After two deaths on movie sets, we speak to stunt performers about the risks
Hollywood’s unheralded danger men and women
It’s not been a good few weeks to be a stunt performer. On July 12, Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker died on set following a 22-foot (6.7-metre) fall onto a concrete floor, while on August 14, stunt driver Joi Harris died following a motorcycle accident on the set of Deadpool 2. In between, Tom Cruise, who is famous for performing many of his own stunts, is reported to have broken his ankle following a failed attempt to jump between two buildings on the London set of the sixth Mission: Impossible. All three shoots are believed to have been closed down while investigations take place.
While every precaution is taken to make on-set stunts as safe as possible, there’s no denying that stunt performing is a dangerous job. Among the members of the stunt community to whom I spoke following these two tragic accidents, the sadness felt is mingled with a degree of inevitability.
Bobby Holland Hanton is a seasoned stunt pro who has doubled for Daniel Craig in the James Bond franchise and Chris Hemsworth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I spoke to him fresh from the Atlanta set of the as-yet-unnamed third Avengers movie (formerly Infinity War 1), where he was again filling in for Hemsworth as Thor.
“We spend a lot of time rehearsing our stuff to keep it safe and eliminate as much danger as possible,” he says. “We’re one of the departments that starts working on a movie very early and finishes very late – we can be on set for nine months, mostly in preparation on the safety side, but it is a dangerous industry and accidents can happen. Malfunctions of equipment, machinery, things that can be out of the hands of the performer, and no one really knows what’s gone wrong until it’s been properly investigated.”
Dubai resident Barry Haggis is a coach at Dubai’s Parkour DXB, and has previously worked as a stunt performer on TV shows such as MTV’s Mighty Moshin’ Emo Rangers, and in pop videos for stars including Taylor Swift. “The news isn’t a shock, as such, because there are inherent dangers,” he asserts. “It’s more a case of curiosity about how it happened, because in my experience everything is a controlled risk. It’s just the same as [a job] using a crane because usually there are rules put in place [at work] to prevent accidents, so when they do happen it means that somewhere down the line those risks weren’t addressed properly.”
Holland Hanton concedes that stunt performers are well-rewarded financially for their high-risk jobs, though in a wider context, he notes that compared to a top footballer who could be earning more than Dh1 million a week, who is not putting their life on the line, there is some room for perspective.
However, he feels that, in the absence of the adulation received by the stars for whom they risk their lives, stunt performers could receive greater recognition in other areas: “The Oscars and the Golden Globes don’t even recognise us,” he says. “The Screen Actors Guild and Emmies do, and we have our own Taurus World Stunt Awards, so why not? I don’t know the reason, but if we can be recognised at something as big as the Emmies, then why not the Globes and the Oscars?”
Haggis, on the other hand, seems to almost shy away from public recognition for his work: “We don’t get a lot of credit, but that’s not why you do it,” he insists. “You do it because you love it. If recognition mattered, I think I’d be back to doing it for the wrong reasons, like some of those crazy videos on YouTube looking for attention – that’s going to come back and bite you at some point.
“That’s why I love being a coach. If you train someone right, they’ll do a great job and you’ll get no credit at all, but I feel good knowing I’ve made their life better.”
When attention does turn to the stunt community, it’s usually because of a tragedy, both men agree.
“It’s a shame it’s come to people dying for others to actually stand up and say: ‘What’s happened here, then?’” Holland Hanton says. “We do this for our whole lives, getting smashed about and bumped and bruised, and now because there’s a couple of fatalities, people want to know why.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise when chatting to Holland Hanton is the fact that, for someone working in such a dangerous job – where a single injury could end his careeror, indeed, his life – he is relatively unsure of where he stands in terms of insurance.
With insurers understandably reticent to hand out affordable personal policies to someone who risks their life for a living, there’s an assumption that a movie’s producer has the situation covered. He’s at pains to point out that when he has been injured, such as a split groin and injured back on the Thor: Ragnarok set, he has been very well looked after – on that occasion, Marvel covered all of his medical costs until he was fully fit. But he admits that should an injury end his career, he’s unsure of the situation: “I honestly don’t know the ins and outs,” he tells me. “You’d like to think you’re taken care of, and I know they looked after me when I was injured, I really can’t say anything bad about that at all, but if I couldn’t work again, I honestly don’t know.”
It’s a situation familiar to Eugene Wee, a production co-ordinator for Dubai’s Filmworks, who have handled local production for huge movies including Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy: “I think because stunt performers are usually freelancers, they tend to assume the production house has dealt with [insurance],” he says. “From Filmworks’ perspective, we would, from our side. Even if I just had to put a camera in water in full waterproof housing I’d take out extra insurance, but I can only speak for Filmworks.
“We’re careful to make sure that whatever could happen is covered, but I honestly couldn’t say if that’s the case for everyone.”