Michael Bornhütter is a German sensei, stuntman, fight/stunt coordinator, and actor. He is notably known for The Saint: Wrong Number, The Bourne Ultimatum, V for Vendetta, and The Matrix Resurrections. He won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture for The Bourne Ultimatum; what’s more, he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture for The Matrix Resurrections.
Bornhütter is involved as a fight/stunt coordinator, fight choreographer, and martial arts/stunt teacher with Movision Movement, a Berlin based “stunt team & community of actors and stunt performers specializing in martial arts, fight design & movement preparation/training of lead actors.”
Grégoire Canlorbe: Please tell us about Movision Movement. How was the company born, and what are its ambitions?
Michael Bornhütter: I think Movision Movement was born through Manu [Manuel Werling] and Anna [Anna-Jorinde Pursche] because they both love movement, and both are excellent artists and martial artists. The deeper meaning in the name is found in the details—Mo-vision, the vision of the movement.
I met Manuel on a no-budget film project (Dark Net: The Beginning) that I supervised as a fight choreographer; Manu also played a scene in the film, and I liked the art and style with which he moved, so we got together and I hired him as a fight choreographer assistant for a big film project (Tribes Of Europa). Manuel was a stunt performer before and from the moment we started working together everything went great. That’s when I joined Movision Movement. I also like the idea of Movie and Vision; that is another way of understanding the name.
Grégoire Canlorbe: To what extent do the task of a sensei, martial-arts mentor—and the task of a fight coordinator—relate to each other?
Michael Bornhütter: I think it’s close. Before I started the fight and stunt choreos, I was a sensei for mixed martial arts, just for martial arts. It helped me later to choreograph the fights; it helped me to deal with people and work with them. This is great for me. It’s a different job as a martial arts sensei, but it’s very similar because you work with people and explain to them how you do things. Teaching and learning is what I love about it.
Grégoire Canlorbe: How do you sum up the tale of your “40 years of experience in various traditional & modern fighting styles”?
Michael Bornhütter: My journey began at the age of 12; that’s when I learned traditional fighting styles. I later started stunt training, in the 80s; times were different in this area. In 2000 I worked with Donnie Yen and learned film martial arts, which is completely different from reality. Because it’s unreal; there’s a short real part in the fight, but you could never use that on the street. I learned a soldier’s way of handling weapons, all weapons and knives; I was taught a soldier’s tactical drills. I learned all of this even before I was a stuntman; for, when I started martial arts, I had a sensei who unusually taught me a lot of weapons. He said all martial arts are good and so I learned how to use Sai and Tonfa [a weapon from Kobudo and Ju-Jitsu], and many other weapons and fighting styles like those I would make use of as a stunt and movie fighter.
Grégoire Canlorbe: So, you’re experienced as much with firearms as with fencing, archery, and knife throwing.
Michael Bornhütter: I remember The Three Musketeers [Paul W.S. Anderson’s version]; that was super crazy. We shot in 3D and everything had to be much more precise because the focus is much closer than in 2D; that means we had to be much more precise with the weapons. It made everything more complicated, but also more interesting. You can fake a lot of things—knife throwing and things like those in your question—under the camera; you can also do a lot of tricks when editing. But faking is a little more difficult in 3D.
Grégoire Canlorbe: I believe one of your skills as a stuntman is also driving stunt.
Michael Bornhütter: I’m not a very good precision driver, but I’ve had experience with precision driver things and have driven a lot of vehicles. There are people who drive much better than me, whom I would entrust with tasks such as getting involved with a car race in a parking without anything happening to the vehicle he is driving, or doing a precision drive on an actor and stopping just before hitting him.
I do those things though; I also do things like a U turn. It’s all a matter of practice; you can learn all of that, it has a lot to do with what people want to specialize in. Car stunt has a lot to do with technical standards: if the car is to jump from a ramp, explode, or roll over, it has to be prepared adequately. That means you don’t just need someone who can drive; you also need someone with all the necessary know-how. I know all that, I was there a lot; but I always try to get away from those things, that’s not my stuff really.
Grégoire Canlorbe: How do you assess Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive featuring Ryan Gosling in the role of a Hollywood stunt driver?
Michael Bornhütter: I think the film is very good. There’s always a little bit of truth in a film, but it’s a romantic idea. There’s another old film that’s pretty cool related to it too, which I think is called Driver [Walter Hill’s Driver featuring Ryan O’Neal]; but of course that has nothing to do with reality either. From a cinematic point of view, Drive is awesome, with very good driving, and very good stunt driving, which, I have to say, are very well shot.
Grégoire Canlorbe: When it comes to the way stuntmen are solicited, used, and treated in the Hong Kong movie industry, do you notice some significant difference with the way they are solicited, used, and treated in Hollywood?
