Stunts Gone Wrong
Greetings from Tromaville!
On Troma movies we hang up posters on every set and in each production office that read:
Rules of Troma Production:
Michael and I take these principles seriously. These principles are repeated throughout Terror Firmer, a movie about making movies. Here is a glimpse of what it is like working on a Troma set. Making a good movie is not worth killing people (unless those people are U.S. senators or studio executives or people that you don't like). We decrease the chances of injury by taking every precaution available. However, in the past we have screwed up. I will provide a few examples of stunts that have not gone as planned. In addition to a few cheap laughs, I hope that these mistakes will provide the novice filmmaker with a vivid illustration of what not to do.
MOVIE: The Toxic Avenger
THE STUNT, IN SCRIPT: In the midst of a chase scene a car crashes, flips, and rolls.
THE STUNT, AS PLANNED: The car comes rushing down the road and zooms up a ramp. On the ramp, the car's right side rises up while its left wheels stay low. The car then rises high enough to flip over and roll across the street.
It has been my philosophy that, if you want, you can hire hack writers, hack directors, hack actors--but you can't hire hack stunt people or pyrotechnics. You shouldn't even be a hack stunt person or pyrotechnic. In a world of ridiculous legal regulations on virtually every aspect of life, this is the one area which has practically no restraints.
On The Toxic Avenger, we hired stunt people with long lists of past credits, many of which were Hollywood movies.
The dangerous part of this stunt would be hitting the ground upside down and rolling. If you did this in a regular car, the nonreinforced roof would crush in, leaving the driver with a head akin to Sylvester's after Tweety hits him with a frying pan. But our professional Hollywood stuntman had taken precautions. He had set up the car with a "roll bar"--that is, a bar that went around the inside of the car and over the roof, reinforcing it so the car could roll without being crushed.
Three people were involved in the stunt: the stunt coordinator, the guy who put the roll bar in the car, and the driver, Russell.
Michael Herz was directing the scene. He had been taking control of all the stunt sequences in The Toxic Avenger. I was behind one of the cameras. We were filming with four cameras, as we had been doing with all our major stunts. That way we would be able to cut from angle to angle without having to redo the stunt. And if something went wrong with one of the cameras, the stunt wouldn't be lost forever. We also set the cameras at different speeds, getting some angles in slow motion for increased drama, and some in fast motion to exaggerate the feeling of speed.
Michael was standing on top of a truck. He had a megaphone. "Action!" he cried.
I watched through the eyepiece as the car came rushing down the street. Looks great. Beautiful. The car runs up the ramp and into the air, flying there against the backdrop of the blue sky. Then it falls. Rolls. Gorgeous! Fabulous! Perfect!
Then, suddenly, while the car is upside down, it flattens like an accordion. The roll bar didn't hold.
Russell is dead!
I dropped the camera. I ran toward the car. Michael was ahead of me.
"RUSSELL!" I yelled. "RUSSELL!"
No answer. Through a crack in the metal I could see part of his body, part of the brown jumpsuit he was wearing. He didn't seem to be breathing. Christ, he couldn't have been much more than twenty-five years old.
Michael and I looked at each other. I knew we would never, ever make another movie again. This was our fault, the two of us.
I was too old to go to dental school.
Then a small sound came from inside the car: "Elggh."
"Russell? Is that you?"
He was alive. My body swayed for a moment. For a second I could have sworn I fainted, but I stayed upright.
Soon the ambulance arrived. They used the jaws of life to cut open the car like a tuna can and remove Russell. He was miraculously unbroken. I inspected the car: the moron who had installed the roll bar simply screwed it into the floor of the car. As soon as any pressure was applied on top of it, it popped through the bottom like a fork through a wet paper bag. The guy who built it was an idiot--the floor was obviously unstable.
Whose fault was this?
It was his fault for claiming to know what he was doing. It was the stunt coordinator's fault for hiring such an idiot, and for not checking out his work. It was Russell's fault for not checking out the car before doing a stunt like this and putting his own life in jeopardy. And, finally, it was my fault because I also should have checked it out myself, and I shouldn't have hired guys who were shitheads.
Lesson: Don't hire shitheads.
Also: A Hollywood pedigree does not preclude shitheadism. If anything, it ensures it.
