Excerpt from Christopher Heyn’s book Inside Section One: Creating and Producing TV’s La Femme Nikita

(2006 – ISBN 0978962509)

“TO TELL YOU THE honest truth, I’m not a big fan of violence. I hate violence. I really do.” Coming from the one person most responsible for creating the intense action sequences for which La Femme Nikitais both praised and vilified, this is quite a surprising admission. However, Mic Jones’ personal distaste for violence served as a moral baseline for the scenes he conceived and executed. “Here I am working on one of the biggest shows on television and it’s technically a violent show, so I say to myself, ‘I’ve got to legitimize what I’m doing so that it doesn’t become gratuitous, because I have to think of the young people watching this stuff.’ As someone who works on these shows, it’s your job to make it entertaining, but also not [be] too extravagant on the violence level.”

For a slick action drama like La Femme Nikita, this was no easy feat. Although the series occasionally skirts the realm of the fantasy due to the futuristic technology employed by Section One, the basic premise of the series is no laughing matter. Terrorist threats to innocent life are real, and even within the context of a weekly TV series, the response to those threats has to appear real, whether the solution is an entire team of operatives with automatic weapons, hand-to-hand combat between star and villain, or an explosive or deadly gadget. Even though the stakes are high and the viewing audience is emotionally invested in what is happening on screen, how does Jones foster realism and danger without slipping into either cartoonish or gratuitous violence? Research, and lots of it.

“I had to educate myself in counter-terrorism,” he reveals. “I just jumped into the whole Nikita lifestyle. I bought books on subjects related to counter-terrorism, tactical self-defense, [along with] a manual on private investigation which in itself was very helpful. I basically became an advisor on set. Between myself, the props guys and the gun handlers, we had to instruct people how to hold [different] types of guns, how to act and react like an operative, and how to do covert takedowns in a room. All that stuff. These are all things that I had to first teach myself, and then teach the stuntmen and special skills extras on set so that it looked real on camera. Things like how to cover another agent’s back, deceptive maneuvers when gaining entry into a room and tactical maneuvers for self-defense were just some of the things I had to work out on set on a regular basis.”

This understanding filters directly into the signature fighting styles Jones designed for Nikita and Michael, a primary example of his concern that all action on La Femme Nikita be properly motivated. “I incorporated their fight styles within their characters,” he explains. “[Nikita] was someone who [originally] lived on the street s, so I [combined] that side of her and also some of the Section side. A lot of the fight styles I gave her were actually self-defense tactics that women can use for themselves if they need to defend themselves in any kind of attack. A lot of times I would have Peta [Wilson] do very particular maneuvers that were quick and terminal hits. I never overcomplicated the fights, because in real life. Fights are merely seconds long. Overcomplicating fights in film is something that I personally have a problem with, because I’m really big on audience association.” Jones points out that many big-budget action films and TV series feature hand-to-hand combat sequences that are so over-the-top, the audience can’t possibly imagine themselves in those situations. This was a particular concern for similar sequences on La Femme Nikita, since the series is designed to appeal to a more mature and sophisticated audience. To that end, in the Season One episode “Voices” where Nikita is threatened by a rapist with a screwdriver, Jones designed her physical response to be a simple and effective use of force. “Every one of those hits had a meaning in regards to him being a rapist,” he explains. “That’s why she beat him up the way she did, [because] it was brought up later in the script that he had been attacked by a trained professional. I always try to put myself into the audience’s [point of view] when I choreograph my fights, which is why in this sequence I put myself into the perspective of a female victim. If I was a woman and I knew this guy was a rapist, [that’s] how I would have beaten him up. Amongst other defense maneuvers, there were classic Nikita-style strikes to the trachea and kicks to the sides of the knee caps and joints. This was done not only [for] entertainment, but also to be a little bit educational.” As intended, this scene was especially satisfying to women viewers at the time, and quickly became one of the series’ most talked-about fights.

