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Ronan Sakai, right, and Wayne Wagner, members of Hawaiian Stunt Connection, use a 2x4 to demonstrate a "breakaway hit" in the HSC office at Nix Performing Arts Center in Aiea.
It’s all ‘action!’ in stunt work
A few local actors make a living getting beat up or shot, or jumping from cars and burning buildings
STORY SUMMARY »
Stuntman Wayne Wagner knows he's about to get hit on the back with a wooden stick. A pile of empty boxes awaits his fall. Underneath his shirt he wears a plastic vest for protection. To further ensure his safety, he created the weapon his fellow stuntman will attack him with, which looks like solid wood, but is actually hollow and splinters into dozens of pieces upon impact.
Achilles Gacis, president of the Hawaiian Stunt Connection, instructs the spotters who are there to catch Wagner in case he misses the boxes in his dramatic descent, moves spectators out of the line of debris he says will fly across the room, and demonstrates exactly how and where to swing the stick. Then he calls, "Action!"
The look of pain on Wagner's face when the strike comes in this simulated back-alley fight scene would make anyone watching cringe. But his smile a few seconds later reveals how much acting is involved.
Stuntmen do consider themselves actors first. But they also have to stay physically fit, plan carefully, pay close attention to every detail, know their limitations and avoid taking foolish chances. Because if they get hurt, they'll end up in what the industry calls an "ambulance job." And when a stuntman can command more than $700 per day, getting sidelined is significant.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Fuzzy Moody, left, and Wayne Wagner set up cardboard boxes to cushion Wagner's fall during his stunt demo.
About 10 performers with the Hawaiian Stunt Connection gathered recently to train in a warehouse in Ewa Beach, and agreed to share a few details about a specialized trade full of tricks and secrets and plenty of hard labor.
Some of the stunt people work traditional jobs, accepting sporadic assignments for movies and television shows shot in Hawaii -- a business they say has increased up to 70 percent over the past five years. Others are in such demand that they fly between Los Angeles and Hawaii constantly, making a full-time living doing stunts. Sometimes stuntmen are hired for their own scenes -- a barroom brawl, for instance. But mostly the volume of work depends on their physical appearance, which determines how many different actors they can double in scenes deemed too dangerous for the celebrities.
Either way, the people who gravitate to this profession never get bored. And they have the fascinating stories to prove it.
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When movie and television productions come to Hawaii and request stunt doubles, they go straight to stunt coordinator Dale Radomski, who serves as the director's close associate throughout the shoot. "There are words on paper," said Radomski of the Hawaiian Stunt Connection, "and your job is to make them real onscreen."
Budget is usually the first topic of discussion, followed quickly by the director's desires. Are there fights? Explosions? Car chases and rolls? High falls? What kinds of materials do they need to make the fray look authentic? Do they require stunt people of Caucasian or Asian descent? This process lasts a couple of days.
It's Radomski's job to understand the director's story board, hire the stunt people best suited for the various jobs and research the location to understand how it will affect the action. Gravel, sand, grass and stone will influence the distance and speed of a sliding car differently, for instance. A detailed comprehension of physics keeps stunt people alive.
Radomski tells the director whether something is possible, then provides the materials, such as cables, minitrampolines and air ram (which catapults a performer through the air with several thousand pounds of pressure), and makes it all happen. After 25 years, he's watched the industry develop new techniques, one of which includes a special gel to protect the stunt person from burning in a fire. The sale of such specialty items is rigorously controlled to avoid accidents with children who don't comprehend the potential hazards.
"There's never an easy stunt," said Achilles Gacis, president of the Hawaiian Stunt Connection and a world religions instructor at Kapiolani Community College. "Anything can happen. A lot involves paying attention and being mindful of what you're doing on the set. But you also don't lie about what you can do, or say, 'Let me try.' After the handshake and the nice smile, you better do your job."
Gacis worked on "Pearl Harbor," and calls a large production a "wonderful, organized nightmare. It's all about the love of the craft. Did I fall off that building properly? Did I contribute to the story? It's kind of like playing cops and robbers, but now we're grown up, and they feed you well, and we get to go home and watch what we did."
The 6-feet-2-inch Gacis doubled Terry O'Quinn (Locke) during the first and second seasons of "Lost." But all body types are represented in this organization -- for good reason. Ed Nix stands in for Jorge Garcia (Hurley), and has done several hair-raising stunts for the actor involving radical driving and runaway logs.
