Get Your Career In Action: Stunt Schools – Benefit or Bogus

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Helicopter Meets Car
Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Helicopter Meets Car

In Stunt Schools – Benefit or Bogus, Mark Grove advises against looking for short-cuts to get into the action movie industry and warns against charlatans who promise the world…

I recently had a new stunt performer arrive at my studio with his headshot and resume. He handed it to me and asked the most ridiculous question I have ever heard. He said, “When can I get my first job?” What made this question so ridiculous was this…he had no credits…not one. And on top of that, his experience was limited to a two week stunt training seminar. I explained that he would need much more training before I could trust his abilities on a film set. His response caught me off guard. He simply said “But I deserve to work right now.” When I asked why he felt this way, he responded with a high degree of arrogance. “I put in the work at the stunt seminar and I was among the best in the group.” His sense of entitlement was out of control. To honestly think that with such a limited exposure to the craft of stunts he was somehow owed an opportunity to immediately be hired as a professional performer.

This would be no different than a student coming into a martial arts school for a one week self-defense class and immediately afterwards asking when he can be the head instructor of the school. Consider this for just a moment. If this person were indeed appointed as the head instructor, what would that mean for future students? The reality is, no one would want a person of this caliber holding such responsibility.

Needless to say, I told this young man if he was interested in training regularly with my team, then it would be easier to assess his skills. He became annoyed and actually said, “I don’t need more training, I need a job.” He left and I sat and looked over his materials. His headshot looked as though he was “trying” to look tough, which just made it humorous. On his resume he had a few pictures of himself performing fundamental stunts. A simple 20’ fall off of a scaffolding into an airbag, falling sideways off a horse to a crash mat, and one where he is bundled up unnaturally in heavy clothing with his arms and shoulders on fire. Perhaps seeing himself in these pictures made him feel as though he was already a Hollywood Stuntman. But in the eyes of a professional, these are nothing more than staged pictures showing the most fundamental skills possible. I can respect the dream, but not the entitlement.

Vehicle Transfer Stunt

A week later I received two more headshots in the mail from two different performers seeking jobs. As I opened them up, I was blown away by the contents of each. Two more brand new performers who had attended the same workshop as the gentlemen who had come to my studio. But the strange part was that their pictures where exactly the same. The performers may have been different, but the high fall, horse fall and partial body burn were all set up and photographed the same. Like a cookie cutter. No unique qualities here…just a pre-packaged dinner that left a bland taste in my mouth.

There is no quick path to proficiency in the stunt field. The men and women who call this their career are a special breed that understands that their training is never over. You will find seasoned veterans training side by side with beginners all the time. You can never be over-prepared when it comes to both skills and safety. And a quality that is evident in most of these individuals is humility. They expect nothing, but strive for everything. I myself apprenticed for four years with a veteran stuntman with very little pay for the effort I had to put into it. I wouldn’t trade a moment of those four years. I wasn’t obsessed with working, I was obsessed with learning. Something any beginner would benefit from. Constant learning means constant growth.

Window Break Stunt

There are those in the world who will prey on the naivety of those who are desperate to get their start in the film business. To accommodate this desire, many “Stunt Schools” have popped up around the world that teach short term stunt training. Participants pay anything from $3000.00 to $5,000.00 for just a few weeks (or even a few days) training. The reality is that these training ventures are designed for one thing, to take advantage of your dream. These organizations guarantee you nothing. It’s a revolving door scenario. You come in, pay them a lot of money, you train for a few days/weeks, and when you’re done… a new group of eager pupils comes in and they wash, rinse and repeat. Is this beneficial to you? Beyond competing with the innumerable and qualified stunt performers that already exist within the business, you are now also competing with the droves of people going through these “crash course” schemes that just don’t work.

Wolverine and Ninja

Now, I must openly admit that the reason I know this is because I have been employed by one of these organizations and I know firsthand what it’s really about. It was very early in my career and I was excited to be asked to teach a bunch of new recruits about fight choreography, wire work, high falls, swordsmanship, and pyrotechnics. I arrived a few days before the event was supposed to take place and I looked through the 50 student submissions for the workshop. Out of the 50, I could tell that at least half of them were not physically suited for the training. I pulled out a few specific ones and spoke with the head instructor about my concerns. He actually laughed and said “There are two reasons I am letting them participate, first, they got a doctor’s note, and second….they paid.” It was then that I realized he didn’t care about who trained…he only cared about the bottom line. As the workshop continued, my fears were realized. Only about 2-3 people out of the 50 had any chance of actually working. This statistic was sad for two reasons…1) These unfortunate 45+ people that wasted their money, and 2) These same 45+ people are being told that they are prepared and ready to promote themselves as qualified performers.

To be clear, let’s look at the key factors.

Body Burn Stunt

The first thing these stunt schools will address is the cost. The teacher, usually a stuntman (or stuntmen) with some significant experience and/or credits will maintain that $5,000.00 is very reasonable… They will tell you that you will make around $800.00 each day you work on a film not including “adjustments” which are pay bumps the stunt coordinator may be authorized to give you based on the complexity of what you are doing. They will stress that you will only have to work 12 days on a union film to earn it back. They will do their utmost to convince you that to get training of this caliber for the price they are charging… is a bargain. This is a fallacy. SAG (Screen Actors Guild) reports that it has an 85% unemployment rate. But an even more stunning statistic is that less than 1% of the members of the Screen Actors Guild work consistently. That number refers to ALL members, not just those who do stunts. So when you look at that number, you must come to the conclusion that the hard earned money you are spending will not be returning anytime soon. At the beginning of your career you don’t jump right onto a huge blockbuster, you start with student films and work your way up to independent films that will pay you little if anything for your work. Then, after you have built a reel, you may be lucky enough to land a studio film…but remember, when filming ends…so does your job. It is a business of inconsistency that you do because you love it, not because you want to get rich.

