That's just one of the tales that film and TV action pros share as they reveal secrets on how they made intense physical sequences look effortless, from freezing in a real loch ('Outlaw King') to covering children in tons of corn ('A Quiet Place').
Wade Eastwood sees restaurant bathrooms the way painters see an empty canvas or writers see a blank computer screen. They represent an untapped world of creativity. That's the only explanation for why he was thrilled to spend time in so many while coordinating stunts for Mission: Impossible — Fallout.
"We wanted a bathroom fight scene in the movie," he says. "Whenever I'd go into a restaurant bathroom, I'd think, 'If I were to get into a fight in here, what could I do?' The head smashed in a toilet thing and fighting through the cubicle thing had been done before. I'd lie down under sinks and I'd look up, thinking, 'I could use that!' I got pretty weird looks from people who were in there, but what we came up with made it worth it."
Eastwood, 47, wasn't following any script when he thought of the details for that critical fight scene, only his instincts. While most stunt coordinators don't find themselves lying on bathroom floors in front of strangers, they are getting more freedom than ever.
"Every script we get is a little different, with some more exact than others," says Shauna Duggins, who won an Emmy in 2018 for coordinating stunts on Netflix's GLOW. "Sometimes it'll just say, 'They fight,' which is great for us because it means we get to play. We're told to just make the women look amazing. Other times, the writers will say who is going to wrestle that week, who is going to win and what particular move might be crucial."
Stunt coordinator Rob Inch similarly recalled how the battle scenes in the Netflix period film Outlaw King "were not a detailed thing in the script." Director David Mackenzie would give a basic description of what he was looking for, and Inch would work out the moves using a "stunt viz" — rough rehearsal video that he'd shoot with a handful of his stunt performers.
"I'd write out a beat shoot to work out the who, where and what of a scene … when people attack each other … to make sure that was what he expected," says Inch. "I'd give my team a brief description of what to do … 'I want a piece of action that lasts for 30 seconds, this dude will have an ax, at some point you lose your sword and draw a dagger.' Then we put it on video, and usually what we come up with is close to what you see in the film."
Leading up to the SAG Awards, the only major awards event that honors stunt work, THR spoke to Inch, Eastwood, Duggins and three other leading stunt coordinators to learn how they dealt with everything from having to bury children in corn to electrocuting a man's testicles.
Finding time to train Tom [Cruise] for all that we had to do was a challenge. There are always issues with his shooting schedule, the weather … that was true for the HALO (high-altitude, low-open) jump. He couldn't finish at 6 o'clock and then go skydiving. We built the largest wind tunnel in the world on set to practice. When he'd finish shooting early or get time off between setups, Tom would come and him, me and a camera operator would make sure we could do this jump. After he broke his ankle in the rooftop scene, we had to shift the shooting schedule because he wasn't allowed to fly. When he could practice the jump again, we taped his injured foot with green tape to remind us not to grab it. The jump wasn't easy for Tom, who was the most exhausted I'd ever seen him because he was working with ex-British military jumpers who'd done this 10,000 times, and he had to look like he'd done it 10,000 times. He comes down messy when he lands in the movie, but that's Ethan. It's always a little messy with him — Tom was staying within character.
The Battle Royale was probably the most challenging and fun scene in season two. We had all 13 girls in the ring moving in a tight space, so keeping them safe and having fun but also telling each of their stories was tricky. We worked on it piece by piece for a couple of weeks, getting everyone for a half-hour when they had time. The last few days were everyone together putting finishing touches on it. Timing was crucial, because if one person was late with a move, it would affect everyone around them. It helped that all the actresses had trained so much that they were physically able to adjust. I had no doubt everyone would remember the choreography, but if someone turned around and the person she was supposed to go to wasn't there, they could have that deer-in-the-headlights look. Instead, if that happened while we were shooting, they'd just jump in and start with someone else. They filled in gaps during the fight that even we as stunt coordinators hadn't thought of. I was on pins and needles worrying someone could get hurt but then was like, "Wow! They did a great job!"
The fight scene in the water was very tricky because it's hard to control. We got maybe a day's rehearsal with everyone for the scene. We drilled on dry land. It all had to be specifically choreographed for them before they got in the water that was up to their you-know-whats for hours and hours. It's not like shooting in a tank on a stage, as scenes like that often are. We were in a real loch with real fighting going on. Trying to move in it is like trying to move while stuck in glue. The actors were wearing heavy costumes and carrying swords. They were weighted down and struggling, but that's the benchmark for David [Mackenzie, director]. He wants it all to feel real. In my mind, it did. Seeing actors freezing in the water, jumping around and falling while trying to get on the boat — it all felt more raw and gritty than shooting in a tank. The actors never had a chance to relax. A lot of them just had to lie there in the freezing water, unable to move, for a long time. Once David's shooting, he likes to stay in the moment. So the feeling was, "Once you're wet, man up and just get on with it until we're done."
The corn in the silo scene was a challenge. We had multiple tons of it because corn packs together so tightly. Our production designer pointed to a pile and said, "That's a ton right there." I thought, "That's nothing. We're going to need to get way more!" At first I thought, "Is sinking in corn something that could actually happen?" I jumped in to see how low I could go. Nothing happens if you stand and don't move. Once you move, the corn is so slick it moves out of the way and you work your way down. It wasn't scary, but when I got home, my pockets and shoes were filled with corn. Knowing that you could sink, we figured out a way to trick the audience because it was too dangerous to shoot the scene with kids. Our special effects guys came up with a barrier where someone could go through it and the corn would stay on top of it. From the waist down, you were free of corn and could move. On top, the rubber piece moved so the corn moved. I never knew how dusty corn is. I didn't grow up on a farm, so I wasn't familiar with that.
People often say, "Are there actually stunts on Shameless?" I'm grateful because that means that what we're doing looks so real, they're not noticing. But we really do a lot of character-driven stunt work. This season, Frank Gallagher [William H. Macy] wanted to do electroshock therapy on his testicles to stop having sex. We've done unique things, but when they told me, I went, "OK, we're going there!" We used hand-pulled wires to send a stunt double in the air to look like he'd shocked himself. We met with Bill, who also directed the episode, and decided we wanted Frank to get some air, but nothing supernatural-looking. I went the day before we shot to rig the wires and test it. We set it up so Frank's pants were around his ankles and we saw him from the back. When we shot, we tested five or six times to see how far the stunt double could fly through the small space. We rigged the wire so he'd fly back 3 feet and get his legs up in the air for comedic effect. We couldn't have him go too far in the air because we didn't want to show his junk. It's Shameless, but there are certain things you just don't want to see.
Last season, the writers floated an idea around about sky-diving. I made a suggestion and they wrote their version to fit into a story that involved our lead actor [Sullivan Stapleton] getting into a fight inside a cargo plane with a villain and having no choice but to shoot her. She falls out the back of the plane, but on her wrist is the detonation device for a nuclear bomb he has to disarm. He has to dive out of the plane to get to that device. You don't get the time to prepare as you would for a film, so you have to plan fast. I called a buddy who jumps out of planes for a living and brought him on as my aerial coordinator. He found terrific doubles: one who could float dead through the air at 15,000 feet and another who could interact with her limp body while traveling at 130 mph terminal velocity. The woman playing the dead villain was rigged with an audible altimeter to alert her when to snap out of acting and to deploy her chute. We had limited daylight, which limited our jumps. We got in seven. Once everyone assumed their positions in the air, there was only 45 seconds of shootable action before everyone had to deploy their chutes.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.