Stunted: How Hollywood's Content Boom Is Leading to More Stuntperson Injuries and Deaths
Illustration by Owen Freeman

Stunted: How Hollywood's Content Boom Is Leading to More Stuntperson Injuries and Deaths

by Scott Johnson
October 31, 2018, 9:00am PDT

It’s the dark side of Peak TV: With seasoned pros stretched thin, productions are hiring haphazardly and cutting corners as stunt performers go public with complaints that union regulations have "no teeth" and new oversight may not go nearly far enough.

Before she arrived on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2 in mid-August 2017, Joi Harris had never performed a stunt. She'd never been anywhere near a movie or TV set, for that matter. Producers and studio 20th Century Fox wanted an African-American double for Zazie Beetz, who'd been cast in the role of Domino. They hired Harris, 40, who had done some motorcycle racing, and flew her in a couple of days before the shoot. The sequence was pretty straightforward. It called for a rider, sitting astride a powerful Ducati 939 Hyperstrada motorcycle, to coast down a set of planks that had been laid over a few stairs. Harris would be traveling about 5 miles an hour, though onscreen it would be made to look as if she were going much faster.

As the day approached, several experienced stunt performers who had been training Harris all weekend say they told producers and the stunt coordinator they believed Harris wasn't ready. They warned the production that racing on a track was very different from performing in front of cameras and an audience. Producers stuck to the plan. Canada's workplace safety agency, WorkSafeBC, hasn't released its final report on what happened next, but three people familiar with that day's shoot say they watched in horror as Harris, on the first live take, lost control of the bike. She hung on as it sped across a street at high speed before hitting a planter, which sent her hurtling headfirst through a plate glass window. She wasn't wearing a helmet. It was 9:30 in the morning, and her very first stunt would also be her last.

For as long as there have been stunts, the men and women performing them have been hurting themselves, sometimes fatally. The 1980s was a particularly lethal decade, with 40 stunt-related deaths, after which increased diligence on film and TV sets led to improvements. Nonetheless, Hollywood stuntpeople agree that the past several years have brought about a troubling change when it comes to safety. The primary driver is the huge increase in streaming content, which has led some productions and stunt coordinators — whose job it is to oversee all aspects of a production's stunt work — to cut corners. An FX study from January estimated more than 520 TV shows would appear in 2018, a 7 percent increase from 2016, and more than double the 200 or so programs in 2010. "The demand for content is so extreme that productions are just hiring whomever," says Jim Vickers, a 30-year stuntman who has worked on Training Day, Lucifer and Scorpion. The trend is set to continue with such platforms as Facebook and Apple expanding into scripted content.

On sets from Atlanta to Vancouver to L.A., stunt workers have been getting injured in serious and seemingly preventable accidents. A month before Harris' accident, an up-and-coming, well-regarded stunt performer named John Bernecker, 33, died in a troubling fall while filming an episode of The Walking Dead in Georgia. It was the first stunt death since 2002. Bernecker's case is still being investigated as questions linger about whether proper precautions were taken. In August, stuntman Justin Sundquist on CBS' MacGyver suffered a head injury and fell into a coma. Sundquist, who also was injured in 2016 while working on CBS' Hawaii Five-0, has emerged but has yet to return to work and has not spoken publicly about the accident. That same month, stuntwoman Laurie Harper filed a lawsuit against Sony Pictures Entertainment and other producers of the 2017 comedy Rough Night, alleging negligence. 

According to the complaint, producers and stunt crew failed to place safety pads under the sand on the New York beach where Harper, after crash-landing a Jet Ski traveling 28 miles an hour (the industry recommendation is 14 mph), fell and injured herself, suffering traumatic brain injury and leaving her "sick, sore, lame and disabled." To add insult to injury, the complaint states, the actual footage of Harper's accident was ultimately used in the film. "We've been seeing a lot of injuries lately," says Vickers. "There are no requirements within SAG [the guild covering stunt performers] that stipulate what you need to be a performer or a coordinator."

An official from SAG-AFTRA says that with the jump in both the number of productions and their geographical dispersion, there comes "an increased risk of unqualified stunt coordinators" who might be putting people's lives at risk. Given the backdrop of mounting injuries, Harris' death "was an eye-opener," says Cort Hessler, chair of the guild's Stunt and Safety Committee. (According to their lawyer, Harris' family is in discussions with 20th Century Fox, which appears interested in negotiating a financial settlement.)

