Stuntwoman Olivia Jackson nearly died on the set of 2016’s 'The Final Chapter.' Her colleague was killed. And over the course of the billion-dollar series, many others have been injured. What happened — and who might pay for it?
It was raining on the day of the shoot. That morning, Sept. 5, 2015, Olivia Jackson mucked around on the lonely stretch of road outside Pretoria, South Africa, where Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was filming. None of the other crewmembers, decked in gum boots and rain jackets, seemed to think they would be shooting that day. Jackson, a 34-year-old veteran stunt performer, had been scheduled to film a fight scene. Instead, at the last minute, she learned that she'd be doing a tricky stunt on a motorcycle.
The two practice runs went well enough. Jackson raced at 43 mph toward a van mounted with a camera on a crane. Just before reaching Jackson, the crane operator was to raise the camera so that it would sweep up and over her head. On the first live take, Jackson remembers everything up until the impact that would leave her with severe nerve damage and result in the amputation of her left arm. She even recalls a few fragments of the immediate aftermath: lying on a gurney, being rolled into an ambulance, staring at the roof. And then her world went dark.
Jackson nearly didn't take the job that almost killed her. Raised in Cape Town but a London resident, the onetime model had returned to her home country the month before to renew her U.K. visa. A longtime motocross enthusiast, she was at the track one day when she ran into a stunt coordinator working on The Final Chapter. The stunt double for the film's star, Milla Jovovich, had injured herself in a non-work accident and the production needed a replacement. Jackson, who also had special training in Muay Thai, seemed a perfect fit. Nevertheless, she turned the job down; South African wages weren't on par with those in Europe or the U.S., and Jackson, a well-regarded stunt performer who had appeared as Charlize Theron's stunt double in Mad Max: Fury Road and Elizabeth Olsen's in Avengers: Age of Ultron, asked for more compensation. The producers agreed. A job on Wonder Woman was waiting for Jackson back in the U.K., and this seemed like a good way to pass the time.
The Final Chapter, distributed by Sony's Screen Gems unit and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson with a budget of $63 million, is the sixth film in the Resident Evil movie series, a video-game-based action film franchise that has grossed more than $1.2 billion over 16 years. Jackson's accident wasn't the only serious mishap the franchise has seen. Two months after Jackson wound up in the hospital, another South African stunt performer named Ricardo Cornelius died from injuries suffered on set when a Humvee slid off a rotating platform, pinning him against a wall and crushing his lungs. And in an incident that hasn't been disclosed before, another crewmember was injured by a plastic boulder and tore a ligament, spending six weeks on crutches and never returning to work. In 2011, on the Toronto set of Resident Evil: Retribution, 16 background actors dressed as zombies fell from a collapsing high-wheeled platform and 12 were taken to the hospital with leg, back and arm wounds.
Injuries, even serious ones, have always been part of stunt work. Nevertheless, with the hospitalization of at least 15 people, the Resident Evil franchise stands out as particularly treacherous. "That's an extremely high rate of injury for one movie or franchise," says a veteran stunt performer who has worked on dozens of productions around the world over a 30-year career. "Typically there are no injuries on set, and that's what we strive for."
Stunt work remains loosely regulated. Until 2018, there was no official certification in the U.S. for stunt coordinators, who choreograph action sequences. But a spate of tragedies, including the August 2017 death of Joi Harris on the set of Deadpool 2 in Vancouver and the July 2017 death of John Bernecker on the set of The Walking Dead in Atlanta, helped spur the industry to push for more rigorous guidelines for coordinators to be set by SAG-AFTRA (these were approved in October 2018, but will not go into effect until 2020).
Jackson's lawsuit, filed in mid-September against Anderson, producer Jeremy Bolt and their affiliated production companies (Sony is not named), claims that the crash occurred because the filmmakers "failed to adhere to basic safety standards." She alleges that she was instructed not to wear a helmet, that she was excluded from key safety meetings and that she was not permitted to wear a communication device in her ear to stay in touch with the crew during the stunt. The most damaging allegation, supported by publicly available court testimony, is that the crew changed the timing of the stunt without her knowledge. The crane operator told a South African court in 2017 that the "timing was changed by one second." Jackson's suit points out that at the speed she was traveling, a one-second change translated to "a closing distance of 105 feet." Jackson says, "If you rehearse something, you should stick exactly to that and mathematically it should work out the same each time. But he changed his starting position, which changed everything. It's life or death, and I wasn't aware of those changes."
