Richard Ryan’s fight club: Arms and the man

by Mark Burger

Richard Ryan’s fight club: Arms and the man

Richard Ryan started out wanting to be an actor. As a matter of fact, in the last few years he’s been involved with some big movies, including this year’s biggest: The Dark Knight, which takes its DVD and Bluray bow this week via Warner Home Video. (For review, see Page 41.) But if Ryan himself isn’t recognizable onscreen, his work definitely is. He’s a fight choreographer and fight arranger. If an actor’s wielding a sword, chances are he or she has crossed paths — and, more than likely, blades — with Ryan at some point. Born in London, Ryan attended drama school at the Bristol Old Vic, and in addition to his acting aspirations he always had an interest and an enthusiasm for fencing and movement. He worked with and befriended the legendary fight choreographer William Hobbs (whose credits include Shakespeare in Love, Excalibur, Brazil and Richard Lester’s Three and Four Musketeers), and when an opportunity arose to work on stage productions as a fight arranger himself, Ryan was thrilled. It might make a nice addendum to his acting career. “Just as well,” he laughs now. He found he liked it. He found he was good at it — and getting better all the time. And he was finding jobs in the theater on a steady basis. For a time, he was the Master at Arms at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), and his services as a fight arranger and choreographer were ever more in-demand. Making the move from stage to screen started with a couple of low-budget television projects and then a gigantic step forward. Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 epic Troy marked Ryan’s big break, and they don’t come much bigger in terms of scope. Ryan worked more than a year on the project. “I’m the Orson Welles of fight directors,” jokes Ryan. “I did my biggest film first.” The film’s schedule kept extending and the budget kept skyrocketing because the entire production had to be moved from Morocco — because of the impending US invasion of Iraq — to Mexico. The Mexican location was then hit by a hurricane… and then a second hurricane. Such unforeseen circumstances are the banes of existence for producers and studio executives, to say nothing of bond-completion companies, but for Ryan the extra time was spent honing and fine-tuning his work with the actors, who included Brad Pitt (as Achilles) and Eric Bana (as Hector), and making their swordplay convincing and compelling. “All of the elements you want to have were in place,” he says of Troy: “Actors who are willing to put in the hours, a director who is supportive, and top-class stunt performers.” After Troy came The Last Legion, which took him to Tunisia and Slovakia (“From the blazing heat to the bitter cold,” he laughs) but didn’t quite hit the mark with audiences or critics. Nevertheless, Ryan particularly enjoyed working with leading man Colin Firth, whom he compares to a latter-day David Niven. The locations in England and Scotland for the adventure fantasy Stardust brought Ryan closer to home. “One of the most thoroughly fun experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “I got to train Robert De Niro — how shabby is that?” After Stardust came The Golden Compass, for which Ryan was the fight arranger. Given the size and scope of these films, as well as the length of production, Ryan has drifted away from theater. “I’ve done less and less in recent years,” he says. “Unfortunately, if a film comes along, it takes you out of the loop.” But having worked on approximately 300 stage shows and barely a half-dozen movies, he’s keen to continue working in a medium that continues to offer him new challenges… as well as better pay and trips to exotic locations around the world. Working “on lots of night shoots” in England and Chicago as the fight arranger on The Dark Knight, Ryan found it an arduous but exciting production, and was impressed by director Christopher Nolan, to whom he gives a large deal of credit for the movie’s success.

“It’s a wonderful piece of work,” he says. Christian Bale, he says, “was a real quick study. He completely invested himself in the role and he’s a really nice chap. It’s a really pleasant experience working with actors like that. Those things make life so easy.” Ryan worked less extensively with Heath Ledger, cast as Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. The character isn’t supposed to be physically imposing, but he also had to be convincingly roughed up by the Caped Crusader. Like Bale, Ryan found Ledger to be an enthusiastic, energetic participant and was deeply shocked and saddened by the actor’s untimely death last January, prior to the film’s release. Since The Dark Knight, Ryan had the opportunity to try something new with Drona, a “Bollywood” adventure-musical produced in India, on which he served as swordmaster. “Only a tiny bit, but it was great fun and a lovely experience,” says Ryan. Solomon Kane, an adventure film based on Robert C. Howard’s series of novels, was Ryan’s next assignment. The film, which will be released next year, stars James Purefoy as a mystical warrior on a mysterious and deadly quest. “Purefoy was lovely to work with because you could argue it with him,” Ryan laughs. “He’s got very strong ideas and I really enjoyed that. I know fights. He knows film.” Faintheart, a spoof of those who re-enact battles (in this case from Viking legend), marks Ryan’s first foray into screen comedy as well as presenting one important new challenge: “The fights aren’t supposed to be very good,” he says with a smile, “which presents different problems. But I wanted to do it as soon as I read it. It’s a lovely script.” When he’s not teaching stars the finer points of screen swordsmanship, Ryan and his wife are making themselves at home here in North Carolina, where they’ve decided to take up residence. He was on his way there when he dropped in to participate in the three-week national workshop given by the Society of American Fight Directors at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) earlier this year. Since this interview, however, he’s back in London, working with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as fight coordinator on the new Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie. The Great Detective, undoubtedly, will possess skills that prove he’s as sharp with a sword as he is in criminal deduction. And he’ll have Richard Ryan to thank for that. Richard Ryan’s official website is

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The Dark Knight stars Christian Bale as Batman.