“I’m going on an adventure,” are words synonymous with Bilbo Baggins but they could so easily have been Peter Dillon’s as he took a year’s sabbatical from his job as a teacher in Dublin to travel the world. That “adventure” led to Peter giving up teaching and becoming a stunt performer, via a job as an action extra in The Lord of the Rings. Today, he is the stunt double for Ken Stott (Balin) in The Hobbit trilogy.
Peter, who since wrapping on The Hobbit in July, has been working on the TV series Vikings, took time out of his busy schedule to answer some of my questions about The Hobbit.
I was curious to know how a man who doesn’t look like Ken Stott and is some twenty years younger than him gets the job as Balin’s stunt double. Peter said, “An Irish national, I lived in New Zealand for several years, and I am a member of the Stunt Guild of New Zealand. Although The Hobbit Stunt Coordinator is Australian Glenn Boswell, he utilised NZ talent where possible. I got a call in January 2011 offering me a position on the stunt team. I subsequently found out I was to be the stunt double for Ken Stott, the actor who plays Balin.”
Peter, who has worked as a stunt performer on films like Avatar and Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explains the difference between a stunt performer and a stunt double, “A stunt double is also a stunt performer, but with a particular responsibility for the action sequences of that actor and their character. Whether it’s the out-right performance of a given sequence in front of camera, or ensuring that the actor is well-prepared and safe performing an action sequence themselves, the stunt double’s time and energy tends to be focussed on that one character.”
This means the actors and stunt doubles work closely together. Peter said, “On The Hobbit, we had several months of physical training prior to shooting, ensuring we were well prepared to take on the challenges of the job. During this time we worked very closely with our actors, learning how to move in character, training with a variety of Middle-Earth weapons, teaching them their fight beats and discussing how they envisioned bringing their Hobbit alter-egos to life.”
But Peter isn’t only Balin’s lead stunt double: he’s also his picture double. He explains: “Being a picture double generally means standing in for the actor in sequences that are not stunt-related, but do not require dialogue. In the case of The Hobbit, there is obviously a heavy emphasis on prosthetic make-up, allowing for a very close match between actor and double. Consequently I found myself in a number of setups, that I normally wouldn’t associate with being a stunt double.”
Ah yes! The prosthetics. I have, of course, heard how long the actors spent in makeup each day but was surprised to learn that it was the same for the stunt doubles. Did he find any problem with doing stunts in prosthetics? “It’s always a challenge performing in prosthetics,” he said, ”given the added heat, overall discomfort and the long days, and when added to the weight of the costumes, which varied between 20 kg and 30 kg, you had to work hard on occasion, to find your happy place, and the energy to produce the goods.”
Peter began his career as a stunt performer working on The Lord of the Rings. His impressive CV tells of stunt fighting, high falls, body burns, harness/wire/ratchet/ram work, riding/saddle falls and Oriental and European swordsmanship. He obviously loves his job and, when asked about a favourite stunt he said, “I enjoyed all the stunts I got to perform on The Hobbit. Obviously I am limited in what I can say, as parts two & three have yet to be released, but whether fighting goblins in their labyrinth, or doing wire-assisted leaps to escape the wargs, it was all good fun.
“On LOTR, I did quite a lot of motion capture work, especially for parts one and two. As you probably know, motion capture is the process whereby a performer, wearing a specially designed suit, is filmed performing the required actions, which are then ‘captured’ into a computer. From there, the techs can put any surface they want onto your performance, making you and elf or an orc or whatever is required, and then that finished rendering is inserted into the film. It’s a very precise business, as the suit’s markers pick up every little movement you make…
“I wasn’t a double on LOTR, but got to perform as an Orc, an Uruk Hai, a Ranger, a Gondorian and a Harad. These performances generally involved getting killed in some unpleasant fashion, whether falling from a Mumikil tower, getting shot off a horse, or fighting actors and other stunties … but all part of the job – and a job I love doing.”
So, without giving any secrets away, can he tell us how a particular stunt is done? “Every stunt is different, as dictated by the requirements of the shot, and therefore requiring different equipment and skill sets. I could spend all day answering this particular question, but the two most important things in any stunt, are good preparation and the right personnel. Putting the right performer in the hands of a thorough Coordinator will tend to produce the best results. And the safest.
“I mentioned a wire assisted leap earlier. That’s a simple enough gag on the surface, but if something goes wrong you can find yourself going face first into a tree. In that case, I had a wire attached to the back of a harness I was wearing underneath my costume. I ran towards the tree, springing off the offered knee of a fellow dwarf, at which moment a team of riggers added their muscle to my own leap, sending me up to the required branch … simple enough, when it goes according to plan, but the minute you start taking the process for granted, you’re likely to get bitten.”
I’ve heard Peter tell of the Orcs and Gondorians playing football during a break in the filming of LOTR and wondered if there were any such moments during The Hobbit. Peter said, “In many ways, the entire thing was pretty surreal from start to finish! I think the first sense of this came on day one of shooting. Almost 10 years had passed since finishing pick ups on The Return of the King, but here we all were, back in the same studios, with the same director and much of the same crew, in Middle-Earth and surrounded by some very familiar characters… I felt like someone had edited out the last 10 years of my life and that, perhaps, we’d never left after all …
“Seeing each other in full prosthetics and costume for the first time was pretty funny too. These were guys who’d known each other for years and yet we still struggled, in some cases, to figure out who was beneath all that silicone!
“I remember being high up in the mountains near Queenstown, in the South Island, having been dropped to work by helicopter, in a location beautiful beyond description, majestic in its isolation. The distant buzz of an incoming helicopter caused me to look up and, dangling by cable below the chopper, was a Tardis-like portaloo. “Weird”, I thought to myself, given the environment, ‘I hope it’s unoccupied!’
“Dressed in green-screen gimp suits to play Rhosgobel Rabbits pulling a sled, running from wargs through the New Zealand countryside for days on end, a van–load of dwarves driving across town to a wet set, in prosthetics, looking like a collection of ancient pensioners on a day out, shooting around a jet-powered waterway in a barrel, watching a prosthetic orc struggling with spaghetti at lunch time …. Yep, some pretty surreal moments all right!”
Last year Peter went to the Dublin premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As someone so involved in the film can he enjoy the story or is he always looking for the stunts? He said, “It’s funny, I realised as I sat into my seat, that I was feeling a bit nervous! I don’t really know why, to be honest, but to answer your question, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s always nice to be able to spot your work, but I love movies, I love the cinema and I love being transported to the world of the film I’m watching. And stunts or no stunts, The Hobbit brought me back to Middle-Earth ….”
Peter returned to New Zealand this summer for additional filming on The Hobbit, but what had he been up to between wrapping on principal filming and then? “I returned to Ireland on completion of principal photography, and did some work on a few TV shows (Vikings, Ripper Street, and Line of Duty),” he said, “Vikings was shot in a brand new studio, in Ashford, County Wicklow, near where I live. It’s a good show, and seems to be building quite a following. In fact, we’re currently shooting season two…
“Apart from that, I use whatever down-time I get to train, catch up with friends and family, and look for the next job…”
And that just about brings our interview to a close, but I can’t leave without asking Peter what the best thing is about being a stunt double? “The food,“ he smiles, “And the company.”