Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stunts























We spent the afternoon running power cables and placing lights around the Bronson Caves, a dry, dusty canyon carved deep into the hills of Griffith Park. It was late summer of 1981, four years into my career as a lighting technician in Hollywood. My phone rang the day before with an offer to “day play” (work for a day) as a “juicer” (lighting technician) on a low-budget feature film called The Sword and the Sorcerer. They’d be shooting a big night-exterior scene, and night work always means lots of lights and cable. At the time, I was still making the transition from the grind of low-budget features to the world of making television commercials, where the pay was much better and the work considerably less time-consuming. But I wasn’t there yet, and day-playing on features allowed me to work with old friends and make a little money. This promised to be a long one – all night and into the dawn -- but the beauty of day-playing is that it’s very much a temporary gig. You can put up with almost anything if it’s only for a day.

Besides, making movies was still fun back then.

As the sun dropped below the canyon rim, we took a break from laying cable to watch the filming of a stunt designed to simulate a man being thrown off a cliff to his death -- a murder that would spark one of the central dramatic conflicts in the story. Long an integral part of the cinematic experience, stunts represent the distilled essence of movie-making: using skill and artifice to create a convincing illusion. Watching a well-executed stunt is an education in itself, an experience drawn into very clear focus by the element of danger accompanied by an undeniable frisson of excitement. Early on, one of the fun things about working on feature films was getting to see a wide variety of stunts performed right before my eyes. It was a bit like going to the circus as a kid, watching the high-wire and trapeze artists toy with gravity under the big top – only now, I no longer had to buy a ticket.

Despite their rough-and-ready reputation, stunt men aren’t wide-eyed fools nursing a death wish: they’re professionals who want to get the job done and drive home in one piece at the end of the day, just like everyone else. The nature of their livelihood entails skating along the thin edge of disaster, but they work hard to minimize the risks. Every aspect of a stunt is meticulously planned and rehearsed until the actual performance becomes almost automatic. Very little is left to chance. But if the element of risk can be minimized with such thorough preparation, it cannot be eliminated altogether. Proper execution of the stunt is crucial. When the cameras finally roll, the stuntman and his team must do everything exactly right to avoid serious injury, or worse.

I found a spot across the canyon floor with a clear view. High on the cliff above the caves stood a man dressed in a medieval costume, playing a character about to be thrown to his cinematic death by the henchmen of an evil tyrant. The stuntman stood there, staring down at his target 65 feet below, a fully inflated airbag surrounded by boulders. He stared for a very long time. The crew waited, cameras ready, watching that lonely figure up there on the cliff. As the tension mounted, a nervous quiet settled in over the set. At last, the stuntman signaled a thumbs-up and stepped back from the edge, out of sight. An Assistant Director ordered the cameras to roll. When all were all up to speed, the director yelled “action!” Nothing happened for a long moment, the tense silence broken only by the mechanical whir of film rolling through cameras.

Suddenly, there he was. I stared upward, forgetting to breathe, watching that man run off the cliff into thin air.

I’d seen high falls before, the stuntman diving, arms extended to either side, feet slightly apart, in a graceful arc designed to plant him flat on his back in the center of the airbag. When properly executed, such a stunt ends with a loud “whump!” as the airbag absorbs and dissipates the enormous amount of energy his body picked up during the fall. The stuntman then leaps off the bag with a huge, adrenaline-fueled grin, shaking hands with everyone in sight. It's quite a sight when everything goes right. But if something goes wrong -- if he should land head or feet first, or off to one side of the bag -- that's trouble.

This fall looked all wrong. Instead of a smooth dive, the stuntman came off the cliff at a forty-five degree angle, head down, his arms and legs dog-paddling furiously. The thought flashed through my mind how realistic this seemed, as though it really was a man falling to his death rather than a carefully planned illusion. A heartbeat later, he hit with a sound I’ll never forget – a muted, crunching thump, as his legs hit the airbag while his entire upper body smashed onto the boulders.

A paralytic silence gripped the set, none of us quite able to believe what we’d just seen. A man on the special-effects crew ran to the crumpled body to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was a futile gesture. Later, he told me the stunt man’s head, cradled in his hands, felt like a bag full of broken glass. A moment before he’d been alive, but now he was dead: I’d just watched a man throw himself off a cliff into eternity.

