Interview: Filmmaker America Young on Stunts, Directing, and Persistence
From voice acting, to directing, to learning to love your work even on the bad days, America Young is here to tell you how it’s done.
In front of the camera, behind it, or kicking it with acrobatic force, multi-faceted industry pro America Young knows there are no excuses. You want to make a film? Just do it.
We spoke with her and found some premium gems on what she’s learned and how she still knows nothing.
Premium Beat: You have such a diverse skill set — actor, director, producer, and most intriguingly stunt performer. You’ve been set on fire, dragged through gravel, brought your fists to a knife fight, and swung from buildings. How do you prepare for all this danger and still bring the needed reality to the scene?
America Young: First of all, your framing of the question is a lot of fun. Great question. The answer differs depending on which job title I have that day. As a stunt person, I do what I’m told by the coordinator. As a stunt coordinator, I work with the director to find the tone and truth of the scene. It’s so important that the action augments the story and the characters, and that it doesn’t take over. If the scene is all action, the audience checks out. I mean, they’ll watch it and think “That looks so bad ass!” but they won’t be invested in the outcome. They won’t care who wins and they won’t worry about the characters.
The fights, and the way the character fights, need to be character-driven to keep that truth. A person with no training who has never been exposed to a dangerous situation would react completely differently than someone who has. All of this needs to be connected. There needs to be a real connection with story and risk. Doesn’t matter if the character is a child or a superhero, we want the viewer to worry about the characters.
PB: Do you find that being a woman in the stunt world presents any special challenges?
AY: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Obviously. I’m sure it does but since I’ve always been a woman, I don’t really have a different point of reference. I do know that I have always felt supported by amazingly talented stuntmen and stuntwomen in the industry. And since women have to do the same slams into concrete and stair falls as the stuntmen, but are usually in evening gowns or bikinis (so we can’t wear pads), I’ve actually found the stuntmen view stuntwomen with great respect.
That said, there are not a lot of women working as stunt coordinators. Not many at all. I was coordinating a feature earlier this year and worked with an incredible stuntwoman who has been stunting for 20 years. She said I was the first woman she had ever worked for. I believe Monique Ganderton is the first woman to stunt coordinate a major blockbuster movie.
There are some who accept the way it’s always been done, and there are others who ask “Why?” I try to be the one who asks why. And I find most of the time people are open to the discussion, which is pretty cool.
PB: You trained with the same Grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee. What can you tell us about that experience?
AY: Oh man. That was INTENSE! He’s 85 and can still beat the pants off of anyone. Bruce Lee trained with a number of people. My Grandmaster was an expert on kicks so that was the focus of what he and Bruce worked on. I have never worked harder and pushed myself further than when testing for my Black Belt with him. He is old school, hardcore.
PB: Switching gears from Battles to Barbie. You voice her in the TV Series, Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures. What is the process like in the voiceover world? You’ve done other tween projects (Monster High) and video game voices (Saints Row 3 & 4). Is preparing for voiceover work much different than on camera besides the obvious?
AY: Yes! Dreamhouse Adventures is on Netflix. Eight episodes so far with more episodes coming soon! Everything leads back to story, character, and truth. Stunts, voiceover, or on camera, all different skills sets flesh out a different part of the story. If you don’t connect to those things, then people don’t invest. With both VO and stunts, you warm up and you practice and train constantly. With both VO and stunts, you work to find the way you can best serve the story and the project.
I am also currently directing Season 4 of Barbie Vlogger on youtube. We just did an episode about the Sorry Reflex that went viral and I’m beaming with pride. To inspire and affect others as positively as I can is why I am in this industry. Directing the motion capture, voiceover, and animation on this series has been challenging and fulfilling. It’s my experience that Mattel is committed to Barbie being a great role model. Our writer, producers, actors, animators, the whole team are all incredible and are truly seeking the best possible version of this icon. Dream job.