While Nikita’s combat style reflects her passion and state of mind, Michael’s approach to violence is the polar opposite. “[Nikita] always had a really aggressive outside strength when defending herself, but [Michael] was always reserved internally,” Jones says. “That’s why his fight scenes were always calm, because he was more of a rational type of character, whereas [Nikita] was more physically extravagant. [Michael’s] fight style never crossed over to her fight style, nor did hers to [Michael’s]. I gave him a martial arts style [called] Jeet Kune Do, which translates into ‘the way of the vibrating fist.’ It’s internal energy where you can literally kill somebody with a punch from about an inch away. Bruce Lee had it. The full energy from his mental and physical training would be telegraphed through his punch and could throw a man 10 feet. It’s unbelievable, [but] it actually exists. That was the mental, physical and emotional strength we gave [Roy Dupuis’] character, which was in line with how he imagined his character to be. That’s why he never [fought] on an extravagant level to defend himself.”

Jones also developed a consistent attack style for La Femme Nikita’s larger battle sequences, most of which feature faceless enemy agents using a variety of weapons against Section operatives. Once again, this is a reflection of Jones’ moral outlook on violence. “The good guys always won; that’s what it was always about,” he emphasizes.” Throughout the structure of the show, that was a signature style. Nobody was killed in cold blood for any reason. I always [had] the bad guys pull their guns first or shoot first before the [Section operatives] ever shot them. Nobody ever got shot in the back unless the script called for it, [but there had] to be a reason for it. It was just like the old days of the Wild West – whoever had the quickest draw – but the bad guy had to draw first.”

Jones’ strong convictions about not glorifying violence started when he was a young boy fascinated by action movies, and one in particular. “In 1972, I went to see a movie called Evel Knievel and it changed my whole life,” he remembers fondly. “From that movie, I went home, built ramps and started jumping bicycles.” Upon his discovery that there is such an individual called a “stuntman” who actually gets paid to do that kind of activity, along with all other manner of death-defying feats, Jones’ future was set. But because he grew up in the relatively sleepy Canadian capital city of Ottawa, he knew that if he told anyone about his interest in stunts, no one would take him seriously. So, Jones retreated to his local library to learn as much as he could about his newfound career trajectory. “I read about the history of stunts [and] the classic stuntman, from the 1920s to the 1970s, from the Keystone Cops to Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Harvey Perry – the pioneer stuntmen. [I studied] their lives, the films they had done, and the engineering involved in creating their stunts. However, my ultimate role model was Dar Robinson, whom I met in the early ’80s.” (Robinson, in his brief career before he was killed in a freak motorcycle accident in 1986, was known as the “world’s greatest stuntman” both for his expertise with extreme stunts, and the more than 20 world records he held.)

Jones’ education didn’t end at the library. “I joined the YMCA, I did gymnastics, trampoline, rock climbing, skydiving, motorcycle racing–anything that had to do with defying gravity or dealing with inertia – [as well as] anything technical that I would have to know to execute those feats safely.” he adds. Jones also learned everything he could about performing in front of the camera – even how to use stunt doubles to their greatest effect. In his early teens, he enlisted a group of his friends to help him perform unconventional “stunts” he designed himself, which were sprung upon numerous unsuspecting audiences. “I used to go to the [National] Arts Centre in Ottawa, which [was] a place where they held plays – it’s a big center for performing arts. When people would come out at night after the shows were over, I’d stage fake fights. That was my testing ground, to see how realistic my performance was. If it worked, then a lot of people would run after these other ‘thugs’ that were beating me up, who were in fact my friends. The whole thing was an act; I had just finished a 20-second fight scene.”

As Jones continued his self-education, his attention turned to the more practical aspects of stunt work, including safety factors, rigging, and expenses. He has long been fascinated by fire stunts, which are not only the most expensive to perform, but the most dangerous. (A broken limb will heal eventually, but a fire stunt gone awry can easily end a stunt performer’s career if not their life.) Due to the complex nature of these stunts, they are performed by only a few specialized stunt performers like Jones, although for reasons of safety and cost, fire stunts are increasingly being replaced by CGI effects in post-production. As a result of his extensive research into these types of stunts, Jones invented a new preparation process which implements uniquely designed products for use in fire related stunts. The most significant of these are gels, of which there are two types: flammable gels, which employ a controllable burn rate that extinguishes in a set period of time, and flame barrier gels, which are applied to the stunt performer’s skin in order to give protection from heat and flame for a longer-than-normal amount of time. Jones quickly became known for his expertise in this arena, but in a strange twist of irony, this knowledge was never put to use during the entire time he served as stunt coordinator on La Femme Nikita.