Someone laid a blanket over the body until the ambulance arrived. The rest of us milled around the set, unsure what to do. Some of the women sat down and cried, while the men stood stiff-legged in a stony, impenetrable silence, each of us trying to process what we’d just witnessed. Occasionally someone would look over at those bloody rocks, then shake their head. As twilight slipped into darkness, one of the producers emerged from the motor home and called a wrap. We were done filming at Bronson Caves, he said. We wouldn’t be coming back.

There was nothing left to do but begin the grim task of wrapping the heavy equipment and carrying it back to the trucks. One of the young grips, a kid barely into his twenties, tripped and dropped an armload of C- stands. Close to tears, he unleashed a gushing torrent of profanity. By the time the trucks were packed, only the grips and juicers were left, along with the two drivers. A case of beer appeared. Somebody passed the hat, taking up a collection for the wife and baby of the dead stuntman. His name, I learned, was Jack Tyree. We sat there in a darkness lit by the glow of cigarettes, drinking beer and talking deep into the night.

I wish I could report that some sort of epiphany came out of this -- a profound realization to make sense of it all and put Jack Tyree’s death in perspective. Like everybody else on the crew, he’d gotten up that morning and gone to work to earn a paycheck – in his case, $1200, so I heard. That was a healthy chunk of change back in 1981, but hardly worth dying for. While the rest of us drove home to bed and a restless night, Jack Tyree was already there, in the words of Raymond Chandler, sleeping “the big sleep.”

My phone rang much too early the next morning. It was the Best Boy, asking me to come back and work on “The Sword and the Sorcerer” for another day, filming on a soundstage that served as the production company’s home base for the duration of the shoot. This was the very last thing I wanted to do, but turning down work is considered a cardinal sin in the freelance world, where one dares not risk angering the fickle Gods of Hollywood. Besides, the crew needed help -- and in a way, I was still looking for some kind of closure on that awful night before. I got dressed and drove to the stage a couple of miles west of downtown Los Angeles, then worked with the set lighting crew until we all broke for lunch. As we headed back on stage afterwards, the Best Boy called me into his “office” – a tiny desk with a chair in the lighting truck.

“You’re going back to Bronson Canyon,” he said. “We need a couple of guys to hang lights inside the cave.”

“The same lights we wrapped last night?”

"That's right," he sighed, with a weary shrug.

And so I found myself back at the scene of the crime, hanging and powering lights inside the cave at a location the producer had solemnly promised, not 24 hours before, we’d never see again. This wasn’t the epiphany I’d been seeking, much less closure, but rather a crude, that’s-the-way-it-is affirmation of the oldest cliché in show biz: the show must go on.

Haul away the wounded, bury the dead, and get back to work...

Hollywood movies are highly contrived dramas designed to hook and hold our interest for a couple of hours. People go to the movies expecting to see a seamlessly executed illusion: a good story well told, featuring interesting characters who face and overcome situations more starkly dramatic than anything most of us ever encounter in real life. A good movie casts a spell allowing us to forget our own problems for a little while. In those movies, characters often suffer horrible, graphic deaths, but no matter how convincing the illusion, the audience knows deep down that it’s all make-believe. Other than the occasional bent and bloodthirsty sociopath lurking in the dark, nobody goes to a movie hoping to see actual injury or death up there on the screen, but it happens more often than most civilians realize. Unless a well-known actor is involved, the outside world rarely hears about these accidents, but film industry workers are injured or killed on the job every year.* Dozens have died on sets over the thirty years I’ve been in Hollywood. A camera operator and a stunt woman I’d worked with early in my career were later killed while filming other projects – he in a helicopter crash during the filming of a music video, she when what was supposed to be a controlled fall from the roof of a two-story house went terribly wrong. The Industry throws a thick blanket over news of such accidents, keeping them under cover with the rest of Hollywood’s dirty little secrets.

“The Sword and the Sorcerer” was released in the Spring of 1982, and went on to gross nearly forty million dollars -- not bad for an independent film that cost in the neighborhood of two million dollars to make. The producers honored Jack Tyree in the credits, and I can only hope they steered some portion of those considerable profits to his widow and child. Despite Hollywood’s long tradition of paying little more than lip service to worthy causes or those in need, there really are decent people sprinkled throughout this industry who quietly go about their business doing good things -- but I have no idea if the producers of “The Sword and the Sorcerer” are among them.