On the other end of the spectrum is Kelly Chinone, a petite 4-feet-11 and 92 pounds. But with a black belt in karate, throwing a man nearly twice her size to the ground is not difficult. She also has formal training in stunt driving and does scuba diving and water scenes for actresses who can't swim.
Does the personal trainer and mother of a 2-year-old ever feel she is placing herself at unnecessary risk? "Before, I was like, 'I can do anything.' But I'm more careful now, because otherwise my daughter wouldn't have a mother. If you train well, you can control your body ... and that will prevent you from getting hurt. I like the action, I like the challenge. Even though (my face) is not seen, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Without me, the scene is not going to be finished or real."
Darin Fujimori, a triathlete and tae kwon do expert, makes a full-time living with his stunt work, and recently performed in "Flags of Our Fathers." Assignments have taken him all over the world. One of the most challenging aspects of stunt work, he said, is making last-minute adjustments as circumstances change.
"Preparation is always important, or you're not going to feel confident," he said. Having the integrity to admit that you might not be able to complete a stunt is also part of the job, because wasted time could mean millions of dollars down the drain for a large production. "If you screw up," he said, "you might never work again."
Danny Kim enjoys a steady gig doubling for Daniel Dae Kim (Jin) on "Lost." Even in cliff-hanging or aquatic scenes the athletic star can manage, "you can't have the actor in the water the whole time," said Kim.
"We got into stunts because we all wanted to be like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee!" he laughed. Not much of a stretch for Kim, a fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do and a former professional fighter who has trained hundreds of students. Like many members of the Hawaiian Stunt Connection, Kim, who also sells timeshares in Waikiki, hopes to work more often in bigger films. But only if he can remain in Hawaii.
When he's not acting as Garcia's stunt double on "Lost," Ed Nix teaches acting, modeling and voice, and competes in ballroom dancing events. His dancing skills have been the key to survival on more than one occasion, he said. "What's really helped me in stunts is timing," Impeccable timing, such as when a falling log on "Lost" missed him by 3 inches. "It would have impaled me," he said matter-of-factly.
Sometimes stunts involve physical contact with stars. It is the stunt person's job to make a fight look wild and authentic, while leaving the principle actor unscathed. Nix recalled a detailed scene with Josh Holloway (Sawyer) on "Lost" that required a serious tackle. "Your job is on the line there," he said. "You'd better not hurt the actor." As a result, he said, "the actors really respect us."
Mistakes usually occur when actors are throwing punches at stunt people. "Sometimes they connect, because they're not as highly trained in martial arts," said Nix. That, too, goes with the territory. "It's our job to make them look good."
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Danny Kim flies into the arms of Dale Radomski, left, and Achilles Gacis, spotting for him during a "staged punch. Kim is the stunt double for Daniel Dae Kim on "Lost."
Racer Moody, who graduated recently from Loyola Marymount University and has remained in Los Angeles to work, learned about stunts as a child while watching his father, Fuzzy Moody, drive and fight on shows like "Hawaii Five-O." Despite 30 years of dangerous stunts, the worst injury Fuzzy suffered was when a cable broke his ankle as he fell off a cliff.
Racer Moody explained that every stunt is rehearsed at least 10 times before it's executed for film. If explosions, wrecks, falls or lots of blood are involved, restaging becomes time consuming and expensive. Therefore, stunt experts are often expected to perform flawlessly in one take.
High falls and crashing bicycles and motorcycles are Wayne Wagner's specialties. Quite simply, he loves the adrenaline. "It's like walking on air," said the retired Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard pipefitter. His favorite stunt involved getting shot by Cheryl Ladd on "One West Waikiki," which required him to fly back 12 feet when the "bullet" hit him. He hit his mark so perfectly that the director asked the cameraman to replay the scene.
Not every stunt goes impeccably, however. And the stunt people aren't always in control of what's happening. Ronan Sakai remembers when an ill-timed explosion in the movie "War and Remembrance" badly singed his skin, and the candy glass -- made of sugar so it will shatter -- began melting on him. In another production, a poorly aimed gun with explosive pellets left him with a detached retina. "I was fortunate I didn't lose my eyesight," he said, adding that his quick reaction probably made the difference.
Stunts are not just about preserving your own safety, said Sakai, who holds a black belt in several martial arts disciplines, was a former Green Beret and combat instructor, and who now works as the Halekulani's banquet manager. "You could harm others."
This is the reason "you don't do stunts to prove how tough you are," added Gacis. "You do stunts to contribute to the story."
Their message to new productions? "The word is getting out that there is talent here in Hawaii," said stunt coordinator Radomski. "All we ask is: Give us a shot."