Jones’ journey to the world of Section One started humbly, as it does for the vast majority of people in the entertainment business. “I first worked on non-union pictures; basically, that’s how we all start,” he explains. “[Then] there’s the whole trip with becoming a member of ACTRA [Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists], and that’s not easy, especially back then, because you had to have so many credits within a two-year period. The thing with all these non-union films is that they didn’t have much money. You had to kind of get in there and figure out how to get stuff done with no budget. That was always tricky.”

Over time, with a lot of persistence, Jones eventually broke into union films, performing stunts on a number of high profile features ranging from the Keanu Reeves sci-fi action tale Johnny Mnemonic to the Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison, the latter of which was stunt coordinated by none other than future La Femme Nikitadirector Ted Hanlan. After serving as assistant stunt coordinator on the action-intensive Robocop: The Series, Jones joined Hanlan on La Femme Nikita in Season One in order to supervise stunt sequences whenever Hanlan was unavailable, since he, too, was the series’ 2nd unit director at that time. This was Jones’ first opportunity to stunt coordinate any large project, and he took full advantage of it. By the midpoint of the season, Hanlan was so committed to 2nd unit, that Jones took over as stunt coordinator and remained in that capacity on both main and 2nd unit until the end of the series.

Due to the accelerated pace of TV production, Jones emphasizes that his responsibilities as stunt coordinator extend far beyond merely planning the stunts for an upcoming episode. “When I’m prepping an episode or doing a stunt breakdown in a script, I’m also keeping in mind all the other departments which are either going to be affected [by] or be involved in what I’m going to introduce,” he points out. “I have to keep in mind the budget, the safety [and] the extravagance within [those] realms. On Nikita, I never really worked on one episode; I (supervised) up to four episodes at a time. I’m doing [the current] episode, I’m doing the 2nd unit for the previous episode, I’m also doing pickup[ shots] for backlogged episodes, and I’m prepping the next episode coming, so I’d always have four episodes in my head working at all times.”


That’s the thing about being prepared, because you get the script, you read it through, you break everything down, you have your number of stuntmen that you’re [approved] for per episode. On Nikita, we had a particular number of stuntmen that I was [given permission] to work with because of our budgets. So basically, I go, ‘Okay, I’ve 20 stuntmen this week I’ve got to work with. That’s a lot of manpower that I have to be in control [of].’ In other words, I’m up seven days a week, often 18 hours a day to ensure that all departments were in line with what I was proposing. My weekly regimen included pre-production and production meetings, technical production and 2nd unit surveys, main and 2nd unit stunt meetings with the directors and the [assistant directors], meetings with wardrobe, construction and other departments, [along with the hiring of] stunt doubles for the guest stars of the current episode [and] doubles and stuntmen for the 2nd unit. I also was on the set to coordinate the stunts and stunt rehearsals for both main and 2nd unit, and I’d sit in with the editors every week to go over the footage from the action sequences to make sure they were happy with what they were getting.” With that kind of work schedule, it’s amazing Jones didn’t drop dead from exhaustion.

Although most stunt coordinators have a key assistant to help them, Jones didn’t, and that was his decision. While he had a large and experienced group of stunt performers who worked consistently from episode to episode – not to mention martial arts instructor Makoto Kabayama, who was brought in for more specialized training of Wilson and Dupuis – it was still up to Jones to make it all happen. “I’m just a stickler for finesse,” he admits. “I cannot deal with incompetence, especially in my business. When I started Nikita, [I decided] to do this show 120 percent, and [I was] going to do it by myself, not because [of] an ego thing, [but] because of who I am. I’m the only person who could give it what I think it was worth in order to keep continuity between main and 2nd unit, which usually shot days or weeks apart. A lot of times I’d be on main unit all day, [then I’d] go and shoot 2nd unit at night, and [I’d be] back in the next morning for production meetings, surveys or main unit shooting. I would literally go three, four days at a time with very little sleep. I [even helped] prep the photo doubles, because I wanted everything to blend [together] seamlessly, I was a fanatic, [but] I loved every second of it.”

