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Collision Course

How do you kill a stuntman? Drop him from his ego to his IQ. This is the gag doing the rounds on set, and it conveys the gist of the stereotype unjustly bedevilling stunt workers: brawny dullards too arrogant to realise they’re expendable camera-fodder.

Original publication: SL, 1999.

collision course

The noise on set is ferocious, an industrial soundtrack of hammers, banging and electrical drills. Voices shout and cough, phlegmy and unshaven at 6.45 on a Monday morning, but already edged with the panic of wrapping up the shoot by the weekend deadline. It’s rush hour on the staircase leading to the wooden platforms upstairs, where cameras, stage lights and props are being lugged for the next scene. Along with its human ant colony, the ranch house itself is stirring from sleep: its timbers creak and sigh beneath the stamping footfalls.

‘Organised chaos,’ one crew member laughs; ‘a circus two seconds before it catches on fire,’ grumbles another. 

Worlds are in collision here on the set of Pirates of the Plain, a kids’ movie showcasing the daredevilry of over 20 South African stunt workers, and among the chief instigators of this chaos is Cecil Carter, the American stunt co-ordinator. Cecil seems stunted by stuntwork: disturbingly, he’s limping about on crutches.

How do you kill a stuntman? Drop him from his ego to his IQ. This is the gag doing the rounds among the film crew, and it conveys the gist of the stereotype that’s unjustly bedevilled stunt workers: brawny dullards too arrogant to face up to their status as expendable camera-fodder.

If Cecil is neither dull nor brawny, he seems perhaps to have gone too far in subverting the stereotype, for he looks frail and drawn, the first to go down in a punch-up, shoot-out or nuclear exchange. But his appearance is deceiving. Cecil is highly esteemed as an action man, and co-stuntmen deny that his crutches stem from a mere sprained ankle. They suggest other causes for the injury, no doubt commonplace hassles for dudes like Cecil: runaway trucks, petrol-tankers gone supernova, parachuteless freefalls …

After years of film work, Cecil isn’t exactly starry-eyed with wonder when it comes to offering a plot synopsis of his latest project. Briefly resting against a fake stone fireplace but still yelling orders to the masses, he sums up the current extravaganza with these words:

‘The movie’s set on a farm in present-day Kansas and there’s this little kid living with his mom and granddad – come up higher here! – and the kid’s got a huge active imagination, always dreaming up things, seeing cowboys, space invaders, all this kinda nonsense. The film jumps back to a pirate ship 300 years ago – hang on: Julian! Julian! Come on, guys! – and the crew are mutinying against the captain, who’s Tim Curry – guys! build it the same as yesterday, thanks! – As he goes overboard, a storm comes up and there’s a witchdoctor on board who tells `em it’s a bad omen to kill the captain and all this kinda shit.’ Doing the time-warp again, Curry’s sucked through time, landing on the farm, where ‘the kid starts playing with him, and all the rest – Sorry, man, gotta go.’

Home Alone with Tim Curry? In tights? What the hell kinda flick is this anyway? But when Curry shows up on set later in the afternoon, by the looks of it having lunched as well as everyone else, he’s not attired in the fishnet stockings he wore so memorably in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but arrives clutching a pack of Winstons and clad in a baroque seventeenth-century coat and a smiley-face T-shirt. One moment Curry’s an unreal myth living in Movieland; the next he has wordlessly materialised within spitting distance, come up to the lab to see what’s on the slab.

It’s certainly an odd sensation seeing this cult icon teletransported to a ranch house outside Philadelphia, a hamlet in the farmlands to the north of Cape Town, but he’s not the first star to have visited these sleepy regions, which are gaining popularity with foreign production houses. Nevertheless, the crew give him a wide and silent berth, and, aside from answering the question, ‘Do you need anything?’ with the quip, ‘Yes, a blowjob,’ Curry is equally silent, maintaining an aristocratic and self-humouring reserve in his goatee and long-locked wig. Even director Buster Cherry, SA-based auteur of Ernest Goes to Africa, addresses him from behind the telemonitor as ‘Mr Curry.’

