Jo McLaren doesn’t play ANY games when it comes to creating movie magic because, as one of Hollywood’s leading stunt coordinators, the danger is real. After doing stunt work on the colossal blockbuster Titanic, not to mention being Angelina Jolie’s stunt double on both of the original Tomb Raider movies, McLaren has risen to the top of her game. She has worked on some of the biggest film and TV franchises the world has EVER seen and her bulletproof resume speaks for itself. From high-flying stunt work on Dr. Who, Fast and Furious 6, Harry Potter, Captain America, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Spectre in the James Bond series, McLaren’s talents seem to know no bounds.
Now, on one of her most ambitious projects to date, McLaren, the film’s stunt coordinator, helped Paramount Pictures’ psychological sci-fi thriller Annihilation to become one of 2018’s best movies so far. Annihilation is based on a novel about a team of female scientists that enter an expanding alien life form called the “Shimmer” that is like a force field swallowing up more and more of Earth’s land. It’s not a being as much as it is a life force that alters the landscape it contains within itself. Nothing that has been sent into the “Shimmer” has returned…until now.
The movie is directed by one of the most interesting emerging voices in Hollywood, Alex Garland, whose directorial debut, Ex Machina, proved you don’t need a big budget to pull off a big idea on the big screen. Annihilation features daring performances from prestigious stars including Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, Twin Peaks), Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon, Jane the Virgin) and Tessa Thompson (Westworld, Creed) among others. McLaren’s abilities are featured in full force throughout the film and in some scenes that serve as centerpieces throughout the story.
PureGrainAudio caught up with McLaren to discuss her process when it comes creating mind-blowing stunt work, her incredible career, and what it was like to work with a crew of powerhouse female leads to help create Annihilation!
Peep the official Annihilation movie trailer via Paramount Pictures, here.
What is it like experiencing that level of stunt work from the inside out and then seeing it all become fully realized once it’s all edited together within the context of the story?
Jo McLaren: Yeah, I mean, it’s great. It’s always fantastic when you see great movie-making and your work and then what is done with it, with visual effects and the lighting in the edit. The edit is so important and, I think, in Annihilation it just hits so perfectly. I would say I was thrilled with, you know, the outcome of Annihilation, just in the stunt context. I thought it was great. The bear attack was terrifying.
McLaren: Sometimes you think, “Am I going to disconnect with this because I was there through the whole process?” But I didn’t, I didn’t at all. It was equally terrifying, but I knew how we did everything.
But, what do you think that all of the members of the cast and crew brought to a project like Annihilation that only they could? What are some of the signature filmmaking elements that only Alex [Garland, director]. Natalie [Portman], and Jennifer Jason Leigh, etc. all brought to it?
McLaren: Yeah, well, they were all brilliant. I think it was cast brilliantly, Alex is just superb, he’s a phenomenal guy. I think he’s a genius because he’s such a scientist as well as a filmmaker. It was just such intelligent filmmaking and I think that totally shows. I think he did the book complete justice. They were all – I think he was a genius. The cast were – They were all such strong women and they all pitched their characters perfectly. They all had some level of self-destruction in their life, they had nothing to lose going in, and whatever had happened in their life, what we saw of that onscreen, it was so believable.
Yeah, it certainly has a lot of very concrete, tangible elements to it that you don’t typically associate with science fiction all the time.
McLaren: But they were brilliant. The producers were fantastic, the art department was phenomenal, and the visual effects were just amazing. I loved the outcome. Because obviously when we were filming it, we didn’t know what the Shimmer [the alien area] was going to look like, or other elements that were added in post [post-production]. I thought it was fantastic!
Yeah. Well, with someone who has a resume as diverse as yours, what are some of the initial things that really spark your interest or catch your eye when you’re considering taking on a new project? Especially when, you know – You have obviously been used to working on a lot of big blockbusters and things like that including Tomb Raider, Harry Potter, like Spectre for James Bond, Fast and the Furious. So, what are the things that immediately jump out at you and makes you say, “I want to do THAT!”
