Bruised, Bloody and Bushy Tailed
The diary of a wannabe stuntwoman
I'm no daredevil. I never drive more than four miles above the speed limit. I always wear a helmet when I’m supposed to. I refuse to take kickboxing for fear of shattered shin bones. And heights greatly increase my heart rate.
But I have only one answer to the question: What would you do if money wasn't an issue? Simple. I'd be Drew Barrymore's stunt double.
I've been training in martial arts for nearly six years and have eyed film stunt schools in Los Angeles and Seattle for a while. But the cost was too great (especially when adding flights and hotel stays to tuition), and my plans quickly turned into daydreams.
When Burquewood began to boom a few years back, the need for well-trained professionals in all areas of the industry rose. Before long, the L.A. Stunts Training Center opened in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, and I was among the first to sign up for a weeklong boot camp packed with the basics needed to break into the stunt business. And I mean break.
This is the diary of a wannabe stuntwoman.
Today, as Mondays go, was a good day. I woke up, grabbed a peanut butter protein bar as I ran out the door and spent 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. throwing myself off of things. The first day of stunt boot camp at L.A. Stunts was dedicated to learning how to fall—or at least hit the ground—without completely mangling yourself. Head instructor Mike (aka Michael R. Long, as he's listed on IMDB.com atop 80-plus film credits) rightly insists we learn how to tuck and roll before he starts driving a car at us. But eight hours of ground pounding, padding or not, hurts. My neck hates me.
We learn how to tuck and roll before he starts driving a car at us. ... I loved getting hit by that damn car.
My fellow stunt boot campers include two locals, Robert Gancarz and Jessica Kampling, and two out-of-towners, Sam Mirza from Chicago and Bonnie Campanella from Hawaii. No question, we're all here to work hard and get our asses kicked. We may have some fun along the way. I just hope I have enough Epsom salt and Tiger Balm to last me the week.
Stunt Tip of the Day: Don't forget the painkillers
My notes will be brief today. Woke up late, again. Barely got to class on time, again. We learned about fighting for the camera—my favorite, given my martial arts training—but I still have a lot to learn. What works well in sparring matches does not work for the camera, and if it doesn't look good on film, you don't have a job. Facility director Shelby Swatek must have told us a dozen times to slow everything down. Come video-watching time at the end of the day, it was obvious who listened. A fast punch looks like a fleshy blur on film, not a head-smashing blow.
We also had an introduction to high falls. Mike gave us a gut-sinking lesson about the potential danger of stunts. “Any high fall you walk away from is a good high fall,” he said, but not without choking up. He's lost friends during his 25 years in the business. “Stunts turn dangerous and they turn dangerous fast,” he warned us. If I thought moving to Los Angeles was too big a sacrifice to follow my stunt fighting dream, what about losing my life?
He's done more than 250 safe burns, including one that engulfed not only himself but the horse he was riding.
Stunt Tip of the Day: Take this shit seriously
Monday my neck wanted me dead; today it's my knee. We started with ratchets, a stunt rigged with a rope, pulleys and a six-foot compressed air piston to create the illusion of someone being sucked out of an airplane. We boot campers agreed: Ratchets are better than roller coasters, even if you run the risk of slamming your leg into your face as your body hits the pads. It was worth every long, purple bruise on my abdomen.
Gilley Grey, a 20-year stunt veteran and former Los Angeles firefighter, demonstrated setting himself on fire. He's done more than 250 safe burns, including one that engulfed not only himself but the horse he was riding. Incredible. It was stunning how much control Gilley had over the whole situation, but clearly his years of experience and thousands of dollars' worth of protective clothing aided him. From what I can tell, burns are better left to the specialists.
Stunt Tip of the Day: Eventually, everything burns
Holy crap. Four days of this intense training feels more like eight. We did some challenging stuff today, including air rams and car hits. Air rams are like human catapults and just as dangerous as that sounds. I got “bitten” a few times, but I came out injury-free thanks to kung fu-developed quad strength. I can't imagine learning to ride the air ram while on the set of a film, as some stunt performers do. I'd almost surely take my leg off. Kudos to Mike and Shelby for keeping us fledglings safe.
I still have my blood-soaked T-shirt as a souvenir.
We padded up big time for car hits. Mike drove slowly at first, then amped up the speed to a respectable four miles per hour. To my surprise, I loved getting hit by that damn car. I knew it looked frightening when I fell to the ground on the other side of the metal mammoth and someone would yell “Are you OK?” Then I'd stand up and get in line for another round. What has become of me? Has stunt boot camp turned me into an adrenaline junkie?
Stunt Tip of the Day: You can never invest in too many pads
Today was awesome. I fell flat on my back about 20 times while being clotheslined by Mario Garcia, a local martial arts expert who throws a mean spin crescent. I have a bit of a headache from all the jostling, but fight scenes and flinging myself onto the concrete are perhaps the best stunt skills I can claim. Dana Hee, a local stuntwoman (dare I say stunt star) and Olympic gold medalist in taekwondo, stopped in to observe the class. New Mexico is the real deal. We've got talent here, and Hollywood knows it.
Then it was on to getting shot. Squib hits are special effects used to mimic bullet entry wounds. Squibs are made with small explosive charges, a bag of theatrical blood and a lot of well-placed duct tape. We each got rigged with a squib and were instructed to fake our deaths amid a mountain of boxes. I still have my blood-soaked T-shirt as a souvenir.
Stunt Tip of the Day: It's your body. You have the right to ask questions about the detonation wire being taped to your leg.
Fifteen bruises, one bum knee, two road-rashed ankles, a knotted back and one pound of Epsom salt is a small price for the knowledge I absorbed this week. We didn't learn many new skills today but instead revisited ratchets (yay) and car hits (double yay!). We also went higher on the fall tower, making the drop from about 12 feet—a fear-quashing moment given my vertigo. After high falls and some expert pad maneuvering, it was a wrap. Mike teared up again, but this time it was with the pride of a instructor releasing his students into the world. He's a hardcore stuntman with the heart of a teddy bear, but he’ll put you in your place when you need it. Shelby, Gilley and the whole L.A. Stunts crew were tremendous assets. From here, it's up to me to get myself into the intense New Mexico film industry and make my fantasy stunt career something more.
All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my fight scene.
Stunt Tip of the Day: Safety is more important than a paycheck