According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars “shall be given annually to honor outstanding achievements in theatrically released feature-length motion pictures.” Achievements in acting, directing, producing, costume design, documentaries, special effects, production design, etc. — 17 categories in all. But none of them are for stunts.
Stuntmen have been a staple of Hollywood for as long as there have been movies, but the Academy has never recognized their contributions to cinema. There are separate Oscars for Sound Design and Sound Editing, but nothing for people who risk lives and limb to get the perfect shot.
As we’re mere weeks away from the Oscars, we asked Chad Stahelski and David Leitch — veteran stuntmen, stunt coordinators and now directors, whose John Wick hits video and online services today — what they thought of the Academy’s continued lack of respect.
Do you guys think stunt professionals deserve to be recognized by the Academy?
DAVID LEITCH: We’re gonna probably give you a split answer on that. Even though we have a company together, 87Eleven, we’ve known each other for 20 years, I think it’s not a cut and dry question. It’s like, how do you evaluate it? What movies would be recognized? Internationally or domestically? I truly believe that stunts should be recognized if all the other departments are recognized. It is sort of unnerving when you watch visual effects and special effects get nominated for films that there was a significant stunt element that made those effects look great. I think the award should go probably to the coordinator. But a lot of times the coordinator isn’t behind it, he’s just aggregating the talent. So maybe it should be the choreographer. It’s a hard question, but there’s a way to figure that out. I think it’s really sad that we’re not recognized.
CHAD STAHELSKI: Back in the day when the wardrobe supervisor did all the wardrobe, the stunt guy did all the stunts. Now it’s so cross-pollinated. Who comes up with the action design? There’s a pre-vis guy, there’s a storyboard guy, there’s a director, a producer, there’s a writer…you never know. People come in with a blank page and they go, “insert car chase here,” and then Dave and I will sit down and either write it, storyboard it, design it, or execute it. So is it our idea? Their idea? It’s a little messy how all the colors blend together at this point. I mean, yeah, stunts should be recognized. We’re in every trailer. We’re probably in at least in the top two or three largest parts of action movies. To ignore it is kind of silly.
LEITCH: There is sort of also this sort of bravado stunt men have had since the beginning. We’re the guys behind the guys and we don’t need the glory. And it’s not about the glory, it’s just about respecting an industry. People have given their lives to this industry to make movies compelling. Film is a collaborative artform, I don’t know why you wouldn’t recognize the stunt performers. I think it’s dumb. I’m not sure why [stunts aren’t recognized]. I really don’t. I think there’s an urban legend that back in the day one of the cowboy stuntmen had an altercation with a member of the Academy… But I really don’t know that whole story. It seems archaic and I don’t know why. You watch your contemporaries on Oscar night and you are like, “I know that special effects supervisor.” By the way, we provided him with about half of the physical content for the thing. The stunts they did were not easy. There might be huge wire descenders or putting people in…you know, real stunts that are enhanced by special effects. But it’s the visual effects that gets the award? Shouldn’t there be an award for people that put their lives on the line? To make movies good?
Speaking to that, can you guys imagine a time when, given the steady march of technological refinement, stunt men won’t be necessary? Can you imagine a time when it’s all just digital models and effects?
LEITCH: I can. I hope not, but I can.
STAHELSKI: They’re called cartoons.
LEITCH: They’ve been saying for years that they’re gonna be able to digitally model people. I think there’ll always be a market budget-wise for organic stunts and organic action. People will always be able to tell the difference. But I don’t know. Until they can prove that you can do a digital guy well, I don’t know. I always smell a rat.
STAHELSKI: Anybody can watch a mostly CG movie and anybody can watch On Golden Pond and tell you what the difference is. It’s like, [CG is] an art form that tries to draw on the humanity of it or tries to push you away from the humanity of it or make you feel something. It’s just another tool. Is it gonna be prevalent, just another tool in the box, another style or genre? Sure.
Is there the kind of holy grail of stunts?
STAHELSKI: We get asked that a lot. “What’s your most dangerous stunt, what’s the toughest stunt?” For us it’s not about the individual gag, it’s about the tone and what we create with it. You can do one move, like Carrie Anne Moss doing the bullet time shot or Keanu doing the bullet time shot in the first Matrix. You can do one little gag like Harrison Ford shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can create a sequence like Jackie Chan in Police Story at the mall. If you can create something like that, that people remember, and they’re like “Holy shit, I wanna be a stunt guy” — that’s the overall challenge for us. How do you create those memorable moments that make movies what they are? That’s the goal.