Despite advances in technology and safety, more stuntmen die or are injured on film sets than ever before. Penthouse speaks with seasoned vets and the new guard in Australia and America about life as a body for hire…
|Story: Drew Turney
THE past few years have seen several high-profile accidents lead to injuries and deaths of stunt performers on films as varied as The Hangover Part II, The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In early 2011, the Independent newspaper asked whether the profession required assessment, quoting an Equity (UK actors’ union) spokesperson who revealed that insurance claims from stunt accidents were rising. Downward pressure on film costs, the rise of automation and a culture of blame have all taken a toll.
Veteran British stunt coordinator, performer and second-unit director, Vic Armstrong, says that stunt work is no different to car racing or parachuting. The 65-year-old, best known for his work on many James Bond and the Indiana Jones films, says sometimes things just go wrong: “It doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault but there is an inherent risk in any stunt.”
But Armstrong is quick to point out that planning with safety in mind is the key to survival. “It should be a long and exciting life, but it shouldn’t be any more dangerous than any adventurous sport if you approach it correctly.”
The task of the stunt team is to make actions that look dangerous safe to execute, planning the set-up and logistics (stunt co-ordinator), dressing up to take the fall or bullet (stunt performer) and often directing the second unit; it involves a lot of waiting and armies of technicians to capture often a just few seconds of footage. It’s an evolving art.
In his book The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, Armstrong describes being asked to ride in a motorcycle sidecar for 1968’s Subterfuge, assuring the director he could even though he’d never used one in his life. Somehow, they muddled through and got the shot, but Armstrong says this would never happen with today’s endless red tape and clearances.
Australian stunt performers are determined to keep safety at the top of the priority list as well as fostering initiative to solve creative problems. Reg Roordink, stunt performer and safety supervisor on Romper Stomper and McLeod’s Daughters explains, “I never say ‘No we can’t’. It can all be done if we put the right procedures in place.”
|ABOVE LEFT: Zoe on the set of Lost ABOVE RIGHT: Actress and stuntwoman Zoe Bell|
|One problem that stunt artists face, ironically, should make their job safer: oversight. There are simply too many cooks spoiling the broth. Grant Page is an elder statesman of Australia’s stunt industry, now in his 70s, he’s still at it. Page drove the Nightrider’s car through the caravan in the opening scene of Mad Max (1979) and a few days before Penthouse caught up with him, Page was dressed as Hitler, set on fire and tasked to jump through a window for SBS series Danger 5.
“It’s when the output is taken away from the individual and put into so many other hands that things can go wrong, when you rely on technology more than your own spirit,” Page says.
“Physics don’t change and inertia, friction and momentum are the way we work out how a physical action will come out—that’s how we make it safe. What’s changed is that we’ve introduced so many other factors [that are] controlled by people whose arse isn’t on the line.”
And while it might be tempting to think that the stunt game is for young-uns while shuffling older performers out to pasture, guys of Page and Armstrong’s age and status have an ace up their sleeves that can help enforce the safety of the entire industry. “I’ve got to admit that I’m not physically as capable of really high-energy stuff as I was 30 years ago,” Page claims, “but experience replaces a lot of that energy so you don’t have to try as hard to get it right.
“The good thing about the aging process is that you never let go of the knowledge you’ve developed, so less is likely to go wrong.”
But the digital age means audiences are demanding ever-bigger thrills. Even Tom Cruise was prepared to dangle from straps halfway up Dubai’s 830-metre high Burj Khalifa tower. Each director wants to top the stunts filmed by the last one, but now that audiences are expecting feats of superhuman ability, are we asking too much of the men and women who have to deliver it on the screen?
New Zealand stunt artist and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator, Zoe Bell, 33, has seen the limits of technology take over what the human body can do, and she believes we will always chase the extreme.
“Anything we feel like we don’t have a handle on, we’re going to create technology to push it a bit further,” claims Bell. “We’ve got CGI, so there’s lots of things you’re not going to use humans for because [the stunts] would probably kill us. We just want to see bigger and better stuff all the time. That’s just humanity, not the stunt industry alone.”
Safety concerns change within the stunt industry because the type of work changes with the tastes of filmgoers. As Bell explains: “I’m in the generation that started in the martial arts and wire-work era around the time of The Matrix; it was a more precision-based art. The older guys were from the era of westerns and cowboys and did a lot of horse riding, brawling and jumping-through stuff.
“The older guys were from the era of westerns
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