One episode of which Jones is especially proud is Season Three’s “Someone Else’s Shadow,” in which Nikita appears to jump out of a 23rd story window of a high-rise office building into a giant airbag on the street below. While the final result appears deceptively simple, the stunt was actually very dangerous, requiring weeks of advance preparation with Wilson’s stunt double, Mary Ann Stevens. “That sequence had to be thought up backwards,” he recalls. “We actually shot main unit with Peta first, [so] I had to choreograph Peta falling into the airbag to match what I was going to shoot on 2nd unit three weeks later. For 2nd unit, I had to train Mary Ann for that stunt, because [she] had never done such high a fall before; it was about 160 feet. The very critical part of that stunt was [that] it had to be a dive. Rene Bonniere, the director, wanted her to look like she was flying all the way down.” Because off this, Stevens’ training was as much psychological as it was physical. “I said, ‘Mary Ann, you’re going to be paid a lot of money to do this stunt, [but you’re actually] getting paid to not be afraid. You cannot clinch on this stunt.’ I trained her in the studio for a good two weekends.”

During this period when most of the crew was enjoying their downtime, Jones and Stevens trained using a device called a decelerator.” “It enables you to fall at a particular metered speed, and the piece of equipment that she’s attached to at the end of this cable device then will decelerate her at a particular point,” he reveals. “On that particular fall, I elected to go with a device called the Descender. It’s basically a big spool type of device that enables you to fall, and then [slow]] down before you get to the bottom. The beauty of it is that [with] multiple retakes, you can change the speed [each time].” Even though this device helped Stevens build up the confidence necessary to perform the stunt, that was only half the battle. When it came time to actually do it, the shooting location was an issue. “I had a meeting with a crane operator at the building site and elected to go with a 300-foot crane,” Jones explains. “[And] that building is mirrored, right? So I had to get a crane that had a tall enough elbow that was [also] wide enough [to be] out of the shot in order to boom over the top off the window. The locations department and I had to get the structural engineers from the building to remove the window.”

Once everything was approved and rented, the sequence went without a hitch, primarily because it was composed of only three shots. That whole stunt entails Peta falling into the airbag for her close-up [matching shot] with no cutaway, then we’ve got the single shot of the full-frame Descender fall including the exit out of the window, then you have a 40-fooot fall from a smaller crane into the airbag just prior to seeing Peta do the close-up fall,’ Jones details. For the final drop, Wilson actually jumped from a small scaffold in to the deflating airbag, but for the wide shot and the 40-foot fall, stunt double Stevens was used. Cut together, the final effect works seamlessly.

That jump from the high-rise is one of the rare times that La Femme Nikita’s title character performs a stunt of such magnitude. Most of the time, Michael does many of the death-defying maneuvers seen on the series. One of the most memorable of those came two episodes later in “Gates of Hell,” in which Michael slides his motorcycle under a tractor-trailer while at the same time firing at enemy agents. Like the high-rise jump, the final result looks effortless, but it required Jones to reach back to his early days of performing motorcycle stunts to effectively prepare for the sequence. “That scene was tough, [because] in the storyline he couldn’t wear a helmet, “he recalls. “It’s hard to find a stuntman who will do that, so what I did [was] split it up into sequences. We had the master shot of [Michael] driving to the truck [while] shooting, [then] the [reverse shot] of the guys shooting back, [after which] he slides the bike under the truck. I had Joe [Madziak] and Sven [Thaysen] from the construction department build a rig for Roy to lie down on with the motorcycle for his close-up, then the art department painted the platform the same color as the asphalt. This platform, with Roy and the motor cycle on it, was manually pulled underneath the truck. At the very end, he has to jump off [and then I] pick up the scene from there. I did that with the stunt double a couple of times, but he [had] to lay the bike down for the initial sliding shot.” Jones explains how it all cuts together onscreen. “You actually see Roy driving the motorcycle, then you see the profile of the stunt double with no helmet drop and slide the motorcycle underneath the truck. In the next shot, I towed the stunt double and the motorcycle on its side while he shoots a pistol, then I had Roy and the motorcycle on the platform for the moving close-up to make it all look seamless.” It took some creative engineering for this to take place. “I had outriggers and nylon cups built onto the bike to enable it to slide under [the truck] without crushing [Dupuis’ and the stunt double’s] legs,” he details proudly. “I was able to put all of this together in a safe fashion and nobody got hurt. With stunts like this, I felt that all the years of my background research has paid off. It’s a fantastic looking scene.”