One South African crewmember involved in the stunt, who declined to use his name out of fear of career reprisals, says that producers and several key decision-makers rushed into production without taking any of the usual precautions. "There wasn't one ounce of a safety briefing before we started," he says. "Olivia had little protective gear, no helmet, no glasses, and it's raining and freezing. Nobody asked her how she was feeling. We should never have done the stunt." Anderson and Bolt did not respond to requests for comment.
Safety lapses often surface in lawsuits about stunts gone wrong. But Jackson's suit also highlights a less sensational problem on overseas productions: insurance. Jackson alleges director Anderson and the producers skimped on coverage and hid their liability exposure through local shell companies, even as they promised, and failed, to cover her ongoing medical expenses. For an action film whose main attraction lies in the execution of high-stakes, often dangerous stunts, Jackson was stunned to learn that the production's personal accident coverage for her maxed out at a little more than $33,000. In South Africa, says Paul Raleigh, head of the film division at Hollard, a local insurance firm, "Coverage limits can be set at more or less any level, depending on the cost the production is willing to pay." The film's producers and director, Jackson's suit says, concealed from her "the true nature of the woefully deficient insurance coverage, which they knew would be a deal-breaker for her."
While the specifics of Jackson's case are unique, what happened on The Final Chapter, which grossed more than $300 million worldwide, also might be viewed as a case study of what can go wrong when Hollywood ambition runs up against a local regulatory environment overseas. As scores of big productions venture outside the U.S. in search of tax incentives and cheaper labor, developing countries have begun offering an ever-expanding array of production facilities and lucrative rebates. Hungary has brought in upward of $400 million in production spending annually since 2016. The Czech Republic, which boasts Europe's largest soundstage, saw $140 million in TV spending alone in 2018. Jordan, Turkey and India are quickly catching on. But along with attractive tax incentives can come perils. A common feature of newly minted production hubs is a less stringent regulatory environment. "You have to use local talent and technicians and you really don't know what experience they have, and so you use makeshift crews," says veteran stunt coordinator and performer Melissa Stubbs, who has worked on many overseas shoots during her 30-year career. "It's like a football game but you only threw the team together yesterday and you're playing a championship game."
The safety concerns of large productions become "heightened" overseas, according to a 2016 report by insurer Chubb. Stubbs recalls an instance when a rigger she worked with in Budapest showed up to work with no equipment except for a climbing rope and two carabiners. He tied it to a tree and yanked a stunt performer off. Stubbs halted production. Such scenarios make it all the more important to have a robust insurance policy in place, experts say. "All these tax incentives have been made available to foreign production companies who have been enticed to go there," says Gordon Cook, a risk adviser at AON, a global insurance provider. "But the availability of local coverage presents challenges. What they expect and get in the United States isn't what they get there."
Though SAG-AFTRA can get involved on behalf of a member by pushing overseas productions to match its guidelines, Jackson is not a member. Instead, at the time of the accident, she was in the process of applying to the British Stunt Registry, a U.K. guild with higher barriers to entry. So she was on her own in that regard. As her complaint states, the production had told her it would provide a "prudent" level of protection in the event of an accident. According to Jackson's complaint, the production on The Final Chapter bought a $3.3 million public insurance policy from a South African insurer, but it came with a specific exclusion for any cast and crew that might get injured while on set. (South African insurers say policies like these generally cover the production for accidents that occur involving third parties unrelated to the production.)
"Some production packages in a lot of these countries have really bare-bones policies," says Cook. "If you are trying to attract major talent, they're used to being protected by a U.S.-style production package, which would provide for substantial medical care, and they wouldn't be getting that under a local policy." In the U.K., for instance, production companies are required by law to provide a $6.1 million minimum employer's liability coverage, and most opt for significantly larger amounts. By contrast, South Africa, which has built up a robust reputation as an inexpensive production hub with stunning locations, has no national requirement for the same type of insurance. The light level of coverage Jackson had "wouldn't have raised eyebrows from a South African perspective," says Hollard's Raleigh, who adds that most U.S. productions shooting in the country take out fairly limited accident policies, with the expectation that the performers will have secured additional coverage on their own dime. According to Jackson's suit, her sister encouraged her to do just that, but she declined, relying on the production's promise to adequately cover her. "There are no consequences to production companies if someone is injured here," says one South African crewmember who worked alongside Jackson but asked to remain anonymous. "You have to have your own insurance. We don't have anybody watching our back."
