Extreme Problem Solving: Stuntman-Turned-Director Stanton Barrett on Doing Stunts Well

Most filmmakers think that stunts take a lot of time or cost a lot of money. That’s usually the first thing out of everyone’s mouths before they have even discussed the whys and hows.

Action can be overwhelming for the majority of filmmakers. Most people get lost when shooting action, or they don’t understand how to set up for the specific action shot you need to capture. Of course, the scale of action can also be misleading. How do you make something feel scaled as much as possible? How do you fulfill the story or a specific scene with the action required to capture the audience’s attention?

Stanton Barett with his grandfather Paul Newman.

A young Barrett (right) with his godfather, Paul Newman, driving Barrett’s Daytona race car

Stunts are Story Too

Stunts are not just senseless action but a complicated, imperative form of storytelling. You do not always need to spend millions and millions of dollars on one short scene. It’s not just being crazy, crashing a car or jumping off a building; it’s more than simply setting a camera in a spot to see a punch or watch a car flip. It’s how you move, how the camera moves, how you overlap the moment between an actor’s action and your stunt double’s action, or a stunt player’s acting and the action, and how you cheat the set up to capture exactly what you need to see for that moment in the lens. Then you edit it all together to make it work.

Many filmmakers put too much focus on one piece of action. They don’t think enough about how that moment fits into the story before and after. Action sequences don’t stand alone in a film, so pay attention to how you set up with the lens, and think about how you’ll transition to and away from this scene during the edit. Sometimes we force action when it does not belong.

Don’t Be Over-Ambitious

Set up for a specific moment you want to capture. All too often, people try to get more from a key moment, but most of the time there is simply no way to get more, before or after. When someone tries to do too much, they fail to get what they really needed. I see this quite often on set.

On my directorial debut feature, Navy SEALs vs. Zombies, we had a tight schedule: 18 days of shooting in three six-day weeks. With our limited time and budget, the producers thought we would have to cut the action down from what was originally in the script. I was tasked with rewriting the script—and I wrote more action into the script. I wanted to try our best to achieve the action I’d envisioned. Even so, we did compromise on what we could shoot and on how much coverage of something we could shoot, as a small indie film.

Barrett and crew on the set of Navy SEALs vs. Zombies

Barrett and crew on the set of Navy SEALs vs. Zombies

But Never Say Never Until You Give it a Try

Never limit your imagination. Spend time figuring out how to make something work before you decide it’s too expensive or too time-consuming. My biggest pet peeve is when people say, “We don’t have,” referring to either the time or the budget. I’ve listened to people on set talk about why we can’t and don’t have time, for a longer period of time than it would have taken to let me complete the stunt, shoot it, and get on to the next scene.

Barrett rides a motorcycle through a window for a stunt in Batman & Robin

Barrett rides a motorcycle through a window for a stunt in Batman & Robin

Not everything comes down to money or shooting days. It’s like anything else—you need to be smart, plan ahead, do your homework, and know what you’re getting involved in. Understand how much of the action you can do with your resources and surround yourself with the best people you can. You’re seldom dealt with ideal circumstances—locations, surfaces, equipment, time of day—to do what is needed. Work with what you’re given. Alter the shot according to its importance and need within the film. Figure it out, get it done, and move on.

I relish being confronted with “This is impossible,” “Can you even do that?” or “How can you do that?” It’s a really fun part of the business to work with actors, directors and crew, setting up a big stunt that everything revolves around. For a helicopter scene in Navy SEALs vs. Zombies, I was asked, “How are you going to get good footage of our actors and make it worth the time?” I said, “I will rig myself off the helicopter and get great shots flying.” And that’s exactly what we did.

Barrett shooting from the side of a helicopter in Navy SEALs vs. Zombies

Barrett shooting from the side of a helicopter in Navy SEALs vs. Zombies

Trust Your Stunt Person

Many people in the industry don’t understand a stunt person’s job or how he or she fits in with the other departments. We generally don’t go to film school, but we learn from our experience with athletics and extreme sports, from being on set and from our peers.

The storied veteran stuntmen Hal Needham, Mickey Gilbert and my father, Stan Barrett, taught me at a young age. These guys were the best of the best and tough as nails. They were old-school and really knew the ins and outs of the business—a fascinating industry that has not exactly evolved for the better. I think we’ve lost some real skill and work ethic. My mentor Hal Needham would never say “thank you.” He would say, “That is why I hired you,” and give you a nod of appreciation. He expected the best, or you would be replaced. He kept you on your toes and forced urgency in everyone’s efforts.

Barrett's father, Stan, is a Hollywood stunt legend

Barrett’s father, Stan, himself a Hollywood stunt legend

Be smart, thorough and find the right people for the jobs. We stunt people are hired to get the most extreme job done, so in the end, listen to the stunt people or the stunt coordinator because they’re valuable assets. Perhaps many indie filmmakers’ misconceptions about stunts stem from the lack of a few exceptional crew members, who can make the impossible happen. MM

Navy SEALs vs. Zombies opens on Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital HD and On Demand October 6, 2015. Photographs courtesy of Stanton Barrett. 

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