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It’s time for an Oscar for stunts. ‘The Fall Guy’ is the best argument for it

Josh Rottenberg – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In his previous life as a stunt double, David Leitch had a simple job: to make the star look invincible. Doubling for A-listers including Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in hits like “Fight Club” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” whether taking a punch or dodging an explosion, Leitch was tasked with selling the illusion of death-defying feats while remaining personally invisible. (That leap Jason Bourne makes off a rooftop into a kitchen window in “Ultimatum”? All Leitch.)

“It’s the contract we sign up for: We’re not supposed to be seen,” Leitch says on a recent afternoon at 87North, the Los Angeles stunt facility and production company he runs with his wife and producing partner, Kelly McCormick, out of a converted former church on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. “That’s part of the movie magic.”

Since transitioning from stuntwork to directing 10 years ago with the gonzo revenge thriller “John Wick,” which he co-directed with Chad Stahelski (due to a DGA ruling, only Stahelski was credited), Leitch has amassed a growing portfolio of high-octane hits including “Deadpool 2,” “Hobbes & Shaw” and “Bullet Train.” Now, with his latest action-comedy “The Fall Guy,” Leitch is flipping the script. This time, the stunt double takes center stage.

Arriving in theaters May 3, “The Fall Guy” stars Ryan Gosling as Colt Seavers, a battered, down-on-his-luck stunt performer hired to double an egotistical A-lister named Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a high-stakes film being directed by Colt’s former girlfriend, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). When the A-lister suddenly goes missing, Colt is thrust into a murder mystery where he becomes the prime suspect, all while attempting to rekindle his romance with Jody and help save her film from disaster.

Loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, “The Fall Guy” — which premiered to rave reviews at last month’s SXSW Film Festival — is a love letter to stunt performers and all the other unsung crew members who make a movie set work. “I think Colt is a hero that anybody can get behind,” says McCormick. “Who doesn’t feel like they work really hard, risk it all and don’t get enough accolades?”

That sentiment resonates deeply in the stunt community, which has played an integral, if often unheralded, role in moviemaking going all the way back to the legends of the silent era like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. With rare exceptions, such as the largely forgotten 1978 Burt Reynolds film “Hooper” (“the ‘Citizen Kane’ for stuntmen and -women,” Leitch calls it), the stunt world has seldom been placed at the heart of the narrative onscreen. And when it comes to awards, while the Emmy Awards and Screen Actors Guild honor stunt performers, the film academy has never recognized stunts either on Oscar night or at its untelevised Scientific and Technical Awards, despite a persistent campaign stretching back three decades. (The three exceptions: Stunt performer Yakima Canutt received an honorary Academy Award in 1967 for developing safety devices for stuntmen, while stuntman turned director Hal Needham and Hong Kong action star and stunt pioneer Jackie Chan received lifetime achievement Oscars in 2012 and 2016, respectively.)

For the stunt community, that frustrating disconnect was starkly highlighted by Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” which finally landed Pitt an Oscar for his turn as a grizzled 1960s stuntman. “That was the big uproar — you can get an Academy Award for pretending to be a stunt guy but you can’t get an Academy Award for actually being one,” says Chris O’Hara, who oversaw the stunt department on “The Fall Guy” and previously worked on films including “Jurassic World” and “Baby Driver.”

Since the early 1990s, veteran stunt coordinator Jack Gill has been spearheading the effort to secure an Oscar for stunts. Along the way, Gill, whose career spans TV series like “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Knight Rider” and films like “Fast Five” and “Bad Boys for Life,” has amassed support from the likes of filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and stars Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Helen Mirren, Vin Diesel and Johnny Depp.

Gill argues that recognition is long overdue for an aspect of moviemaking that has increased exponentially in complexity and sophistication while remaining a key driver of box office revenue. “There is no other department head in the movie business that has that kind of pressure where people’s lives are at stake,” he says. “Stunt performers don’t want to be actors and walk the red carpet and all of that. What they want is to be acknowledged among their peers for doing something that involves real blood, sweat and tears.”

While academy leaders have historically resisted adding new award categories to a telecast that many complain is already bloated, Gill sees new cause for optimism. Earlier this year, the academy announced that it will award a new Oscar for casting directors beginning in 2026, the first category added since the animated feature film category was established in 2001, setting a path that the stunt community now hopes to follow.

Boosting those prospects, last year the academy moved stunt coordinators, who had previously been categorized as members at large, into a newly created Production and Technology branch that also houses assorted technical and production positions including chief technology officers, script supervisors, choreographers and music supervisors.

“Now we have a seat at the table and some say-so in how this proceeds forward, which is a big step,” says Gill. “If we can be a little more informative with the public and the academy board members about what exactly stunt coordinators do and keep the ball going, I’m hoping in the next one or two years we can see a category. I think that they need it and I think that they want it. We’ve just got to keep pushing.” (AMPAS declined to comment for this story.)

