In April Wright's new documentary, Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, women crash cars, leap out high-rise windows, fall off horses, jump from trains, slide under buses, and, in one scene that stuck with me above all others, have a casual conversation while doing pull-ups. Jessie Graff (stunt double for Gal Gadot) wasn't even sweating. She could have done it all day and then smashed through a glass wall and driven away in a convertible. Hell, she probably did.
Your idea of the best movie stunts depends on your taste in cinema. All of us car types can rattle off a list of crashes and jumps starting with the rise in popularity of car-chase movies in the 1960s. Want a turn-by-turn-by-hubcap-by-hubcap description of the Bullitt car chase? No problem. We'll tell you exactly how Hal Needham's flying Pontiacs inspired the action in modern movies like Ford v. Ferrari. Western fans might scoff and point out that fellas were tumbling off horses and flinging themselves through break-away bannisters in the 1930s, and hard-core movie buffs will point to silent films with their falling building facades and runaway trains. Whatever you think of as the golden age of stuntmen, we're all in agreement that they've been there since the beginning of filmmaking. What Wright and the women in her film want you to know is: It's not just stuntmen. Stuntwomen have been there, too, and like Ginger Rogers, they've been doing everything the guys did—on fire and in heels. We spoke with Wright about why she directed the documentary, which premiers September 22, and why everyone wants their shot at doing a burning barrel roll.
Car and Driver: Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is based off a book of the same name by Mollie Gregory about the history of female stunt performers in Hollywood. Were you familiar with the book before you started the documentary? Is that what inspired you to do the film?
April Wright: It was just serendipitous because probably two or three weeks before the producer, Marion Rosenberg, came to me with the book, I had met Amy Johnston, who is [one of the hosts] in the film. I was working with her boyfriend, and he said, "You should meet my girlfriend. She's a stuntwoman, and she's really interested in doing things with other women filmmakers." Amy and I met and hit it off and said, "We definitely have to do something together." Around that time, I had lunch with Svetlana Cvetko who ended up being our DP [cinematographer], and she and I were also like, "We have to do something together.' So, when Marion talked to me about the book, I had a team already.
Gregory's book is focused on the early history, and your film covers some of that with archival clips but has a lot more interaction with women who are working in stunts today. What made you move in that direction?
AW: Mollie had done amazing research, and it was a good starting point. But we didn't want it to only be a history lesson. The book kind of stops around 2007 in terms of the movies that it was covering, and a lot has happened, especially with female-centric action not only in features but on TV, and I wanted to make sure that we really covered all the big stuntwomen of today as well as the pioneers. I also didn't want it to be a talking-head documentary. I said, "I don't want to just interview people about what happened in the past. I want to shoot action." So, that's what we did. We shot drift-car racing and stunt-driving training. We shot high falls, and we varied it as much as we could to make it an action documentary.
There's this high-fall training sequence where the stuntwoman is doing a practice fall after some time away, and you can see her kinda thinking about her life choices, and then she goes for it. No joke, it gave me a stomachache.
Our DP had to climb that tower and be up there with her shooting, which was amazing.
One of the things you cover in the documentary is how there was this rise and fall (no pun intended) and rise again of women in stunt work. In the very early movie stuff, action movies weren't really paid that much attention, so it was fine for women to be doing it because nobody was making any money off it. But then the big studios came in, and suddenly if there was an action sequence for a female character, it was probably a man in a wig doing it, and everyone seemed to forget that the women had ever been there.
I think that's the general evolution of the cinema business, reflected in this story. We're looking at stuntwomen, but it is the bigger picture, too. In the early days of cinema, in those silent films, there were a lot of women writing, directing, producing, and doing all the stunts. We got some amazing clips of women jumping off motorcycles onto trains and off bridges and riding horseback. So, they were doing it. And then today you still hear things like, "Oh, we got to put a guy in it because a woman can't do that stunt." They were doing stunts like that 100 years ago. When the studios came in and started making money, a lot of the women got pushed out, including stuntwomen. There were very few stuntwomen that worked in the 1930s, '40s, '50s. Then by the time you get into the '60s and especially in the '70s, there was the feminist movement, and you had TV series like Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman, and all these things started happening that gave women more work. We talk about some of the blaxploitation films that Pam Grier starred in that Jadie David doubled for her. There started to be more opportunities, but it's still a fight to get the good stunts, to get good representation.
