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Mack Kuhr
Mack Kuhr

16 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Stunt Performers

Mack Kuhr
Mack Kuhr

Whether it’s a kung fu fight, car chase, or stair fall, most film fans can name a favorite action sequence that wouldn’t have been possible without a stuntperson. These men and women, who arguably have one of the most dangerous jobs in Hollywood, have come a long way since the days when Buster Keaton and other silent film-era performers did all their own stunts. We talked to several film and television stunt performers for some insights into their risky—if highly entertaining—trade.

1. NOT ALL OF THEM ARE NATURAL-BORN DAREDEVILS. 

A stuntman rappels from a Jeep lifted by a helicopter during a promotion for Universal Studios. Image credit: Getty Images

It seems like only a special type of person would be drawn to the sometimes dangerous world of stunts: someone who is fearless, thrives on adrenaline, and spent their childhood climbing to the highest tree branches. And indeed, many stuntpeople were early risk-takers. “I have studied karate since I was 7 or 8 years old,” says Grant Koo, a stuntman and stunt driver known for his work in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and on the television show The Blacklist. “I used to watch all of those cheesy kung fu movies on a Saturday—and beat the living crap out of my couch!”

But not all stunt performers start early. “My parents never let my brother and I participate in sports when we were younger. They were afraid we’d break an arm,” says Vera Lam, a stuntwoman based in New York. “I’m certain I failed my fitness test in grade school except for the flexibility portion.”

2. THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS.

Some stunt performers parlay a background in martial arts or another athletic pursuit into a career, while others begin as actors and move into stunts. Jennifer Lamb, a stuntwoman and stunt coordinator who has worked on 10 Coen brothers movies and other high-profile projects, transitioned into stunts from the world of soap operas. Lamb was playing a waitress on One Life to Live when she met stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, who believed that her toughness, ability to take direction, and small size would serve her well in stunts. He also gave her her first break—getting tossed off the balcony of a beach house in the Hamptons.

3. THEY EXPERIENCE THINGS THAT MOST OF US (HOPEFULLY) NEVER WILL.

Grant Koo in a death scene for the TV series The Originals. Image credit: Grant Koo.

In the course of their work, stuntmen and women come as close to experiencing catastrophic events as one can without actually, well, going through them. Lamb says, “I have hung by my ankle under a hot air balloon, leapt out of a burning building 60 feet up, gotten dragged behind cars, crashed through a barn in a Ford Model T—none of which seemed crazy to me.”

Koo might have the most impressive all-in-one experience, though. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, he performed in a scene where he and his fellow stuntmen ran from 500,000 gallons of water being emptied from five 100,000-gallon tanks, while at same time dodging boats, buses, and cars being dropped from the sky. “That was one of the craziest days I’ve ever had,” he says, “but very rewarding.”

4. THEY SPECIALIZE.

Mack Kuhr in stunt rehearsals with action cinematographer Richard Clabaugh for the film Abysm (2016). Image credit: Mack Kuhr

Koo describes himself as a “utility player,” or a well-rounded performer skilled in all aspects of stunts. But even within that, there are certain areas he has gravitated toward. “I like to do the fights, the falls, and the driving,” he says, calling himself a “crazy driver” even in real life. 

Mack Kuhr, a stunt performer and Keanu Reeves's body double in both John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter Two (2017), has built early experience with military-grade firearms into a specialty. His father was in the military, and his studies in strength and conditioning at Virginia Tech led to training with Navy SEALs at Virginia Beach. Kuhr got his stunt break on The Dark Knight Rises (2012), when director Christopher Nolan was in need of someone who could handle a “hot” HK G36 submachine gun (one that contained blank bullets). Meanwhile, Jared Kirby, a fight director and stage combat instructor in New York, has spent years perfecting a different sort of weapon—he specializes in historic and classical fencing. 

5. THEY ARE GAME FOR (ALMOST) ANYTHING.

Jared Kirby (center) working fight choreography for Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter. Photo courtesy of jaredkirby.com

Stuntpeople sometimes show up on set without knowing exactly what stunt they are going to be asked to perform. As Koo explains, occasionally they “know when it is and where it is, but not what it’s going to be.” As a consequence, they have to be prepared to deal with new experiences. Lamb says she had never even been inside a helicopter before she was asked to cling to the outside of one while working on the Neil Jordan film In Dreams (1999). Kirby says he likes to throw curveballs at his students during fight training—such as littering a stage with garbage or turning out the lights—so that they won’t freeze up when conditions change on set. On the other hand, every stuntperson has his or her limitations and stunts they won’t do, like fire burns and high falls, which are specialties in themselves. Koo, for instance, says he won’t do fire scenes, to protect his face.

6. THEY DO GET HURT SOMETIMES.

A good film crew takes every precaution to keep their members safe, and injuries are the exception rather than the rule. But accidents do happen. Koo emphasizes that many of the action sequences that people assume are done with green screen are in fact happening in “real life,” particularly on big-budget movies. As a consequence, bruises, bumps, and sometimes serious accidents will occasionally occur. Lamb says she has suffered a broken clavicle, a blown ACL, and a broken back, but continues to return to the profession she loves after getting well. “Advil is our friend,” she says, as is a good masseuse. (Performers who agree to a particularly dangerous stunt often also receive a pay increase, known as an adjustment.)

