A Hollywood Hall of Famer helps stunt performers learn how to fall from dizzying heights, take hours’ worth of punches — and break into a tough business.
THE STUDENTS ARE trying to look stoic, standing in a gravel parking lot near Bothell under the scorching August sun — but they all know that, by the end of the day, every one of them is going to be set on fire.
As they burn, they’ll be scrutinized by their instructors, professional stunt performers, who could potentially make or break their budding careers.
This is the International Stunt School, a three-week course founded in 1992 by the now-septuagenarian stunt veteran David Boushey, where students learn how to punch and get punched, fall from frightening heights, hustle their way through the professional hazards of Hollywood, tumble down stairs, drive cars in a way that would get a normal person arrested — and act for the camera while on fire.
Lee Gifford, a 29-year-old who spent a few years in the Navy, stands quietly on the day’s burn mat, slathered head to toe in ice-cold protective goop. “You guys are going to find this gel in every one of your orifices after you’re done!” instructor Daniel Ford Beavis shouts gleefully.
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“You OK?” asks Michelle Ladd, an ISS instructor who started as a dancer and has worked as a stuntwoman for “The Walking Dead” and as a fight choreographer for “Lord of the Rings.” Gifford nods. “When you’re ready,” Ladd says, “take a big breath and give us a double thumbs-up! And don’t breathe in.”
Gifford gives the thumbs-up. Beavis lights the back of Gifford’s coat — which has been covered in a special fire accelerant — with a blue blowtorch. The flames and smoke fly upward. “Don’t breathe in!” Ladd shouts. “You’re doing good!” Gifford gapes and waves his arms around, pretending to be in agony — at least we hope he’s pretending.
After a few seconds, Ladd signals Gifford to drop to the mat. Two instructors leap forward to put him out and cool him down with a fire extinguisher and water from a hose, asking, “You hot? Where are you hot?”
“You OK?” Ladd asks. “Yes,” Gifford grunts. He stands up and walks slowly to a makeshift shower made of PVC and plastic tarps, where he washes the goo off his face.
Then another student is set on fire. Then another. And another.
There are 50 students in the ISS class of 2016, most of them twenty-somethings with athletic backgrounds hoping to make a living in the stunt world: movies, TV, live stunt shows, video games. For the past couple of summers, Boushey says, casting directors have been flying up to Seattle and watching the new prospects.
ISS student Amanda Cook worked as a stunt performer in a haunted house in Denver and now guides river-rafting trips in North Carolina. Gina Kessler, from Monroe, is part of a jousting and sword-fighting company that travels the Renaissance fair circuit. Matt Stevens, from the United Kingdom, is a rock climber and professional circus performer whose specialties include high-lining, juggling and onstage fire stunts.
Stevens says he was attracted more by the physical challenges of stunt life than being in the movies. But, he adds, ISS is giving him “a greater appreciation for the industry — like a chef tasting a meal that’s very well done will have a greater appreciation for what went into it than the average person.”
While students are being blazed and extinguished, Boushey stands nearby, wearing sunglasses and scratching at his graying mustache. “That was OK,” he grumbles quietly after one of the burns. “It’s a perfect example of somebody who thinks he’s giving it his all, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to sell it for the camera.”
Fire burns look scary, he says, but they’re one of the safest in the stunt repertoire — fights and falls are far more treacherous. “But everybody,” he shrugs, “is in awe of the guy who gets set on fire.”
Boushey walks into the fire-burn zone and gives the students a stern lecture. “You can’t half-ass it!” he declares. “When I’m on set and see somebody not selling a stunt, it drives me crazy! Because I know exactly where that producer is.” He taps his watch and makes an exasperated face. “If you don’t sell it and have to do it over again, you’re costing the company lots of money.”
The starting rate for a stunt performer, he says later, is $966 a day. “But that’s peanuts.” After overtime rates and bonuses for pulling off dangerous stunts, “It’s not unusual for a stuntman to make $2,000 to $3,000 a day.”
The real trick is breaking into the business.
BOUSHEY HAS BEEN in the industry for around 40 years and founded the International Stunt School more than two decades ago — despite consternation from his colleagues.
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When Boushey entered the stunt world, he says, it was dominated, almost mafia-style, by a few families who passed jobs from father to son, and resisted newcomers. “It was a dynasty system,” he says. “I’ve worked with people in those families and respect them, but they ran the show. I got sick and tired of seeing talented people never get a break.”
