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Stand Up For Stunts

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"Mad Max: Fury Road" was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year and took home more awards than any other film, but none of the stunt people received any recognition from the Academy. Stuntman Jeff Wolfe talks about a rally and petition to get an Oscar category for stunts.

Beth Accomondo: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I'm Beth Accomando. Today I have a special edition of the podcast in which I want to focus your attention on the men and women who perform the stunts that make us gasp in awe. The reason for this focus is that Wednesday March 16th at noon; stunt performers will be holding bicoastal rallies in L.A and New York to urge the Oscars to recognize stunts as one of its award categories. The category that's been called for is for stunt coordinators. I had a chance to speak with one of the organizers of the rally, Jeff Wolfe. He's President of the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures and a stunt man himself. Then after my interview with him I'm going into the archives for my talk with stunt driver Steve Lebber who expresses his love and appreciation for all the work that went into the Oscar winning Mad Max: Fury Road. But first here's my interview with Jeff Wolfe. I caught him on his cell phone so my apologies for the audio quality. I'm speaking with Jeff Wolfe, President of the Stuntmen's Association, and Jeff you're planning an event to draw some attention to what the stunt people do for movies, so tell me about what that's going to be?

Jeff Wolfe: Sure, this is our second event, we're meeting tomorrow in front of the Academy of Arts and Sciences building in Los Angeles again because the first time we met with fifty thousand signatures and about ten dozen roses to try to show solidarity, to show that we were deserving of fair award of a slot, a category for an Academy award. We received no response from the Academy unfortunately and neither did any news media, so they declined to comment. So we're going back tomorrow to stay on them and we're bringing seventy five thousand signatures with us this time.

Beth Accomondo: So why do you think there has been no response at all?

Jeff Wolfe: The first time we showed up it was two days before the actual awards so trying to give them benefit of the doubt. They were busy with a lot of things for, you know, the awards being three days from the last one. But now it's a month after and things have settled down and they are meeting tomorrow regarding the diversity situation which we know respect and understand that they needed to talk. I would have appreciated the fact they gotten kind of on it with the situation they're getting into control, and they're meeting and doing something about it. So we felt it's an appropriate time to reestablish the connection with them and the conversation about the, they look at this issue as well.

Beth Accomondo: And do you think coming on the heels of the Academy awards, after a film like Mad Max: Fury Road gathered up so many nominations and awards and got nominated for best picture; do you think that this is a really appropriate time to try and make your point?

Jeff Wolfe: I mean absolutely, the fact that Mad Max and it's there eighty percent stunts you bet, it's told by the director of the film. The award we're looking for is a stunt coordinator award, every department head, is [indiscernible] [0:03:12] Academy award which is you know, hair, makeup, sound design, visual effects. They don't give it to the person, you know, who necessarily [indiscernible] [0:03:20] the appliances for the makeup or the special effects. They give it to the department head and so we are asking for an award category for the department head of stunts, the stunt coordinator.

And when you see movies like The Revenant, with the bear scene the fight scene [indiscernible] [0:03:36] conscience or Mad Max: Fury Road, all the actions there, somebody, the coordinator got on board very early and he went with the director, the producers and the bunch of them figured out what they could achieve, what they could do, he picked all the stunt performers, he picked the regulars, designed a lot of those shots probably and half of the time he ends up shooting them as a second unit director because they shoot the actions.

All those things are an integral part of movies that we go and see as well as trailers that [indiscernible] [0:04:06] watch the four and half hour version of the Academy awards. You saw a lot of those trailers, a lot of clips from those movies that had action. Yet they deny us an award category.

Beth Accomondo: Now if the Academy does respond and say all right we're going to setup this coordinator award, is there concern that it may end up in those like awards that end up being off the main awards show, that you know, they have the scientific awards, is that going to be a problem, is that something that's also going to be addressed?

Jeff Wolfe: Just have [indiscernible] [0:04:38. 6] condition to be able to sit at the big chief's table so to speak is enough for us. I don't think we expect some of the four and half hour ceremony to be included in the actual on camera award, I mean it would make sense in a way because they would be showing all of the action footage they already show. However we don't expect that to happen, it's just a matter of being accepted into it, it wouldn't matter to us if it's on the scientific award show not the technical.

