The bigger they come, the harder they fall

Hollywood is obsessed with explosive – and expensive – stunts. And those who have to perform them are paying the price
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The Independent Culture

Stunt performers are re-examining some of their more dangerous tricks following a spate of accidents both in Britain and in Hollywood.

Over the last five years there has been an increase in accidents and the industry is bracing itself for a court case this March that will examine the death of stuntman Conway Wickliffe who was killed on the set of The Dark Knight.

Questions have also been raised about the safety of the "jerk back", in which a performer is propelled backwards in a harness after an effect such as an explosion. Equity, the actors union, said it was awaiting guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as to whether the spectacular stunt was safe enough.

David Holmes, 25, who doubled for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, was left paralysed from the waist down after such a stunt went horribly wrong on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Leavesden studios near Watford in 2009. There was no prosecution as it was not deemed a foreseeable accident. Yesterday an HSE spokesman said: "We are working with the Joint Industry Stunt Committee to produce guidance for carrying out a jerk back stunt to reduce the risk to performers."

Martin Brown, assistant general secretary of Equity, said: "The number of insurance claims has risen in the last five years. There were three serious accidents in the last two years. Two were complicated leg breaks which probably mean the individuals won't be able to work as stunt performs again and the other involved the jerk back stunt."

Jason White, a British stuntman with 35 years' experience, called for all new directors and producers to be made to attend a seminar on safety.

Mr White now coordinates fellow technicians and advises major stars including Kim Basinger. In a career that has involved pitching through double glazing in Aliens, being punched by Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and pitching backwards off Tower Bridge, he received numerous minor injuries. But an accident in 1991 on the set of the TV series Robin Hood left him unable to work for many years.

Safety standards, said Mr White, have improved considerably and he provided a hazard assessment on every job, as all Members of Equity Stunt Register are now required to do.

However, he said financial constraints and egos often made it difficult to argue in favour of safety in front of demanding producers. He said: "There is a demand for bigger stunts. There is always an element of danger."

He said he wanted to see even greater stringency. With many stuntmen working abroad, he believes an experienced British coordinator should be on all international sets, where the same tough guidelines are not enforced locally. In Hollywood, the industry bible Variety recently questioned whether a spate of six accidents in both theatre and film late last year was "just a statistical fluke or ... whether sets these days are as safe as they could be".

Hal Needham, an Academy Award-winning technician and director, said the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration was now far stricter than in his early days.

Mr Needham, who has broken 56 bones and his back twice, said: "It is much safer today than when I was doing stunts eons ago. Stunt men today are more talented, more experienced and in better shape. The equipment they have today is much better.

"Money is always a problem but no director ever pushed me off a building. It is up to the individual to judge his own talent, safety equipment and whether he is gong to do the stunt."

The HSE, which investigates serious injuries and deaths on films sets, is prosecuting Christopher Corbould, a special effects coordinator, after stunt technician Conway Wickliffe, 41, was killed on the set of Batman: The Dark Knight. He died of head injuries after crashing into a tree during filming in September 2007.

Nevertheless, Mr Brown insisted that safety precautions among Britain's 275 stuntmen and women are stringent: "While they are operating in a highly dangerous aspect of the industry they actually have a very good safety record. They are fantastic guys, who are highly respected because they are so good at what they do."

Case Study

'I was dropped after serious accident'

*It was the kind of daredevil scene that film audiences take for granted: Robin Hood flees a castle using medieval scaffolding before leaping to safety as it collapses around him.

Jason White, a highly experienced stuntman who had just finished working with Kevin Costner on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was re-enacting the role again as Patrick Bergin's double in the television series. Three times the special effects worked perfectly. The 60-foot, three-and-a-half tonne modern scaffolding made up to look ancient, dropped in a controlled fashion and the stuntman, attached to a wire, jumped free.

But on the fourth attempt the scaffolding collapsed, explained Mr White: "I was on a wire harness which snapped when it impacted the ground. They thought I had broken bones because I couldn't move my arm. It later emerged that the shoulder bone had gone through my muscle."

For eight years, Mr White – now working again as a successful stunt coordinator with 35 years experience on major films and television series – found himself cast out of the industry.

"As soon as they knew that I was not coming back and there was going to be a case of negligence, I was just dropped. I had very little contact with anyone except the legal side. It was a very black time in my life," he continued. Mr White, who had grown used to minor injuries, suddenly found himself unable to work.

"What back-up do you have? There was no back-up. I had a number of physical problems but there was also the trauma. When you take someone who is ultimately an athlete and used to working on adrenaline and then it is suddenly taken away, what happens to you? I became suicidal," he said.

Mr White, who now makes safety his key priority when coordinating other stuntmen, said the situation had improved since his accident 20 years ago but more still needed to be done to emphasise safety on sets.