“Everyone clear channel 1. Medic, emergency, call 911 and come to set.” Marta, the first AD, spoke as calmly as she could into the walkie as she sprinted down the hillside toward the forming crowd of panicked crewmembers. Back at our camera position, the rest of the camera department and I stood staring, mouths agape. It was my first day on a show as a union utility, and I was pretty sure I had just watched someone die.
There’s a strange dichotomy to stunt work. Sometimes, the more dangerous the stunt, the safer it is for the crew. When you’re crashing cars and flipping them down hills at highway speeds, a ton of preparation goes into those shots. Stunt crews get days in advance to prepare to the scene. They plan, rehearse, and build in contingencies to make sure everyone is safe. Everyone wants to go home to his or her family at the end of the day.
It's the simple stunts where things often go wrong. If a stunt seems too simple, there’s more pressure to cut corners. Producers are always looking to save time and money, and safety protocol is often the first corner cut. When you deviate from built-in safety protocols, that’s when people get hurt. Unfortunately, no amount of planning can account for one person making a mistake. On a film set, a mistake can cost somebody their life.
In today’s case, an unfocused actor was the cause of disaster. We were filming a scene at the Agua Dulce Airpark in Santa Clarita. The airpark consists of a runway and a couple hangars surrounded by mountains north of Los Angeles. Our show was about action and espionage, so we shot a lot of fighting and gunplay scenes. Our remote location gave us ample room for movement coupled with the opportunity to get long-lensed shots from the surrounding hills to simulate sniper scopes. Our cameras were positioned up on a hill about two-hundred yards from the hangars where the action took places. In the scene, a bunch of criminals drive up to the hangar to do an illegal diamond deal. Of course, the deal goes sideways and there’s a big shootout. A bunch of people get shot, and that’s the scene. It seemed simple enough to shoot but, like I said, disaster only takes one mistake.
One of the actors had a history of erratic behavior on set. I won’t say his name here, but if you watched some blockbuster action movies from the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, there’s a good chance you’d stumble across his work. His personal life and unpredictability had cost him a lot of jobs and money and now he was attempting a resurgence. The rumor on set was that he was doing this role to prove to studios that he could be trusted not to cause trouble.
When you’re working with cars on set, there’s a position called “precision driver.” These people are expert drivers who are expected to repeatedly place cars exactly where they need to be. In this scene, our actor needed to drive the SUV up to the hangar but, after the cameras cut, the precision driver was supposed to safely reset the car at its start point down the runway. We started shooting the scene and, as is the case with most scenes, the actors took the first couple takes to find the rhythm of the scene and get comfortable. The cars drove up, characters got out and did the dialogue, people start shooting, bodies drop, and that’s the scene. Easy enough.
Accidents happen when people get too comfortable on set. After the third take, our personally embattled actor decided we weren’t moving quickly enough in between takes. Instead of waiting for the precision driver, he jumped back in the SUV and starting driving back to the reset point. In order to do so, he had to drive around another SUV before turning back up the runway. If he had taken a second to think about the geography of the scene, he would’ve realized that the ground around him was littered with the bodies of recently “shot” stuntmen who hadn’t yet stood up. As the actor whipped his truck around the parked SUV before turning back up the runway, he couldn’t see that one of those stuntmen was directly in his path. We on the hill could all see exactly what was about to happen, but were much to far away to stop the car in time. All we could do was watch as the actor drove the truck directly over the torso of the stuntman on the ground.
The medivac chopper showed up twenty-five minutes later. We were so far out in the desert that a helicopter was our only emergency option. At this point, the medic and paramedics told us our stuntman’s injuries weren’t life-threatening, but he absolutely had to get to the hospital. The camera crew and I had made our way down from the hill and back toward base camp by the hangars. We assumed our day was finished. Shortly after the chopper carrying the injured stuntman flew off, we heard another helicopter coming toward us. This one stopped directly over set and hovered, not moving. Pretty soon after that, cars full of press showed up to the airpark gate and started trying to get inside. Crewmember phones started lighting up with texts and calls. The data loader came over to me and showed me his phone, which was queued up to the front page of TMZ. On it, there was a picture of the bright yellow medical helicopter that had just carried our fellow crewmember to safety. Someone here had taken a picture of the accident and sold it to the media.