Beth Accomando: And you have an online petition correct and anyone can sign that. Can you explain to people how they can get to that?

Jeff Wolfe: Yes care. org has the petition site and also you can look up #standupforstunts, as a category on Twitter and on Facebook and you can connect to any of those through that. And of course we really appreciate that, you know, people would look up and sign on to that because. And the funny part of it is, a lot of people don't even realize that we don't get an award. The award is just [indiscernible] [0:05:37] kind of goes by, goes out of their head and they, when you talk to people about it they go, well why, wouldn't you, like it makes no sense whatsoever, why is this even a conversation in 2016, when you're awarding two categories for sound design, or sound editing and all these other things, that has an integral part those are in the movies. Everybody is really, really aware this point of how stunts and action, you know, cause us to go to the movies and enjoy them.

Beth Accomondo: Well I have to say I'm a huge fan of Hong Kong action films and have been since like the early or actually before the '80's but I became very conscious of interviewing a lot of filmmakers and performers from then. And I always appreciated the fact that the Hong Kong awards have a category, for I believe its action choreography or fight choreography. And I remember thinking back then like why don't we have something comparable here. It seems like it makes sense?

Jeff Wolfe: Yeah, yeah and I actually trained a lot with Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and did some movies with Jet Li and the like in Hong Kong for a while and they're amazing. They're focus on action and the time that they allow for their action is really amazing in Hong Kong and the thing with that here is like there's an ideology for old Academy board that, you know, has been around for quite a while. And that board comes from a time when, you know, the thought was the man behind the curtain so to speak. That the actor was the actor and he wouldn't talk about a stunt double and you would, it was just kind of like swept under the rug. There's that mentality that I think there is continued for years and it just how tight and that board is personally gone for the most part and its new board that's actually in place seems to be turning around. Hopefully looking like I said, they made abrupt changes to the diversity issue and they're meeting on that right away and hopefully they do something about this too.

Beth Accomondo: And can you tell me a little bit about what the Stuntmen's Association does. Is this a union, I mean do you guys work to try and get more attention for what stunt people do. Do you represent stunt people to you know.

Jeff Wolfe: Fifty five years ago what would happen was, back in those days there were extras that would get bumped up, there were background actors, they were bumped up to a stunt role or speaking role and they would be stunt men for the day. And what happened was there were people that started to specialize in doing different stunts and those people got together and created the Stuntmen's Association because they decided that rather than going to be background actor and then a stunt man and back to background, they just specialized enough that they were providing a service, doubling actors or playing bad guys or playing these parts.

So they became kind of a they're own fraternal organization that said if you're a member of us you're guaranteed if you're hiring one of our members you guaranteed to get a professional stunt man who, you know, is safe and is cutting edge, and knows what he says he can do, he can actually pull off. And so it's spawned a few other groups from it and those groups are all basically fraternal organizations that we work with each other, on shows. We, you know, try to hire out all these brothers from the group first and there obviously of course women's group that sprouted out as well, the Stuntwomen's Association, our sister group, same thing. So when you're hiring s stunt coordinator or stunt performer from that group your basically guaranteed a professional who's been vetted by the industry, by their experience and by their resume and it's an invitational only kind of thing.

Beth Accomondo: And the term stunt man who does that encompass because I think some people might think okay it's somebody driving a car or it' somebody in a fight scene but what kind of things does that encompass?

Jeff Wolfe: Well there are different specialties, I mean mine was fighting. I, you know, like I said I fought Jet Li and Van Damme, Jackie Chan, you know, was the guy in the elevator in the movie Drive or the adventures with, and the beginning of the adventures when a black widow runs up [indiscernible] [0:09:41] know had some wraps his leg around the neck and hooks me and drills me. My background was all martial arts, it was, you know, thirty years of martial arts discipline, all different styles. As they're coming from NASCAR who are drivers there, Cirque du Soleil performers, or collegiate level gymnasts. They get into business from that category. There's football players, it's all different skill sets basically that you learn and so. And then you branch out from there. So, you know, I'm not the driver that the NASCAR guys would be but I've driven a lot for films, you know, but my base is in the martial arts and in the acting world. So you know, in two hundred movies and television serials produced here, big tall guy who can do dialog and then gets his butt kicked, that's usually me.