So he started ISS — licensed as a vocational school in Washington; tuition is $4,300 — in the face of complaints from stunt families that he was revealing their secrets. Since then, ISS graduates have worked in some of the biggest projects in the industry: “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Hunger Games,” “Jurassic World,” “Indiana Jones,” “Sherlock Holmes” and many others. “There’s nothing better than seeing the credits for something like ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” Boushey says, “and thinking, ‘Hey! Roy Taylor! Class of 1998!’ ”
Seattle, he says, might seem like a strange place to start a school for Hollywood work. “But I wouldn’t want to start a stunt school in L.A., because it wouldn’t be … ” He pauses. “A healthy thing to do. You could wake up one morning and find a pipe bomb under your car. Someone could meet an instructor or student in a back alley and rough them up.”
“Well,” he allows, “maybe the pipe-bomb part was a little bit of hyperbole.”
It took Hollywood fight coordinators about 15 years to come around, Boushey says, but now some of them are sending their protégés to him: “Stunt coordinators have realized that it’s better for them if somebody walks onto the set and they’re already trained. My students make them look good. And as a coordinator, you don’t have time to train stunt people because you’re too busy training the stars on set.”
Jessica Bennett, a 2009 ISS graduate who specializes in horseback riding and sword fights, says she’s profoundly grateful for what she learned at ISS, but there’s still “a stigma” about it among some old-school Hollywood stunt performers.
“I’m not ashamed that I went to the school, but I don’t advertise it,” she says. “ ‘Seattle’ is almost like a code word in the stunt world. If someone’s telling a story and says ‘Seattle,’ a few other people will nod and say, ‘Yeah, Seattle.’ And they know what you’re talking about.”
Bennett, who doubles as an on-set medic, avoids telling strangers she’s a stuntwoman. That revelation usually invites a barrage of awkward questions, from the worst injury she’s had — she doesn’t like to revisit that day — to which movies people might have seen her in. “One of my friends has the greatest answer,” she says. “It’s: ‘I don’t know! I don’t know what you watch!’ ”
Boushey says he also dodges the question, even though he has hundreds of theater and film credits — including “Blue Velvet,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as 53 stage productions of “Romeo and Juliet” — and has been inducted into the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame. (Its motto: “Falling for stars.”)
He learned his lesson years ago, when he told people at a bar he was a stuntman. They asked him to choreograph a simple fight for them on the spot. “I did it, just to be silly,” he says. It sparked a full-on barroom brawl. “Everybody was piling on … after that, I swore I’d steer clear of the question.”
BOUSHEY WAS BORN in Everett and graduated from Central Washington University before going to England, “bound and determined to be a Shakespearean actor.” Instead, he found himself under the wing of a “tough old Scotsman” who taught him about swordplay and stage combat.
In 1974, he got a job at Seattle Repertory Theatre, choreographing the climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet. “The fellow playing Hamlet was just getting started in the business,” Boushey says. “His name was Christopher Walken. He was a heck of a physical specimen … he’d been a dancer before he started acting.”
Boushey worked around the country as a fight choreographer and, during one rehearsal for “Romeo and Juliet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, somebody in the theater called out: “Hey kid, you’re pretty good!”
That was old-school stuntman Bobby Miles. Miles had worked, often without his name in the credits, on projects from “Gunsmoke” in 1953 to the “Dirty Harry” franchise in the 1970s.
Stunt performers, Boushey says, weren’t credited until recently. They still don’t have their own Academy Award because the film industry “doesn’t want to let the cat out of the bag! They wanted people to believe that John Wayne and his ‘superhero’ buddies really jumped off horses and crawled under moving stagecoaches.”
To this day, Boushey (and ISS graduates) says, actors like Tom Cruise are quietly ridiculed for having stunt doubles on nondisclosure contracts and taking credit for work that isn’t theirs. “He does some of the basic work,” Boushey says of Cruise, “but he’s got a team. The insurance companies would never allow him to do all his own stunts. They can’t run the risk of a star getting hurt and shutting down the film — (Sylvester) Stallone, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. I get so tired of those guys.”
