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Fake stunts, real danger

BY TOM LYONS

The people stumbling home from the nightclub district at 3:30am have to make their way up a University Avenue that is a bit busier than usual. Police officers and orange-vested security guards are patrolling the sidewalks. Two Formula One racers are roaring down the wrong side of the road, weaving through oncoming traffic and sending cars fleeing to either side. One passenger car sends up a shower of sparks as it skids sideways, narrowly missing both the racers and a stripped-down jeep, loaded with movie cameras, which is following them.

The action doesn't faze the nightclubbers, though. Apparently a few tequilas, and the sense that it is only a movie set for Sylvester Stallone's Driven, make the race cars seem as harmless as two-dimensional images flickering across a screen. But just a few weeks prior to the shooting of this film in September, Toronto was reminded that film sets can be dangerous -- a local stunt man, Chris Lamon, died during the shooting of the Steven Seagal movie Exit Wounds.

"He did a stunt that, on the surface, seemed risky but doable," recalls Marco Bianco, the stunt driver who was sending up the shower of sparks by skidding the passenger car along University Ave.

"He was jumping from a moving vehicle. And he made the slightest of miscalculations, so it came out just a little wrong. To this day we can't explain why he did what he did, or all the elements that went into it. But in any case, it happened so fast that he hit his head. He didn't die on the spot -- he died five days later. It's a reminder to all of us that we've been in very similar situations."

Bianco says his own brush with death while doing a stunt was particularly close.

"It was the second-worst day of my life. I fell off the building and landed on the ground and almost killed myself. Four stories -- a 43-foot fall onto some stairs, after hitting a railing. That was the worst stunt, in terms of the worst injury that I've ever had. Most people would die from going over headfirst from that height," says Bianco, who trained as a gymnast before entering the stunt profession 20 years ago. He has worked in scores of films and TV shows, including Murder at 1600 and Police Academy.

But injuries can hurt even when they are not as dramatic as a four-story plunge.

"I had to slide down an elevator cable with just a vest on," recalls Walter Masko, a 14-year stunt veteran. "And because the steel cable was frayed, there were parts of the cable that stuck out. So once I started going, I shredded my arms and legs." Masko now specializes in stunt driving.

Dave Stevenson, a martial arts expert who trained with Jackie Chan in the '70s and just finished work on an as-yet-untitled film starring Chris Rock, recalls a bobsled going horribly out of control in Cool Runnings, but he says his worst injury came in a fight scene.

"I ripped my Achilles tendon from my calves. It snapped in three places," he says. "I don't think I was warmed-up enough. I was doing a double kick to the head, with a spinning kick. And all I heard was snap!"

It may come as a surprise to learn that female stunt performers suffer more injuries than men. And the reason is simple: their clothing -- or lack of it.

"Quite often the actress is dressed in a mini-skirt, and something very revealing," says Leigh Brinkman, who trained in horseback riding before working as a stunt double for the likes of Meryl Streep, Shannon Doherty and Kirsten Dunst.

"Then when it comes time to double for her in your action sequence, that means you're doing stair falls in a mini-skirt, and there's no room for padding. I've done stair falls in lingerie. And the show I worked on this summer, I was wearing a pretty thin outfit, with no room for kneepads or elbow pads, and I had to hit the deck on a rooftop. You know before you do the stunt you're going to come up bleeding. Because there's no pads, and it's real, and you just do it.

"So women end up with a lot more bruises and scrapes. We're always dressed in these skimpy outfits, and high heels. Always high heels. I've had to do fight scenes in four-inch stilettos."

But apart from the need to risk injury and control fear, the job is much like any other, only more so, say stunt performers. In fact, their gripes resemble most other everyday workplace complaints.

Politics, rather than performance, often determines who gets hired, and there is no recognized degree or set of qualifications to offset the common workaday pressures of favouritism and finance. Film producers rarely understand the technicalities of stunts, and so are at the mercy of stunt coordinators whose pitch might be better than their product.

New stunt performers complain they are regarded as easy targets for the most dangerous assignments, because they are not in a position to turn down work. Older stunt coordinators complain they are unfairly maligned by newcomers who fail to appreciate that decades of risk-taking have given veterans the right to take a pass on the worst jobs. The under-representation of visible minorities in TV and film is often exacerbated in stunt casting, and there is relatively little work for female stunt performers in general.

With all this -- on top of the risk of serious injury -- it may seem a mystery that anyone would even want the job. But stunt work is so coveted that it typically takes a new stunt person at least five years to break into the industry full-time -- if, that is, he or she is successful, which few novices are.

Toronto's stunt community is small -- about 150 ACTRA members and a similar number of itinerant workers -- and there is little turnover, because once performers gain a foothold, they keep it. Top stunt performers are paid well, and they get addicted to the film industry and the opportunity to use their skill sets. Many were national-level divers, auto racers, martial artists, gymnasts, scuba divers, horseback riders or boxers before they entered the industry, and it's hard to walk away from a job that pays them for doing the things they love. And the adrenaline rush, they say, definitely outweighs the fear.

As well, despite last summer's tragedy, there has been less to fear in recent years, says Bianco.

"Nowadays, you've got the computers that have changed the way we've done things. You've got some very major accidents," he says, referring to the deaths of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow and Vic Morrow on Twilight Zone: The Movie, "that from a legal point of view, have told people, 'Lookit, you've got to watch out.' And also, you have the same people working together in Toronto for 20 years. Those three things have contributed the most to making it a much safer industry."

Those still in need of reassurance might be interested to know that the very first Canadian-born stunt man is still alive and working, almost four decades after helping to ignite the fledgling Toronto stunt scene in the early '60s.

"I'm on the outs right now," laughs Bobby Hannah, 53, speaking on the phone from Schomberg, Ontario. "I'm a 38-year veteran, so I'm not the popular thing. I've gone to a niche area, where I feel I do well as an older member, and that's doing car work in car commercials. I don't necessarily have to crash them up and risk physically hurting myself. That's always in there, and that's always a part of it.

"And that's what stunt men get paid for," says Hannah. "Not to take the injuries, but there's always the chance of injury that goes with that kind of profession. And it's usually injuries that take you out of the game.

"But a stunt should not be overly dangerous that it can't be repeated. If that's the case, then maybe there's a better way of doing it."

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