Michael Bornhütter: I got into Hollywood films relatively early: at the end of the 80s, while the wall was still in Berlin, I was a stuntman on a Hollywood film with Gene Hackman [Company Business], part of which was shot in Berlin. It was a film about the Cold War; before it was over and was supposed to hit theaters, the wall fell, that’s why the Americans withheld the film. When the wall fell, things moved on pretty quickly: a Hollywood film with Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith [Shining Through] was made here in Berlin. In the beginning it was like you only ever worked with the Americans when they came here; that changed quite a bit in the 2010s, with the possibility offered to many German stunt people that they work in America once they’ve entered the SAG-AFTRA.
I worked with the Chinese for the first time in 2000; I was the German stunt coordinator on a series [Der Puma – Kämpfer mit Herz] with which Donnie Yen was involved as an action unit director. I was a part of Donnie’s team, and did the casting of all the German fighters; I also worked on some choreos with Kenji [Kenji Tanigaki]. Initially it wasn’t possible to work in Hong Kong, as the Chinese weren’t really interested in working with Europeans. It is now the case that many German stunt people are brought to Hong Kong or India, and filming there; but I think it is only ten or fifteen years ago that they were offered that possibility. The whole thing has become more global, which was actually kickstarted by Jackie Chan; he worked in America himself, and inspired other Chinese movie fighters (like Jet Li, and Donnie Yen) to do the same. He did a lot to have people from all countries collaborate with each other in Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
Here is a “significant difference” I see between the Americans, the Germans, and the Chinese when it comes to stunt and movie fighting. The Americans do everything with a lot of money, and with a lot of technology and people; the Chinese do everything with a lot of tricks and try to do the job with less equipment, less money, and less people but with effective things and ideas. And we Germans are somewhere in between.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You were involved with Matrix Resurrections as a stunt performer, and nominated by the Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by a stunt ensemble in that framework. How do you remember the experience?
Michael Bornhütter: For me it wasn’t as exciting as it might have been for the younger people, as I made a lot of films like that before. It was nice to see Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss though. I’ve known, and worked for, the director who made the film for a long time, and I actually got the job through her. I got to know the Wachowski sisters on V for Vendetta; that was the first time I worked with them, and I thought they were great and got along well with them. On Cloud Atlas I did the fight choreography for the two of them; on Matrix: Resurrections I was a stunt performer for Lana Wachowski, her sister Lilly was no longer on board. The work was okay for me. I knew all the stuntmen; we did a lot of stunts in that scene [an explosion scene] I was in, and it was fun.
Grégoire Canlorbe: How do you assess the stunt prowess of those actors—like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jackie Chan, or Tom Cruise—doing their own stunts?
Michael Bornhütter: Very interesting question. To an extent, young actors are all Belmondo who are fit, who are go-getter, who do a lot of their own stuff; all have to meet their physical limitations someday though. Even Jackie Chan, however fit he may continue to be nowadays, has six doubles now.
Anyway, once you start working in America, it becomes difficult for a lead actor to do a lot of his own stunts; because if he gets injured, no insurance will pay for it. Some Hollywood actors, like Tom Cruise, do a lot of their stunts; but I don’t think some performer, even Tom Cruise, can really be covered by insurance if he says: “I will make all my stunts myself.” There are certain things Jackie Chan wouldn’t even do himself if he were still working in America; the risk is just too great that he would injure himself and then stop shooting. I know he hurt himself a few times in Hong Kong on Hong Kong productions; but it’s handled differently there. The man is put in plaster, then the plaster is painted on and then he continues.
Grégoire Canlorbe: David Worth’s Kickboxer enjoys everlasting fame and popularity alongside martial artists, stuntmen, and the public at large. How do you feel about it?
Michael Bornhütter: I find that film to be pretty good. It’s like the other movie with Ryan Gosling: it’s just fiction, a romantic idea. There has to be a story, and the fights have to be choreographed in such a way that whoever is supposed to win wins; that means, of course, like in Rocky, you don’t see a real failure. If a boxer had to analyze the Rocky films, he would laugh his head off at how the fight goes in there; everyone still likes the fights and it’s great.
One reason why Kickboxer has been so popular in the stunt profession may be that it was released at a time when a new generation of stunt people in Germany—we were just mesmerized by all those Jackie Chan movies—was trying to bring that Hong Kong spirit to the German movies, and to fight differently than what was expected from us at the time. I remember I was told then somehow: “Hey, this looks too much like martial arts, don’t do it;” but there were no fight choreographers in the 80s and 90s. The director said somehow: “Show them how to do the scene,” and it wasn’t called fight choreographer; that only came out in 2000 or at the end of the 90s. Anyway we could identify to the way those fights in Kickboxer were choreographed and shot, in a Hong Kong vein; but, of course, Kickboxer also contributed to making martial arts in movie increasingly popular alongside the German public at large.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Please feel free to add anything.
Michael Bornhütter: There are some prizes I received; but for me it’s more important to do some nice work, I don’t need a nomination really.
Transcribers: Davide Daniele Jakubowski;
& Grégoire Canlorbe with the help of Sonix AI
That conversation was originally published by Bulletproof Action, on 20 September 2022