I have the honor of interviewing one of the top female film armorer in the world, Natalia Lee. She’s the weapons specialist on Game of Thrones and has made such iconic weapons as the Heartsbane Sword, Theon Greyjoy’s Axe, the Sand Sisters weapons, and many more. To read more about her process and how she got involved in weaponry, read her interview below.
Why weapons? How did you get interested in this field?
Looking back, I realize I was always surrounded by weaponry. Growing up, I would always be at shooting ranges with sporting shooters. Taking on security jobs, I had to acquire various certifications in firearms, baton & handcuff training. I would receive compliments while training in self defense and martial arts, especially when using swords, nunchakus, knives, or even stick fighting. I remember while I was in my late-teens doing some stunt training and being introduced to bullwhips by my teacher who was an old-school American cowboy (which would later be so valuable when I was asked to stunt double an actress using a kangaroo leather bullwhip). Working in a Police armory, I had to manage and maintain a vast array of law enforcement weaponry and ammunition needs. This was all before I ever stepped foot on a film set.
How do you become a specialist in the field? Is there school for weaponry or is it like an apprenticeship?
Film armorers come from different backgrounds and have specific skill sets. It is still a very specific occupation, so there is no real school for it. It’s a learn-on-the-job training coupled with a lot of real world experience. Some film armorers have had gunsmith training, others may be blade smiths or bowyers, but no specific field can prepare you completely for film armory. Film armory covers such a vast variety of weaponry from historic, modern, or even fantasy. Being multifaceted is the key and having a general aptitude for things that go “bang” is a healthy start. The real apprenticeship starts on the film set and in the studio workshops. A film armorer has to be the representative of so many different elements associated with weaponry and be able to translate them effectively on the film set. One of the most important tasks is performing seemingly dangerous action sequences with weapons in a complete safe and controlled manner. It’s a lot of planning and you have to be very sharp and focused, thus needing a natural built and having a risk assessment mindset. Most importantly, being able to clearly demonstrate to your co-workers that safety is always your first priority.
I read you’re the only female film armorer at your level in your career. How did that happen?
Great question! More importantly, why hasn’t it happened before? Film armory is a field that requires a specialist and there’s not that many people doing this in general…and even far fewer females. I’ve personally never met one. I was quite stubborn. That definitely helped me withstand a lot of obstacles, and the more I faced, the more I believed it was worth pursuing. It’s not an easy job, I really have to chip away at it every day and realistically I’ve only just started my career. I remember a journalist asking me “How does it feel to be a female?” I replied, “I don’t know I’ve never been anything else.” My younger self wanted to be treated equal and avoid acknowledging my gender. Now more than ever, I understand how important it is to address it. There are females out there that are successful gunsmiths, blade smiths, firearm instructors, archery coaches, stunt women, but we’re usually in the minority and it’s a good thing to celebrate how far we’ve come. I feel that I have a responsibility to the youth of today to help broaden their scope of opportunity by normalizing the not-so normal. I used to say to my mum, “I wish I was born 50 years into the future where things would be easier for me as a female”. Now, I tell her I’m excited to do what I’m doing now. There’s so much focus on women right now!! My Navy Seal friend once said to me “…of course women can be in the Special Forces, there’s no excuses … women can easily train, adapt to their environments and have a real go.” Can you imagine if the majority of the world shared that attitude? That’s what positive examples can do – change attitudes!
What’s your process for making weapons?
With film armory, most things begin with a script. You then seek references and research that may come from a variety of sources: books, manuals, specific experts, or even going through museum artifacts. You may need to put together teams and specific workshops. You may need to design the weapon first, and other times, it’s about modifying existing ones. With film, you’re almost definitely going to have stunts and action. That dictates the safety variants you will have to make. There may be a variety of individuals and departments to liaise with: directors, producers, visual effects, special effects, stunts and actors to name a few. It’s a complex process.
You created the design for Game of Throne’s “Heartsbane Sword”. How do you get inspiration for the design? How long did it take to make?
I always try to incorporate elements pertaining to the script. In this case I wanted to incorporate the House of Tarly sigil, the hunting archers. I incorporated mirrored archers centrally in the cross guard maiming other house sigil animals. I drew inspiration from biblical renaissance paintings and classic hunting rifle engravings. If you look closely, there’s Lannister lions wounded with the archer’s arrows along with Targaryen dragons, Baratheon Stags, etc. There’s a large arrow running down the full length of the handle with the pommel flaring out for the feather fletching. This was 3D printed from my sketches to create a mould to then cast in bronze. The cross guard utilized traditional sculpting methods. The handle and scabbard was made with burr elm wood showcasing rare grain patterns and unique cracks for an ancestral antique look. The sword took months to complete and was a collaborative effort with some very talented folks.
