Stunt coordinator and 2nd Unit director Steve Ritzi grew up around boats on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway on the Atlantic coast. In 1989 he auditioned for and won a role in the stunt boat show at Universal Studios Orlando. At the time, Florida ’s film and television industry was booming, and Ritzi decided he wanted to learn more about stunts. Fortunately, veteran stuntman Glenn Wilder had moved from Los Angeles to Florida, and Ritzi began attending informal training sessions in Wilder’s backyard where scaffolding had been erected so they could practice falls, and, of course, fights. Ritzi also attended a driving seminar held by another veteran stuntman, Wally Crowder, and soon found himself heading over to Orlando-area soundstages, resume and headshots in hand, to introduce himself to the stunt coordinators. The result has been a stellar career in Hollywood’s action game that has included executing physical “gags” on dozens of films – Passenger 57, The Patriot, Bad Boys II, Transporter 2, Body of Lies, Zombieland among them – while also adding stunt coordinator and second unit director credits to his resume on a number of films, most recently, Jonah Hex.

ICG: You’ve worked on a lot of pictures. What was special about Jonah Hex? SR: This was the toughest show I’ve ever done. I’m not known as a horse guy. I’m more an all around guy with vehicles and boats, so it was interesting to take on a different genre. There are so few Westerns made, and Jonah Hex has such a following. Everybody knew it could be something new and interesting and cool being that it’s based on a comic book. (Director) Jimmy Hayward did have a different vision because of it being comic book based. It really made it a pleasure and challenge to go to work every day, because you’re trying to make it work cinematically, while staying true to that Western genre. You don’t want to be doing big martial arts fights in the middle of a Western. It’s cowboys. Stay true to the genre, but with a little flair.

Did you watch any of the classic Westerns – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone films – to see how they handled the stunts? I have seen Westerns, but when I came on board, I didn’t want to get anything particular in my head. I really wanted to be able to absorb Jimmy’s vision and not be tied to anything that I had seen.

How did shooting in and around New Orleans impact the stunt-work? A lot of the Louisiana locations were very remote. We shot out in some swamps, and in St. Francisville, where there are acres and acres of white sand dunes.  It was blistering hot and extreme working conditions. While Jonah Hex was the toughest show I’ve done, it was also the most rewarding because we got great footage. At the end of the day, you’re wiped out, but you’re happy.

Talk about your collaboration with the director and DP. What’s the first thing you do?
Each film is different. It depends on the producer, director and who you know. Usually the first thing you do is read the script and break down the stunts, trying to get a feel for the story. And if you can have the conversation with the director over the phone before you meet you can get an idea of his or her vision. It’s always different. You may do one show that reads like it has a lot of stunts then you learn they’ll be doing a lot of visual effects, and the stunts decrease. You may do another show where they want to do all the stunts straightforward and real. For Jonah Hex, Jimmy showed me some pre-vis presentations of his vision for the story. That gave me a better idea of what he wanted. For instance, how he wanted people to be shot in a certain way, more stylized, and a little more animated than some gritty realistic films.

We heard the film was planned as a hard-R, but shortly before production, the decision was made to go PG-13. Did that change your workflow? Not so much for the stunts and me. We’re doing the gags. It comes down to what you show. That really impacts special effects. How much blood do the squibs put off. It may change the violence of a fight a little bit. But as long as you’re not showing body parts breaking and blood spewing. And, you can get away with a lot in a fight.

What were some of the safety considerations, especially with the principal actors?
There were a lot of safety considerations, particularly for Josh Brolin. He was going to be on horseback a lot. There’s a scene where the horse rears up and Josh shoots at the same time. The insurance company was very concerned with rearing the horse with the actor on it. Also the riding scenes, how fast would he be riding? Josh is very capable on a horse, more so than a lot of stunt guys I know. Don’t forget that TV show he starred in, The Young Riders. But the insurance company still has to cover itself with liability. He may be a great rider, but even the best rider can get thrown off. If something happens then production shuts down.

How open was the director to your ideas for the gags? He was very open to suggestions and ideas. We would sit in his office in preproduction and talk through each gag. Also, he had been working with the writer and storyboard artist to write out how they wanted the fights to happen. I would take that, and any storyboards and elaborate on it and come up with some interesting things or different ways of doing things.

I remember one time where I was in his office with (producer) Andrew Lazar and I’m acting out both sides of the fight. I’m playing Josh Brolin and I’m also playing (actor) Michael Fassbender. I’m rolling around on the ground and they’re just laughing at me, but they got the visual of it and they were like, “We love it.” But he was very collaborative. He definitely had his vision, he knew what he wanted to see, but he was also open to asking, “give me some ideas on this.”

DP Mitch Amundsen likes a lot of movement with the camera. What was your collaboration like with him? Mitch definitely has a great action-oriented style, whether it’s fights or shootouts. We would rehearse the fight sequence, then take it and show it to Jimmy, Mitch and the actors. If they liked it, fine. If they didn’t we’d change it. For the most part, everything was storyboarded, but then when you get on the set, certain things may work a different way. You use the storyboard as a strong guideline. There’s a great fight in the film in a fighting pit, like in an octagon arena, and we were down there, hand held, in and out of the fight, and jumping around. Obviously, you have certain hero shots you want to get, and you know which ones from the storyboards, but then you’re moving in and out of it hand held to get more.

What was the most difficult sequence? As far as logistically, it was the climax confrontation between the two (Civil War-era) ironclads because it was so big. We were working nights an hour outside of town. We had 40 stunt guys on one boat, and another 12 or 15 on the other boat out in the water approaching and the shoot out that happens between them. So logistically you’re working on a raised stage 40 feet in the air up on the deck of this boat. We were lighting guys on fire, and doing multiple burns. We shot three guys lit on fire that topple down the side of the boat into big box catchers. There were all the safety considerations that go on with that. It went very smoothly. But it was just one road in and one road out; right on the edge of the swamp, and it was a long week.

How do you decide when to use doubles for the principal actors? You want to design a fight that the filmmakers can shoot around. We did a fight sequence between Josh Brolin and John Malkovich where they did the entire sequence. Now we also covered it with doubles where we did some really nasty ground hits. But Josh and John did the whole fight and did a great job, close-up, hand held and they just beat each other up.

I do like seeing the actors do as much as they are comfortable with doing. Sometimes you have actors who aren’t comfortable, or physically can’t do something. Then you’re covering them closer. It’s a collaborative process – designing the fight, showing it to the director, the DP and then also having rehearsals with the actors. We shoot those as well and that’s where we find out that we can shoot the whole sequence with the cast, and maybe just a bit with the doubles. Then you really get jazzed because you feel like, “Wow, we shot this footage and the audiences will say, ‘that was really him. That was those two guys going at it.’”

What are your thoughts about the replacement of stunt people with CGI? I know it’s sometimes necessary. There are some shows, like Transformers where there is no other way for it to be as spectacular.  But some shows, it just doesn’t interest me because I know it’s some guy sitting at a computer, and that, to me takes away from the joy of watching it. I love doing stunts the real way, down and dirty.

Any stunts of yours that really stood out for you? I was driving a race boat through Miami Harbor for Bad Boys II with a helicopter all over me. The pilot was making like he was pushing my boat with the skid of his helicopter, and I’d react to it. I’m going fifty knots, and I was telling the other guys if we hit a wave, watch it, because this could go south very quickly! The pilot was right on top of us. It was real wild and one of those things were so many things can go wrong and you (just) have to think where you’ve got to be and what you’ve got to do.

photo by Frank Masi