Casey Wright, SAG-award winning stuntman, understands the particular psychological skill-set necessary for his high-octane job.
“It’s not about having no fear. It’s about recognising that fear, acknowledging it, and using it. Fear is your safety net.”
Casey is quick to point out that stuntmen and women - “stunties”, as they call themselves - aren’t all rabid adrenaline junkies chasing that next high.
“It’s a job, most important part of the job is safety. If you show up on set hoping to just fling yourself off a building, you’re going to get yourself and other people injured. That’s not what the industry is about. We’re not reckless cowboys, hurling ourselves about, Jackass-style. It’s about doing in things in a controlled, safe manner.”
With nearly a decade of experience in the industry and credits on such blockbusters as San Andreas and Hacksaw Ridge, Casey has had plenty of time to develop the physical resilience required to keep performing in such a demanding job.
“The physical stunt is hard enough – you’ve got to hit your mark exactly on every take, be it throwing the exact same punch in a fist fight or landing in just the right spot after a car hit. If you don’t, the camera will miss it, the take is ruined, and you’ve just cost production money. Do that too often, and you’ll be looking for a new job.”
But as Casey explains, there is more to stunts than just the physical aspect.
“There’s a big psychological element to stunt performing. You’re taking a fall onto cold, unpadded concrete at 2am, and you’ve already done it 7 times for camera. The director would like another angle. You’ve got to be able to pick yourself back up and ready yourself mentally to do it all over again. You need to switch off the little voice inside that says, “I can’t do it”, and show it that you can.
The most challenging part for new performers, Casey continued, is how a film shoot works.
“Most days are at least 10 hours long, and that’s on a quick day. I’ve known productions that have had 28-hour shoot days. And you need to be able to switch into game mode very quickly. Stunts rarely happen first thing in the day - you might sit around for the first 8 hours waiting. But when it’s game time, you need to be on. You’ve got to stay focused for every minute that the camera is rolling, otherwise people get hurt.”
And it’s not just the job itself that requires resilience. Like any performer, work comes in waves of feast and famine, and weathering the storm takes a certain amount of drive. But for stunties, they also have to contend with something most other on-screen presences don’t need to have - humility.
“Stunties are still kind of unsung in the film industry. Most notably, and despite a lot of petitioning from major players, the Academy Awards refuses to acknowledge our work. It’s a little annoying, but ironically, exactly how stunt performing works. You’re doing all the flashy action work, but if anyone notices that it’s you and not the person you’re doubling, then you haven’t done your job right. To do this job you kind of have to accept that you’re in the shadows a bit, and that your job, a lot of the time, is to make other people look good.”
All this isn’t to say that the job isn’t a rush, and Casey lights up with energy as he describes some of the amazing set piece moments he was involved with in filming Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
“...watching a team of men on horseback drag a building through the streets does make you wonder how the hell you ended up here. I love that part of the job.”
But Casey wants to make sure that newcomers to the industry understand what they’re getting into. With several years of experience under his belt teaching stunts to up-and-coming performers, he has seen plenty of bright-eyed hopefuls with unrealistic expectations about what the work entails.
“I’ve seen people show up on set and say ‘so can we do a car hit today?’, and they don’t understand that not only is that not what the film needs, but that there’s so much preparation and planning that goes into doing a stunt like that safely. You don’t just rock up and do whatever you want.”
In order to make sure people are prepared for the rigors of the industry, Casey is planning a deeper study into the particular psychology of stunts. He is preparing to study a Masters in Film Production and plans to explore this misperception of the industry as part of his thesis.
“People just don’t understand that it’s not about the explosions and the fire and the high falls. It’s an art, a collaboration between the whole film crew, performers, everyone. At its core, stunt work is about executing the directors’ vision, doing it safely, and being able to come back tomorrow and do it all again.”