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In the days leading up to the Deadpool 2 motorcycle stunt that killed racer S.J. Harris on Aug. 14 in Vancouver, the crew was said to be growing increasingly agitated and nervous about the potential for something to go wrong.
The 20th Century Fox sequel’s producers had been exerting pressure to have the 40-year-old Harris, who had raced professionally but had never worked on a film, perform that day’s stunt because, as an African-American, she was a believable stand-in for Zazie Beetz, who portrays Domino in the film. But several crewmembers warned the producers that Harris wasn’t ready, a production source tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“She was improving, but I was watching her and, oh my God, I thought, ‘It’s just a matter of time before she crashes into a wall or runs somebody over,’” says one stunt performer who had been training Harris the day before the crash that killed her. A member of the stunt team alerted the movie’s producers to these concerns but was ignored, according to the source who trained Harris.
From a technical perspective, the stunt was relatively straightforward. It called for a rider sitting astride a Ducati 939 Hyperstrada motorcycle to exit a building, descend a ramp over three small stairs and stop on a nearby landing. For a stunt professional, it would have been a cinch. But Harris had never even been on a film shoot before.
And the crash occurred on the first live take. The accident has drawn outrage and tough questions from the Hollywood stunt community. “The producers put pressure to have somebody of the same sex and ethnicity in a position she wasn’t qualified to be in,” says Conrad Palmisano, a veteran stunt coordinator and second unit director with 47 years in the entertainment industry, including credits on Sleepless in Seattle and 21 Jump Street. Palmisano says he has been in close touch with several people who were on the Deadpool 2 set that day. “The stunt coordinators caved to the pressure. All the stunt people could do was take it to their higher-ups. They’re going to follow their chain of command.”
Fox and a rep for Deadpool 2 director David Leitch (himself a former stunt coordinator) declined to comment. The film restarted production days after the accident and is on track for its June 1 release.
According to a preliminary report issued by WorkSafeBC, the Canadian equivalent of OSHA, Harris “continued driving beyond the planned stopping spot on the stairway landing and continued to drive down a second ramp built over the bottom stairs and across the roadway.” Still astride the motorcycle, the report continues, Harris rode into a concrete sidewalk curb, where she “was thrown off the motorcycle and propelled through a plate-glass window of a building.”
Several people were forced to jump out of the way of the speeding bike. Immediately after she crashed, many ran over to offer first aid and saw that Harris was grievously injured, according to people on the set.
Whatever happened, those who had worked closely with Harris have apparently come to the conclusion that it was likely rider error. The question for investigators is, why was she put in this position? She had crashed the bike on two separate occasions days before the accident, say two people familiar with the shoot.
And Harris was the second person enlisted to do the job, as the production had earlier hired another woman who hadn’t performed well on the motorcycle in preparation for the stunt, a source says.
“If the movie’s producers had to go outside of the normal stunt community to find someone who was both qualified and resembles the actress, that speaks to a problem of lack of diversity of stunt performers,” says Darnell Hunt, the dean of Social Sciences at UCLA who helps produce the annual “Hollywood Diversity Report,” which comes out before the Oscars every year.
Harris’ death is the second fatal on-set accident in less than a month. In July, stuntman John Bernecker was killed when he fell off a warehouse balcony on the Georgia set of The Walking Dead. Before that, the last on-set fatality occurred in spring 2014 during filming of Midnight Rider, when camerawoman Sarah Jones was killed by a train on a bridge trestle, also in Georgia. Jones’ death inspired a large community of safety-minded professionals to gather regularly online to monitor safety-related incidents.
“I cringed every time she went out,” says the person who had been working with Harris, “Like, when is she going to crash?” This person eventually left the set and told the producers she wanted nothing more to do with the movie. “They were warned, yes!”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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