MOVIE: Troma's War
THE STUNT, IN SCRIPT: The bad guys are on a huge cruiser leaving the pier on their way to America to enact their wretched conspiracy. One of our heroes drives a jeep up a ramp, out over the water, and directly into the ship. At that point the ship explodes, killing the baddies.
THE STUNT, AS PLANNED: The boat is filled with explosives. The jeep (with no one inside) goes up a set of tracks, flies over the sea, and into the boat--when they collide, the pyrotechnic detonates the bombs with a trigger on land.
If you've heeded the call of Rule #1 and you've chosen adequate stunt people, they should know a lot more about doing stunts than you. Therefore, most of the primary decisions should be up to them. On Troma's War we hired Scott Leva as the stunt coordinator and Will Cabane as the pyrotechnic. Leva was always extremely responsible, safe, and accurate. He had used a complex series of mathematical equations to figure out exactly where to place the boat so that the car would fly into it. Cabane was likewise trustworthy--when he set off an explosion, he could tell you to the very inch how far it would go. He stood by with a detonator to charge the explosives.
The cameras were set. The jeep was revved up, ready to go. Suddenly, Michael Herz stopped the whole thing.
"Move the boat closer," he said.
"If we move it closer, the jeep will just fly over it, not into it," Scott said.
"No way," I told him. "Michael is a hundred percent correct. I can see. The boat is too far away from the land. The jeep's going to land in the water in front of it. Move it closer."
A minor debate occurred, but, as usual, Michael and I prevailed. They moved the boat closer to land.
The jeep revved up. There were four cameras--four cries of "Rolling" came out, one after the other--the last one from me, on camera four. "Speed!" yelled the soundman. "Action," Michael cried.
The jeep took off. It went up the ramp. It flew over the water in a clean, clear arc. And then it flew directly over the boat.
"Oh, shit," I said.
Will Cabane, thinking quickly, set off the explosives as soon as the jeep was over the boat. The result on film looks rather humorous. The boat explodes beneath the jeep, without even touching it. But at least we got our explosion, and the idea of what was supposed to happen was shown on-screen. Thanks to Will, but no thanks to either Michael or me.
LESSON: Let the experts be the experts.
MOVIE: Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD
THE STUNT, IN SCRIPT: Harry Griswold unintentionally transforms into a Kabuki-clown and is chased around the city by Brick Bronsky and other hoodlums. Two of the hoods crash their car into the rear end of another, propelling their car to flip in the air, turning in circles, landing and exploding.
THE STUNT, AS PLANNED: The stuntman drives up a very steep ramp, flips over in midair, and lands on the ground. Later on, we shoot a similar (but different) car exploding and cut them together.
In addition to being a classy stunt, this provided me with a chance to steal a Brian DePalma shot from Carrie. At the end of Carrie, John Travolta and Nancy Allen get into a car wreck, flipping over. DePalma shot the two actors in a stable car while twirling the camera around in circles. I would use this same shot with the hoods as their car spun in the air. By the way, DePalma's first movie, as well as Robert DeNiro's first movie, is The Wedding Party, which is owned by Troma.
We shot on a street in Hoboken, New Jersey (although it was supposed to be Manhattan, it looked more like Boise). We set up five cameras around the area of action. As usual, I took the camera position closest to the danger, nearest where the car would land--but 100 percent safe according to the stunt coordinator. When everything was in place, I yelled, "Action." This was relayed to the stunt driver by walkie-talkie. The car took off. It zoomed up the ramp very fast...too fast. It flew into the air, drawing a perfect arc. Everyone was in awe. It was truly beautiful. As I looked through the viewfinder, I noticed something unusual. The car seemed to be coming straight to me.
Either someone had misjudged or they hated me.
It's hard to say what happened next. I only remember the car landing ten feet away from me. Bits of gravel and metal shards struck my body. I was in shock.
Everyone was clapping. The stunt driver jumped out of the car and did a little football dance, wiggling his legs around.
"Wonderful!" the crowd shouted. "Fantastic!"
I wondered if they were referring to the fact that he had almost killed me.
I told the DP that I ran away from the camera, that I didn't get the shot. Strangely enough, though, when we watched the footage in the dailies I had stayed with the camera the whole time. The shot looked perfect.
LESSON: Don't let a car fall on you.
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The Godfather of Gore Speaks
2 or 3 Things I Know About Toxie (2 and 3)
The Troma Acting Method