McLaren: Always, it’s the script and the people making the film. And DNA [production company] are just brilliant and Alex… when I watched Ex-Machina [Alex Garland’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut] I thought it was just genius. So, when I was offered this film, and I had read the script, I was like, “Oh my God. I have to do this.” Because after watching Ex Machina and how much I love that film… It’s always great to work on a project that you love the script and you believe in and that you’re passionate about. So, it was a no-brainer for me, it was a no-brainer.
I loved the fact that it was all females as the leads, strong women, not snowflakes. They were tough and they had to make tough decisions, and it was women having to make those decisions. And I thought that was…I’m not a strong feminist or anything, but I thought it was so refreshing in moviemaking to see that. There was no portrayal of sex objects or anything like that. They were intelligent women scientists that were going in and making crucial and critical decisions and that, for me, was a clincher. So, to have a female at the helm of the stunt department was fitting as well.
Very appropriate. Well, they [the characters] are certainly not damsels in distress. So what was that energy like being on set with powerhouse lead actresses like Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh?
McLaren: They were great! They became very close in filming and worked together, supported each other and the energy was fantastic, it really was. They really bonded on that movie and that made making the film great for everyone. The energy that they created together was… It was a collaboration to make the – To make the characters bounce off each other. It was great to watch. Fantastic actresses, and actors as well, they were all brilliant. I think it was cast superbly.
What’s it like bringing the tangible elements by being a stunt coordinator to movies that have such high concept, imaginative storylines, and characters that are larger than life?
McLaren: What was it like to be the stunt coordinator?
Check out the “Humanoid Mimicking Lena” scene here.
Especially when you’re bringing more of the concrete physical elements onto a story with so much imagination in it.
McLaren: Yep. When you’re creating or designing the stunts it’s always having that in mind. We could take the bear attack [in Annihilation] for instance. So, when the bear comes in and he sends the women crying, and then kills Gina Rodriguez’s character, it’s taking it every step of the way. So, we’ve got a big stuntman and we used him to interact with the actresses and he had a sort of bear head on and figuring out how we could make – get them to do the great reactions for our stunt cameraman.
How we could create something to interact with them. And with the alligator attack, having a vision, exactly where that alligator is now where he’s moving, what he’s hearing. So for us, for the stunt department, it was always – Even though we might not have physically had something there to work against, like with the alligator under the water – that was part of our challenge. It was creating, “How does this alligator move? Is he fast? How does he rip around?” and then designing action for the actresses.
When he takes Tuva [Novotny, who plays the character Cass Shepherd in Annihilation], when the bear grabs her, how does he do that? How much? How big do we want that stunt to be? Well, he grabs her and we want to create a surprise element as well…we get into horror, that element of shock that you’re not expecting it and build up the tension. That’s the thing, part of the stunts is building up the tension and not making it look predictable. It’s not action for action’s sake.
Yeah, absolutely, because there are a lot of centerpiece moments throughout the film that are really hinged on that level of believability even though it’s a very fantastic concept. The last question I had was, after working on so many flagship franchises and working with a lot of big, high caliber directors like Alex [Garland] – I was wondering, what are some of the bucket list projects or things on your hit list that you’re excited to work on next? Or what your dream project would be?
McLaren: Okay, well I’m currently working on Maleficent 2, so I’m stunt coordinating that, and that’s great, working with Angelina [Jolie] again. With Disney, that’s a completely different ballgame, that’s doing a family film.
Yeah, I can imagine.
McLaren: You know, completely different. So, you have to completely – I like a challenge and I like having to think outside the box. I think for me, as a female stunt coordinator, the genre that I love is war, and particularly World War II films. I think on my bucket list would be definitely to do a big World War II movie. I got to work with two people earlier this year that I’ve absolutely always wanted to work with, which was Judi Dench and Trevor Nunn [Nunn directed the upcoming film Red Joan starring Dench] they are two of my favorites, and as a theatre director and a film director. I don’t need to say anything about Judi, she’s just – she’s AMAZING!
She’s certainly in a league of her own.
McLaren: She’s incredible. She really is. I love her to bits. So that was a tick off the bucket list there.