If it’s uncanny finding Curry roaming the ordinary Cape landscape, it’s an experience that perhaps brings to light the uncanny nature of all film sets generally. On the one hand they’re monotonously prosaic, all nuts-and-bolts and dirty fingernails; on the other, they’re the departure points from which self-enclosed fictional worlds, the ones projected on screen, will form.

Pirates of the Plain is a movie about different worlds in collision, yet its film set is itself is an overlap of worlds – a midway-point between grimy reality and the screen illusions yet to come. It’s a space in process, and the area in front of the camera seems a forbidden zone, ordinary yet strangely charged. Dick around there and you’ll feel self-conscious, aware that your image could be sucked away through the Black Hole of the camera’s gaze into a world of alien eyes.

Worlds collide on set, but they’ll part once the screen-world acquires a life of its own and jettisons its attachment to palpable reality. Soon all that will remain of this set in Philadelphia is its cinematic image, not the human experience originally underlying it.

When Curry is filmed doing battle with a mutinous pirate, the sword fight looks and sounds real – going through rehearsed routines, they really do shove each other around with force and the swords really clash. Star and stuntman are dripping in sweat. Viewing them on screen, however, you’d assume all this energy was purely simulated, tricks of camera angles and overdubbed sound effects.

In cinema’s looking-glass world everything’s inverted, and the realer it is in reality, the less real it seems on film. Even the stuntman whom Curry repeatedly slaughters will lose his genuinely fearsome quality and become one more lantern-jawed bruiser interchangeable with millions of other Bad Guy’s you’ve seen before.

Which is a pity, because some of the 20-odd local stuntmen look truly monstrous, cagey slit-eyed shitkickers who might have been recruited from proletarian bars and who seem to have brought their own Eye-of-the-Dragon tattoos with them for their roles as pirates. Even the more genteel stuntmen look tough enough to suffer a journalist’s hangover for him, scum of the earth costumed in bandanas, ponytails, stubble, beards, knee boots, and flouncy cheesecloth shirts. Many, in fact, could pass for Observatory students.

Long before Curry arrives, these stuntmen have commuted from the city, disembarked in the parking area at the makeshift production village, and collected costumes from one of a dozen-or-so shipping container-boxes that house equipment, editing rooms and celebrity suites. After dressing up in a military-surplus tent, the stuntmen stand in clusters, smoking and bantering.

‘I think the kid attacks us with a nail-gun today,’ says one, ‘but we’ve got no idea of what’s happening. We’ll be hectically busy, then do nothing for six hours. Hurry up and wait: It’s like the army. We just wear different clothes – and the food’s on par.’

The buccaneers begin trudging through a blue-gum grove, crossing a landscape of wheat fields, wind pumps, and derelict farm buildings towards the set several hundred metres away – a specially built double-storeyed clapboard ranch house. Though its exterior’s been painted to accentuate the grain of the wood, the house is no stage-flat artifice. Its interior is solid, and the rooms could accommodate real-life inhabitants. As it is, the place’s teeming with movement. The stuntmen assist with the physical labour, then go upstairs to rehearse the stunts Cecil Carter has choreographed.

Their first scene involves the film’s largest star: a life-sized, multi-tonne, three-masted pirate galleon berthed outside the farmhouse on a sea of wheat. The ship has supposedly time-travelled to Kansas and crashed into the building, exposing the kid’s bedroom to the elements and spearing a football pennant on its bowsprit. Speaking into her headset, the assistant director commands her walkie-talkie-bearing flunkeys to let silence prevail everywhere on set, then screams: ‘Cameras rolling! … Aaand action!’ The pirates charge roaring from the boat, swinging on ropes and somersaulting into the bedroom with swords drawn.