Beth Accomondo: Well it's just something that I don't think people often realize like how broad that term kind of encompasses because you tend to think of the obvious things, like, you know, a stunt car driver or someone who is in a fight but it seems like, you know, people who are riding horses or it's people who are doing other stunts and things like that.

Jeff Wolfe: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean stunts is grown, it's obviously horses for courses and then there's water, there's scuba stunts. There's underwater things, there's motorcycles, there's rigging. Rigging, that is stunt rigging, that used to be about you know, tying a guy off to a tree and letting the horse run away and the guy gets yanked off the tree. And the guy usually got hurt, you know. Place and times have changed, now there's high tech equipment, there's winches, there's cables, there's ascenders and decelerators and again it all falls back into the stunt coordinator in a category which is somebody who puts all that together, thinks about how to work that about, safely and makes some fantastic, unrealistic action sequence happen and everybody stands up and walks away at the end of the day.

Beth Accomondo: You mentioned you're in a scene in Drive, that elevator scene was fabulous in terms of…

Jeff Wolfe: Yeah, that was [indiscernible] [0:11:44] they made a head mold of my head and I remember getting that job auditioning, and for the dialog and the part being as great, should I, you got to get your head cast. I said why do I have to get my head cast? They said because we're going to smash it in an elevator and so. Yeah that was difficult.

Beth Accomondo: And you mentioned you worked with some of these Hong Kong action stars and it does seem that Hong Kong films have an appreciation for what those stunt coordinators, those action directors, those action stars do and allow. I think Jackie Chan was one who had mentioned like, “they would never allow me the time that they do in Hong Kong to perfect an action scene here in the United States. ” Is that something that's still kind of the case, but is it changing?

Jeff Wolfe: You know it is changing, it depends on the film or what genre the film is. But it's getting better, you know, target view is television and it's really getting better in television. Like I said I did Revolution for J. J Abrams for two years and then I just finished Rush Hour, the TV show that's come now March 31st. And on both those shows instead of trying to cram all of the action in to an eight day schedule that you would normally shoot an hour long network TV show on. I will go in and do two or three of those dates, as unit director and I'll shoot all the action myself. I'll direct the action, I'll plug it in, I'll create it, make it up and then and shoot it and that gets edited into the eight days of first [indiscernible] [0:13:09] footage and they have a whole show.

And that way they're, you know, they're paying attention to the action. The action's an integral part of what they're trying to put out as opposed to, and the same is still be, the same works, you know, whereas it's not at the level of the Hong Kong films were you know. Some of those movies we're talking about Jackie Chan movies are obviously, the draw is the action comedy, the action. When the draw is that for those movies, they'll spend four weeks rehearsing a scene or action sequence because they want to get it so dialed in and so perfect that they know, that's their bread and butter basically. They won't do that as often here but, you know, the new superhero pictures or obviously like the Mad Max or Revenant, shows like that. It takes a lot of time to perfect those stunts and the action sequence and doing them.

And obviously [indiscernible] [0:13:59] being nominated for best picture.

Beth Accomondo: And what kind of a turnout are you hoping for or you're expecting tomorrow?

Jeff Wolfe: You know we'll try to keep it to around a hundred to a hundred and fifty people. We're trying to just you know, exactly there won't be a thousand people out there in the streets and, you know, flipping over cars and doing crazy stunts. We are in this as business men and women who make a living living dangerously but its calculated risks, and we add to, you know, this medium that a lot of other people getting awards for, we don't. So it's just a respectful demonstration of being there and showing and kind of solidarity that we're not going away, and then a lot of people tend to agree with us that they enjoy what we do and they want us to be awarded for that as well.

