SU Members Melissa Stubbs and John Stoneham Jr. discuss why stunt coordinators deserve to be recognized with an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
By ZOE HEWITT for Variety, February 20, 2019
Every movie nominated this year for a best picture Oscar employed a stunt coordinator. Yet not one of these individuals will have the opportunity to receive Academy Award recognition.
The Oscars acknowledge categories ranging across multiple disciplines that support a film’s story and visual dynamics. But the stunt department’s contributions remain unsung. This might be due to misperceptions about what stunt performers actually do these days. Stunt coordinator and Second Unit Director Melissa R. Stubbs (“Tully”) has been a voting member of the Academy since 2007. When she began her career, stunt actors were viewed as adrenaline junkies with “Kodak courage” — her term for the desire to do the biggest, most dangerous stunt sequences just for the glory of having it captured on film.
In a world of pricey digital effects, stunt departments present themselves differently now. Their mission: to advance the narrative by means of repeatable, safe sequences that are also budget-friendly.
“We create a story with action,” explains Stubbs. “The directors deal with actors on an emotional level, and we have stunt coordinators to turn them into action heroes.”
With stunt work having evolved over the years, the stunt coordinator title is in the midst of an update; stunt coordinators favor the term “action designer.” The hope is that this will better reflect the position’s responsibilities and creative process. Says Stubbs, “Back in the day, a stunt coordinator was more of a safety officer instead of somebody who is creatively involved in designing the action of the characters.”
Stunt coordinator John Stoneham Jr. (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) points out that coordinators must work with nearly every department to ensure the safety of the performers. “If we’re throwing a person through a wall,” says Stoneham, “we’ll need to make sure that there’s a big enough area [to break through], so we work with construction. And we’ll work with costumes since we might need to build pads into an outfit. We even work with the hair department to add mini helmets under wigs” when necessary.
When a script only says “fight ensues,” it’s up to the action designer to choreograph what audiences see on-screen. “You pay attention to the main story points,” says Alonzo. “And then you take into account how the elements of the environment allow you to create memorable sequences.”
As is the case with many in their profession, the three stunt coordinators interviewed for this story are also second unit directors, at times overseeing the filming and editing of their own work.
Best picture nominee “Roma” included a stunt crew of 15.
With all that action designers do, it seems surprising that the Oscars are reticent to recognize their contributions. “The Academy likes to celebrate and acknowledge good filmmakers,” says Stubbs, “and I think there’s a disconnect between the perception of a stunt coordinator and a filmmaker.”
Another challenge for the stunt department is that productions are typically loath to admit that their stars aren’t performing all of the action themselves. It’s not uncommon for actors to get pressured by studios and their own representation into taking credit in the media for the work of their stunt doubles; sometimes they even text those same people later to apologize.
“Buffalo Boys” actor Yoshi Sudarso is happy to perform some scripted actions but otherwise leaves the stunt work to the professionals. “A stunt double protects you and puts their life on the line for you,” he says.
The best action designers have honed their skills over the years as stunt actors working under established coordinators. And while there are many types of stunts, they’re not all relegated to big action movies. Best picture contender “Roma,” for example — more of a character study than an action film — deployed a stunt team of 15 under coordinator Gerardo Moreno. “Stunts cross the borders of various genres,” Alonzo observes.
Given the Oscars’ declining ratings, it’s hard to imagine that a stunt category — with accompanying footage — wouldn’t add some thrills to the show.
Adds Stubbs, “We’re filmmakers, and I think the Academy needs to acknowledge that.”