It’s not often in a career that having your hard work go by unnoticed is actually the ultimate compliment. Movie crews, almost uniformly across any filmmaking disciplines, find themselves in this nebulous zone where the less their work stands out, the more accolades they get from critics, peers and audiences. If costumes stand out, the characters feel a bit off. If set decoration draws attention, it doesn’t seem like the story is grounded in a real-life environment.
Stunts may be the only exception to the rule. Seeing daring escapades on screen becomes the bait to get audiences into seats. Who didn’t have great expectations of what Tom Cruise and company would pull off in “Top Gun: Maverick”?
A movie like “Glass Onion” might be a great mystery, but audiences aren’t clamoring to see it because of the amazing stunt work. But maybe they should. (Spoilers ahead.)
Take Duke’s (Dave Bautista) death by poison. From the very earliest Zoom conversations between writer-director Rian Johnson and stunt coordinator Lee Sheward, Johnson knew how he intended to shoot the scene. Twelve weeks later, Sheward’s team helped facilitate exactly what Johnson had imagined; watching Bautista collapse might seem like par for the course for a former wrestler but of course, nothing is simple on a film set.
Falling is not as easy as it seems, and it was actually Bautista’s stunt double who took the spill. The table he fell onto was built large to accommodate the actor and his double’s frames. Padding and breakaway glass were added. And, when it came time for the close-up on Bautista, even more work was necessary. The glass was replaced with mats covered in green-screen material. Two people from the stunt department held onto Bautista’s hands, dangling him about two feet above the target.
At the right time: “We dropped Dave, in the nicest possible way,” Sheward says.
Later, visual effects replaced the pad with shattered glass and voila — Duke died of poisoning.
Another artfully designed tumble is when Andi (Janelle Monáe) is shot on a grand, white staircase. Johnson wanted her to land partially on the landing and partially on the stairs, a tricky position to get right.
“We went old school,” says Sheward. Monáe’s double, Dartenea Bryant, wore padding to protect her back, knees and elbows. The nature of the staircase and necessity of falling so precisely to avoid injury found Sheward lying just out of frame with a mat. “If she went too far, she’d land on me and the crash pad instead of tumbling down a big flight of stairs.” Sheward remembers Bryant had to take the fall at least half a dozen times because it appears on screen from multiple angles.
While it comes as no surprise that the big climax that destroys the glass onion involved planning from the stunt department, the exact elements of trickery might be more difficult to spot. The set fits a billionaire’s aesthetics, but isn’t particularly conducive to cast safety in the midst of a scene involving fire, water and
“What you don’t see as an audience is we had paths laid within the [rubber safety] glass that we taped down, so they could [actually] run on black carpet,” says Sheward. Visual effects later overlaid it with broken glass. “I needed it for safety, to make sure that running around they didn’t hurt themselves.”
And the movie magic might not have taken place where and when audiences guessed. Those glass sculptures on display throughout the film? Yep, actual glass. “They’re throwing them and moving on to the next one and we’re there out of shot, low down on hands and knees, catching these things on crash pads or blankets,” Sheward says.
But the angles on screen with glass shattering all around the actors’ feet? Stunt doubles.
There was admittedly one aspect of the “Glass Onion” stunts that took a little less work than might otherwise be the case: when Detective Blanc (Daniel Craig) slaps Miles (Edward Norton). “You’ve got the Hulk being slapped by James Bond,” says Sheward. “They’ve all done this before, so it’s very simple, just a bit of choreography.”
Know-how makes a difference of course, not just in these one-to-one situations, but also with large groups — as in war film “All Quiet on the Western Front” with battalions of soldiers. It’s obvious that stunts are involved with major battle sequences but also with … marching?
“It’s very hard when you have hundreds of extras, or stunt extras, to put them in the same rhythm, same marching, [and same] order of turning,” says Marek Svitek, the film’s stunt coordinator. “We’re involved in that [because] we are well-trained.”
It’s not even just the cadence, but the style of marching that can differ based on the project. There are also the military elements. “When there are people not trained involved, they are not used to [aspects] like grabbing the gun and knowing how to hold it, how to aim, and later on when it gets into the action, when the soldier stars to run and shoot and fall [how they] handle both,” Svitek says.
While it doesn’t necessarily take a stunt actor to execute these moves, and extras can be trained to do actions believably, it comes down to time and money.
“Sometimes it’s much easier and faster and more believable to bring in some stunt performers and deal with them,” says Svitek, who notes that the shooting schedule also dictates some of those decisions.
On the other end of the spectrum are battle sequences in which soldiers in trenches are attacked by their enemies with flamethrowers. While obviously a stunt — even the Universal Studios stunt show demonstrates this exercise — it’s not as simple as it seems. Assuming, that is, that setting anyone on fire even seems remotely simple at all.
“We burned 26, 28 full body fire burns,” says Svitek. “The biggest one was a take when we burned 10 people [at once] with a full body fire burn.” He explains that the complicating factor wasn’t actually setting so many people on fire at once, but the location in the trench.
The deep trenches meant the team was limited to only one exit and access point at each end to extinguish the performers and to get to them in an emergency.
Svitek and team did a lot of planning and fire analysis. There were at least three safety people with extinguishers assigned to each performer on fire. They also used additional cameras to have more eyes on the stunt actors at once. Each actor was given instructions about where to meet their safety team, with some directed towards the exits on the ends and others staying put in the middle so the teams could come to them.
The pre-determined choreography involved not just where to go at the end of the burn, but how they moved while on fire. With each stunt actor carrying out the rehearsed movements, the safeties would be able to spot problems immediately if their actions deviated.
As if having nerves of steel to perform the feat wasn’t enough, each stunt actor had to be able to hold their breath for a full minute while performing.
“We set the time on the fire burn for only 15 seconds to be super safe, so we had 30 to 45 seconds to get to them, and get them to safety,” says Svitek. “That was the one [stunt when] I didn’t sleep for a few nights.”
So-called invisible stunts on screen might be inconspicuous on multiple levels, whether it’s the surprise learning that an action is actually a stunt, or the amount of work that goes into the seemingly simple-looking stunt.
But, as with every other aspect of the film industry, it all takes more work than audiences may even begin to imagine.
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