A conversation with fight choreographer Nick Gillard

Robert Fais of Rogue Fencing Melbourne chats to the father of lightsaber fencing.

All images from danger-inc.com, Nick Gillard 2021

Nick Gillard ran away from military school to join the circus.

As a circus trick rider, his horsemanship led him to the Moscow State Circus and the set of the Thief of Baghdad (1978). He started his film career on Superman and befriended Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. His filmography as stunt man and stunt director includes all of the Superman films, the Aliens series, and cult classic Labyrinth, but it was his work on the Indiana Jones franchise that lead him to LucasFilm, Star Wars, and inventing the martial art of lightsaber combat.

This is the man who showed us the Jedi in their prime.

RF: Nick, thank you so much for doing this written interview with us.

NG: If journalists asked questions like these I would do more interviews!

RF: The story of how you got into stunt work could be a movie by itself, but was there one moment when you knew that this was what you wanted to do with your life?

NG: Truly it was the food. I got called in from the circus to work on a movie called The Thief Of Baghdad when I was sixteen. 

I couldn’t believe the amount of food, and it was free. I stuffed my pockets with donuts and pies every night and decided then I would move into stunts.

RF: You once explained how stunt co-ordinators must be at instructor level in six different sports, including one fight discipline. What drew you to fencing/the sword rather than a different combat sport? 

NG: You know me for fencing, others know me for horses, fire and high falls. Fencing was easy as I also worked in a medieval jousting tournament doing live shows for a few years playing William Wallace. We did lots and lots of sword fights, axes and quarterstaff too.

RF: In an interview, you once said that you worked with the natural style of movement of the actors and performers in your action scenes. Did you find that an actor or stunt performer having a fencing background was a help or a hindrance?  Who was the fastest learner, and who was the fastest fighter you’ve worked with so far?

NG: Going with their natural movement/shape was and is the only way, I would give them a sword and ask them to imagine an opponent, tell them to move the sword in a way that felt natural to them then build the style from that. You may only get a couple of cool-looking moves but that is enough to move forward with.

For lightsaber fighting it is MUCH better if they have had no training at all, as it is all about the feet. Plus you are much closer to your opponent, uncomfortably close. Most fencers I teach hate being that close and constantly try to maintain a bigger distance.

Ewan and Hayden were the best, both learning it very fast. It’s hard to say which one is better.

The fastest I’ve seen was a guy from Melbourne who Kyle Rowling (Star Wars episodes II and III fight director) brought in for the arena scene. He was amazing but suffered from terrible nerves so didn’t make the cut on the day.

RF: You’ve rightly been called the inventor of lightsaber fencing so… what was the biggest challenge in inventing an entire sword form for a fictional weapon

NG: It wasn’t really a challenge, I enjoyed it. The difficult part was getting rid of all the rules! I wanted there to only be one rule: as torso, arms and legs can be replaced, you have to defend your head. So if I can cut your leg off but you can cut my head off – then I have to defend my head.

RF: How did you decide what that sword form should look like?

NG: I wanted it to be believable in a world of laser guns, so it’s as much about attitude than anything. A fight is won in the mind before the first blow is struck.

RF: With no sword guard to block with and an omni-directional cutting surface, to what extent did the lightsaber weapon itself determine this?

NG: A weapon like that gives you all the attitude you need. There are small guards, but just big enough to block, slide and shunt your opponent’s lightsaber.

RF: Star Wars isn’t the only time you’ve invented a new combat style. How did you come up with the axe and sword combination for the deadly Hessian in Sleepy Hollow?

NG: Thanks for noticing! I loved that fight. Again, go with your actors. Johnny Depp, Casper Van Dien and Chris Walken are all very different. Walken was a dancer, so his feet were good. I had to work with the other two to get their feet right: it’s all about the feet. 

The fight just evolved. I tend to do them myself at home one move at a time. I make the first move and then look at all the options to defend and riposte. It’s always one move at a time, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a riposte or attack – it can just be a foot move. That is, can you turn out of it without compromising your position? Will that put you in a better position?

People always think about hitting swords. I always think about moving first.

RF: Star Wars again: Every lightsaber scene carries the narrative of the movie, and also of the character. How did you did decide what form or style of fighting suited each character, and which lightsaber style is your favourite (if you have one)?

NG: Again go with your actor’s movement and adjust what you have to fit them. My favourite was Palpatine, but sadly we didn’t get to see it. The fight with Mace Windu was ALWAYS going to be a double (Palpatine was the only person I have not been able to train). Unfortunately, on the day George (Lucas) wanted him to do the fight himself. He didn’t know the fight, only the close-up, so we had to teach him the rest in under 15 minutes on the day. That’s why that fight sucks.

RF: What was the biggest challenge in writing and directing what is arguably the greatest lightsaber fight of any Star Wars film: the Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace?

NG: The length of it, 12 minutes, is a long time in a movie and can affect the pace. I had to match the pace and keep it building. The actual fight moves were fun to do, and the actors could have done that fight all the way through at full pace. They did it several times in rehearsals. 

RF: I have always heard rumours that the scene when four Jedi Masters confront Chancellor Palpatine was originally written very differently to what was filmed. How would you have done it if you’d had the final say in what went on the screen, and do the originally envisaged versions of these fights exist anywhere on script or film?

NG: The original was my version – it was MUCH better. There were some serious Jedi in that scene, and we the fans should have been given the opportunity to see them, Kit Fisto in particular. I also had them fight the Imperial Guard on their way in. I love the Imperial Guard and we hadn’t seen what they could do, but it is George’s movie and he decides (rightly so). I have a version of it somewhere. 

RF: I understand you had to turn down Lord of the Rings due to scheduling conflicts. Do you have a favourite sword fight in any of those movies, and if so, why is it your favourite? Do you have a particular favourite action scene (of any kind) from your own work to date?

NG: No, it would have been very different If I had done it. I had actually written most of the fights for LOTR. Again, alas…

RF: Lastly, are you allowed to tell us what you are currently working on, and is there any chance we will see your work in The Mandalorian, or any other of the new Star Wars streaming series that are planned?

NG: I’m working on a very small TV series about a woman, no sword fights. At the end of the day I’m a stunt coordinator.

The Mandalorian, I wish. No they don’t want me anymore..

If I work in Australia again I’ll be hitting you up for advice on my tax…

All images from danger-inc.com, Nick Gillard 2021

More of Nick Gillard’s amazing filmography, images and CV can be seen on his website at www.Danger-Inc.com