Beth Accomondo: Okay I want to thank you very much for your time and maybe I can check in with you later in the week and see if you got any kind of response from the Academy?

Jeff Wolfe: Absolutely, I'd love that.

Beth Accomondo: All right, best of luck and I'll try talking to you later in the week and see if you gotten any movement from the Academy.

Jeff Wolfe: Sounds great, thank you very much.

Beth Accomondo: That was Jeff Wolfe, President of the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures. He's organizing a petition and a rally to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize stunt work as one of its award categories. Now for my interview with stunt driver Steve [indiscernible] [0:15:32]. I spoke with him last year after a press screening of Mad Max: Fury Road. And this was while before Mad Max had any thoughts or hopes of getting Oscar nominations or awards. Appropriately we did the interview in my car which after driving it for a few feet he told me my engine mounts were broken. He turned out to be right, he's kind of a car whisperer but I wanted to talk to him because he's a stunt driver and I thought he could give some insights into what went into Mad Max: Fury Road such an adrenalin rush. So here's with Steve [indiscernible] [0:16:03] right after seeing Mad Max Fury Road. So forgive us if we're still a little buzzed from the screening.

How should I identify you, as a stunt driver, precision driver, how do you,

Steve Lepper: Precision driver, I hear for many years referred to myself as professional road warrior. So kind of feel with this movie that kind of fits.

Beth Accomondo: All right so we just saw Fury Road, what was your reaction to that, from a stunt point of view. I mean how did you feel about the stunts in the film?

Steve Lepper: The movie, I thought it was very well done, the movie was just, it was constant adrenalin. It was stunts start to finish, they opened with a car crash and, you know, in, there's cars crashing and things blowing up throughout the movie. So it's nonstop, nonstop action. It was great fun to watch, I see what they talk about a lot of live action work and things like that and I think it shows in this.

There's some of the car crashes and things, you know, they're actually crashing cars together and doing things that, you know, normally you just sit and do on a computer screen.

Beth Accomondo: And do you think that makes a difference when you're watching a film. Does it feel more immediate or do you feel more engaged in the action when it is like a practical stuff?

Steve Lepper: I do and I think the audience, audiences are smart and I don't always think that Hollywood gives the audiences enough credit. They can tell when things are computer generated even very well done things, you know, it's not real. In this film today it's very difficult to tell where the CGI, in many cases where the CGI began and the live action ended. And there's a lot of, the fight scenes, the jumping between vehicles, things like that where obvious there's safety gear involved that they have to CGI out, the rigging wires and things like that. But they're actually people jumping between the vehicles. And that adds, it adds an element of realism.

Beth Accomondo: Yeah I felt myself a few times and I mean I've seen a lot of films. So I feel like I'm a little bit savvy about how stuff is done but there are a couple of times when I felt myself gasping, going like, you know, when you watch a Jackie Chan stunt too.

Steve Lepper: Yes, Oh yeah because Jackie, everything is live with him. The guy does, he's amazing. Jackie you watch the outtakes because it's amazing to see the stuff the guy does and it's live and it's real.

Beth Accomondo: Now you've seen the other Mad Max films.

Steve Lepper: Yes all of them.

Beth Accomondo: George Miller seems to have a particular knack for cars stunts and how to shoot them. Do you have any kind of sense or insight into why his stuff does seem to work so much better than a lot of others?

Steve Lepper: I think it is a case where you have to have people that appreciate cars and understand and are car people. That having that appreciation and they know whats, in this film there is a lot of action where it was, the crashes and the things like that. You know there is a lot of setup that goes into these things and the cars are cut in specific ways to break apart easily and all of that. But still you watch them and the realism and the things that you get drawn in and you have to understand. I think you have to have an understanding of dynamics and physics and those sorts of things to really be able to portray these outrageous things so accurately.

Beth Accomondo: Well it also seems like he just has a good sense about where to put the cameras, like where to put you as the viewer for kind of a maximum impact?