Very quickly, the topic of interest on set shifted from the wellbeing of an injured crewmember to finding a mole. The producers called a meeting with the crew, telling us that they would find whoever took the photo. In the same meeting, they said we’d be continuing on with our day. I suppose, at that point in my career, I was too young and inexperienced to realize how utterly callous of a decision this was.
“We know you just watched one of your co-workers get maimed by an unstable actor, but get back to work. And whoever leaked that this even happened, we’ll find you.”
There’s an important lesson in here about protecting yourself. You need to protect yourself from producers. Producers have one goal in mind: get the project made for as little money as possible, in the shortest number of days possible. As much as you hope they might, nobody at the top levels has your physical or mental wellbeing top of mind. You are incredibly low on their priority list. As a below-the-line crewmember, you are a replaceable cog in the machine of filmmaking. Realize that you’re seen as such, but don’t let yourself get run over (please excuse the pun).
There’s a delicate balance to be struck when set safety is involved. As much as we’d all like to pretend that we could create this black and white world where nothing is ever dangerous and nobody gets hurt, that’s not the reality of filmmaking. There’s a sliding scale of risk on every shot, and you need to be the one to decide your risk tolerance. You need to figure out a way to do your job in a way that makes the day as easy and streamlined as possible for the production at large while keeping you safe at the same time.
A couple of years after this incident, when I was a camera assistant, I worked on smaller sketch show that aired on TruTV. One day we were shooting a scene where all the characters sat chatting around a campfire in the middle of the night. Because production didn’t want to shoot at night, they rented a stage so we could control the light while shooting. The producers said they had purposely chosen a stage with good ventilation so the burning campfire wouldn’t fill the stage with smoke. After the first take, the whole set was engulfed in a cloud of campfire smoke. I looked up to the ceiling and saw one small ventilation fan spinning as fast as it could, but it was nowhere near big enough to match the volume of smoke being generated by the campfire. We were setting up for the next take already; the people in charge evidently saw nothing wrong with us inhaling soot for the next two days. In that moment, I decided that my health was more important than this job. I handed my slate to my focus puller and walked off set.
I stormed outside without a plan. I was pretty sure I’d be fired but I was so indignant I didn’t care. Did the producers expect us to stand around on that smoky stage breathing who-knows-what into our lungs for days on end? I found the lack of concern for our health appalling. Leaving the lot and walking across the street to a patch of undeveloped land, I stood under a tree to collect my thoughts. Almost immediately, the stage door opened and two producers emerged from a billowing cloud of smoke. As they made their way toward me, I braced for what I was sure would be a dressing down followed by an invitation to get my gear and get the fuck off set. Instead, they approached almost timidly, like a dog who hears its name called after having knocked over the kitchen trash can. They asked me what was wrong and listened to my (loudly stated) health concerns. From there, we came up with a solution. Between takes, we’d open the big stage doors and use a huge industrial special effects fan to blow the smoke out of the stage. The process would take more time than their original plan but would also minimize the amount of smoke we’d all be breathing. The producers then let me cool off outside and come back to set when I was ready.
Like I said earlier, most producers aren’t malicious but your health isn’t always at the top of their priority list. With all the responsibilities they’ve shouldered and directions in which they’re being pulled, an issue like the crew inhaling too much smoke can slip by producers unnoticed. That’s why I say you need to weigh your own risk tolerance and figure out how to work in a way that you feel safe. That’s not to say I haven’t done stupid, dangerous things in my career. As a steadicam operator, I’ve dodged drifting cars, jumped onto boats, operated in the back of cars driven by untrained PAs and balanced on narrow, unstable docks. A mistake in any of those situations could have easily killed me, and I regret some of the risks I’ve taken. At the time though, those risks were within my tolerance and I would have lived with the consequences had anything gone wrong. In your career, there’s a high probability you’ll feel pressured to do something unsafe or find yourself in a dangerous situation. If you speak up for yourself, nobody worthwhile will hold your concerns against you. If you tell your boss or a producer you feel unsafe, and they still try to convince you to do whatever it was that set off your alarm bells, stay away from that person. They’ll continue to put you in dangerous situations time after time.
Of course, there’s no reason to let one traumatic experience ruin an entire show. We still had three weeks of the season left to shoot after our troubled actor, whose character was quickly written off the show, ran over the stuntman. I was still incredibly excited to learn how to be a good utility and, as fate would have it, I was on the perfect set to learn. I’ll tell you about the less violent lessons I learned on this show next week.