SAG-AFTRA in mid-October issued a new measure to address concerns. The Stunt Coordinator Minimum General Standards Eligibility Process Guideline, an online registry for coordinators who can prove they have worked at least 500 days on set, will go online in January 2020. And while it has been lauded as a good first step, some acknowledge it doesn't go nearly far enough. For one, the new measure isn't mandatory, meaning any production, anywhere in the country, can continue to hire anyone it wants without fear of penalty or fine.

"Everybody and their brother is now saying they're stunt coordinators," says Jane Austin, president of SAG-AFTRA's Los Angeles local, who concedes that the new guidelines are meant to provide producers with a reference point for finding the most qualified candidates, and nothing more. "We're not keeping anyone from working. This is not a qualification in any way."

Even if it were, experience isn't always a guarantee of safety. Harris' death, for instance, occurred on a set full of experienced stunt coordinators. The director, David Leitch, is a former stuntman himself. "Every one of them on Deadpool 2 was highly qualified," says Pete Antico, a former SAG-AFTRA board member who for years has been critical of the guild's approach to safety. "And you want to know the horror of it? Nobody said no." Longtime stunt coordinator Conrad Palmisano says experience counts but that "the most important thing a stunt coordinator must possess is the ability to say no to a producer."

The U.K. and Australia maintain strict requirements for stunt workers. British stuntpeople have to obtain skill-specific certifications, and then they have to perform for several years before they can even be considered for coordinating jobs. Even then, there are restrictions. Coordinators in the U.K. must prove they can plan their own stunts before they're allowed to supervise other people. Nothing similar exists in the U.S., where SAG-AFTRA has placed the onus of safety on the producer, who is contractually bound to create a "safe" atmosphere on set.

"If you have a SAG card, you can work as an actor, a stuntperson or a stunt coordinator," says Andy Armstrong, a British coordinator. "Every other person in L.A. has a SAG card. It's absolutely insane. It's like having a flight attendant and saying she's so nice, she can pilot the next flight." The union provides comprehensive "guidelines" for how stunts should be conducted, but these are little more than nonbinding advisory bulletins. SAG-AFTRA counters that the bulletins are "widely respected" throughout the industry. They include recommendations on everything from how venomous snakes should be handled ("The snake handler should have a snake pinner") to smoke, cars and high falls. "It's complete B.S.," rails Antico. "There are no teeth in it. No fines. No suspension. It's like their sexual harassment guidelines. With no teeth, what good is it?"

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For years, the stunt community was a small, tight-knit group. Most of them knew one another. The work could be dangerous, but people tended to come up learning from experienced peers. These days, "the person who was a waitress yesterday could tomorrow be in charge of safety with weapons," says Armstrong. "If that's not absurd, nothing is." A Facebook group called the Sarah Jones Safety Verification System, created in the wake of the 2014 death of camera operator Sarah Jones, who was killed on the Georgia set of Midnight Rider, has become a repository of terror-inducing videos showing unsafe practices. One clip shows a cameraman being dragged behind a fast-moving car. (A commenter posted, "This is an example of how not to operate a camera.") Another video shows someone standing in the middle of a road filming two high-speed motorcyclists and ducking out of the riders' way just centimeters away from being hit.

Stuntwoman Melissa Tracey remembers receiving a phone call a few years ago that terrified her. A young woman identified herself as the "stunt coordinator" for a show in production and asked whether Tracey knew any available stuntpeople. They got to talking, and it turned out the woman had just graduated from film school. When Tracey asked about her background doing stunts, she confessed that she didn't have one. It turned out she was someone's P.A. "The producers told me all I have to do is line up some stuntpeople," she said. Recalls Tracey, "I told her she shouldn't take this job."

SAG-AFTRA won't reveal safety-related statistics on injuries, saying it only tallies them with a "manual" system that is "in the process of being updated," and that there isn't enough data to establish meaningful trend lines. Even if there was, veteran stuntpeople say it would almost certainly not be representative of the reality. The fear of not getting jobs, or losing existing work, or being blacklisted, is real. "A lot of injuries get covered up, quite frankly," says Antico. When Lauro Chartrand, a stunt coordinator in Canada, went to his local union (affiliated with SAG-AFTRA) to ask how he could find out more about injuries across the industry and see whether the union would be willing to publicly post all reports of injuries, he was met by a wall of silence. "They balked," he says. "They said there was no legal way they could do it. So much is getting swept under the carpet."