It’s been nearly thirty years since I watched Jack Tyree plunge to his death, but the image remains burned into my brain. We'll never know why that stunt went so wrong. Some of the veteran crew members told me they’d never seen a stunt man stare down at his airbag for such a long time before performing a high fall. Maybe he psyched himself out. Maybe he tripped, or his feet somehow got tangled in that final instant before he plunged into the void. Maybe all of the above. All I know is that in the thousands of days I’ve worked since that grim evening – on feature films, television shows, commercials, and music videos -- I haven’t had to watch anyone else die, and for that I’m grateful.

But one thing changed in a big way for me on that ugly day: I don’t like to watch stunts anymore.


* Vic Morrow, R.I.P.

14 comments:

egee said...

What a tragic story! Thanks for sharing it though despite the sad memories. I've never worked within the Hollywood context but I am an enthusiastic viewer of movies (so are millions of others, lucky for you guys!) However, I'm continually fascinated by the disconnect that appears to exist between the movie being viewed and the activities that created it. My appreciation of a good movie or television program is really enhanced by having some glimmer of understanding of the hard work (and occasional tragedy) "behind the scenes."

peetie06 said...

As I posted on another topic, I'm not in the motion-picture biz, but as a reasonably successful musician, I've been employed in film, TV and the making of music videos over the years. That was a very poignant piece of writing. It makes me think of all my fellow musicians -- many of them friends and coworkers -- who've been maimed or killed just trying to make it to the next gig. Everybody in the entertainment field knows what this is like -- when the fun and fantasy come to an abrupt halt. These kinds of tragedies generate feelings that are hard to express outside of oneself. Mike, you told that story as best -- and as real -- as a reader could hope for. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

That is the most heart breaking story. Thank you for sharing.

Frank Pina said...

I am glad I stumbled upon your wodnerful blog recently. This story hit me pretty hard in that it took about twenty minutes for my dropped jaw to finally join the rest of my mouth. It would seem qquite hard to put into perspective the loss of a life over what is meant to ,in the end, a enjoyable experience. You are right that the audience never truly knows the circumstances that are necessary in order to achieve just a single moment.

Kim Robert Koscki said...

Hello Mike:

Thanks for the great story! I have been a stuntman for 28 years. Just last week I worked at Bronson Caves and I performed a stunt, everything went good! Everytime I work there, I think of Jacks stunt and wonder were it actually happened.
I wonder how his wife and child are today?
I hope I can work with you someday, I would like to meet you.

Thanks & take care,
Kim Robert Koscki
(Stuntman/Stunt Coord.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your recollection of this tragic event. I loved this movie as a kid and recently rewatched it after many years. The scene in question is in the movie at the 11 minute mark and having read your account now I am wondering if they re-shot this scene, which would have been harrowing enough in itself, or did they actually include the footage of that poor guy falling to his death?

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Good question. I never saw the movie, and as a day-player, wasn't part of the core crew or production -- thus have no inside knowledge of what happened in post. It's entirely possible they shot that stunt again...

Alan said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your reply. I have done some digging around on the internet today in order to try and answer my own question and I have found a number of references to this tragic event. Incredibly (to me anyway) some of them confirm that they did use the original footage of Jack Tyree's jump in the movie. If that is indeed the case the only possible justification I can come up with is that it was a pivotal scene and they didn’t want anyone else to risk making another jump. Otherwise, it supports one of the themes of your piece about the nature of the movie business and some of the people who choose to make a living there.

Like you I have to hope that some of the $40 million this movie made found its way back to Jack’s family. No movie is worth dying for and I will certainly never watch that scene in quite the same way again…

All the best for 2012,
Alan. (previously ‘anonymous’ at 4:56am 9th Jan 2012)

Greg said...

What an absolutely small world we live in. I wanted to reminisce on my childhood and so watched "The Sword and the Sorcerer" today for the first time in 30 years. The strange series of events that I've just learned in the last hour has me dumbfounded to say the least.

I watched that scene of the stuntman jumping of the cliff, and the thought passed through my mind that he did not have that graceful arc to his jump I see so often with such stunts. It looked to me that he wasn't rolling head over heels, or leaning in a seated position that would allow him to fall on his back. I thought maybe he was trying to roll to his side.

Nonetheless, it was a fleeting thought. I naturally just assumed he was a professional and knew what he was doing, and proceeded to enjoy the rest of my reminiscing on an adventurous, low-grade, fantasy movie that defined my childhood amusement.