Steve Lepper: Yes absolutely, I would agree with that. There's a couple of scenes in particular where the cars are essentially exploding, coming towards you. Being able to get a sense of the energy involved in these crashes is, there is a ridiculous amount of force going on there so it is, but yeah to see it from a particular angle, it's coming even though this is not a 3D film or anything. There's places where it's coming out of the screen at you.

Beth Accomondo: Well and also some of the times when they're crawling underneath cars and along the edges of cars.

Steve Lepper: Oh and those, that has been throughout all of the Mad Max films, that has been a recurring you know. They don't stop for anything and so they're repairing the cars, they even took a step further here where they guys under the hood repairing one of the engines while the second engine is running the vehicle and, you know, constant things like that. And it adds to the drama because that's, all of these components and parts and things that are moving and flailing around and adds so much to the danger because you know. As somebody who's, you know, worked on and around race cars all my life, you don't touch stuff,

Beth Accomondo: While it's still moving,

Steve Lepper: You don't touch things while they're moving, no. That's a bad thing, you don't do that.

Beth Accomondo: And how would you compare the film in terms of kind of the level of stunts, in terms of the number of cars and kind of how dangerous they are to other films you've seen?

Steve Lepper: This film may rival the Blues Brothers for the total numbers of cars destroyed. I think the Blues Brothers was a hundred and two, I forget what the exact number was, but the fact that even if you go back, the crew watch the credits at the end. The crew that built the cars, there's probably fifty people. Building these things, the creativity and the vision that went into creating these things, you know, is an engineer, you know, a lot of these things aren't real and don't work that way. But you get drawn in and you believe you know, here's this twin engine supercharged truck with all you know, all of these crazy things going on around it, and you believe that it all works and you get drawn in by it.

And they do such a good job through the creation and the building and the craftsmanship of these cars that you get drawn into it and you believe it's all real.

Beth Accomondo: Well it also seems to have this level of, I don't if I can call it artistry but, you know, it's like when you go see Lowrider cars, there's all this work put into how they look and how gorgeous they are and even though these are kind of, you know, this is in an apocalyptic future where things don't all work quite so well and parts are old but there seems to be a kind of artistry to the way they're,

Steve Lepper: Very much, there is definitely that. If you look at today's, you look at steampunk culture today, that's very much what this is. This is outgrowth of that or I think in many ways I think steampunk owes some of its origins to Mad Max and through some of those kind of movies because that's where the feeling comes from and I think they do a great job in this film continuing that and the continuing this, the post apocalyptic world from a standpoint of, you know, this, each movie moves a little farther out in the future and all of that. It is all very conceivable, this is, they're using things of today, or in this case lot of the cars were, lot of the cars were 30's through late 50's.

Cars, so it was an interesting commentary there, you could have used what were brand new cars today 2015 models, and they would be old cars because this is happening what, you know, maybe a hundred years in the future, fifty years in the future. So they would all be old cars, so it's interesting that they specifically took old cars to create these.

Beth Accomondo: Is that something though that car fans would probably, I mean because those are kind of like old muscle kind of cars.

Steve Lepper: Oh absolutely, there are anybody who is a gearhead and really is into old cars, is going to see things in this movie and appreciate things from the like a '67 Barracuda that is one of the cars. Which is also unusual because that's not a car that you would have seen in Australia. That's where a lot of these cars originate. Max's Falcon is an Australian icon but you see some of the others, the Cadillac, the leader of the bad guys is a '59-'60 Cadillac.

If you're into cars and know old cars, you'll recognize pieces of these and so you kind of identify with them that way. I think they did a fantastic job with the creation and the vision that they had with the automobiles because automobiles, all vehicles are a central part of the story. They are characters in the story.

