Day 6

'We were there in the trenches with them': Why stunt performers are calling for an Oscar of their own

The Academy Awards celebrate artistic and technical achievements in American film, but despite awards in categories from visual effects to hair and makeup, best stunt co-ordination is ignored.

'How can you award half of a performance, but not acknowledge the other half?' asks stunt performer

Brad Pitt, right, is nominated for the best supporting actor Academy Award for his turn as a stuntman in the film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. The academy offers no award for the action designers who co-ordinated the character's stunts. (Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures via The Associated Press)
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Some actors may do their own stunts, but for every jump, flip and car chase, a stunt co-ordinator is behind the scenes keeping them safe.

Now, as awards season ramps up, the experts who are co-ordinate the exciting — and often dangerous — action sequences in blockbuster films are hoping they too will have a chance to go home with an Oscar statue some day.

"You see these wonderful films that all get nominated, and yet, the best stunt co-ordinator or the best action designer award is not even being discussed," said veteran stunt co-ordinator Jack Gill. 

"It's just completely left out of the whole show," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Each year, the Academy Awards celebrate the artistic and technical achievements in American film. Despite awards in categories from cinematography to hair and makeup to visual effects, the best stunt performance or co-ordination is ignored on Hollywood's biggest night.

Since 1991, Gill has lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a category for the best stunt co-ordinators. The 64-year-old is behind a number of memorable films, including Captain America: Civil War and the Fast and Furious series.

Film performers, including Brad Pitt and Helen Mirren, and crew members alike have expressed support for the addition, Gill says. Despite that, resistance from the academy has kept the category from being recognized.

"When I first started this in 1991, they told me it would take three to five years and I'd probably get an award by then…. And here I am almost 30 years later and it hasn't happened."

Art and science

The role of stunt doubles and co-ordinators has evolved dramatically over the last century, Gill says.

In the 1920s, filmmakers may have offered $20 to someone willing to fall down a flight of stairs or jump off a building.

Today, a stunt co-ordinator might get to see a film's script up to three months before the start of production to plan action sequences.

"[The stunt co-ordinator] designs the action around each and every character and their traits," Gill explained, "and then once he's got the action design, he's got to figure out how to do it safely and to incorporate the actor and all the filming people."

"There's an artistic side to it when he designs the action, and a technical side."

Jack Gill has been a stunt co-ordinator in several blockbusters including the Fast and the Furious series, and 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

For stunt performer and co-ordinator Angelica Lisk-Hann, the discipline undeniably combines both art and science. 

According to Lisk-Hann, a TV series set in outer space like The Expanse owes much of its zero-gravity world to its action designers.

"That is a science," she said.

The artistic merits can be seen, she says, in Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar winning-performance in the 2015 film The Revenant, which she says relied heavily on a stunt performer.

"That character without Leo is just a stunt person, [but] that character without the stunt person is just Leo standing there talking," she said.

"How can you award half of a performance, but not acknowledge the other half?"

'We were there in the trenches with them'

Lisk-Hann, along with her colleagues within Canada's film industry, have successfully lobbied the Canadian Screen Academy to recognize the achievements of stunt co-ordinators.

Angelica Lisk-Hann, centre, is pictured with actors John Reardon, left, and Tony Nappo, right from the TV series Hudson & Rex. (Submitted by Angelica Lisk-Hann)

In March, for the first time, the Canadian Screen Awards will hand out a trophy for best stunt co-ordination.

"I'm just so pleased and I'm so happy for our community," she Lisk-Hann said. "But again, I mean, how could it be so easy here and so much more difficult down there?" she asked, referring to the Oscars.

An online petition with nearly 13,000 signatures is calling on the American academy to recognize stunt co-ordinators for their work, and Gill says that he will not stop advocating.

"They've told me time and time again, just forget it — walk away. And I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to walk away," he said.

In the meantime, he says he'll be watching "friends" accept awards for films he's worked on — as difficult as it may be.

"We were there in the trenches with them, but we'll never be awarded anything," he said.

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