Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Stunt Coordinator Reveals How the Fantastical Action Came to Life

Jo McLaren has been taking the on-screen hits for Angelina Jolie for nearly two decades, beginning [...]

Jo McLaren has been taking the on-screen hits for Angelina Jolie for nearly two decades, beginning with her work as a stuntwoman on the first two Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films and most recently as the stunt coordinator for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.

McLaren has a long and enviable resume, from her stunt work of action extravaganzas including Titanic, The World Is Not Enough, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts One and Two, Captain America: The First Avenger, Fast and Furious 6, Gravity, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Spectre, elevating to the role of stunt coordinator for projects like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., You, Me and the Apocalypse, Annihilation, and Overlord. As one of the top women in her line of work, McLaren lifts the curtain on two of her most recent projects Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – now on home video – and Cats. This must have been an especially fun experience for you. given your history with Angelina Jolie. Tell me a little bit about that and why it was fun to get to work on this one with her.

Jo McLaren: Well, I first met Angelina back with Eunice [Huthart] and myself doing the Tomb Raiders back in the day. I saw her as not only an incredible actress, but somebody that just takes on action with such ease – just everything she does, she makes it look great. To have worked with her as a stunt performer and then having the pleasure to work with her as a stunt coordinator was very striking. It was great.

What did that past experience do to help you get where you needed to be on this movie with her? Tell me a little bit about that collaboration.

Obviously she likes to do as much as she can herself. On Maleficent, she did pretty much everything, but she knows what she wants, she knows what feels right for her. Obviously she is Maleficent, she did the first Maleficent, she knows what she wants, she knows the character, how she wants to take off, how she wants to land, how she wants to fly. It was great, because if I was reading a piece of the script, obviously I'd talk to Joachim [Rønning], the director, and then always go to Angelina and say, "So is this a hard landing? Is this angry or how do you want it?" And she would know instinctively.

And then when you put her on the tuning fork or the wire, she just smashed it every time. And I knew she would, because obviously I had worked with her before. She just moves with such grace and elegance but so strong as well.

I'm sure that every project comes with its particular challenges that can be both daunting and thrilling, so what was the big challenge on this one for you that was unique from other projects? And what was the fun of all the problem-solving you got to do to get there?

On Maleficent 2, you've got not just Maleficent that flies, but you've got all the other Faes. We had to create sequences, sometimes not just one person flying but sometimes four you can see flying together and making it look like they weren't just being puppeteered on wires, making it look like it was a natural movement coming from the wings on their back.

For certain elements, it was challenging just because of how your wires may operate, and making everything look as smooth and as seamless as possible. Then using the tuning forks, which is manually operated, is like a big steel tube that comes from the actors. There are in a harnesses attached to the hips, and that's manually operated. And that is very, very successful for when you want to film close-ups or actor's dialogue when they're flying, like when Angelina and Chiwetel [Ejiofor] are flying together and having a conversation, we'd do that on the tuning forks. So they still got this feel of aerodynamics, but it's in a controlled, close environment to the camera.

I feel like the general public still, when they think about stunts, they have an old-fashioned sensibility about it, and you've got to deal with a lot of the CG magic that's going to take place to get the full effect, especially in a world like what we see in Maleficent. Tell me how that aspect affects your job as a stunt coordinator, knowing that you're going to have to have a lot of things that are taken out or put in by computer throughout the process.

We work closely with the visual effects department, and it certainly, I think, made things easier. It made us be able to be more creative and achieve more things because we know that, "Okay, we want to do this, but it's only safe if we do it on a wire. But that's fine because the visual effects department can paint the wires out." "Well, we need to put a big box ring or crush mats, but we know that's fine as well because visual effects can digitally put the floor in."

In terms of working with the VFX, we work closely with them as to what we're getting for real physicality on the day and where the digital takeover because obviously we have a very tight, busy schedule. You don't want to be rehearsing and doing stuff that you'll never need. We work closely with them to make sure we're doing what is required, and we get the pre-visuals as well, so we look at the pre-viz and we try and work closely with that.

And tell me a little bit about your work on Cats and what was exciting and challenging about that particular project?

Cats was great! You had to look at everything from a cat's point-of-view, so all the furniture, all the sets are twice the size – and sometimes three times the size – to their scale from a cat size. We have these kitchens and things like that, the inside of the houses that were enormous, and again it was creating a cat-like movement when they're on the wire, when we need them to be leaping up walls or jumping down off walls. The stunt performers all went to cat school.

It was so much fun. Again, stepping into another, different world from the wings and then going to another animal and catch them moving so completely differently. It's so rewarding when it works and obviously working with the most incredibly, incredibly talented dancers I've ever seen, but I'll say you have to be so careful because obviously they can't afford to have any injury, even like a small muscle injury. They worked so hard. You had to be particularly careful, even more so that everything was made that a dancer could do and achieve. They're such physical people. That was great. I hope you enjoy it when you see it.

When I was first told about it, it was like, "Oh, there might be a little bit of safety [concerns] here and there." No, there were wires. There were people on wires left, right, and center. It was great. And I got two people I always wanted to work with, which was Dame Judi Dench. I worked with her a little bit on Red Joan, but to work with her and Sir Ian McKellen? Yeah, big tick off the bucket list. I was just, like, "Wow!" You've got Taylor Swift like singing there. Rebel Wilson making me laugh here. Dame Judi Dench there, and Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat. I mean, it was like some kind of surreal, magical dream.

You've had so much great experience and worked on so many amazing projects. I'm curious to hear a little bit about your journey going from stunt performer to stunt coordinator, especially as a woman in the industry. Was it an easier path than people might expect or was it kind of a hard-fought accomplishment to get to the level of stunt coordinator?

It's not easy, and you have to be a certain temperament and be able to deal with stress, decision-making – and not just when you're performing. You're performing, but as a stunt coordinator, you're dealing with all the health and safety. There's so many more elements to it, so it's certainly not an easy job. And I say you have to be of a certain temperament to do the job, you've got to be fun, you've got to be sure of decisions you make, you've got to be incredibly confident in your knowledge and your execution of delivering the stunts, making sure nothing has been missed.

Because I used to do a local flight choreography and I knew that I didn't want to become, say, a more mature stunt performer … because we're athletes at the end of the day, and athletes can't go on forever, the scale that I was doing it. I got a bit smashed up with some injuries and I thought, "You know what? I want to stay in this career, but I need to think long term now."

It was a risk for me to make the jump, but there's a lovely director Kevin MacDonald who gave me my first big break as a stunt coordinator's first job. He had the faith in me to do How I Live Now and then I was off and I didn't look back. And thank God the work came in, and you just never stop learning. You never stop learning. You never put your guard down. Always learning.

Which brings us back to Maleficent. Tell me either the stunt in the movie that you were either proudest of or had the most fun pulling off. Was there one that really stands out as a special joy in getting it done and done right?

Gosh, there's just so many. There was one moment which was so beautiful: all the Fae, they're on the edge of this cliff and then suddenly, they all jump off and go into flight, and we had so many of the actors, all our main Fae, they were all on wires and they were all having to come off simultaneously or one beat after the other. Choreographing that and making all the wire team, everyone with perfect precision, and then we also had some free jumpers as well that were jumping off in the back into a box rig, and it just looked beautiful to watch.

And of course, the battle. [Second unit director] Simon Crane was absolutely brilliant though. He had amazing visions for that, and Joachim. That was much more intense, the battle. And I think that many, many favorite moments. It's hard to pick one!


Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.