Why does it matter who does the stunts, especially in a car, where you can't even see them?
If the men get more opportunity to do more difficult driving stunts, then they've got more on their resume. Then when the time comes for another difficult driving stunt, they go to the guys that have more experience. The more difficult the stunt you do, the more you get paid. So, what traditionally has happened is those bigger stunts that get the bigger bump, they give to a guy. It mirrors the industry overall. If you look back, and this is even with the equality movement going back to the 1970s, the percentage of women directing the top films, the big studio films, has stuck around 4 percent. Literally for 40 or 50 years, it's stuck around 4 percent. The percentage of stunt coordinators that are women, I don't have actual data, but I'm sure it's 1 percent or 2 percent. It's a grooming thing. Men get brought into the circle and get the training and get those jobs, and women don't. People are trying to change that now, and I believe in the coming years we're going to see better statistics there. If there are more women stunt coordinators, they'll be in control of the money and who they're hiring.
You interview so many stuntwomen and stuntmen in the doc, and one thing that stood out is how much fun everyone is having. You never hear someone say, "Oh, I had to do a barrel roll," or "They made me jump a motorcycle." It's always, "Oh, I got to do a barrel roll," and "They let me jump a motorcycle." Are they all crazy?
I think Jeannie Epper [Lynda Carter's stunt double for Wonder Woman] might say this in the film, or maybe it's an outtake, but Jeannie said somebody asked about them being daredevils or being crazy. Are they risk takers? They are risk takers, but they're calculated risk takers. They're athletes. They're professionals. They're incredibly smart. What's going through their brain is every scenario, like worst-case scenario: If this happens, you do this, and if this happens, you do this. You do have to have a feel for your body and awareness about where you are.
Their attitude is super positive, and it is fun for them. Jen Caputo, who is one of the drivers, said she wants to do stunts that push her boundaries a little bit more, something she hasn't quite done yet. They want to create new action that people have never seen before. If they get to do a car hit, [they say,] "I get to get hit by a car." They get excited for that. "I get to do a fight scene." I think Julie Ann Johnson [stunt coordinator for the original Charlie's Angels TV show] says it in the film, "When you finish it, and you nail it, and the crew claps, then you know that you did it. You got it right."
Were there any challenges in getting the film made?
Well, a lot of times stuntwomen work with the actor to train her to do as much as she feels comfortable with. Then, whatever the actor can't do or doesn't feel comfortable with, that's when the stuntwoman will take over. They have the art of knowing how to turn their head so that their face doesn't appear on camera. It was kind of funny getting them to talk to me because they're so used to not being in the spotlight. They're used to hiding their faces and not facing the camera, so it was weird for a lot of them.
There's this scene towards the end, where Jeannie Epper is talking about getting older and not doing so many action sequences, and even being blacklisted for speaking out about inequality and safety concerns. And she starts crying, and the interviewer, I think it's Amy Johnston, who is a much younger performer, she's like, "Oh no, Wonder Woman, don't cry. You can still fall down the stairs. You could do it right now. And if you don't want to, I will." It was very intense and intimate and sort of summed up how much the people who do this care about it and want a fair shake at it.
That's right. We had been talking to Julie Ann Johnson getting blacklisted, but I don't think Jeannie had ever talked about it before, and then she goes, "Oh, I got blacklisted." I love that being in there because you're like, "Okay, if somebody, like if Jeannie Epper can get blacklisted, anybody can. What about the rest of them?" I really loved that she talked about that because she's the best, and everybody knows she's the best, including the guys. So, getting that coming from her, you're like, "Oh, maybe we should pay attention."
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STUNTWOMEN: THE UNTOLD HOLLYWOOD STORY
A film by April Wright
Narrated by Michelle Rodriguez
Coming to AppleTV, Amazon, Vudu, GooglePlay, Hoopla, Fandango Now, Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, and Charter on September 22, 2020.
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