7. THEY KEEP THEIR COOL.

Despite these risks, a stuntperson cannot afford to get nervous. “When you get nervous, that’s when you get hurt,” Koo says. His approach is to think through a stunt and then put any worries out of his mind. “I tell myself ‘that’s it!’ Don’t get nervous. Just do it.” That’s not to say that jitters don’t come into play sometimes. “I think all stunt performers get that nervousness like any other performer,” Kuhr says. He says multiple rehearsals are invaluable in cutting down on both nerves and risk.

8. STUNTWOMEN TAKE MORE OF A BEATING THAN STUNTMEN.

Special padding is part of a stunt performer’s arsenal, but if you’re a woman it may not be an option. “Sometimes certain articles of clothing like skirts prevent us from wearing thicker pads or even pads at all,” Lam explains. “Sometimes a little improvisation is needed. My skinny jeans were so tight one time I used gel petals for knee pads.” Lamb alludes to instances of having to wear “just a towel to do a fight or a stair fall.” She adds that high heels can present another hazard, but since she has often doubled for “11-year-old boys or senior citizens,” she has mostly been able to avoid them.

9. THEY ARE ACTORS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. 

Mack Kuhr with Keanu Reeves on set for John Wick 2. Image credit: Mack Kuhr 

When doubling for an actor, stunt performers have to do more than bear a passing resemblance: They must consider the actor’s physicality and movement, too. “It is truly an exercise in impersonation,” Lamb says. “You as the stunt double are there to merely match [the actor’s] action and then take over and honor their work as you get tossed out of a moving car.” This is particularly true when a young stuntperson is doubling an older actor. Lamb explains that older people tend to move differently, and often have a different center of gravity. She says she once coached a young actress who was doubling an older person falling to “think light and then go heavy like a noodle.” 

10. THEY HAVE AN UNUSUAL IDEA OF “FUN.”

If you’re going to put your neck on the line for others’ entertainment, it might as well be fun. Fortunately, stunt performers say it often is—although their idea of joy might not match the rest of society’s. Lam describes squib hits, or onscreen gunshots, as particularly enjoyable. “I get to wear a mini blood packet that explodes when the squib guy presses a button,” she says. “The blood comes pouring out and there’s a big smoky hole in my shirt.” 

Koo describes working on car hit scenes with a budget as a bit like being a kid in a sand box. “It’s kind of like we’re demolition,” he explains. “They tell you: money is no object, don’t worry about wrecking stuff because it’s in the budget. You’re like a big kid that gets to break stuff.” Lamb expresses a fondness for stair falls, with her first-ever fall being a famous scene in the movie Fargo (1996). However, she admits her favorite stunts are “the kind that leave me in one piece.” 

11. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO LOOK BAD.

Some of Kirby’s students include highly skilled martial artists hoping to apply their abilities to stunt and stage combat work. However, it’s not always helpful for a stunt fighter to fight as well as Bruce Lee, since the film’s stars are the ones who need to look the best and often win onscreen fights. “If you are lucky enough to get into that fight with Tom Cruise,” Kirby says, “you better be willing to suck.” 

Koo confirms this. “You don’t want to showcase your skill unless you’re the principal person that’s supposed to win that fight. You’re there ... to get beat up and thrown around, and that’s your job.” Lamb adds that she needed to set aside her gymnast’s ability to land gracefully in order to convincingly fall out of a window. “One of the things we need to do is to be sloppy and be ok with it,” she says.

12. STUNT WORK AFFECTS THEIR DAILY LIVES. 

Lamb explains that her decades of stunt work have infiltrated her daily life in certain ways, including how she views her physical environment. For instance, she often assesses sets of stairs in terms of how well they would work for a stair fall. “I might be looking through Real Simple or Architectural Digest and think ‘oh, those are good,’” she says. She also says that her work has influenced her parenting (or as she describes it, her role as a “stunt mom”) and imparted resilience to her children. “They do know how to take a tumble and roll right back up and keep moving.” 

13. THEY ARE CONSTANTLY LEARNING.

Employability, for many stuntpeople, depends on developing new skills and perfecting old ones. Lam says she takes a variety of martial arts classes with the aim of becoming a more well-rounded fighter, and is training with a rope dart and chain whip—two traditional kung fu weapons. “The beauty of this industry,” she says, is that “it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things.” As a fight instructor, Kirby has the opportunity to observe many honing their craft. “The best people in this industry never stop learning,” he says.

14. AND THEY ARE CONSTANTLY TRAINING.

In between jobs, stuntpeople keep fit and train frequently so that they will be able to “spring into action,” literally, at a moment’s notice. “You never know when the bat phone will call and it’s time to suit up,” Kuhr says. Stuntpeople may train at specialized gyms where they can learn from and work with other performers like themselves, or typical gyms. Kuhr’s regimen, which includes cardiovascular training (to help with constant sprinting on set), strength training, agility work, martial arts training, sparring, and good nutrition, is typical of many stunt players.

15. THEY LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER. 

Stuntpeople describe their community as tight-knit, with bonds forged by unique experiences. The people in this high-risk profession look out for each other, both in terms of safety and when it comes to nailing a new stunt or developing new skills. “We all look out for each other and train together,” Lam says. “If I don’t know how to do something, there will be someone within the community who will lend advice. You teach me how to do a car hit and I teach you about affective memory in Method acting.”

16. THERE IS NO OSCAR FOR WHAT THEY DO.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no Academy Award category for stunt work. (There are other awards, including some from the Screen Actors Guild and the Taurus World Stunt Awards.) Nearly all of the stunt performers interviewed here mentioned the lack of an Oscar for their work. A petition called Stand Up for Stunts is currently circulating to change that, and has received over 83,000 signatures so far.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


Paramount Pictures

First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


Paramount Pictures

In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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