But then that dedication scrolled up on the credits, and curiosity persuaded me to research that name. Sure enough, on every TV and moviegoer's source of information these days, our trusty IMDB mentioned the film was dedicated to a stuntman who was fatally injured jumping off a cliff.

More research lead me to this blog post, and I am simply amazed at the coincidence that a) someone who was actually there to witness this tragic scene wrote about it, and b) that you wrote about it only five years ago and were still commenting on it earlier this year.

Here we are, strangers, 30 years after the fact, all being impacted by this event, consoling and sharing. I tip my hat to you Michael for sharing this. It is a good reflection on our humanity, something our generation slightly fear is perpetually dying, that we all can still be grieved by your story.

Obviously we all live different lives, but somehow a few of us have come together over this random incident, no longer complete strangers, and shared our thoughts and sympathies. What a small world indeed.

Michael Taylor said...

Greg;

The latest version of Blogger makes it very easy to keep track of any new comments on older posts -- otherwise I'd never have noticed the more recent comments on such an old post, including Alan's and yours.

You're right, though -- the internet provides a unique opportunity for such cross-generational communion -- a shared cyber-hearth of sorts that has indeed caused our world to shrink.

I carried the story of that day with me for a long time before finally putting it on paper, and the simple act of writing it down helped get me over the emotional hump. The image of Jack Tyree coming off that cliff will stick in my mind's eye until I too shuffle off this mortal coil, but it's a lot easier to live with now.

Six months after that post went up, I got an e-mail from the current husband of Jack Tyree's widow. One of his daughters stumbled across the post and forwarded it to him. Apparently this was the first eyewitness report she'd heard from anyone not in the stunt crew that day -- and she appreciated the perspective. After a tough life (her second husband died from illness), she married a third time, and is now has a large combined family of several step-children.

Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and eloquent comment.

Phyllis said...

JACK TYREE (Smiley) was my best friend growing up. His grandfather built the housing tract we lived in and his mother and Jack lived there. When I heard of Jacks death I was devastated. He survived being a Navy seal while in southern california he was hit by a drunk driver and broke every bone in his
body. But on the positive side he was married under water he worked on Big Valley and had some great friends so as I always say RIP my
Friend I will see you some day
HE WAS A GREAT GUY

Michael Taylor said...

Phyllis --

I never got a chance to know Jack, but have since heard from a number of people who knew him. All I can tell you is that he didn't suffer -- it was all over in less than three seconds.

A moment of fear, then oblivion.

Still, your friend died much too young. His death still resonates within the film community of Hollywood.

Thanks for tuning in...

Chuck Clark said...

What a moving story about that tragic event you have written, sir. A good friend of mine was 2nd A.C. on that film. He didn't see the actual death because he was inside the cave loading a magazine. I attended the cast and crew screening with him, and sitting in front of us were two stuntmen who had known Jack Tyree. When the shot depicting his fall appeared on the screen, they were very upset and both got up a moment later and walked out. We worked in a dangerous business in those days and far too often someone got badly hurt, or worse. During the production of the first "Spiderman" film, I supervised the deliveries of lighting and grip equipment to the locations. One morning I got a call from the electric rigging best boy who told me not to deliver anymore equipment that day because a set construction worker had been killed on the location when a cherry picker he was riding in hit a curb and forced the basket into a large sign and he was decapitated. Of course, everyone was shocked, but production continued. To their credit, I heard that the director, Sam Raimi, and one of the producers, were the men who went to the worker's home and gave the horrible news to his wife. I don't know anymore about the consequences, but it was just a reminder of how easily something can go awry. You have a great blog and I intend to follow it. Have a nice day. CC

Michael Taylor said...

Chuck --

First unit was shooting a scene inside the caves while second unit filmed the stunt. Unfortunately, shit happens and people get hurt (or worse) with some regularity in this business. To a certain extent, it's just the nature of the beast -- we work in the real, physical world, and when pushing the envelope of the possible, things will occasionally go wrong.

In some ways, your story is more disturbing. Stunt people walk the knife edge of danger for a living and are paid accordingly, but set builders don't go to work expecting to quite literally lose their heads. I'm glad to hear the producer and Raimi manned up, though -- that comes as a welcome surprise. But you're right: it's all to easy for a normal day on set to go very bad, and it's up to all of us to make sure that doesn't happen.

Thanks for the kind words, and for taking the time to tune in...