Like so many facets of filmmaking, stunts are most successful when nobody notices them. When we believe Ben Stiller can drive a Ford Torino off a pier or one of Dracula’s brides can throw Kate Beckinsale across a room against a wall, the job of a stunt department somewhere is done.
But stunt work is more than just fireballs, exploding squibs and cars flipping over. Even a simple fistfight is potentially dangerous. And as Australian stuntman Nash Edgerton — who’s worked on some of the biggest productions to film in Australia, including the Matrix and Star Wars films — says; ‘If you’ve got people involved in any potentially dangerous activities and you’re responsible for it, these days you want to cover your arse.’
As we’ve all seen on DVD making-of documentaries, covering your arse (and that of your cast and crew) is what being a stunt performer or stunt coordinator is all about. Days, sometimes weeks of preparation goes into setting up a stunt that can take seconds to execute.
Firstly though, it’s important to understand the difference between a stunt performer and a stunt coordinator. Whereas the stuntman (or woman) is trained to take the fall, the blow to the head or bullet as a stand in for an actor for whom the stunt is (for whatever reason) too dangerous, the stunt coordinator is the head of the stunt department.
‘The coordinator communicates with the director about what he (the director) wants,’ Edgerton explains. ‘They liaise with special effects if that’s involved, or wardrobe if they need to work with wires or padding, maybe the art department for making things that break away. The coordinator basically works out with those people what’s possible with the amount of money they’ve got, and then hires the stunt people who are appropriate that can do the job or double for the actors.’
Despite such different job descriptions though, a common appreciation for (and experience) in the craft is crucial. After all, you wouldn’t take firefighting tips from a plumber — even if he was in charge of the fire brigade.
‘Stunt coordinators have basically come up from being stunt performers,’ Edgerton says. ‘They’re guys that have done a lot of stunts themselves. It’s always better working for someone you know is coming from a place of knowledge. You don’t work for someone who says ‘just jump off that’.’
But regardless of your title in the credits, nothing happens in the stunt world without extensive safety planning and testing. And as more big budget US productions land on our shores, the staff a stunt coordinator’s responsible for will only increase.
‘If you’re jumping out of something that’s blowing up you have to work in conjunction with the effects guys,’ Edgerton reports. ‘They’ll tell you what they’ve rigged or whether you need earplugs, fire protection or whatever. You’ll work it out with them in rehearsals and have lots of conversations about things like where the safety zone is. After the director yells ‘cut’, you can’t have everyone running everywhere.
The creative/technical dichotomy
So as a stunt performer, are you purely concerned with the technical and safety aspects or do you have to take a directorial approach, wondering how it looks on film? Edgerton thinks it’s a bit of both.
‘It’s not just about doing a stunt for the sake of it, it’s got to work within the context of what’s going on in the film and that’s what the stunt coordinator works out with the director,’ he says. ‘Compare the way people are getting shot in Saving Private Ryan to the way someone gets killed in some over-the-top martial arts movie. Creatively, there’s a big difference in how you want people to look.’
The computer revolution
One area that’s encroaching more and more in the stunt coordinator’s domain is computer-generated effects. Speaking to Australian media just prior to the release of Bad Boys II last year, stunt coordinator Steve Picerni admits that while it’s hurt the trade ‘a little’, it’s better for the industry in general.
‘It makes it safer [for stunt performers] because we can do bigger things with less danger now. In Pearl Harbor, for example, they ‘CG’d’ impossible explosions, where fifty guys at a time are getting blown up.’
And as we all know, one legacy of computer generated effects is that they’ve continually raised the bar for action or effects sequences, and the pressure’s on stunt departments of big budget action movies to execute even wilder stuff.
A taste for danger
Actors often gloat about doing their own stunts, but you’re unlikely to meet a producer who’d let a million-dollar A-list star hang from the wing of an plane in mid-flight or leap from a burning skyscraper. Even falling over is a stunt not all actors can (or will) do. And Steve Picerni tells another story that would chill any marketing department to the bone; ‘I was working on [the much-anticipated but damningly delayed] The Hunted and Benicio Del Toro had to dive for a gun. It was a stupid little thing, but he hit his wrist and broke it. That shut the company down for seven months, so it’s a big insurance problem when things like that happen.’
Because as moviemakers know, things go wrong. It’s easy to believe it’s all gone like clockwork when you’re watching it up on the screen, but controlling crashing cars and fireballs is an inexact science.
Of course there are horror stories like the death of stuntman Harry O’Connor during the Prague shoot of xXx, or the accident that killed Brandon Lee while filming The Crow, but that’s only the stuff you hear about. Steve Picerni again, when asked if there were any close calls shooting Bad Boys II; ‘Almost every day. On the first day of shooting, one of the cars we pushed off the car carrier went in the opposite direction that it had done in rehearsals in LA and it clipped the camera car.’
The local scene
As with everything in the Aussie industry, there’s little room to specialise and a smaller field to get into. Apart from a few private courses every now and again (with varying degrees of accreditation), there’s little formal training. Nash Edgerton advocates the old-fashioned way.
‘Just be passionate and persistent about what you’re doing,’ he says. ‘Be adaptable. It’s like the old fashioned apprenticeship, you learn off people who’ve done it before. You can’t just say ‘I’ve done this course, now I’m a stuntman’.’
Australia is already home to world-renowned stunt performers and coordinators. The younger generation of Edgerton and his contemporaries are as respected across the world as veterans like Glenn Boswell, so the opportunity exists if you want to explore your inner adrenaline junkie and make a living from doing so. There’s plenty of stunt work in low-key independent films or TV (where Nash Edgerton got his start as a stunt performer on ABC’s Police Rescue).
But safety, planning and experience are paramount. The independent filmmaking philosophy of just grabbing a camera and doing it isn’t a good idea. Apply yourself, and instead of doing it at home, you could be doing it for George Lucas or the Wachowski brothers.