You were cast in Game of Thrones as Chella. What was that process like? How is being in front of the camera different than being behind it?
I was told that the creator’s of the show, Dan Weiss and David Benioff, wanted me to play a special character and that I should have a look at the original novel to get a bit more detail. “Flat chested Amazonian warrior that cuts ears off”, I was like, “was I the obvious choice (LOL)? I heard they auditioned a lot of chicks for the part but thought only I could play the role best (that may be an urban legend, but I will run with it). It’s really a fright-or-flight response in the moment when the cameras turn on you for an extreme close up and then there’s a flurry of activity; from the Costume department, to Make-up, and Hair people fussing all over you. It also helped practicing to get a decent snarl in the mirror a few times before the scene. It paid off; the director said I was a natural. It’s definitely easier being behind the camera. You could be having a bad day, or be distracted, and still get the job done. However, when the camera is focused entirely on you and the film set is counting on your every subtle move, it’s a different type of pressure.
How do you train actors to use the weapons you make?
Every weapon, every film, and every TV project is different. Every actor is different, they all have different experiences and skill sets. Generally you familiarize the actor with the weapon, its moving parts and general safety. Stunt doubles may spend more time with the actor if choreography and other actions are involved. Film armorers are always on standby at the film set whenever weapons are being used, making sure the actor continues to execute the functions safely and correctly.
What advice would you give to young girls interested in this field?
Don’t get discouraged by being the only girl in the room. Use it to your advantage. Most men want to help and they want to see you succeed. When someone says to you “But you’re a girl …girls can’t do that”, tell them to give me a call! Remember to learn as much as you can. In the end you will be judged by your abilities, not your gender. Film armory is a very specific field so you will have to think outside the box. Always ask yourself – what skills do you need to be an asset to a person or an organization for them to want to hire you? There are so many complimentary fields that can lead into it Film armory. For example, some of the most crucial team members of an armory department are model makers. They help to recreate weapons and parts into safe working versions from materials like rubber. If you really want to be in the Film Industry, get work experience on a film set. Once you’re on set in a huge studio workshop environment, you will have a better understanding of how the business works and what it takes to be involved.
What prop/weapon is the most special to you and why?
It would have to be the Game of Thrones’ “Heartsbane sword”. I wanted to prove to myself that I could design a beautiful timeless and classic sword. When our weapons master, Tommy Dunne, and our whole armory team were enthusiastic about the design, I knew it was going to be a special piece. I’m not sure there’s going to be another weapon with so much symbolism of heroism and romanticism that Game of Thrones can conjure up. It’s now a part of TV history. Set in the timeless backdrop of Northern Ireland, it was a very special moment in my life and will be super hard to top.
What do you see yourself doing next?
My very own weapons show. Everyone’s always asking me so many questions about my job and it’s hard not to be able to share my passion being stuck behind the scenes. Its second nature for me to go to work and operate a 2 ton catapult, crack a bullwhip or design a sword, but I never thought my job was interesting enough for others to want to follow. I’ve also been told that girls wouldn’t watch that type of stuff either…Pfffffff! that’s absolute bull. That’s not the feedback I get from fans. I have an amazing line up of experts and professionals that want to work with me. I’m so excited to have an opportunity to bring all my passions, interests and skills into a singular project. I want to take viewers with me on these amazing journeys every time I have to research, design, train and travel the world with new weapons. I’m young and energetic and want to bring a fresh approach to programs they think only your dad would want to watch. So watch this space!
What would be your dream job?
Sometimes I think I already have the best job in the world. Sword fights on Icelandic glaciers to machine guns in the Moroccan desert. I think I could top it with my very own weapons show. It’s an opportunity to learn as much as I can about every weapon I’ve ever used and those that I haven’t yet, there’s just so much more to learn.
Who would you love to work with and why?
Quentin Tarantino. I wasn’t always a fan of his highly stylized work but I’ve come to respect the risks he took to be creative and his courage to tell the status quo to take a hike. We shouldn’t forget his contribution to bringing a brand of tough chicks to the big screen that were not afraid to have an attitude while wielding swords and exotic weapons, long before any Wonder Woman remakes. Now, more than ever, I want to work with individuals that support strong women who don’t want to subscribe to gender stereotypes.
What’s something about yourself that would surprise fans?
I’m actually not always as tough as I look. I was a little intimidated to start wrestling and grappling recently, but getting out of my comfort zone was really important to me. I’m glad I did because my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach says my choke hold is NO JOKE! Okay, well, maybe that’s not so surprising considering I chop ears off on the little big screen. Secretly, I love gardening and I really want to grow bonsai. There! My secret is out!