CGI-weary audiences’ demand for complex ‘real’ action is increasing the risk for performers
his week, the British stunt performer Joe Watts suffered a serious head injury on the set of the film Fast & Furious 9, at Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, after he reportedly fell 30ft (9 metres) from a balcony. He was airlifted to hospital and has been put in an induced coma. Production on the film was shut down, and the Health and Safety Executive is investigating.
Stunt professionals are in high demand in the current climate of action-driven blockbuster films and increasing volumes of small-screen productions requiring cinema-standard action. Weary of unconvincing CGI and green-screen action, audiences are starting to want practical, unsimulated effects: humans doing spectacular stunts “for real”. However, as the volume and complexity of stunts has grown, so has the risk factor.
In Toronto last week, a special effects coordinator on the television superhero series Titans died “after an accident which occurred at a special effects facility during the preparation and testing for an upcoming shoot”, according to a Warner Bros statement. Warren Appleby was reportedly struck by a piece of a car that came off during the stunt test. In July 2017, the stunt performer John Bernecker died from head injuries on the set of The Walking Dead, in Georgia, after falling 20ft on to a concrete floor, missing a crash mat. A few months later, stunt rider Joi “SJ” Harris was killed when she lost control of her motorcycle on the streets of Vancouver while filming Deadpool 2. A former professional road racer, Harris was a novice stunt rider. The stunt required her to not wear a helmet.
“There’s always pressure to do bigger, better stunts,” says Ray Rodriguez, contracts manager for SAG-AFTRA, the US union for screen actors, including stunt performers. “It is an ongoing escalation in terms of what is trying to be achieved, and I think that does have an effect on the level of danger. I also think the population of qualified stunt coordinators and stunt professionals has been stretched a little thin, just because of the level of demand. We do have concerns sometimes that we see stunt coordinators on set that don’t have the type of résumé that we are accustomed to seeing. It is an area of the industry where there has not been a lot of formal regulation.”
Alex Daniels, president of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, based in Los Angeles, has similar concerns: while there have been vast improvements in safety compared with previous decades, the volume of stunts has also increased dramatically. “In the last 10 years, the number of stuntmen in Atlanta has grown from two or three dozen to nearly 1,000 because of the massive growth in volume of production in that region. What that has created is a situation of a greater number of stunt performers with less experience,” he says.
The demand for convincing stunts is also having an impact on actors. In May, shooting was suspended on the forthcoming 25th James Bond film after Daniel Craig injured his ankle. He slipped and fell while shooting a running scene in Jamaica, and had to be flown to the US for minor surgery. In August 2017, Tom Cruise broke his ankle during a roof-jumping stunt in London for Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Production was halted for nine weeks, adding an estimated $80m to the film’s budget.
In the US, which has an estimated 3,000 stunt professionals, there is no central stunt body. The Stuntmen’s Association is one of the largest of dozens of regional groups. It has 120 members, some of whom are semi-retired. Membership is by invitation.
The picture is slightly different in the UK, says Jim Dowdall, chair of the British Stunt Register (BSR). Founded in 1973, the BSR prides itself on being the oldest and largest stunt association in the business. Dowdall, a veteran stunt performer, estimates the BSR has some 400 members in the UK, representing more than 90% of British stunt performers and coordinators.
To qualify for the BSR, applicants are required to have spent a minimum number of days on a stage or film set and to be formally qualified in a minimum of six physical disciplines, including martial arts, horse riding, trampolining and stunt driving. “If you started from scratch, it would usually take two-and-half to three years,” says Dowdall. “And if you do succeed in getting on to the stunt register, there is no guarantee you’re going to get a single day’s work for the rest of your career. What you’re getting is like a driving licence.”
The result of these exacting standards, says Dowdall, is that stunt safety in the UK is extremely high. “The kind of injury that Joe [Watts] has sustained this week is incredibly rare given the number of stunt days per year, which must run into the tens of thousands. But it’s the one that goes wrong that everybody remembers,” he says.
The last such incident in the UK was in 2009, when David Holmes, a stunt double for Daniel Radcliffe on the Harry Potter films, injured his spine and was left paralysed after a flying stunt went wrong. Dowdall points out that there has not been a British stunt fatality for nearly 20 years. According to a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “the film and broadcast industry in general has a lower incidence of RIDDOR [Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, Dangerous Occurrences Regulations] than many of the more ‘traditional’ industries”. Since 2012, the HSE has investigated just six serious stunt-related accidents in the UK.
The environment is collaborative, rather than competitive, Dowdall says. Bonds within the stunt community are strong, and knowledge is continually being shared, within the community and across the Atlantic, to improve safety. There are signs the US industry is adopting a more British approach. In 2018, SAG-AFTRA introduced new standards and practices for stunt coordinators, including mandatory basic training requirements, and a register of professionals who have carried out a minimum number of days of work.
However, risk is still very much part of the territory. “It is not natural for a person to throw themselves out of a 30-storey building or roll down a flight of steps on fire,” says Dowdall. “By definition, the word ‘stunt’ does not mean you can do something 100% safely, because then it is no longer a stunt.”