Stunt performers run the risk all the time, but what happens when the risk becomes reality?
Carlin Parkin // Contributor
It takes a particular kind of person to want to do stunts. “They can’t usually sit down. They can’t sit in class. They might be intellectual, but they’re an applied intellectual,” said Motion Picture Arts (MOPA) alumnus Logan Quinn. The film stuntman will be running workshops for Vancouver Circus School this fall. “They want to be able to use their body and think about what they should be doing in terms of a performance,” said Quinn. He notes that many stunt performers come from similar backgrounds like martial arts, parkour, or circus and that they fall into stunt work because it’s “what their body needs to do.”
There is also an understanding among stunt performers of the inherent risks associated with the job. Quinn acknowledges that sets in Vancouver are “top notch in terms of safety” and they hire the best stunt coordinators and directors to minimize risk, but regardless, injuries still happen. “The more you use your body for dangerous stuff, the more the mathematical chances that there’s something that will go wrong at some point,” he said.
In the rare and catastrophic instance of Joi “SJ” Harris, a stunt performer who died on Aug. 14 on the set of Deadpool 2 in Vancouver, the greatest risk of all became a reality. Harris was performing a stunt that involved driving a motorcycle through the open doors of a building, across a concrete pad and down a ramp that had been placed overtop of stairs, finally bringing the bike to a stop on the stair landing. She had successfully performed the stunt four or five times before as part of rehearsal, but the moment the cameras rolled, Harris lost control of the motorcycle and sped up past the planned stopping point. She hit a curb, which resulted in being tossed off the motorcycle, and crashed through the plate glass of the Shaw Tower.
“It seems like something simple went very horribly wrong,” said MOPA instructor John Penhall. Though he has not worked on the set of Deadpool 2, Penhall has worked with many stunt performers and coordinators over his lifetime, as a first assistant director.
He explains the safety standards in place for stunt performers on a production like Deadpool 2. When a new movie is green-lit, everyone involved with the script review the stunts over the course of months filled with meetings, trying to figure out if the stunts can be safely performed. On the day of shooting, there is a mandatory safety meeting for the whole crew. Before the stunt itself is shot, the stunt coordinator rehearses it with the performers, first by miming it, then escalating from half to full speed rehearsals until everyone is comfortable. Only then do the cameras roll.
After having successfully carried out the rehearsals, Harris’ stunt still managed to go up in smoke. What could have been done differently? “To be honest, I don’t know,” said Penhall, adding that the matter was still under investigation.
Though Harris had a background in motorcycle racing, after her incident, it became known that she had no prior experience working on film sets. According to the Hollywood Reporter, some members of the stunt community believe that inexperience played a major factor in her death. The Hollywood Reporter’s anonymous sources also claim she was hired despite the inexperience, because her skin tone was a better match for Zazie Beetz, the actress cast as the character Domino in the film, for which Harris was the stunt double.
Quinn believes there is a low likelihood that stunt performers on a big production would be inexperienced. “Even if they [stunt performers] haven’t worked on that many sets before or done that many show stunts, if you’re working on a big show like Deadpool they’ll have rehearsal for it, and you’ll probably also have time to work on it before you get to set with the stunt choreographer.”
Will Joi Harris’ death affect the stunt industry going forward? It could. “There’s some things, [safety regulations], that have become industry standard unfortunately, because of accidents that have happened. So maybe there will be something around this,” said Penhall. While the industry fallout remains to be seen, one thing remains certain: for those who understand the risks and still need to do it, the appeal of doing film stunts is rock solid.