The New Category That Could Save the Oscars
In his 40-plus years as a stunt performer, coordinator, and second-unit director on such movies as Venom, Jumanji, and several entries in the Fast and Furious franchise, Jack Gill has dropped cars from a plane hovering at 10,000 feet (for 2017’s Furious 7) and sped through the streets of Puerto Rico in a muscle car dragging a 9,000-pound vault (2015’s Fast Five). He’s broken his back twice and his neck once. He’s accumulated 23 other broken bones, eight concussions, one punctured lung, and a finger that was sewn back on. Gill, in other words, is not easily rattled. But that changes when it comes to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which for almost three decades Gill has lobbied to add an Oscar category for stunt work.
“Dealing with the Academy has been more dangerous for me than any stunt I’ve done, because I have no idea which way this is going to go,” Gill says, standing inside a massive garage on his Agoura Hills, California, ranch that’s filled with career souvenirs such as the driving suit he used to double for Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights. “When I’m designing an action sequence, I can break it into three pieces so each part is safe and we get the results we want. With the Academy, I can’t break it into any pieces. I just have no idea how to change their minds about what we do to get the result we want.”
What Gill and the rest of the film-stunt community want is pretty straightforward: recognition of their work by their industry on its biggest stage. The Television Academy honors TV stunt people at the Emmys. The Screen Actors Guild has a stunt-ensemble category at its awards ceremony that a SAG Awards spokesperson says was created specifically to recognize how stunt people not only ensure safety on set, but also “create the same characters as the actor-performers are bringing to life.” And yet, the Academy will have nothing to offer stunt people when it hands out Oscars in some two dozen categories during its ceremony on February 24. (The Academy declined to comment for this story.)
The Oscar ceremony has paid tribute to the stunt community a handful of times over the years. The Academy gave a 1966 honorary award to Yakima Canutt, a stuntman and second-unit director who doubled for the likes of John Wayne and designed the chariot-race sequence in Ben Hur. Hal Needham, who did stunt work in more than 90 films before becoming a director of films like Smokey and the Bandit, received a 2012 honorary award for his work.
Still, if ever there was a year to pay tribute to stunt people in the thick of their careers, this would be it. In an era when it’s far more convenient to stay home and watch films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, the movies that get audiences into theaters tend to feature the sorts of spectacular stunts that beg to be seen on a big screen. Eight of the top 10 movies at the box office so far this year feature extensive, intricate action sequences, including Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Mission: Impossible—Fallout. That might explain why, earlier this summer, the Academy floated—and then quickly retracted—the idea of adding an award for what it called “outstanding achievement in popular film.”
“I understand giving an honorary Oscar for one exceptional career, but as a regular category, it doesn’t make sense,” says one Academy member who declined to be identified. “I look at Mission: Impossible, and it was chockablock with stunts and great visual and mechanical effects, but I wouldn’t know how to single it out and award it.”
In the early days of film, stunt performers were generally regarded as “the ones you brought in to fall off a horse or a wagon,” says Gill. “This started out as a roughneck type of thing. I’ve talked to the older guys, who told me when they got into the business they had no idea what was going to happen when they did a scene. [Producers] would say, ‘Raise your hand if you want to turn this car over.’ And if you were man or woman enough, you raised your hand. One guy said, ‘A lot of times I’d get into a car with an open top, turn it over, and try to leap free. Sometimes you made it. Sometimes you didn’t.’ ”
Things weren’t much better when Gill got his first stunt job, working on the 1976 Burt Reynolds movie Gator. He’d been a champion motocross racer up to that point, and took a friend’s suggestion to visit the set, where he met Needham, the film’s second-unit director. Needham, who at one point was the highest-paid stuntman in town, took a liking to Gill and brought him on board to do some motorcycle scenes. He also introduced his new protégé to what was at the time an important stunt person’s tradition.
“He showed me what he called his stunt bag and said, ‘This is how you do it, kid,’ ” Gill recalls. “I looked in there and saw all these pills to take pain away, and a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
Gill dove right in, working on such movies as First Blood and TV shows like Knight Rider and The Dukes of Hazzard. After more than four decades and around 200 TV shows and films, he remains one of the most sought-after stunt coordinators in the business. “There’s nobody better at this sort of thing,” says director Tim Story, who worked with Gill on Ride Along and Ride Along 2.
Courtesy of Gill’s advocacy for an Oscar category, he also has become his profession’s most passionate promoter. His quixotic quest for Oscar recognition began nearly three decades ago while working on Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us in 1991. The Serpico director told him, “You [stunt] guys have really come up from what you were in the 60s and 70s. You need an Oscar category. You’re department heads just like production designers and directors of photography.”
