMA club I wasn’t the instructor, but I was the only female in the room.

We were talking about something to do with Disney and swords, something like that. And this guy just quips ‘See, that’s why women shouldn’t do HEMA’. And the room was stunned, we were completely silent, and I didn’t know what to say.

And then a second passed, and I thought, ‘No one’s gonna say it - I need to say it’, and I just had to come out with something. I said, ‘I don’t think what you said is appropriate in the slightest’. And the kind of amazing thing is I was the only one that said anything. I don’t think they didn’t say anything because they agreed with him, but I’m still left to defend myself, and that’s a feeling I get in a lot of rooms I walk into up here. You go to a HEMA event, and you’re aware that in that room there’s a couple of people who’ve done stage combat, a couple of people who’ve done filming, because they overlap so closely. And you think, if these people feel like that towards me now when we’re doing a fun hobby, how do we go in to do this professionally? How do we work a room like that professionally - if I get called in to work with them, how do I manage that? And that for me has been one of the larger challenges that East 15 didn’t prepare me for, because I don’t think they even considered it to be something to be prepared for. I do think the most negative thing about working up here is that the lack of recognition for the qualification has meant that there’s room for opinions of people to mean more than the quality of work and the ability to work. And I find that quite sad, and it’s quite a pressure when you go in places, which is also why it’s good to have people like Michael [Michael J Warne, Strike co-director] with me.

Michael looks like the typical kind of guy that you would expect to be good at stage combat. Then I come in after and they think I’m the ‘assistant’ or ‘helper’. When we worked at the science centre though, even when it was his turn to choreograph, he would choreograph it so I would win. And of course it’s choreographed, but it makes a point in itself that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about the quality, not the gender, size, anything like that. It makes a huge difference to people watching it, to me, and to female actors who are really fed up with always being the victim of something. They’re the rag doll that gets chucked about.

To see something where she's competent, she looks like she can do it, she looks strong, but she’s not bulking up and being manly, she’s still obviously a woman - that's great.

I’m reminded a little bit of the reviews of The Witcher, and a guy who tweeted that it’s obviously a fantasy because women can’t fight with swords - it was a big deal, and it described to me what the feeling is up here about how people see it as unrealistic, choreographed fantasy that a woman could fight like that. But if I fought you, you’d probably lose.

The tricky thing is that the rooms in London are great rooms to be in, with a lot of great women leading things down there. But the further away you go from London, the less good rooms there are, and the less it’s known and accepted that women are everywhere in the industry. I’ve had so many fights with people who’ve sat down and argued about real factual things. One of the most popular fight directors in the country is Janet Lawson, and I’ve had people say to me that, no, that doesn’t seem right. But it is!

Interviewer: "If you’d said James Lawson, they’d accept it in a heartbeat. It’s just because you said Janet."

I know! It reminds me of the Viking graves they’ve dug up and tested the bones - we hold Vikings as the epitome of warriors, and there’s a woman buried in there. But people have told me that they have to say there’s a woman buried in there because of PC culture. I think, no, they don’t have to change facts for PC culture - it is what it is! In the good rooms, that would be a really interesting fact to talk about, and you’d get a good conversation about the subject, people would ask questions and discover more about it. But the other way round is like talking to a brick wall. You say something and they say ‘Nah.’ And you find the article on Google and show it to them, and they’re like ‘Nah, they have to say that.’ I don’t understand how you can have this in your mind.

The question of ‘what’s it like to be a woman in the industry’, however cringey a question it can be to ask, it’s still a question that needs to be asked, and it’s something that still needs to be talked about even though it sucks that it needs to be asked.

That thing that happened in the HEMA club, that happened twice by the way. And again I had to be the only one to say something. And this is the reason why I’m making my own HEMA club - if the others are all terrible places to train as a woman, I’ll make my own one. Because thing is, there are disadvantages [in HEMA] to being smaller, the other person has a longer reach and can hit you before you hit them. But there are also advantages to being small, and there aren’t many places that teach that because the successful places are the ones with people who are bigger and don’t need to try as hard. For someone smaller, or for a female, it’s not something you’ll be naturally inclined to dominate because the people who will be really good at it will be the taller men, with good upper body strength, and probably quite fast. But if women walk in there and see me and my partner Ben (who also isn’t a huge guy, but is a world champion of HEMA) running it, they’ll feel they can really do it. We’ll take you, no matter who you are, and teach you how you can manage it as you, not how to manage it as a big person and give you a big person's techniques, because they won’t work for you. We want to tell them there’s a different way of doing this, and I haven’t found that anywhere else. So we’re doing it.

Can you tell us about some fight work that's really inspired you?

It’s quite an old one, but I really enjoyed the fights in the film Kingsman. I really loved the fight at the very end between Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). I loved her character, and I found that scene really fun, as well as being quite tense - it was really inventive with all of the moves they needed to do for her. There’s also a lot of gymnastics and stunts, and it’s very flamboyant, and I think that brings a certain level of excitement into fights. It was perfect for that type of film. They chose the music very well for the scene - and we’ve seen this with Guardians of the Galaxy, where if you take away the musical score, the film changes entirely, the film is rooted around that music score with the tape he got from his mum. But the songs that are on that tape are so well chosen and so well timed for the feeling of each scene.

I'd also love to have worked with Bob Anderson. He worked with Errol Flynn, was an Olympic fencer and a Royal Marine. He choreographed and taught the fights. He was a superpower in swordfighting on and off the screen! He just sounds like the most amazing person filled with so much knowledge and I wish I'd had the chance to work with him. I have one of his books!

Victoria is an exceptional gymnast, fight director, HEMA practitioner and valued member of our team. This if the first of three posts about the awesome women we work with.

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