If the Oscars awarded Best Stunts, these would be the frontrunners
And the Oscar doesn't go to...
And the Oscar doesn’t go to… stunts. In fact, it may never.
Each new awards season hits refresh on the conversation about one crucial aspect of Hollywood filmmaking that still goes unrecognized by the Oscars and Golden Globes, two of entertainment’s largest, most mainstream platforms: When everything from makeup to sound mixing are recognized by the filmmaking industry, why does the stunt craft still remain shut out? “I believe it’s the only onscreen craft that still isn’t recognized,” Scott Rogers, the stunt coordinator on John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum remarks in an interview with EW.
Monique Ganderton, the first woman to hold the position of stunt coordinator on a Marvel Studios film with Avengers: Endgame, says she sits in boardrooms for TV shows and movies with the directors and leads from the costume, hair, visual effects, and sound departments. “Everybody’s there and I’m there. I’m there in every single meeting. I’m helping to create things. I’m solving problems, the same as everybody else on the show. So, I do feel like it’s weird to not have a stunt Oscar. I think it’s time to recognize people.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences doesn’t commonly recognize movies like John Wick, Rogers points out. They tried a “Popular Film” category that failed over criticism that it recognized box office and not craft. The funny thing is, a Best Stunts category could solve both problems: highlight a craft of cinema that also contributes to some of the biggest box office successes of the year. At the same time, stunts so often contribute to the overall impact of even awards darlings. Rogers uses Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 Iraq War film The Hurt Locker as an example. “If you took away the action aspects of it, it wouldn’t be nearly as good a story,” he says. “You need those to build the intensity.” Another example of more subtle stunts is this year’s Little Women. “I directed second unit on a little sequence with the younger sister falling through the ice and the characters skating back. Not that it’s a big action sequence, but to say that we didn’t do something, this is somewhat disingenuous.”
The response from the stunt community to this particular Oscars snub tends to range from awards don’t matter to let’s boycott the Oscars. Ultimately, Rogers doesn’t believe awards are all that important. “But would I like to have a little gold statue on my desk to brag about to grandkids one day? Yeah,” he adds. “I’d be lying if I said no.”
Certain guilds, namely the annual SAG-AFTRA and Taurus World Stunt Awards, do recognize the field. This year, Avengers: Endgame took home the SAG honor for Outstanding Stunt Ensemble Performance for a film and Game of Thrones won for television stunts (seen being announced in the video above). Ganderton feels a Best Stunts Oscar, being a more mainstream recognition, would help bring new visibility to their craft. “Even though we’re so collaborative helping create shots and developing the story and the action, there’s still a subconscious feeling that we’re not part of that special group,” she explains. “You still feel like a little bit of an outsider.”
In a world where the Academy did highlight a Best Stunts category, what would this year’s frontrunners look like? Something like this, perhaps.
Standout stunt: The finale battle
Before Ganderton’s team even began workshopping choreography, the Marvel visual effects team put together a pre-viz reel that used animation to map out the finale battle between Thanos and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: Endgame. “When all of those portals open in the viz, we just got goosebumps,” she recalls. “It was such an incredible moment. Then when that feeling subsides you go, ‘Oh my God that’s a lot of people.'” This meant that Ganderton had to choreograph stunts timed to specific time-coded story beats laid out in the viz. One example she gives is, “Captain America and The Winter Soldier have this beat [during the final battle], they say two lines, and the ‘in’ [of the scene] needs to be here, the ‘out’ needs to be here, it’s eight seconds long, but there needs to be some cool action in this.” Ganderton eagerly rose to meet this challenge, but one sequence initially tripped her up: the pegasus mounted by Tessa Thompson‘s Valkyrie. “We go and meet with special effects… Obviously, we’re not bringing an actual horse in here. He goes, ‘Wait a minute, I think I have something from another show,'” Ganderton says. “He had bought a horse-racing trainer, which is like a mechanical horse for horse racing for the jockeys to practice on. So, it’s a full-size buck of a horse on this mechanical motor that makes it gallop or trot. So, we’re just gonna have Tess on here fighting a bunch of people in green suits.”
Standout stunt: Sprint across the battlefield
When you decide to shoot your entire film to look like one continuous, uninterrupted shot, like director Sam Mendes chose for his World War I drama 1917, stunt doubles are rarely possible. So, not only did stunt coordinator Ben Cooke have to figure out how to pull off believably intense battlefield sequences, he had to make sure that actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman could actually pull them off safely. One of the most impressive feats comes toward the climactic finale: unable to maneuver through the trenches, Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) must race across the front line itself, dodging the 450 soldiers (portrayed by 450 extras) charging into battle, as well as explosions tearing into the ground around him, all to pass along a message that will be the difference between life and death for them all.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
Standout stunt: Horse stable fight
John Wick is the modern-day example of how crucial stunts are to the overall effect of the film. With Chapter 3, Rogers says even the studio knew the need to “expand and do something that has never really been done before and absorb the cost.” He adds, “When you do things that haven’t been done before, they tend to not be very cheap.” Cut to director Chad Stahelski, a veteran stuntman himself, asking for Keanu Reeves‘ Baba Yaga to ride a horse. According to Rogers, it’s about transposing each action setpiece for the world of John Wick. He worked with Tad Griffith (stunts), Darrin Prescott (second unit director), and Stahelski to train Reeves for horseback, train real horses for filming, and mapping out how Mr. Wick was to go from fighting assailants in a stable to running from motorcycles on the back of a stallion. At one point, they considered filming Reeves jumping his horse over a park bench, but the pay-off wasn’t worth it. “We would have to step out of our world and have a double do it and just cheat it, but there was no reason for it,” Rogers says. “The story didn’t call for it, it wasn’t overly exciting. It could’ve been beautiful, but at the end of the day a horse-jumping just wasn’t gonna work out.” Again, marrying the stunts to the story.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Standout stunt: Bringing down the helicopter
Explosions and car chases are the bread and butter of the Fast & Furious franchise, and each installment seeks to up the ante. That seemed to be the case for Hobbs & Shaw, the first Fast spin-off centered around Dwayne Johnson‘s Hobbs and Jason Statham‘s Shaw. Stunt coordinator Simon Crane was the maestro to a flurry of sequences, both more confined (like the hallway fight) and more free-ranging (like the motorcycle chase). Then there’s the moment when a tow truck attempts to yank a chopper out of the sky as cars are being ripped apart below.
Standout scene: Car chase through Florence, Italy
Michael Bay always seems happy to recount his exploits in filmmaking. He shot “on and around the space shuttle” for 1998’s Armageddon, he says he’s “the first person to shoot on the grand pyramid in Egypt in the last 35 years” for 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and now for 6 Underground, he received “unprecedented” access from the mayor of Florence, Italy to film a car chase sequence that goes from the streets and through the Uffizi Gallery lobby and courtyard. “Florence is a very small town but it’s very tight and it’s so historic and they’ve never done a car chase like this ever in the history of Florence,” Bay says. He considers stunt work — like, real stunt work, the kind where green- and blue-screens are kept to bare minimum — to be “a dying art.” He explains, “Having the world’s best drifters in it, the best riggers, the best stunt players… It takes a year to start whittling down, who’s the best team in the world? Who can do everything absolutely safe? ‘Cause that’s paramount to everything we do, is safety.”