I had heard of accidents occurring on film sets and had realized this was a possibility going into production. When I accidentally got stabbed on the second day of a three-day shoot with a carving fork, I realized that every ounce of my ambition and mettle was going to be tested.
Bearing in mind my lack of experience, I was throwing myself into the deep end, producing, directing and acting at the same time. Fulfilling the director’s duties, running the set properly and being a lead actor with a lot of emotional scenes to handle was going to put me under an enormous amount of pressure, but I’ve always believed that fortune favors the brave. I was prepared to cope, reasoning that if I somehow backed out, the project would fall apart and I would be letting a lot of people down, not least myself. What I never imagined, though, was how much physical pain I was going to have to endure to get to the finish line.
With a relatively smooth first day of shooting behind us, we used our second day to shoot basement scenes for the climax of the film. Running behind schedule after lunch, we began shooting a scene in which my character gets stabbed in the thigh with a carving fork on top of an operating table. Weeks before, I had ordered an imitation carving fork to use for the shoot, but when it arrived in the mail it didn’t look realistic and I knew instantly that there was no way I could use it for the shoot.
As dangerous as it was, I decided to shoot the scene with a real carving fork. I knew that it was me who would get stabbed if the take went wrong, but in theory, it should have been a safe scene to shoot, as my body was positioned far away from where my co-star was supposed to do the stabbing motion. Unfortunately, my co-star used too much force and I was accidentally stabbed on my thigh just above my knee.
My first thought: I needed to get through this. The pain was overwhelming. When we finished the take, I immediately got off the operating table and looked down at my leg. Since I was wearing black trousers and the lighting was dark, I couldn’t see any blood but I knew I was bleeding badly because I could feel warm liquid rapidly trickling down my leg. One of the PAs rushed to get a first aid kit.
I quickly learned, in the most extreme way possible, that a sense of calm is perhaps most valuable for indie filmmakers to maintain as any unplanned obstacle occurs during your shoot. As the person in charge, I realized that the only thing that had ultimately changed was the pain in my leg. I was still the same filmmaker making the same film, but I had to respond to my new circumstances. Be prepared to adapt.
I went straight to the restroom and it was only when I checked my wound that I realized how bad it really was. Blood had even dripped down into my socks. The PA came back with a first aid kit and somehow managed to temporarily patch up the wound. On the outside, I projected a sense of calm but on the inside I was panicking. I started to think about the consequences my injury could have on the production if I went to hospital. I concluded that if I went, it would take at least two or three hours to check in, get patched up, etc. and since we were already behind schedule, I made the decision to put the pain aside and soldier on. Rescheduling wasn’t a viable option as it would be weeks before we would be able to shoot at that location again. Besides, the contracts for the cast and crew were only for a three day duration and since fundraising was so difficult, I didn’t think I could raise the money to afford a reshoot.
To get through the situation, I went into the zen frame of mind that I cultivated during my days as a Karate student. How? To find your mental center, remind yourself: You are very lucky to be shooting your dream project with such a talented cast and crew.
It sounds silly, but a zen-like approach allows you to separate yourself from the commotion and ruckus. Tempers fray and unexpected things happen very often on sets and it is important to be able to separate yourself from all of it and examine both yourself and the situation objectively. Realize that if you’re working on a film set, you’re luckier than millions of people in the world who would love to do what you are doing in that moment. Being able to make films is a tremendous privilege and being constantly aware of this helps exponentially in adapting a zen approach, which, in turn, will help you in your craft, as you won’t panic so easily under pressure.
Another recommendation: Practice meditation and examine your breathing on a regular basis. Listening to deep meditation music everyday also helps a great deal. With the zen like approach I adopted, my injury helped me push the reset button and regain even more focus than I had before.
After returning to the set from the restroom, I saw that the cast and crew were shocked at what had happened and needed refocusing. As the leader, it was important that I didn’t show signs of weakness, as the crew and cast would most definitely respond to it in a negative manner.
My challenge was to keep the same level of passion with such a painful injury. Just as I later went the rest of the day acting as if nothing had happened, the cast and crew got on with their jobs in a very professional manner. People’s respect grew for me when they saw that I was willing to put my pain aside for the good of the film. Directors: Put out determined energy into your on-set environment and it is likely to rub off on your cast and crew.
Weeks later in the editing room, I found that being stabbed actually improved my performance as my reaction was understandably more realistic. I certainly would not have given such a raw and gritty performance had the scene been safely staged.
Looking back on what I did, the mistakes I made and what could have gone wrong, I must caution filmmakers to not use dangerous props if possible. However, if something does happen on set, it’s important to use it to your advantage. If a director is willing to make bold decisions under pressure, such decisions needn’t backfire if they are calculated more than they are reckless (as mine regrettably was.) Plan in advance, source a reliable supply of safe and realistic props and take maximum precautions to minimize the potential risks of each scenario.
Hopefully you never get stabbed on a film set, but if you do, don’t let it stop you from making your movie. MM
Images courtesy of Andrew de Burgh.