Steel clangs on steel. Two adversaries move at each other, slashing and hacking with their swords like a violent dance.
If that fight pulls you to the edge of your seat, if it makes you feel like those battling are in real danger, that's exactly how fight director Vincent Carlson-Brown designed it.
If a fight in a film or stage play is done well, the audience will be engaged. If it's not done well, it could pull the audience out of the story.
“The Wolverine,” which opens in theaters on Friday, will have plenty of violence, a lot of it featuring swordplay. Set in Japan, the superhero Wolverine will use his razor-sharp adamantium claws to combat all manner of samurai — including the villain Silver Samurai — wielding katana swords.
“With Wolverine, the way he fights is very telling to his character,” said Carlson-Brown, interim artistic director for Nebraska Shakespeare. “He's very rageful.”
Carlson-Brown said he would absolutely see the movie this week, and he will pay close attention to the fights.
“It looks sword-based with all the katanas, ninja and samurai,” he said.
Carlson-Brown hopes that every stage fight he choreographs does two things, whether it's with fists, swords or other weapons: push the story along and show character development.
Terry Doughman agrees. The fight director — who choreographs fights for area theatrical productions — has decades of experience and taught Carlson-Brown. They both think that any staged fight should have some sense of realism.
Both cited “Gladiator,” which had fights that weren't very realistic — though the film won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Its sword fights are tied to too perfect a rhythm.
“I'm pretty critical, and Terry has a high standard,” Carlson-Brown said. “There's a way that realistic fights go.”
“If you watch a fight, there's not a steady tempo,” Doughman added. “I was a rowdy sailor at one time. I've had a fair amount of on-the-job training with violence in various seaports. I know what it's like.”
In rehearsals, Carlson-Brown first teaches the fighters how to hold the weapons they're using. Training involves footwork as well as teaching on how to use a particular weapon. Swords, in particular, come in many varieties and are all used in different ways.
They have two ultimate goals: safety and making their actors look like they know how to use the weapon.
Another aspect of stage fights is reaction. Doughman asks actors how they'd react “with a yard of steel coming at your head.”
“I study fighting. I don't study stage combat,” Doughman said. “I'm enough of a real fighter and enough of an actor and enough of a martial artist and enough of an old guy who's been around a lot.”
Doughman, whom Carlson-Brown called “a medieval huntsman born into the wrong era,” has been acting in and directing fights for decades. He also studies old manuals on combat and martial arts.
Doughman became an actor after serving in the Navy. He got into choreographing stage fights because most of what he saw onstage was pretty bad.
“If you do it right, it feels real,” he said. “Theater is pretty much a perfected art. It can be perfectly real. But stage combat is just way, way behind. It's pretty terrible most of the time. ... It's two people banging their swords together in a pattern and going back to acting again.”
Carlson-Brown, who often was cast in villainous roles and came under Doughman's tutelage to learn various fighting styles for the stage, eventually apprenticed under Doughman and now has been directing fights on his own for about six years.
Though they enjoy fights that are more realistic — both cited the 1977 film “The Duellists” as a high standard — they admit that actors or directors can break the rules if they have a good reason.
“'The Princess Bride' breaks every rule that I hold dear, and I love it,” Doughman said. “It makes such loving fun of the fairy-tale genre and it's so sweet and so nice with these impossible sword flourishes.”
Carlson-Brown talked about his “great love” for superhero and sci-fi films, especially “Star Wars.” Some of the bad physics and silly fights you see in some reality-based films can work in a sci-fi film with a healthy suspension of disbelief. A Jedi, for example, can fight super-fast because he has powers that allow him to do so.
“Good fighting tells a story,” he said. “It's not the most dangerous, most flashy, most special effects thing you can do.”