Confessions of a movie stuntman

Everybody's seen it on the big screen, but what's it like to do it for real?

by Jennie Kermode

Zoe Bell in the exciting finale to Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof

Zoe Bell in the exciting finale to Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof

With Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof attracting intense interest even before it reached cinemas, it's clear that stuntmen are back in fashion - if, indeed, they ever went away. Forget CGI, forget animated explosions which hope you've forgotten your school Physics lessons - this is the real thing. Former James Bond stuntman Steve Truglia tells us how it's done.

"For the past 11 years, I've been a stuntman," says Truglia, a confident thirtysomething whose long sleeves and carefully arranged hair conceal any obvious scars. "Now I'm a stunt co-ordinator. I get to design stunts and co-ordinate other stuntmen. A lot of people believe that stunt people are the crazy people who jump off the roof, and that we're all a bit mad, but I'd like to paint a slightly different picture. We live in a world of health and safety. We get to do those things, but only because we're absolutely meticulous about health and safety."

No matter how careful they are, there must still be risks. Truglia admits that some people think he's a bit mad for his choice of career even after they find out what it involves.

"Sometimes we're asked to do high falls, and those are by far the most dangerous stunts you can do," he explains. "Stuntmen used to just jump into cardboard boxes, big piles of cardboard boxes. These days, of course, we use airbags. But when you're really high up on the edge of a building and you're looking down - you can imagine - even one of those giant airbags looks like a postage stamp."

What about car stunts like those in Death Proof? These remain a favourite with those of us who used to watch TV programmes about stunts when we were children.

"Always good fun, car stunts," Truglia agrees. "They're all about knowing what the car can do and being familiar with the surface you're driving on. The car will always do the same thing, so you can stay in control provided you know the surface. Sometimes, of course, you're being hit by cars. I was recently run over by one of my best friends - we do that sort of thing to each other.

"Another favourite of mine is fire stunts," he notes. "I'm a little bit of a specialist at doing fire stunts with no mask on. You have to keep moving forwards to keep the wind from blowing flames in your face. It's immensely dangerous and intensely difficult to do. We wear protective clothing and under that we wear a special gel which helps control our temperature; and over that we wear some sacrificial clothing, a costume that's designed to be burnt... There's a primeval fear of fire and you have to suppress it and learn that if you stay calm then it's okay but if you do panic then you're in trouble."

"War films always need stunt people," he continues, noting how stunned he was when, early on in his career, he was asked to perform in Saving Private Ryan. He was so reluctant to believe the phone call was genuine that he almost lost the job! Shooting took place on a beach in Wexford. "One of the stuntmen broke his leg on that," he recalls. "There was a scene where a guy was running over a mortar pot, which is like a big hole full of explosives, and the stunt co-ordinator blows it up just after you jump across, but the timing went wrong and this guy had his legs open in mid air just over it as it went off. It could have been really nasty. I think he was relieved that he only broke his leg."

Despite this sort of thing, Truglia says that he is always being approached by people who want to get into the stunt industry. What kind of skills do they need?

"The fundamental thing that every stuntman needs is some sort of spatial awareness, an awareness of where your body is. Sometimes you find yourself in mid-air and you need to land a certain way. Amongst your skills you can't do too much gymnastics, you can't do too much trampolining. Next to that is co-ordination. The other great stunt skill is doing it on cue.

"People often ask 'How on Earth do you become a stuntman?' It all started with Equity, the actors' union, who set up a stunt register. There's a whole list of qualifications you've got to get and you have to get eight different sports. We have our own gymnastics test and our own high diving test, and our own horse riding test." The latter is particularly difficult, he explains, because horses can't be relied upon to behave consistently as cars do.

"I'd estimate that the process costs about £20,000, because you have to take lots of private lessons," he explains. "For the first three years, you're not allowed to work on your own. You're totally dependent on stunt co-ordinators like me. You have to be 18 to even join the business and it's a precarious business, it's not a guaranteed career at all." It can also, even without serious injury, be a short one. "Like any sport, there's a limited lifespan before you can't do the big stuff any more." After this, stunt people rely on royalties from their previous work to support themselves - so keep them in mind when you're thinking about picking up some action films. In this CGI age, there's still lots of fun to be had watching people do it for real.

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