Anyone who doesn’t ask this question is not thinking straight. If the above mentioned pay is so amazing, why is this person teaching rather than working? It’s an easy answer. They are part of the 85% unemployed. They are supplementing their income because they’re not working, or they have retired and realized that they can continue making money of the dreams of newbies, or perhaps they have never had a good career…and we know the saying…those who can’t do…teach. I don’t mind this, without teachers, we could not learn as effectively, and as such, I have a high regard for what they do. But to these unemployed stunt people, teaching is not their desire, it’s their fallback position.

Skyfall Motorcycle Jump
Skyfall Motorcycle Jump

To think that by training in a multitude of subjects for a day or two each is enough to become proficient as a stunt performer is reckless. But for some reason common sense is discarded. When the course is over, those who have participated will leave with a false sense that they are “prepared” for their career. BUT THINK ABOUT IT…In any career that has the word “Stunt” in it, you would naturally assume that there is some level of danger is involved. So this begs the question…when your life or the life of another could be at risk, is three weeks preparation enough? Again, the easy answer is no. So why do these freshly trained performer feel this sense of entitlement? Because the instructors praise them, take cool pictures of them, and TELL them they are ready for their exciting career!

High Jump Stunt

In the end, this expensive training will get you a few things. 1) The opportunity to work with a person or group of people that are more interested in your money than you. 2) The chance to interact with others who have the same goals as you do. But if you think about it, even if you like these people, they are now your competition. If any of them do get lucky enough to get a job, what if they perform poorly? This will be a direct reflection upon the source of their training…which happens to be the same stunt school you have listed on your resume. Now, with that school considered to be a joke among professionals (which most are), how many will take your resume seriously when they see the training listed? 3) If you are lucky, the most you will actually get from a short-term stunt school is a t-shirt, a bogus certificate, and some generic promo shots…all worth about…$25-$50.

Glass Crash Stunt

But even after knowing all of this, why is it that the thought of training with one of these groups is enticing? The reality has been laid out…why would someone still want to undergo this expense for inadequate training? Because we have the dream…and it’s powerful. We want it so bad and any opportunity to be involved with someone who has actually performed stunts on a film set feels one step closer to getting to where we want to be. It will feel so good to surround yourself with like-minded people…but will this environment get you closer to your goal? It’s definitely possible to get a slight taste of the industry by attending a short term workshop, but it’s only valuable if the person attending truly understands that what they are learning is nothing more than a fundamentals and it does not qualify them to be performers upon completion. If you use it as a springboard to motivate you into continued studies, it may indeed have a silver lining…but it’s not real silver…you spent all that to attend the training.

Expendables Explosion

This information should not stop you from pursuing your goal. If anything it should reinforce your determination to succeed where others fall short, to beat the odds, and fulfill your objective. But the best way to do it is with solid information and the wisdom to steer clear of those who tell you they have the quick fix that will get you to where you want to be with less effort. It’s like a pill that promises instant weight loss. The real answer is proper diet and exercise…but there will always be those who want someone else to do the work for them, someone else to come up with the overnight remedy to what ails them. If you truly want to work as an actor or stunt performer in the entertainment industry, you need one major quality…Tenacity. When it gets tough, the weak quit and the strong endure.

Last Legion Movie Fight Scene

Having a source of income while you are building your career is not a bad thing. I know many performers who consistently lie to themselves, thinking that not getting a “Normal” job is allowing them to focus on their careers. This is foolish. To think that sitting at home watching television waiting for the phone to ring for your next big role is not a wise course of action. It’s actually downright ignorant. In times of peace, a warrior becomes a farmer…he tends crops and animals and maintains his household. When war erupts, he straps on his sword and departs for battle. This is much like a stuntman. Work consistently at whatever your secondary skill is, and when a film job emerges, depart for battle. Often times when the film subsides, there is another in its wake. If this is the case, you keep working. But there will be times when a film ends and there is not another on the horizon. Time to go back to your secondary skill until another opportunity surfaces. The best part, the more battles your survive, the more your reputation grows. This reputation will get you called into service more and more often.

Undisputed Movie Fight Scene

Find a Mentor or an actual Stunt Team that trains you in an ongoing fashion. Training in this manner exposes you to not only the physical lessons, but the innumerable stories, career guidance, business knowledge, and personal camaraderie that can only be created in a long term relationship. As we all know, the most valuable secrets don’t come in the classroom, they emerge in the moment.

High Fall Stunt

Remember, money alone does not buy you skills. Dedicated training and focus EARNS you skills. Paying someone money and completing a short term program cannot EVER make you an expert in the stunt industry. It is unrealistic to think that no money is needed to acquire training, but it’s better to spend small amounts of money training for an extended period rather than a bulk amount of money to short term promises of success.

Learn more about Mark Steven Grove’s Rocky Mountain Stunts on the Martial Arts & Action Entertainment Directory by clicking on the image on the left. Rocky Mountain Stunts provides expert stunt coordinators and fight choreographers, stunt performers and set construction, prop creation, prosthetic makeup, and environmental effects.