Beth Accomondo: And can you give a sense to somebody who may not know anything about like performing a car stunt. I mean how, what kind of level of complexity are we talking about on just average kind of thing. I mean,

Steve Lepper: There are so many, it is just, look at the number of stunt people and the technical people and all of that, you see in the credits. It takes hundreds and hundreds of people to pull off one individual scene like that because there are multiple things happening at once. And you've got, everybody has to on the ball and coordinated and knowing what's going on and there's so many contingency plans and all of this. It's hard to give a sense of, to somebody who doesn't know anything about it, it's hard to convey how big a production this is. Maybe think about a conductor conducting a symphony, that's the stunt coordinator, the director, those people here. There are hundreds of people out there that all have to perform their exact stunt and their exact move at a very specific time for it to all come together. Imagine if you had a symphony and everybody was just playing their own piece of music, there's a free for all. It would make no sense at all. All those hundred people on the stage have to work together, and that's exactly what's going on here. Hundred, you know, probably several hundred people in some of those bigger scenes. Because you've got, there are scenes where there are fifty cars in them. So you figure there's you know, there's driver in each car, there's all the characters and the actors, the stunt performers around the cars and hanging off of them. And all of that, and all the safety people and all the, everything else involved. There's easily a hundred people involved in one scene.

Beth Accomondo: I thought it was interesting too when you look at the credits, the second unit director I think was also like the head stunt man or head stunt coordinator which I think conveys something.

Steve Lepper: That is I think with Furious 7 was also another one like that. There's so much live action going on and the second unit is, it's all stunt people and you need to have extremely trained, extremely qualified people that have seen everything, and have seen every contingency when it comes to a movie this complex. Because you look at, you've got, you know, cars crashing and flying apart and on fire and people jumping off the cars and things like that. And some of those, you didn't see some, obviously these these are, you know, they're either mannequins being tossed or a lot of that stuff is added in later but there's actual people. One scene where they jump the, it's like a, the monster truck. The old Chevy that's a monster truck, there's people hanging on the outside of that. Vin may do it and that's just nuts, that's a crazy scene to do.

Beth Accomondo: Well also was kind of deceptive in a film like this too is that it appears like chaos but that chaos all has to be coordinated?

Steve Lepper: It is extremely well orchestrated chaos, or a appears to be chaotic. It actually is not, every single thing that happens is known and they know in what order it's going to happen and how it's going to be done. When this car crashes it's going to go this way and this is going to happen, we expect this is going to roll this many times and all of those things. And it doesn't always happen that way, so we have to plan for what happens if it doesn't go right. So all of those options have to considered.

Beth Accomondo: Now with the film like Fury Road and also this year we have Furious 7, do you think that the level of talent and artistry that's kind of on display for the stunt people is pushing to get them more recognition?

Steve Lepper: Absolutely and I will say I think it it, the stunt work is, there's a lot of art to it. There is a lot of science; there is a lot of physics and chemistry involved with fire and all of these different things that go on. It is as much art and science as any other part of film making. And I would personally, I know a lot of people who work in these films, they are amazingly talented, dedicated people and I would love to see them get some recognition for the work they do.

Beth Accomondo: And especially in a film like Furious 7 and this, I mean it seems like you take that stunt element out and you pretty much don't have a movie?

Steve Lepper: If you took the stunts and the driving gigs out of this film there would be no movie. From the very start to the very finish, this movie is a two hour car chase. They stop for five minutes in the middle maybe or they've stopped and they're discussing their plan and that's it. The rest of the time they are on the move and there are cars running the whole time. And all the Fast and Furious movies, it's the same thing. The cars are characters in the movie and without them and without the driving stunts there's no reason for the movie to happen.

Beth Accomondo: Okay is there anything else you want to add, any particular stunt that stood out for you or.

Steve Lepper: There were several, some of the motorcycle jumps, the scene where they jump the monster truck with people on it, that one I thought was just awesome, that was fantastic. There was so many things going on in this movie, I would really have to see it again to let it all soak in you know. The adrenalin is still kind of settling down from seeing this. No it was fantastic, thanks for having me. It was great.

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. This edition has been dedicated to stunt performers. There's a petition going on online for people to sign if they support the idea of having an awards category at the Oscars for stunt coordinator. If you go to kbps.orgjunkiepodcast you can find a link for that petition. And I'll have a follow up podcast on the San Diego Latino film festival coming up this week as well. Thanks for listening and remember to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or checkout the episodes and the archives at KPBS. org/junkiepodcast. Till our next film fix I'm Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place