The collision that nearly killed Jackson occurred on the first full day of shooting. The camera, called a "Freedom Arm," which had been meant to swoop up and over her head, instead slammed into her. It sliced her forearm in two and ripped a portion of skin off her face, leaving her teeth exposed — a process known gruesomely in medical jargon as "de-gloving" because it separates skin from underlying tissue. In addition, the collision ripped five nerves out of her spinal cord, severing them completely. Doctors told her they would have to induce a coma in order to save her life. For the next three weeks, Jackson drifted in and out of consciousness. "You just have the deepest, darkest, heaviest hallucinations and nightmares," she recalls. One recurring vision bore a terrifying resemblance to the accident itself, with Jackson being whipped around a building while tethered to a motorcycle. When she woke up three weeks later, her injuries were severe: Her left arm had been amputated, her face mangled and part of her upper body was paralyzed.
At first, Jackson's colleagues on The Final Chapter were financially accommodating, providing upward of $145,000 for her medical expenses. Jovovich penned an emotional appeal to her fans: "I would really appreciate it if you would take a moment out of your busy days ahead and pray for Olivia's full recovery too," the actress wrote in an Instagram post. (Jovovich decline to comment for this story.) While Jackson was still in the coma, her husband, Dave Grant, a British stunt performer, had been talking to producer Bolt about specifics of his wife's medical coverage. Grant was initially encouraged by what he was told. During a conversation that Grant recorded, Bolt told him they "wanted to make sure that the medical is completely covered, so you should not be worrying about that," according to the complaint. When Grant asked, "All the way through?" Bolt said yes, and then added, "We'll honor that regardless of the insurance."
The film's personal accident coverage limit of $33,000 maxed out almost immediately given the extent of Jackson's injuries. In December, with another critical surgery fast approaching, the production offered her a lump sum payment for an undisclosed amount; in return she would have to agree not to sue or seek further damages. Jackson's lawyers say the offer fell far short of covering her medical costs. Jackson wrote a letter to Anderson and Bolt saying their request "felt like bribery." Certain she would never again work in her chosen profession and sensing that her injuries were only going to get more complicated, she declined.
Jackson sued the film's South African production entities, who were arguing that her injuries would best be handled by South Africa's Road Accident Fund, a state insurer that was set up to help people hurt in car accidents. Meanwhile, her medical bills were mounting. After the accident, she had received about $100,000 in private and public donations (including nearly $20,000 from Anderson), as well as an additional $68,000 from a Taurus Award, which honors the work of stunt performers, but those funds were quickly eaten up by medical costs. Two years and six days after the accident, Jackson was stunned when her lawyers in South Africa notified her that the local production entity she had contracted with, an LLC tied to Anderson and Bolt, had no assets and was, according to her suit, "a shell company."
At the end of 2018, Anderson and Bolt upped their offer, but again asked that Jackson sign a release indemnifying them from all future lawsuits, along with an NDA. She refused. In March of this year the South African court threw out her suit against the producers, who withdrew their offer altogether. With her avenues for compensation becoming exhausted, Jackson moved to sue in the U.S. Had she known that there was no insurance to cover her, Jackson's suit alleges, "she never would have agreed to perform in The Final Chapter, or alternatively, would have secured additional insurance."
Though Jackson's suit stands as a cautionary tale about the risks posed by inadequate insurance, there already are small signs of improvement. Responding to pressure from international productions, insurance companies are enhancing their local packages. "They're not there yet, but they're trying," says Cook, who says he has been working with international carriers to help develop their networks. "Each year our major clients [in the U.S.] are declaring more and more productions overseas."
Jackson hopes her lawsuit might encourage other cast and crew who were poorly treated in the aftermath of a tragedy to come forward. After Cornelius' death on the same film, media reports from South Africa indicated that his wife, Shafiefa, had been financially compensated. But in her last public comments, the widow appeared frustrated with the studio. "No amount of money will bring my husband back," she told a local reporter, "No one can tell me what happened, I need closure … None of the bosses have even contacted me to tell me what happened … I've been making my own assumptions all along."
Jackson, meanwhile, is trying to focus on her recovery. She has taken up kickboxing, though she still can't spend more than an hour or so upright before the pain overwhelms her. "One of the hardest things is I lost the life I loved," she says. "I knew that I would never work again. I loved my job with all my heart."
Joi Harris, a motorcycle rider with no on-set experience, died on the film's Vancouver set in August 2017. Her family settled with 20th Century Fox.
Stunt performer Kun Lieu died in an incident involving an explosion and an inflatable boat in Bulgaria in October 2011. His parents later sued.
Pilots Carlos Berl and Alan Purwin died in September 2015 when their Cessna crashed in Colombia. Their families settled for an undisclosed sum.
The Walking Dead
In June 2017, John Bernecker died filming season eight after falling from a balcony onto an unprotected floor. His mother has sued AMC.
Oct. 17, 4:15 pm PST Updated to correct The Final Chapter's budget and note that Screen Gems only distributed, not financed, the film.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.