My Super Psycho SAG Card:
The stunt business is strange.
This could have been a story about my first “real” stunt in my first “real” movie…but that’s not actually true, so this isn’t really a story about that.
It just as equally could be a story about the construction of a stunt sequence from concept, to training, to execution…but that’s also not entirely true, so this isn’t really a story about that either.
All I can say for sure is that this is the story of my contribution, as it were, to the MTV movie “My Super Psycho Sweet 16”, an insight into the inner working of the film and stunt industry, and the stupid, stupid way I finally got my SAG card.
Never has such a richly deserved prize been attained in so stupid a manner.
Our stupid story begins with my longtime friend Nils Onsager approaching me with a job. He had just booked the position of stunt coordinator for the MTV movie “My Super Psycho Sweet 16”. The movie (available here for the low, low price of $14.95 and 84 minutes of your life) was a classic teenage slasher flick that was also a spoof on the then-popular TV show “My Super Sweet 16”. My task was seemingly a simple one: I was to double one of the actors for the scene in which he receives his gory, bloody, much-deserved comeuppance. Moreover, this film would be the one that would grant me SAG eligibility and finally push me up a massive step in my career.
Sounds great, right? Well this is where the story starts getting stupid.
Doubling, as one might expect, is an interesting task. The actor I was to double was the talented and all-around-nice-guy Joey Nappo.
Seen here forgetting how clothes work.
His resume is linked here. He really is a gifted professional whom you should all hire, both so that he gets some much deserved work and also so that I feel less guilty good-naturedly breaking his balls for the rest of the article.
The more astute among you will already begin noticing some of the difficulties inherent in this doubling/casting choice. Yes, his hair is a different color, but hair dye is a thing so that’s not a big deal. No, the issue is more that Joey, according to his resume, is 6’2 and 160 lbs. While the height I buy, it’s this author’s opinion that he couldn’t break 150 if he was soaking wet with a dead cat hanging from his rakish half-worn tie. However, giving him the benefit of the doubt, it meant that, at the time, I was almost 3 inches taller and 50 lbs of muscle bigger than him.
Now I’ve had to cut weight in a hurry before; I spent years in competitive martial arts before college, but this was no “sweat it out and avoid fluids for a few days”. I had about a month to transform my entire body, so I basically just stopped working out entirely and cut down to less than 1000 calories a day. It was incredibly taxing to both my body and psyche, but I managed to drop almost 20 lbs by the time of the shoot. I was still notably bigger than he, but I could at least (mostly) fit into his costume. It would have to do.
Learn how to wear a shirt you skinny bastard.
Next came the prep for the stunt itself.
There are basically two different and occasionally overlapping categories of stunts. Some stunts involve a high level of precision and skill: sword fighting, parkour, stunt driving, stair falls, high falls, etc. The nature of the activity necessitates a huge amount of training and experience is required to execute these techniques consistently and effectively.
This was not that type of stunt.
This was the other type: easy to do, just painful as hell.
My big stunt for “My Super Psycho Sweet 16” consisted of being beaten to death by a flail with a flanged head, more commonly known as a Morningstar.
Ribbed, but not for my pleasure.
As a frame of reference, here’s an awesome, if horrifying, clip from Deadliest Warrior showing what a similar weapon can do to a human analogue: Deadliest Warrior Morningstar Test
Sneak preview for those too lazy to click a link:
I’m pretty sure I need everything pictured here…
“But John, you paragon of manly perfection” gasps a member of my harem of devoted fans, “surely they wouldn’t use such a dangerous weapon on you without taking the proper safety precautions. Even your body, chiseled and sculpted alabaster perfection that it may be, would be hewn in twain as when mighty Samson tore asunder the false temple of the Philistines!”
You’d THINK that would be the case wouldn’t you, oh needlessly loquacious imaginary devotee? But therein you’d be only partially correct. The initial assessment of the stunt allowed for both a rubber head on the flail and a significant amount of padding to be hidden beneath my costume, so that the risk of injury was severely lessened.
I started with something like this…
Unfortunately, as the pre-production process continued, the changing nature of the shot necessitated that the padding used be minimized, and when the director saw the test footage of me getting beaten he complained that the rubber head looked fake, which meant that we were going with a real metal head on the flail and only a thin layer of rubber and plastic keeping me from becoming much like our corrugated friend above.
…and ended up with something closer to this…
Now, there’s only one way to “train” for a stunt like this; you just have someone beat the ever-loving crap out of you with a flail several hours a week for a month.
This guy, to be precise. Said it was the most fun he ever had. Smug little...
Besides doing a convincing imitation of a heavy bag there was little for me to actually do except crawl away feebly and give convincing reactions to the impact of the weapon (not terribly difficult). I am not in any way exaggerating when I say that I drove home from practice several nights that month in enough pain that I was unable to rest my back on the seat of my car. Eventually, through trial and error, we found a way to give the director what he wanted without putting me in a body bag.