‘It’s like a night in fuckin’ Hillbrow,’ observes Mike, a skilled slacker who’s been quietly mellowing in the background since sun-up. Preparations for the next scene are proceeding fast and furious around him, but Mike whiles away the golden hours in conversation, explaining that, because local wheat was considered too short, 18 hectares of an American variety was grown instead. ‘They planted all that shit, the Americans – can you believe it, hey? They built the house, they built the fuckin’ boat. It’s built in sections around a truck. When they put it together on the hill up there, they just rode it down here – into a fuckin’ ditch. The boat almost broke.’

Mike’s face crinkles in scandalised mirth. ‘Fuck me,’ he says, ‘that would have been a major fuckin’ disaster for these ous. Let’s face it, then the movie’s in its moer.’

A buccaneer limps past. ‘Hey, Jesus, china,’ Mike calls out, ‘if there’s any more injuries, there’ll be fuckall stuntmen left.’

The knobbled pirate is Ryan D.*, who at 19 is already an old hand at stuntwork, having been aided by a background in martial arts and gymnastics. A twisted ankle is no big deal for Ryan, who’s been ridden over by buses and set alight on shoots for, inter alia, Jackie Chan and Quentin Tarantino. Ryan’s determined to make stunts a career despite the risks, not all of them physical. The work’s seasonal: income is satisfactory in summer, low in winter.

‘You’re paid to play,’ he enthuses. ‘Pirates one day, cops and robbers the next. It’s not crazy at all. It gets the adrenaline going. You feel alive.’

Seth Atkins, the child star, has come on set and the assistant director is shouting, ‘Do it in the ass! Kids like that!’ – not an incitement to sodomy, but an instruction to a stuntman to pretend to have been hit in the backside by the water-pumpgun that Seth is busy priming for the next scene. In this sequence, Seth will repel the invading pirates with blasts of urine-coloured slime from his gun. Hours pass. Downstairs, Seth’s photo-double mopes about, but at lunchtime the two tousle-haired lookalikes will badger Mike for their usual game of soccer.

‘I gotta do something strenuous otherwise I’ll fuckin’ die,’ says Mike, who admits gaining four kilos while being on set virtually every day of the month-long shoot. ‘Sometimes I wonder if anyone even fuckin’ knows I’m here. I suppose I’ll only know for sure if no one pays me at the end.’

What the fuck does he do? ‘I’m Tim’s stand-in.’ What, like Curry’s stunt double? Isn’t that fucking dangerous? ‘Nah, broe,’ Mike chuckles. ‘I’m his camera stand-in. I’m the same height as him, so they use me instead of Tim to measure distances and angles when they’re setting the cameras up. I basically just stand there. And then I fuck off. That’s my job. The only way I’d get hurt is if a fuckin’ earthquake hit us.’

Sounds like a fucking dream job, but Julian* is wary of comparing his role to Mike’s. Julian is Curry’s stunt double, and after two years of ‘basic stunts’ (horse-drags, two-storey falls, and the like), the soft-spoken ex-chef is taking his promotion very seriously. ‘A lot of people might think, “So what?” but it’s important for my career. You get so little work, you accept whatever comes up. But this is a big step. When I tell people I’m doubling for Curry, they ask, “Are you the guy standing around?” “No,” I say, “I’m the guy diving around.”’

Fittingly for one aspiring to be an actor, Julian’s a Method stuntman who has to identify with a character-role if he’s to perform well. For this, he needs to be in costume and experience the urgency of being in front of a live camera. ‘It’s difficult, even for actors, just to stand there and play a role. If I’m not in this outfit,’ he says, alluding to his headscarf and maroon jacket, ‘it’s lost. If I’m in my jeans I don’t get that aggressive pirate feeling and feel pathetic doing my stunts.’ Julian studies Curry’s mannerisms and gait, and practises them at home. ‘You’ve got to make your actor look good. To sell a stunt, you have to accentuate your gestures and attitude.’