With “The Fall Guy,” Leitch is hoping to remind audiences and the academy alike just how critical stunts are to the success of so many films. The movie serves as a tribute to old-school stunt disciplines — fighting, falling, being set on fire — and features a number of showstopping action set pieces, including a 225-foot car jump, an 80-foot boat jump and a record-setting “cannon roll” in which a cannon-like mechanism mounted under a vehicle shoots toward the ground while it is traveling at generally inadvisable speed, making it flip. This last stunt, executed by stunt driver Logan Holladay, saw a Jeep Cherokee completing eight and a half revolutions, surpassing the previous record of seven set on 2006’s “Casino Royale.”

“The cannon roll was special,” says Leitch. “When I put it in the script, potentially setting a world record, it was like, ‘Hey, if we’re going to make a movie about a stuntman and an homage to the stunt community, we should try and do something big that’s never been done.'”

In an era in which action scenes are routinely cleaned up and augmented with CGI, face replacement and a growing array of AI tricks, Leitch was determined to rely as much as possible on practical “in-camera” stuntwork with all its potential risks to life and limb. “We’re doing our best in this film to show that it really hurts,” he says.

“When it’s real, it feels different,” says Holladay, whose father worked as a stuntman on the “Fall Guy” TV series in the 1980s. “When you’re watching something that’s been computer-generated, it’s like watching a video game — there’s no risk by any person in there. We did everything for real, and that’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

While the film pokes fun at stars like the film’s Tom Ryder, who boast of doing all their own stunts, Gosling, who played a stunt driver in the 2011 film “Drive,” did a few key ones in “The Fall Guy” on his own, including falling backward 15 stories on wires for the opening sequence.

“Ryan is scared of heights but he was like, ‘It’s called “The Fall Guy’ — I’ve got to do it,'” says McCormick. Gosling did draw the line at some hazards: “He told me his wife [Eva Mendes] wouldn’t let him let us set him on fire,” says O’Hara.

For years, even as the stunt community delivered ever more eye-popping spectacle, the campaign for a dedicated Oscar category struggled to gain traction with the academy’s leadership, a situation made more difficult given the historically small number of stunt coordinators within the organization itself. Despite persistent lobbying by Gill and high-profile supporters in the industry, the proposal to add a new stunt category was voted down multiple times by the academy’s board of governors.

Over the past decade, however, as Gill has pushed AMPAS to boost member recruitment from the stunt world, the number of stunt coordinators in the academy’s ranks has tripled from just 31 nine years ago to more than 100 today, out of a total of more than 10,800 members. (The casting directors branch, one of the smallest in the organization, has nearly 160 members.)

Behind the scenes, Gill, Leitch and others are continuing to try to build support for a stunt Oscar, in part by better conveying the creativity and technical ingenuity involved in bringing about modern movie spectacle. For his work on “The Fall Guy,” O’Hara received the title of stunt designer, as opposed to the traditional “stunt coordinator” — a first for the industry that brings stunts in line with other crafts like production design and costume design.

“For the longest time you heard all these rumors: ‘They’re not going to add another category because there’s not enough space in the telecast,’ ” says O’Hara. “It’s not true. You have to plead a case and follow through with it. It’s a political thing — it’s a dance to kind of get these points across. Now that casting got it, we know it’s possible.”

In another hopeful sign, this year’s Oscars included a special tribute to the stunt community, presented by Blunt and Gosling and produced by Leitch and McCormick. “They’ve been such a crucial part of our industry since the beginning of cinema,” Gosling told the crowd to warm applause between riffs with Blunt about their “Barbenheimer” feud. “To the stunt performers and the stunt coordinators who help make movies magic, we salute you.”

“I think we’re in a really good spot,” says Leitch. “There is movement and there are benchmarks to hit and we see a path. The fact that they allowed for the tribute at the show this year was a sign of, like, ‘Keep going, guys.’ I think they’d really like it to happen. It’s good for them.”

Whatever happens with the Oscar campaign, Leitch and McCormick are already looking ahead to a possible “Fall Guy” sequel and dreaming up what other mind-blowing stunts it could include.

“Knock on wood, if the movie gods and the audience want to go back and see something more from this world and these characters, this whole team would be like, ‘Let’s do it,’ because it was one of the best film experiences we’ve had,” Leitch says.

“Ryan and David have a cool idea for a sequel,” says McCormick. “And Emily said she wishes we could keep doing these until she’s in a wheelchair.”

Come to think of it, you could do some pretty cool stunts with a wheelchair. Who knows? You might even win an Oscar.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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