It was at this point that Mr. Nappo informed the stunt coordinator and me that he wished to do his own stunts.
Now please don’t mistake my cynicism for disrespect. I have a great deal of respect for both Joey and for all actors who perform their own stunts, and it is frequently far and away the best method of getting the shot. My issue is that many, many actors say that they want to do all their own stunts without really understanding what that means. My coordinator shared my skepticism, but was willing to give him a chance. During training we, after warning him ahead of time, had Joey armor up, lie down, and I hit him with the flail in a manner similar to how I had been being hit for the last few weeks.
Now Joey was in the full armor described above and I was using the fake flail head, but as soon as I hit him he cried out in pain and said, and I quote, “I don’t like that at all!!!” After that we resolved to let him do the close-ups called for in the shot (in full armor with a padded flail) and leave the heavy hits to me. I sort of felt bad but I maintain that I did not deliberately or maliciously try to hurt him, but hit him only as hard as I had been hit while doing the job that he was volunteering to do. It wouldn’t be fair to Joey to go easy on him in training and kill him on the day; that would be setting him up for injury and failure with unreasonable expectations.
With the stunt all worked out on paper, we went in for shooting.
My stunt wasn’t the only one being done for this film. Far from it, there half a dozen other major stunts in this movie. Other members of my stunt team were performing acts of near-carnal awesomeness in the form of:
Being dragged down stone steps…
…precise, VERY close to camera or actor blade work…
…skating into a cake made of sushi while wearing a green screen hood…
…being tossed backwards down a flight of stairs…
…a righteous throw from a 14 foot balcony to land on a collapsing table…
…and looking like a tool, professionally.
This combined with the fact that I was, at the time, a new addition to the team, meant that I was eager to prove myself as both a capable stunt person and as a valuble team member.
Now if you know anything at all about working in the film industry you’ll be familiar with the expression “hurry up and wait”. This can be explained in that there is often a mad, panicked dash to prepare everything for a particular shot followed by extensive periods of waiting before they get to you. My experience on my big stunt day is a perfect example of this principle. I had my hair dyed to match Joey, was rushed into costume and padding and told to warm up and be ready to go on any moment, following which I sat there for literally seven hours while they adjusted lights, placed extras, worked on other shots and filmed the close-up scenes with Joey.
Think of it like repeatedly and accidentally clicking “No” at the Ocarina of Time owl for seven hours straight.
As time went on and we got later and later into the day, I began to grow increasingly concerned. From where I was sitting I could hear the chatter around the director and knew that we were running badly behind schedule, and the longer we spent on this shot the less time there would be for other, more important shots we absolutely HAD to get later on in the day.
Finally we got to the flail beating scene. Nils, my stunt coordinator, gestured for me to make my way up to the balcony where the scene was being shot. My heart rate tripled and I felt the expected surge of adrenaline as I stood and started up the stairs. However I had barely made it two steps before I was stopped. I saw the director of photography speaking hurredly to Nils, saw him nod, and then saw Nils tell me to hold off.
We had run out of time.
They had cut my stunt.
My soul, at the time.
I watched in hollow resignation as they tossed extensive padding onto Joey and hit him with the padded flail while the camera panned away, hiding the action of the scene almost entirely. The final shot turned into a cut between joey falling down behind the railing, the flail hits barely visible…
…and my good friend Brian (who was doubling the murderer) whaling away on a sand bag positioned off-camera.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. Stuff like this happens, especially on a film set, and I don’t blame anyone involved. The weird side note was that, in the end, Joey did, in fact, end up doing all his own stunts for the movie, and he honestly did a great job, especially seeing as how much he was hurting in training. He just put on a stiff upper lip and got through it, and you’ve gotta respect that.
But it did mean that everything I had gone through for the last month was pointless. The weight cut, the grueling “training” process, dying my hair…twas all for naught, and there was nothing to do but man up, nod, change out of my costume and help my team members the their remaining stunts and clean-up.
But fear not, brave readers! Because I was not, in fact, cut from the film entirely! My contribution to the adventure that was “My Super Psycho Sweet 16” consisted of doubling Joey…’s corpse in one shot after he was beaten to death by the “flail”.
There I am!
And bringing to life the character of “tall swat team guy” in another shot near the end.
I still got paid the full amount as if I had done the stunt (the film industry is strange), but the real punch line to this whole affair was that SAG doesn’t care if you actually, you know, do the stunt you were hired to do. If you are hired for 3 days of filming and show up on set, even if you don’t actually appear on camera, it’s good enough for them.
So I still got my SAG card.
Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but after all the legit stunts I had done in my life up until this point (set on fire numerous times, countless fights and falls, etc.) the thing that pushed me over the edge into union membership was the stunt I didn’t do. I knew I would get my card someday, but…I had been hoping it would be doing something epic. At the end of it all, I sort of felt like Switch from The Matrix just before Cypher pulls her plug.
Not like this…not like this…
The stunt business is strange.