In a drastic career move five years ago, Hollywood stunt coordinator Tom Struthers made a leap into Bollywood.
A long-time Christopher Nolan collaborator, and the winner of a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work on Inception, Struthers spent 28 years making Western films before delving into the Indian industry.
“I’m probably the only Western stunt coordinator who’s ever won two Filmfare awards. I won one solely on my own for Tiger Zinda Hai, and it’s an honour,” Struthers told Gulf News tabloid!.
It was last year that Struthers worked on Tiger Zinda Hai in Abu Dhabi. He’s also credited on the 2013 Indian action-spy thriller D-Day.
This month, he wrapped filming on the opening and closing sequences of Race 3, also filmed in Abu Dhabi, including the Liwa desert.
“It’s been fantastic. I’ve had the best experience that a Westerner could have anywhere in the world,” said Struther.
He recalled a moment after he left Liwa and headed toward the Saudi Arabian border, when he had to stop for petrol. He encountered a man, who reminded him it’s not about the destination (making blockbuster hits) but the journey (meeting great people).
“A local Emirati gentleman pulled up and said, ‘Come to my place for tea. Come and see my car collection.’ I was like, ‘What a great, gracious thing to do,’” recalled Struthers, who indeed went to the man’s house for tea, and to see his car collection.
Ear-splitting explosions, squealing car crashes and dubiously outrageous action scenes are just a few of the things viewers have come to expect from Bollywood’s Race franchise.
The first two Race films are easy winners when it comes to over-the-top stunt work. It’s the kind that demands you leave your best sensibilities at home. But the third instalment, Race 3, may be heading down a different road.
“[Director] Remo [D’Souza] has made a very different movie and I think fans will be pleasantly surprised,” Struthers said, shortly after wrapping the film’s second unit in Abu Dhabi on April 1.
But D’Souza and his crew didn’t stray too far from the tried and tested formula.
“I did two explosions today with two Jeeps. It was huge. Absolutely huge,” said Struthers. “Hopefully it will be the best of the franchise, as you always hope for with these things.”
Struthers spoke to tabloid! days before Race 3’s central star, Salman Khan, was sentenced to five years in jail and released on bail, as part of a case that has been ongoing for two decades.
Khan, 52, was found guilty of killing rare antelopes, known as black bucks, during a hunting trip in 1998.
It is unclear whether the sentence will have repercussions on his upcoming film releases.
Asked whether he was aware of Khan before working with him, Struthers admitted to doing his research.
“He’s on par with his personality and with the way he behaves with some of the other actors I’ve worked with, like Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s in the absolute same category. [He exhibits] professionalism, gets on with it, and is a gentleman to everyone around him. He doesn’t throw tantrums or anything like that,” said Struthers.
“People don’t realise that, in the world, Salman is probably the number six top financial earner in the arts, as an actor. In the world. Not just in Hollywood or Bollywood or China,” he added.
In actuality, Khan was listed at No 9 on Forbes’ list of highest paid actors in 2017.
He came in behind Shah Rukh Khan, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr, Jackie Chan, Adam Sandler, Vin Diesel, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Mark Wahlberg.
They all feature heavily in action films, a high-grossing genre around the world.
“In India and Bollywood, they still love their dance, they still love their exhibition, but the action is now becoming more creative, more grounded, more of what you see in Western-type films and genres. They’re filling a market,” said Struthers.
FROM KENYA, WITH LOVE
Struthers began his own journey in the early ‘90s in Kenya, almost by chance.
He lent some of his animals — “I had horses and polo ponies” — to a friend, who needed them for a TV series titled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The series’ horse master and stunt coordinator both liked Struthers, and invited him to work with them again.
“I was young and ambitious and I wanted to try something new,” he said.
From there, he did major feature films like Braveheart, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, James Bond and Tomb Raider.
His professional partnership with Christopher Nolan followed. Struthers became a supervisor on the first two The Dark Knight films, where he learned “a lot of the craft” from Nolan.
“Even though we’ve got a superhero in a suit, we weren’t making Thor or a Marvel movie. We were making a serious, slightly dark superhero film, but it was still very grounded. That’s Chris’ trademark,” he said.
Struthers continued to work with the English director, enjoying the room that he gave him to be inventive. He called Inception “an incredible, mind-bending creative experience”, and worked on Nolan’s Academy Award-winning war film Dunkirk, released last year.
But for Struthers, it’s not about how big the project is.
“Not every film is going to be a blockbuster or win an Oscar, but I take something from everything I do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a music video or an in-house commercial for Kleenex tissues, for all I know. I approach every job with the same amount of dedication,” he said.
“On Race 3, if I’m doing something, I’m going to do it with the same proficiency and passion that I do it for Chris Nolan.”
Nolan, coincidentally, has been in India this month, where he’s been preaching for the return of celluloid cinema. He spoke about watching the Indian Bengali-language film Pather Panchali, and called it one of the best movies ever made.
Back in the world of ambitious stunts, Struthers knows his vocation is a dangerous one.
The secret to making sure a set is safe, he said, comes down to rehearsal, due diligence, experience of knowing how far you can push your boundaries, and believing in the crew you hire. (“You hire them because they have a safety record and they’re willing to speak up if they think something is wrong.”)
“Touch wood, I’ve not had a bad accident. There’s been a number of bad accidents in our business. We had a camera man killed last year in Zambia, who I knew from [Saving] Private Ryan. We had two stuntmen killed. We had a stunt lady killed in Canada,” he said.
In these tragic situations, he hoped people would refrain from pointing fingers, but learn something instead. “As an individual, you look at it and [think of] what would you do different to preserve people’s safety and lives,” he said.
Race 3 is scheduled to release on June 15. It sars Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Bobby Deol, Jacqueline Fernandez, Daisy Shah and Saqib Saleem.