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)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Full Burn

Anyone who’s been reading this blog since the beginning (all three of you), or has gone through the “best of” posts (another half-dozen people) knows how I feel about stunts. They’re fascinating, scary, and always dangerous, even when performed by the best in the business. Pretty much everything else done in Hollywood is fake – we put short actors up on apple boxes to make them look taller, shoot night exterior scenes on stage in the daytime, utilize green and blue screen technology to put actors where they never were, and “cheat” with camera angles and temporary walls to make a flimsy three wall set built of 1 X 3 pine and luan appear to be a solid suburban home.

The essence of every Hollywood craft is to do whatever it takes to sell the shot, which means we cheat every chance we get.

The only thing stunt people cheat is death. Yes, they utilize some of the most modern, cutting-edge technology to pull off the amazing stunts demanded by action films these days, but when the cameras roll, those are real people out there pushing the absolute limits of Newtonian Physics and human endurance in doing scarifyingly realistic, truly death-defying stunts. They drive (and crash) cars and motorcycles in a manner that would get most of us killed, do high falls I wouldn’t attempt for any amount of money, and willingly allow themselves to be set on fire, then jerked thirty feet in the air on cables powered by high-speed winches – stunts that could seriously injure or kill them were anything to go wrong. Stunt people live in a world where shrugging off injury, pain, and the daily possibility of death on the job is all in a day’s work.

I knew a lot of this already. You can’t spend more than three decades working on thousands of film sets without learning something about stunts and the people who do them – and as I found out, not all of these experiences are pleasant. I’ve met some really nice stunt people, as well as the occasional buffoon who takes himself (and his mega-macho image) far too seriously.*

As it turns out, I didn’t know the half of it. Much of the rest I learned while reading “Full Burn,” by Kevin Conley, which skims over the history of stunt work in Hollywood while concentrating on the present state of the art in its many incarnations. Conley explains in riveting detail how stunts and the people who do them evolved over the years, then reveals how stunt-people are constantly pushing the envelope of real-world technology in fighting to stay relevant (read: employed) in the modern era of CGI special effects. Published in 2008, the book is packed with first-person interviews with those who pulled off the spectacular stunts in movies like “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” among others. Yes, he does talk about the legendary Yakima Canutt and “the most dangerous stunt ever filmed,” but this is largely the story of modern stuntmen – and stunt women -- not some dry and dusty history tome. Conley is a pro at the keyboard, with a crisp, urgent writing style that does a nice job conveying the casual-but-serious approach to personal risk that makes stunt people a breed apart.

This book tells their story very well indeed. It’s a terrific read for anyone fascinated by movies or interested in how stunts are done. It won't bury your budget, either -- if you don't feel like shelling out sixteen dollars for a new book, used copies are available from Amazon for eight to nine bucks.

* I once had the pleasure of witnessing one such clown – a stuntman dressed in a big white cowboy hat, cowboy boots, tight Levis, mirrored shades, and big silver belt buckle – get his karmic comeuppance on a low budget shoot one afternoon. As three of us unloaded the equipment truck in the hot sun, the stunt man stood off to the side telling stories about his many dangerous deeds, at one point boasting that he’d recently skydived from 12,000 feet. I’m not sure why that was supposed to impress us, since falling from a hundred feet will kill you just as dead as dropping from two miles up, but this guy made a big deal of it. Once he’d finished bragging, the grip truck driver – who’d been quietly working the lift gate while the stunt man prattled on -- mentioned that he’d made eight jumps from 36,000 feet.

I turned to look at him, this very ordinarly, going-on-middle-aged guy. Although I didn't know much about skydiving, I knew that airliners routinely fly at 36,000 feet. I knew that an unprotected human will quickly die from cold and lack of oxygen at 36,000 feet. And I damned well knew that nobody just hops in a plane, flies to 36,000 feet, then straps on a parachute and jumps out.

That takes some very special training.

It turned out our truck driver had been a Navy Seal specializing in HALO jumps, where his unit would leap from a plane at altitude, then “fly” twenty miles to the target before deploying their parachutes at 800 feet. Once they hit the water – or ground – they’d carry out their military mission.

Our so-very-full-of-himself stunt man listened in stunned silence -- and the look on his was face priceless. Thoroughly put in his place by a truck driver (who turned out to be a very nice guy), he didn’t say another word the rest of the day.

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