Lumet was so earnest in his belief that he helped Gill gain membership in the Academy after they worked together in 1991; Gill was eventually made a member in 1996, making him one of 14 stunt coordinators who were members at the time. There are now 68 stunt coordinators in the Academy, which has 17 membership branches and two categories covering everything from actors to makeup artists—but none for stunt workers.
Later in 1991, heartened by Lumet’s enthusiasm, Gill met with Bruce Davis, then executive director of the Academy. He says Davis seemed encouraging, explaining it could take three to five years to persuade the Board of Governors to, first, create an action branch in the Academy, and then to get them to O.K. an award.
“Then it just stagnated,” says Gill, 63, whose lean frame and deep tan give him the air of the Marlboro Man’s tougher brother. “They kept moving the request further down the line, with excuse after excuse that was different from whatever they told me the year before. At first, it was that they weren’t going to add new categories because the show was too long. We said we didn’t care about the show. Just bring us in during the [Scientific and Technical Awards], or do it during the red-carpet, before the show is televised.” (Stunt performers are not alone. Since Gill started his quest, casting directors—who have their own Academy branch—have asked to add a casting category; they were denied.)
The Academy’s “Sci-Tech” Awards, handed out at a separate ceremony before the main Oscars telecast, honor the role that science and technology play in making movies. According to Gill, a stunt award would fit right in because of all the rigging and technical aspects that go into creating a modern action sequence. The Academy has rejected every one of his suggestions with as many lines of reason as he has broken bones. He says he was told that stunt coordinators didn’t have enough potential members to give them their own group in the roughly 9,000-person Academy. There was the assertion that stunt people should remain in the background because moviegoers want to believe that actors are really performing the action. Then, there was the sentiment that, if stunt people got awards, they’d start doing more dangerous action sequences in an effort to win an Oscar.
Stunt work is dangerous. While it’s tough to pin down the number of safety-related injuries, in 2017 two stunt people were killed in on-set accidents on Deadpool 2 and The Walking Dead.
“There are more stunt people in the workplace today, creating more possibilities to get injured,” Gill says. “But the accident-rate percentage has gone down dramatically. . . . We now have safety advisers on all sets, and we include the entire crew in meetings before each and every action sequence so everyone is aware of what’s going to happen.”
Gill scoffs at the idea that a stunt Oscar would reverse this trend, and figures it was born from the Board of Governors not understanding the work of stunt coordinators—the ones who would receive his proposed award. In 2012, he sent the board a 20-page booklet outlining the difference between coordinators—the ones who work with a director to map out the logistics of every action sequence—and stunt performers, who actually do the work once cameras start rolling.
“Stunt coordinators come up with storyboards to show every action scene we’re going to do, every frame we’re going to shoot,” Gill says. “We will even do animated versions of the stunts. . . . We sit on set and ask if anyone has any questions. We do the rehearsals. We know it will work. But we still say, ‘Tell me if there is anything we’re doing that bothers you.’ ”
Gill has also sent the board a registered letter almost every year for the past 27 years before its annual Oscars postmortem, requesting an opportunity to present his case. He says he is always denied. He is also involved with an online petition that currently has more than 90,000 signatures. “There really should be an Oscar for stunt work,” Helen Mirren told a U.K. Web site earlier this year. “Those guys are incredible and they’re so careful and so professional. And they’re artists. They do amazing things.”
None of this has had any effect, which has left Gill and many of his peers convinced the Academy has something against stunt performers.
“They look at us like we’re a bunch of dumb cowboys, even though we don’t do much with horses anymore,” says Conrad Palmisano, a veteran stunt performer and former president of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures. “It’s pure snobbiness. It’s disrespect.”
Story thinks some level of ignorance about the work might also be a factor. “I know what they go through, so with all the other categories we acknowledge, why not them?” the director says.
Gill insists the last thing he wants to do is make the Academy look bad. But that just might happen in February. “Most of the stunt people I talk to want to stage a protest because they’re so tired of this,” Gill says. “Every year for probably the past 15 years, before the awards, I go through a million e-mails and calls from people saying they want a protest, and I’ve been able to quash that. This year, I may not be able to do that. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t see a way to turn this around.”
Whether a protest helps or hurts his cause, Gill insists he’s “at a point in my career where I’ve dug in my heels. I’ve said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to give up. I don’t care what happens.’ If this goes past when I’m done living, I’ll have somebody else ready to start the process again.”