Flying the Unfriendly Skies with Non-Stop Stunt Coordinator Mark Vanselow

Using an airport bathroom can have the degree of difficulty of a gymnastics floor routine. But when your job is United States air marshal and there’s a mystery man on your plane threatening to kill one passenger every 20 minutes, taking care of business means means squeezing into the stall to swap punches with a bad guy like two angry sardines in a can. And though star Liam Neeson, playing air marshal Bill Marks, no doubt took some licks during filming, it was his equally strapping stunt double, who doubles as Non-Stop’s fight and stunt coordinator, who walked away with the most bumps and bruises.

Stunt coordinator and longtime Liam Neeson collaborator Mark Vanselow.

Mark Vanselow, who has worked as the Irish actor’s 6’4” doppelgänger since the production of Gunshy in 1998, is integral in creating the film’s high-flying edge. The close quarters of Non-Stop naturally give the film a claustrophobic feel, but when it comes time for Neeson to channel his inner action star (accused of hijacking the flight, his character must find a bad guy and clear his name at 30,000 feet), the job falls to Vanselow.

When nearly every second of a film takes place mid-flight on a 767 it makes for one hectic set, and that forced Vanselow and his team to work some odd hours as they set up the action. Take the scene in which Marks, pacing the aisles as he tries to placate passengers, is sent flying into the ceiling after the plane hits turbulence. “It was definitely challenging because they would shoot all day on the plane,” Vanselow remembers. “We’d have to rig it and rehearse at night, then come back and shoot the next day.”

Passengers plan a way to take marshal Bill Marks down. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

Though having one set to work with proved challenging, it was those unique restraints that forced the stunt coordinator and his team to get resourceful. “Conceptually you’ll think of something, but once you get there it really brings everything alive,” Vanselow explains. “Sometimes that’s where you get the serendipitous ideas that pop up.” It took interacting with the actual environment of the production’s custom-built jet for certain solutions to reveal themselves, such as the scene that sees five passengers revolt against Marks, trying to subdue him with oxygen tanks, seatbelt extenders and whatever else they can find in the recreated galley.

Liam Neeson listens to director Jaume Collet-Serra on the incredibly cramped set of 'Non-Stop.' Courtesy Universal Pictures.

This resourcefulness extended to said fight in the comically small airplane bathroom, a complicated fight choreography made even more difficult to pull off because Vanselow couldn’t rehearse it in a lavatory that sat in the middle of a live set. The solution: build a mock bathroom adjacent to the airplane (with walls stuffed with a half-inch of impact-cushioning neoprene material) where Vanselow and his guys could beat each other up on their own time to work out the mechanics and camerawork of the scene.

That attention to detail even extended to elements that the uninitiated would never notice, as Vanselow took great pains (literally) to make sure that all of the tactics used by Neeson’s character were true to his job description. “We were really trying to create something specific to the techniques an air marshal would know,” says Vanselow, who is particularly fond of Marks’ go-to (and non-lethal) move: using a thumb against an assailant’s throat to render him unconscious. But even then a little Hollywood-style flair was necessary. “A lot of the practical tactics that operating professionals use don’t really look good on camera because they happen so fast and don’t seem to have an impact,” Vanselow explains. “It doesn’t look like it would hurt until you feel it!”

It’s this methodical approach to a rapid-fire genre that has made Neeson and Vanselow the current undisputed champions in the action movie game, with the first two films in their Taken series pulling in a jaw dropping $600 million worldwide. While he could rest on those nine-figure laurels, Vanselow was determined to give Non-Stop’s Marks the hand-to-hand combat and weapons handling skills of an air marshal—not the CIA operative who is at the center of Taken. “People don’t realize you’re constantly changing tactics,” say Vanselow. “A lot of it is subtle, like the way you hold or point your gun. Somebody who’s in the CIA is going to do it one way; an air marshal is going to do it a different way. We focus on all of those specifics.”

Marshall Bill Ricks (Neeson) moves through the plan. Photography By Myles Aronowitz. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

The pair may be willing to put in the extra work, but they will get to dust off some old skills for their next project together: Taken 3 (though Vanselow does concede that the 61-year-old Neeson’s fighting style will continue to age gracefully along with the franchise’s leading man). There will be no napping on the set of that kidnapping thriller, and though the stuntman won’t have any downtime to see the sights on a production that will take him to Spain and France, at this point he’s just glad not to be stuck on that damn airplane. “People think when you have one location it’s going to be super easy,” Vanselow laughs, “but when you take 100 creative people and put them in a tube for three months, you have issues.”