Crash Course: The Art of Film Stuntwork by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee

Posted by on Jan 27 2014 | Guest Blog, Motion Pictures

Guest blog by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee. McGee will be in person at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, February 1 to introduce the film BULLITT (1968) and the importance of this film to the history of stuntmen, and particularly stunt driving.

Stunt work in film is a fascinating story of former cowboys, rodeo stars, circus performers, acrobats, daredevils, World War I pilots, wrestlers, athletes and racecar drivers becoming an integral part of film history. Stunting has been a part of cinema since cinema began. The thrill audiences got from seeing someone hang precariously off a window ledge, or gallop on a horse at reckless speeds through the woods on the way to a last-second rescue, fed the same basic need that we have today: to see human beings do something seemingly impossible, or at the very least, the human body in extraordinary motion. As moviegoers, our appreciation of stuntwork taps the same part of our cerebral cortex, that part of our brain that gives us pleasure by simply watching human beings move through defined space. We get a similar rush from choreographed song and dance. But as a filmmaking tool, skill set or profession, the artistry of stunting has been minimized. It could be assumed that there’s really only a finite number of ways a stuntman could fall from an established height into an airbag. But a fall is not just a fall, not when a director, cameraman, producer, the star and the entire crew is expecting that stunt performer to interpret the screenplay to the best of his or her ability, to stay in character, to do the gag quickly and efficiently—and to try not get killed.

 

In the winter of 2002, I had a chance to travel to Los Angeles for a three-day interview shoot with several veteran stuntmen. This was for an on-air tribute to stuntmen in the movies that aired in the summer of that same year on Turner Classic Movies. While there, I had a chance to talk to some gentlemen who represented some of the great movie stunt work of any generation: Terry Leonard, the guy who was dragged underneath the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Bob Herron, doubling Ernest Borgnine, jumped a car through a billboard, then through the roof of a barn and landed some 150 feet away for Sam Peckinpah’s otherwise forgettable Convoy (1978); Loren Janes, Steve McQueen’s long-time stunt double in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Getaway (1972), The Hunter (1980), etc.; and others, including Rick Seaman, Jack Williams, Bobby Hoy, Tony Brubaker, and Chuck Bail. Then in 2013, I invited Mr. Janes, Jeannie Epper, and Conrad Palmisano for an hour-long conversation at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. What occurred to me during the ‘02 production and my ’13 interview was that these stuntmen and stuntwomen, in terms of the way they related to each other and spoke of the job, were not unlike firefighters, cops or any other vocation that entails a great deal of risk at pretty much every turn. What was lacking though was an awareness that they were more than just skilled professionals doing a job of work. They didn’t think or speak like artists, but skilled workers, old pros. That is an admirable quality, entirely in keeping with the humble ethic passed down from the first generation of stuntmen who came to Hollywood as out-of-work cowboys.

 

But stuntwork is an art, as meaningful, varied and integral to filmmaking as cinematography, acting, art direction, or scoring. Great stuntwork, like other great filmmaking disciplines, can be appreciated on multiple levels, from varying points of view. There’s bad stuntwork, to be sure, so not every fist thrown, stirrup drag, crashed car, and belly-flopped biplane should automatically be considered to have some artistic merit. The impressive 40 minute car chase that concludes the 1974 cult favorite Gone in 60 Seconds has plenty of stuntwork, but the lackluster direction and editing can not bring the film or its stunts far enough from its low-budget, drive-in parameters. However, the two car chases that director John Frankenheimer and stunt coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez staged in Nice and the streets of Paris for Ronin (1998)? Exceptional. These sequences served the story, built characters, and created tension and suspense that help to make the entire film a modern classic. It’s not enough to just do the gag. It has to mesh with the film, with the narrative, or build the star.

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong about enjoying a stunt for its spectacle, no more than it’s wrong to enjoy Royal Wedding (1951) only for Fred Astaire’s famed dance around a revolving room. Seeing great stuntwork in film elicits a considerable “wow” factor. If it doesn’t, then the filmmakers have failed in creating the most basic response from an audience: a gasp at something they haven’t seen before. As spectacle, we acknowledge the power and the sheer enjoyment of seeing great movie stunts performed, recognizing how our emotional interpretation and enjoyment of a film is shaped by the stunts. That’s what made Bullitt (1968) such an important turning point in stunt work. Director Peter Yates and his stuntmen—Carey Loftin as stunt coordinator, Bill Hickman, Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen himself as stunt drivers (with an assist from McQueen’s frequent double, Loren Janes)—created a chase scene that was so wholly original, it stood apart from the rest of the film, and yet, is also elevated the reception of the film story itself. Critics at the time praised the film, and made a conscious call-out to the nearly 12-minute chase spectacle, while also noting Steve McQueen’s cool cop character, an assessment that was always within the context of how he and his double, Bud Ekins, performed the chase.

 


 

No film craft works independently of others. The very nature of the medium is a collaborative form. The study of film acting must take into account the power of editing, for example. Similarly, for a stunt to work fully, in order for it to have the greatest effect on the photoplay, it must reconcile itself with other disciplines, including editing, but also the way the stunt is shot by the 2nd unit director, how it is framed by the cinematographer, and the like. But within this collaborative medium, the work of the stunt performer is worthy of genuine critical appreciation.

 

But this praise does not come easy. While the romantic idea of the life of the stuntman has been the subject of films (The Lost Squadron, Lucky Devils, Hooper, The Stunt Man) and television series (The Fall Guy), the assessment of what he or she does for filmmaking has been mired in a prejudice against certain genres, namely Westerns and action films. Stuntwork is an essential ingredient of both of those genres, and because of that, stuntwork is often dismissed as the domain of brainless action. Anyone can fall off a horse or crash a car, right? But there’s so much more to stunting than simple allowing gravity to do its work. There is a vast difference between Carey Loftin driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T through the American Southwest in Vanishing Point (1971) and the cartoonish shenanigans that take place in The Cannonball Run (1980). But in general terms, films that have a lot of stunts in them, such as Westerns and action pictures, are not often considered serious films. And as such, they don’t often receive high praise from the industry, like the Oscar. Veterans of the stunt business have lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for years to have a stunt category created for Oscar consideration. So far, the Academy has refused. To be fair, they have good reasons for not creating a new category and they are at least being consistent; the category for Best Makeup wasn’t created until 1981. Regardless of whether or not stunt performers will ever get an Oscar category, two of their own have been given honorary statuettes: Yakima Canutt in 1967 and Hal Needham in 2012. But the need to look again at the work of the unknown stuntman remains. To be dragged underneath a team of horses (Yakima Canutt, Stagecoach)…crashing a plane on cue (Dick Grace, Lilac Time)…hurtling a car through New York City (Bill Hickman, The French Connection)…jumping a motorcycle onto a moving freight train (Michelle Yeoh, Supercop)…or coordinating an action sequence in such a way that allows an international film star to actually ride atop a speeding train (Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery) or leap out of the world’s tallest building (Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)…surely there’s an art to that.

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    Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

    1 comment for now

    One Response to “Crash Course: The Art of Film Stuntwork by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee”

    1. Nellie Bly

      Thanks for a most interesting and informative article on the unsung heroes, stuntmen.

      Re: Hal Needham’s honorary statue in 2012: go one step further for readers who don’t know and list one of his credits, i.e. his amazing aerial stunts in “The Flight of St. Louis.”

      30 Jan 2014 at 10:14 pm