PB: We know you are a badass who can also tap into her inner Barbie. But, when you put on the director’s hat how do you approach the work? Do you lead a set with an iron fist, solicit collaboration, or is it a bit of both?
AY: Benevolent dictatorship. It’s important that the buck stops with someone. There needs to be someone with the singular vision who has all the information and knows how it all fits together. That said, the smartest thing a director can do is hire the best possible people for each job and then listen to them. They think about their job and their department all the time. They know what they are doing and are passionate about their craft. You might not always take their advice, no matter how brilliant, because it might not fit into the big picture. But you will always, always improve the project if you are open to admitting someone else’s idea is better than yours.
As for how to run a set, it’s a fine line right? There’s a lot of money, talent and jobs riding on a film. However, it’s a movie. We get to play for a living. So it’s important to me that we work hard but remember to enjoy it, treat each other well on set, and keep perspective.
When we shot The Concessionaires Must Die!, a majority of it was in Fresno, CA. We were all in a hotel and it felt like summer camp. So many of my cast and crew have told me that to this day, it is still their favorite set they’ve worked on. I think the fun and love comes through on the film. It’s now available on all VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play!
PB: The projects you’ve directed and produced seem very much labors of love. Is there anything you’ve learned from the crowd-funding world?
AY: No matter what the budget, I think they all have to be labors of love because IT IS A LOT OF LABOR! I’ve learned you will love your movie. And you will hate your movie. Then you’ll love it again. Then you’ll doubt everything and think that you wasted everyone’s time. And then you’ll love it again and cannot wait to do another.
This is something I’ve heard from every filmmaker, no matter the level or budget or experience. If at anytime in life you are pushing yourself, personal goal wise, and you think “I will never do this again” it may be because you are so outside your comfort zone that you feel miserable. Which most likely means, you are accomplishing something truly remarkable. Which most likely means, you will be so freaking proud once you accomplish it and will most certainly do it again. So, if you are currently in a loathing cycle, don’t worry, the sun will come out. If you are currently in a love cycle, brace yourself.
I think that makes labors of love sustainable is the love part—the passion part. It’s the people you surround yourself with. When I hire people, I look for the most talented but I also look for people who are hard working, egoless, and full of light.
At the start of every shoot I have started to make a speech. “We are all here for the love of the story we are telling. No one here is getting paid what they or their talent is worth. The gratitude we feel for us all to work together is boundless. So let’s please remember, while we work hard, we say please, thank you, and take dance breaks. If there is an issue with someone, no matter how small, please let’s address it immediately because I guarantee no one on this set would intentionally hurt an other.” Then I usually make a fart joke and start our day.
Whatta Lark, a web series I directed that’s also on Amazon, was such a love fest everyday. We were shooting in an unusual format, so the cast and crew were intimate. We would get to work early and hang out after wrap. No one wanted to leave. By day two we were already planning the second season.
Protectress, a Xena-inspired film that’s now on the festival circuit, was mostly a female crew. Again gratitude, kindness, and belief in our story was what got us through some production trials.
Anything I’ve learned from the crowd-funding world expired the week after I learned it. That platform seems to change on a regular basis. It does seem to be easier to raise money for a game or invention than a film. I wish I had more to share. There are some great articles on it on Ms. In the Biz.
PB: Any general advice for someone starting out and pursuing their dreams in the film industry?
AY: Just make it. You don’t have to show anyone. Start small if you need, a contained story in one room. Two page script, shot on your phone. You will make mistakes. Learn from them. Make another one. You will make mistakes. Learn from them. Just keep doing it. There is literally no other way to do it. Books have tons of information but until you dive in, you won’t really learn anything. Keep telling stories that mean something to you, because if they are important to you, they will resonate with others.
You don’t need to be in LA. You don’t need expensive gear. And you don’t need movie stars. You need a good story. Good stories cost nothing. You are human, you have stories. Stories you wish you saw out there. Stories only you can tell. Tell those.
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