Before you can sell a stunt to the camera, you must sell it to yourself: you need inner resolution to follow through on the stunt lying ahead. ‘Not everyone can just go and dive and hit the ground,’ Julian says. ‘We all joke about how it’s a big game, but you have to focus on what you’re doing. You need the right space, the right frame of mind. You’ve gotta be strong, play the part, and show the energy coming from you.’

Back on set, the kid’s finished shooting his water gun and the crew are setting the scene for a reaction shot – one in which Theo* gets splattered with lethal fluid and topples over a balcony railing onto safety mats on the living-room floor. Applause erupts, and he and his comrades swap high-fives. On screen it’s a generic stunt, seen so often it won’t even register, but on set it looks every bit as dangerous as it really is. How keen would you be to try it yourself – to lean backwards over a balcony, and voluntarily flick yourself over? How long would it take you to cross that point?

There are three Tim Currys: the actor, stand-in and stunt double. On the film set, perhaps there are also three worlds, not just two. The ordinary world intersects with the realm of screen illusion, but the ordinary world is itself an illusion, a comfort zone constructed to repress the bone-breaking things that are waiting to happen to us. The chair you’re sitting on affords you the ease necessary to read poetry, think great thoughts; if it’s whipped away, you fall abruptly into a world of pain you’d rather forget. This is the hidden world stunt workers confront. To do so, they must push against the inner limitations determined by their wish for self-preservation.

‘We’ve all got a mental block about the wrong and right,’ Theo says. ‘That’s where the adrenaline rush comes – that little line separating severe danger from falling safely. It’s a fine line, but you’ve gotta commit yourself, do the thing as fast as you can, and let fate takes its toll. Stuntwork’s been my dream since I was five. Friends and I used to do backward somersaults off motorbikes. I love adrenaline-rushing, it’s what I live for.

‘My mother’s concerned about my safety. All parents would be. They do their conditioning of the mind and try to keep you on the beaten track so they can have peace of mind. But little boys – they’re rebels. When do you ever listen to your parents anyway?’

As Bradley* adds, ‘In stuntwork, you go against the things your parents taught you. They say, “Don’t climb trees, you’ll fall; don’t fall off motorbikes, it hurts.” That’s my programming, but if I do a motorbike-slide, I have to make myself fall off something I’ve driven safely for years.’

Crossing his inner resistance, Bradley plunges into this taboo region, the world of dread underlying ordinary existence. ‘Action cures fear. When I started I was scared of heights. I’m still afraid, but I’ve had no choice but to deal with it.’ And in exorcising his anxieties, ‘stuntwork’s pushed me to a calmer life. I was a wild child, but I don’t need to do stupid things and treat myself badly anymore. Reading a book on the beach: that’s my idea of fun.’

Action cures fear, but the stuntman’s fear sometimes returns when he sees himself on screen and receives a fuller picture of the risks he’s taken. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on film,’ says Phulani* of a stunt in which a car ploughed into him at a slow cruise. He’s a martial arts expert and had to muster all the mental focus he could. ‘The car’s heading for you, so you can’t hesitate. All I remember is seeing the car coming, and then the end bit when I landed. The middle I don’t recall. But on film I saw myself flying a metre high over the car. Then I wondered – is the money worth it?’

Phulani felt a shiver of dread watching this because he could connect the image on screen with his own experience. For the cinema-goer, who sees only the image, it’s probably small potatoes. The stuntman braves an underworld of physical dangers people ordinarily try to keep at bay; but his real threat comes from the world of cinematic illusion for which his deeds are recorded.

How do you kill a stuntman? The easiest way is to turn a camera on him. Film struggles to convey his adrenaline rush, which he alone feels; and as one film after another rolls off the assembly line, any sense of what that experience is like is increasingly deadened. It’s all been seen previously; if it hasn’t, it’s taken for granted. The image counts, not the flesh and blood under it. In this remorseless logic, stunt workers will one day be discarded altogether and replaced by computer simulated imagery. It’s the final stunt, fast approaching, and only the hardiest will survive.


* Names have been changed.


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