Regardless of what La Femme Nikita stunt Jones was called upon to coordinate, he always emphasized safety, and he never cuts corners when it comes to protecting the lives of those performing the stunts. Whenever cost becomes an issue, he works with the producers to simplify the sequence with safety in mind. “On my [résumé] reel, I have a quote: ‘Safety first, safety last, safety always.’ I’ve always made a point of being [extremely] careful about everything that I did and how I did it, so [out of] 97 action-intense Nikita episodes, [we] only had two stunt performer injuries. That’s all. That’s a safety record that’s hard to beat:’ ironically, both injuries were fluke accidents that happened despite Jones’ consistently high level of preparation. Stevens broke her wrist during the shooting of Season Three’s appropriately-titled “Threshold of Pain,” when her jacket sleeve got caught on the sharp edge of a car before she fell to the ground after doing a vehicle hit. As minor as a wrist injury may sound compared to the more serious dangers inherent in stunt work, Stevens’ absence proved to be a blow to the production company, since she performed almost 90 percent of the stunt work for lead actress Wilson. But, like a trooper, Stevens returned to work three weeks later with the help of a flesh-colored cast.

As vital as Stevens and the other stunt doubles were to the believability of La Femme Nikita’s action sequences, there were specific times when a stunt absolutely required Wilson or another member of the main cast to perform it themselves. Once again, for safety reasons, Jones designed the moves to be fairly simple ones that could be well-choreographed in advance. However, as a seasoned veteran, he understands that every actor has their quirks, and it is important to know what they are and prepare for them. “I’ve always worked on a principle of predicting the probable,” he says. In regards to Wilson, “I had to understand what Peta was like as a person, [because] when she got into her character, she sometimes didn’t remember all my instructions.”

Because of this, another fluke accident took place during Season Four’s “Time Out of Mind,” during the scene in which Nikita goes psychotic, thanks to drugs that Section has secretly administered to her. “[Nikita] was in a restaurant, she’s eating a steak, [and] she has a vision of a character stabbing another character at a table. Because [of] the way the script was written, the maitre d’ had to say to Nikita, ‘Miss, are you okay?’ and she had to turn around and punch him. Even though it sounds like a simple stunt, those are the ones that scare me the most. So, I had to bring out a seasoned stunt guy who could be prepared for the inevitable. I always hired stuntmen who played opposite Peta to be very specific types of people.”

It’s not surprising that Jones’ safety record became the stuff of legend in and around the Toronto production community. It’s especially impressive in light of the fact that no one got hurt filming Season Two’s “First Mission,” a nonstop action installment that he picks as the most difficult episode he ever coordinated. “That episode almost killed me. If you look at that episode, it’s just nothing but action. It’s literally three or four missions. We’ve got trucks blowing up, guys running around, [and] firefights everywhere in one of those huge factories. It was just unbelievable. I [also] had falls and equipment and hardware to take care of. That particular episode was one of my favorites because of how much manpower and time I had to put into [it, due to] the action count.”