And, anecdotally at least, there is evidence of a trend toward more tolerance of injuries, at least in certain markets. Stunt performer Shaun Vickers (Jim Vickers' son) tells a story of attending a recent dinner party in Atlanta, where AMC's The Walking Dead, Fox's The Gifted and Netflix's Stranger Things are filmed. The issue of safety came up. "Almost everybody I talked to, 10 or 12 mostly young stuntpeople, had been injured within the first couple of years of their career," notes Vickers. One told a story about having to jump over a balcony onto a structure that hadn't been erected properly and hitting the floor. Another got thrown into a solid oak chair and tore his shoulder in three places. A third broke his jaw during a fall. One after another, they told him about their injuries on set and said they thought this was nothing unusual.

"I'm sitting there listening to this going, 'How does this happen?' " recalls Vickers, who is from L.A., where he says safety is taken more seriously. The locals replied, simply, "It's stunts." They chided him for having an "L.A. attitude." Vickers was stunned. "They think this is normal because they're inexperienced. But the coordinators obviously weren't doing their jobs." SAG-AFTRA says it has conducted meetings in Atlanta with "packed rooms of stunt performers" and sees the city as a hot job market for stunt workers, which it certainly is. "We might have seen some growing pains there," says one guild official on background. But without any hard data to prove or disprove the claims, the guild says there's no evidence to support the contention that Atlanta is any different from any other market when it comes to safety.

Regardless, even the perception of increased danger has become an issue. In the weeks immediately following Harris' death, for instance, two other members of the Deadpool 2 crew died. One of them, Clay Virtue, a stunt performer on set the day of Harris' death (he was one of the first at Harris' side after the accident), overdosed. A second, Natasha Denis, died in an apparent suicide at home.

It is impossible to know how Virtue or Denis were affected by witnessing Harris' accident. But several other stunt workers who knew them are convinced that their deaths were directly related to what happened to Harris. "Those people are gone, and the one thing you can definitely say is that they were seriously traumatized by what they saw," says one coordinator intimately familiar with the circumstances but who asked to remain anonymous while discussing such a sensitive topic. Adds Monique Ganderton, one of Hollywood's most successful female stunt coordinators, "Two people I know don't work in film anymore because of what happened to Joi. They just said, 'I'm done.' "

Some stunt workers also say the push for diversity in Hollywood occasionally has led productions to overlook experience. Jim Vickers, who is half Latino, recalls a recent episode where he hired a very experienced but light-skinned African-American stunt performer to double for a darker-skinned African-American actor. The producers told him to find someone else; they didn't want Vickers to "paint down" — which refers to the use of makeup to alter a person's skin tone — the double. "I had to go with another stuntperson who wasn't as qualified to do the sequence," he says. No one got hurt, but it left a bad taste in his mouth. Notes Hessler, "In today's society, we're always trying to hire for race, gender and skill, and a lot of times it's hard to hire all three."

Nonsense, say critics like LaFaye Baker, who insists there are plenty of qualified women and people of color in the stunt world who are ready and willing to work. The issue, says Baker, who is African-American, is that there isn't a system to bring them up through the ranks. Baker says Harris is a case in point. "It was her first opportunity, yes, but she did have experience riding a motorcycle," she says. "When people say she wasn't a stuntgirl, I say, well, we all started somewhere." Others, like veteran stuntwoman Jadie Davis, also African-American, scoff when producers claim they can't find qualified people. "I'm stunned people are still saying that," she says. "If you want to have diversity and people aren't qualified, then give them smaller jobs to get qualification. It's not so much about race as it is about opportunity." Which, to be fair, could have been what the producers on Deadpool 2 might have been thinking. They declined to comment for this story.

Still, common sense would seem to dictate that stunt workers should meet some basic qualifications, just as hairstylists, grips and camera operators do. But in practice, it's not that simple. SAG-AFTRA officials have been debating qualification requirements since at least the 1980s. "It's very difficult for unions, especially for an actor's union, to describe prerequisites," says Hessler. For years, stuntpeople have discussed the idea of a systematic qualification process, but talks always break down over details. "Everybody has a different idea of how to qualify a stuntperson," says Davis. "You'd have to take each individual skill and break it down, and that could get very sticky. Who is going to qualify you? And what if you go out and screw up? Who polices you?"

No one seems to have clear answers for these questions. What everyone does seem to agree on is the need for a better system. SAG-AFTRA established a blue-ribbon safety committee, and it is in talks with studios to keep the conversation moving. The guild also increased the number of field representatives checking on sets around the country. It recently added a training protocol so that union locals could deliver safety reports. But the shadow of Harris' death hovers over these discussions like a tragic coda. And people in the stunt community are confused. As one prominent coordinator laments, "I think the industry failed her."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.