Miles shepherded Boushey around Hollywood. His first gig was a 1985 movie called “Bombs Away,” partly filmed at Seattle Center, where Boushey had to jump a golf cart into the International Fountain and hang on to the outside of a Ferris wheel for a full rotation. “Back then, we didn’t have all these harnesses and riggings,” he says. “That was scary. That was my initiation.”
Since then, he’s almost been drowned; chopped up by a boat propeller; and crushed by a variety of heavy objects, including an out-of-control tractor.
“I’ve had plenty of bumps and bruises over my stunt career,” he says, “but I have never broken a bone.”
THE INTERNATIONAL STUNT SCHOOL curriculum covers how to survive fights and falls and getting set on fire — but, school coordinator Jeff “Ish” McKracken says, it’s also about how to survive in a rapidly shifting business. (Like almost all the instructors, McKracken is an ISS graduate.)
The industry, he says, is expanding quickly, with accelerating technology and many more platforms than film and television. New shows keep popping up on Netflix and Hulu, and the latest video games use stunt people for motion-capture to make their fight sequences look more realistic. At the same time, the demand for ever-more-spectacular stunts is testing performers’ limits.
McKracken is bracing for the day when computer-generated imagery will hit the industry — and hit it hard. “I foresee people having libraries of stunts on their computers,” he says. “People saying, ‘You need a person to do a high fall? Here are 12 high falls you can choose from.’ ”
And, he adds, the industry can be especially difficult for women.
Bennett says her 2009 training involved meetings where stuntwomen detailed some of the special perils faced by female performers: sexual harassment from creepy stunt directors, a dearth of roles (“Real diversity,” she says, “starts in the writing room”), situations where you have to pull off stunts in miniskirts and heels, plus actresses who look at a muscular stuntwoman and complain that she’s too big to make a flattering double.
Bennett says the stunt community is like “a family” — but the rest of the industry can be a harsh environment. “It’s still harder to be a stuntwoman than a stuntman,” she says. “Some of these actresses don’t eat! And they look at you as a mirror of themselves. If they don’t like what they see, you might lose your job.”
IT ISN’T HARD to find the ISS during its fight-training days at the University of Washington’s drama-school building — you can hear the rumble from a distance.
By the time you walk into the lobby, it sounds like the building is hosting its own thunderstorm.
Overhead, dozens of students are grunting, groaning and smacking themselves onto the ground. Some are fighting each other on padded mats, some practicing solo, hitting and getting hit by invisible enemies. One woman wears a T-shirt that reads: “PROVE THEM WRONG.”
The day is dedicated to martial-arts choreography. Tomorrow, says instructor Chuck Johnson, will be “found weapons” day, when students bring household objects and choreograph their own fights. “They use just about everything,” says Johnson, who works out of Tokyo and trained as an Olympic-level tae kwon do athlete before joining the stunt industry. “Plastic chairs, metal water bottles, a beach ball, a coat hanger — I saw one fight where the weapon was a rubber chicken.” (The next day, the students were fighting with Ping-Pong paddles, maracas, a paint roller, juggling clubs and a hooded sweatshirt that became an improvised straitjacket.)
Combat specialist Greg Poljacik calls the students to attention. They freeze obediently. “Guys!” he shouts. “Die comfortably! Die ‘dead,’ but die comfortably! If you fall over and die in character in an awkward position on set, you’ll think, ‘Uh-oh, I have to live here for the next hour and a half.’ So watch how you fall.”
The instructors take a few questions, and Wadi Jones (a hip-hop dancer and parkour artist who got his big break after somebody saw him on “So You Think You Can Dance?”) adds professional advice: “Do not talk about a job until you’re on set and they say ‘action.’ You’ll feel real stupid if the production shuts down or they decide not to use you.”
Poljacik warns the students to avoid slapstick in their scenes. A fighter has to be an expert before introducing humor. “A clown ice skating,” he explains, “has to be one of the best goddamned ice skaters in the world before they can start clowning.”
For the next few hours, the students keep pretending to beat each other up. But they are really beating themselves up — punching and kicking into the air, flinging their bodies onto the floor and getting back up to do it again.
“As David Boushey always told us,” Bennett says later, “our job is to hit the dirt hard. By hour 16 on set, you’re like, ‘I cannot throw another punch.’ And then you throw another five hours’ worth of punches. At the end of the day, that’s our bread and butter.”