As a basic cable TV series, La Femme Nikita had a tight budget, and Jones was forced to be creative with how he used stunt performers. To that end, he looked for ways to make combat sequences appear larger than they really were, and “special skills” extras –a unique type of performer used only in Canada helped him accomplish this. “Special skills guys are borderline action [performers]; they do action, but cannot hit the ground,” he reveals. “They were able to fire guns [and] look like characters in an action sequence, but, in fact, they aren’t doing action, nor do they take direction from the stunt coordinator; rather, they are directed by the 3rd assistant director. So, what I [did] was choreograph action around some of those characters.” Because the daily rates paid to special skills extras aren’t anywhere near as expensive as those of full-fledged stuntmen, this gave Jones some wiggle room in his budget, particularly for “First Mission.” “That episode, I had a count of about 40 stuntmen, and I had to slim it down. I got [approval] for about 19, and all the rest of the guys were special skills. If I had a scene where Nikita [was] shooting at them and I had already done all my kill counts with stunt guys, I would have to kill off special skills guys. But then, by doing that, you never see them actually hit the ground.” That limitation actually helped Jones play a key role in defining the minimalist tone of the series. “Less is more,” he adds. “You don’t have to see the full-fledged rollover kill and all that business. After a while, it just becomes so tiresome. So, you see your character shoot, you see the reverse [angle] of your bad guy getting shot and the reaction of the gun. [As he spins] back, you’re cutting away and the audience has gotten the picture.”

Of all the stunts that Jones coordinated on La Femme Nikita, the one that perfectly encapsulates his entire philosophy of safety, cost-effectiveness and character motivation took place at the end of Season Three’s “Cat and Mouse,” when a leashed Nikita performs a surprising back flip maneuver that kicks a gun out of the hands of the episode’s villain. Originally, the writing staff had something completely different in mind. “What they wanted was for her to run, spin through the air [in] a 120 degree rotation and kick the gun out of the [guy’s hand]’ he remembers. “Producer Jamie Paul Rock and I had a lot of problems with [that] , because we couldn’t figure out how to do it within the confines of the set.

[It] technically was doable, but for the build that was involved, it would have cost a fortune and killed us time-wise. [So] I am thinking. ‘How can we do this where it’s still graphically interesting and [we can get] as much [of] what the writer was looking for?’ I remember Jamie saying, ‘How about we just have her run and do a back flip and kick the gun out of the guy’s hand?’ [And] I said, ‘You know what? That’s a brilliant idea.’ I got a pretty good gymnast, brought her out, [and] rehearsed her for back flips. I got her to run to the end of her leash, and then she did the 360 and kicked the gun out of the character’s hand, [but] I played the close-ups on [Wilson] to sell the impact of it. It worked great,” Not long afterward, Jones heard feedback from long-time viewers that further validated his decision to reinterpret the stunt that way. “I can see a person putting themselves in that particular position, more so than trying to defy gravity like [in] the original written scene. The audience associates a lot more with some of the stuff when they themselves feel that this is more realistic and doable and is probably what would happen to them. You have to think that way all the time: ‘What would the audience want to see? What would they feel comfortable seeing Nikita [do]?’

“It was precisely this kind of thought process that Jones loved about working as stunt coordinator on La Femme Nikita despite the overwhelming demands of the position. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but the neatest thing I’ve ever done,” he says, excitedly. “I thank the producers so much for allowing me the opportunity, [because] I had never really handled such a big show [before].” Because of this, Jones never caught a break, but be kept going, no matter the circumstances. “I never took a day off and I never called in sick; I was there every single day. So, no matter how I felt, it didn’t matter: ‘ the show must go on. ‘Nothing in life would ever get done if you had a reason [for not] doing it. You can’t think that way. It was [also] one of those things where I said to myself, ‘ I’m not going to give myself any reasons for this show to have anything go wrong or look bad.’ I just went out and tried to do as many other things as I could to make the show better.” Jones’ willingness to push himself to the limit is a reflection not only of his personal ethics, but the absolute enjoyment he receives from the type of work he does. “You’re given the license to play,” he admits. ”I’m like Peter Pan; I never want to grow up. What I do basically enables me to do that. I [always quote] from stuntman Dar Robinson, who is my idol. He once said, ‘Why grow up when you can make movies?”

Heyn, Christopher. (2006). Inside Section One: Creating and Producing TV’s La Femme Nikita. POV. ISBN 0978962509

Read more about the making of La Femme Nikita, an in-depth look at the production of a hit TV series from the creators of 24. This book is considered by many a must-read for anyone who wants to get into producing or directing and it is used as a textbook in film schools. For more information, please check out http://www.povpress.com/STOREpov.htm

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