Warrior Women Month might be over now, but just, y’know, in general, we’re fans of seeing women kick butt, drive fast cars, and maybe jump out of a moving vehicle or two. It’s perfect timing, then, for the release of director April Wright’s Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, out now on VOD from Shout! Studios.
Based on the book by Mollie Gregory, Stuntwomen tells the story of the real-life action heroines of film and TV, from the silent era — serial The Hazards of Helen, released in the teens, was the first action franchise, and star Helen Gibson did her own stunts — through the female action renaissance of the ’70s and on to to the modern era where stars like Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson, and Michelle Rodriguez (who narrates parts of Stuntwomen) brawl on the big screen on the reg.
But the epic action scenes we love so much — whether it’s the Bride and Vernita Green throwing down in Kill Bill, Letty getting into some vehicular mayhem in the Fast and Furious movies, or Wonder Woman crashing through a window — would be nothing without stuntwomen. For her documentary, Wright interviewed dozens of them, pairing new-school stuntwomen like Amy Johnston (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Heidi Moneymaker (Black Widow), and Keisha Tucker (Black Panther) with legends like Jeannie Epper (who doubled for Lynda Carter in the Wonder Woman TV series), Jadie David (who frequently doubled for Pam Grier), stunt driver extraordinaire Debbie Evans (ooh, that The Matrix Reloaded highway chase scene), and Julie Ann Johnson, a stuntwoman who, with her work on the Charlie’s Angels TV series, became one of the first women stunt coordinators.
What emerges from these conversations — and clips of training routines and finished stunts liberally sprinkled throughout — is a community of women who get to do one of the coolest jobs around… if not one without its own set of challenges. Stuntmen being popped in a wig and doubled for women; men getting to do the more dangerous, and thus higher-earning, stunts; stuntwomen being met with skepticism that they’re capable of the same stunts as men; female characters being put in short and/or tight costumes that don’t allow their stunt doubles to pad themselves up like their male counterparts often can. Hearing of the challenges stuntwomen of years past surmounted, and the ones their modern-day sisters still deal with, provides an illuminating and empowering glimpse into a profession without which the movies we know and love wouldn’t be the same. SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with director April Wright about shining a light on these under-appreciated heroes.
How much did you know about stuntwomen before you did this film?
I’m a pretty movie-savvy person. I grew up in a movie family, and both my parents were aware of movies and talked to us about what made them good. Of course, I knew about stunts and was somewhat aware of them. I remember there were some films where you could see the stunt double was there, or even that a woman was played by a [stunt]man. So I knew a little bit when I started. But the book was a tremendous amount of beginning research, because Rebecca Pahle Mollie Gregory had already dug deep into some of the history, the silent film information, and had interviewed a number of women. It was a great jumping-off point. She had done all the heavy lifting on the research.
And pairing the newer stuntwomen with the veterans was your idea? I really loved that. It gives a sense that this is a community of women.
Yeah! And also, I think the younger women, they may have heard the names, but to really hear the stories and to understand what the woman had gone through and how they paved the way gave them a bigger and better appreciation of the career that they’re pursuing.
Even though you say the book did most of the heavy lifting in terms of silent era research, it was really invaluable in your movie to actually see the stunts that took place back then.
Making me aware of the silent film stuff was probably the biggest thing that came out of the book. To hunt down some of those films and that footage so that we could show some of the stunts that women were doing 100 years ago… [In Stuntwomen], I go back to the beginning, because I feel like you have building blocks to a story. Once you get towards the end, and you need some of those emotional payoffs, it really helps to understand what the current situation is built on. I really liked to show that. And a lot of stuntwomen found the super interesting. That scene we shot with Ben Mankiewicz from Turner Classic Movies, [where he was talking about the history of stuntwomen in silent film] — seeing some of those clips of what women were doing back then is really amazing. Nobody would have ever thought that was going on.
That’s such a misconception across the board, about women filmmakers in early Hollywood — not just stuntwomen, but in general. That it was all men back then. But there were a ton of women making films in the silent era, and they were intentionally driven out!
[There was] The Hazards of Helen, an action serial that was written and directed by women and [had women stars]. That had something like 200 episodes! It was the first action franchise. It went on for a really long time. And now people are like, “Oh, can a woman do that stunt? Should we get a guy in there to do it?” It’s like, “No. Women can handle it!”
When you were talking to these stuntwomen, did you hear anything that surprised you?
When you meet them in person, they’re very strong people. Very smart people. You think of the physicality of what they’re doing, and you don’t realize how smart they are. How, in their brains, they’re working out all the logistics and geography and, ‘How is wind going to hit me here?’ They’re really working things out at a level in their minds to be able to turn the right way and land in the right way and turn their heads so their face can’t be seen. They really are pro athletes that are performing at a really high level. I don’t think I really knew until started meeting them and talking to them how much is involved and how much they analyze. And how much it’s not just the physicality—but it really is mental agility.
I never realized — I guess because I never thought about it — how much the stunt coordinator is involved in choreographing and directing the scene. They decide what these scenes look like!
And that’s a really important point especially related to women in the business because the stunt coordinators work with the directors, and they basically design the action. Or they choreograph the action. And there are some specialties, where there might be fight choreographers that come in if something’s really elaborate. But it’s the stunt coordinator, who is also sometimes the second unit director or works with the second unit director — which is also usually a stunt person — shooting the action. This is why a lot of people wonder why there’s still not a stunt Oscar, because it really is a specialty field. And the people at the top of their game are certainly at the top of their game in the same way that anybody [from] any other Oscar category, like hair and makeup or sound design or directing.
They also hold a bit of power, because they hire everybody. And when you’re doing more difficult stunts, they’re all SAG. So they all get minimums. But they have bumps, they call them, for more difficult stunts. And so they have the ability to let whoever they want, male or female, do the more difficult stunts and therefore get paid more. There’s a couple examples in the film where people talk about that. Jadie David talked about in the ’70s, driving that van that went into the water, and how the stunt coordinator pulled her out for the one shot that you made the most money on and gave it to a guy. And there’s still some of that going on today. Because stunt coordinators do have that that discretionary pool of money, so they can hire everybody, and they can decide what each person is doing. We were on a call yesterday—we did a screening for SAG-AFTRA, for all the actors. And all the stuntwomen were making a point that they should actually be paid more than the guys for fighting and falling, because most of the time they are doing it without pads. Everybody was like, “Yeah, you should!”
You want some costume designers to be in that screening, and to come out thinking, “We should totally put women in long-sleeve shirts and pants more often for fight scenes.”
Everybody’s been watching Cobra Kai on Netflix. And the finale episode of the second season has an epic fight. And I noticed the two key women that were fighting — they’re high school girls in the show. Both of them, for the fight, had jeans on, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts or jackets. And I was watching that — my brain’s so conscious of this right now. And even though other places in the series, they’ve been in shorts or skirts or dresses or whatever, I noticed they had been clothed in pants and long sleeves because they were probably swapping the actors back and forth with the stunt doubles for this big fight, and this way they can hide pads for all the hard hits and falls they were taking. Once you know, you’re kind of like, “Ah-ha! I see what you did there.”
That’s something that’s said in the documentary—that if a stunt performer is good, you don’t notice them. But seeing this movie, it makes you pay more attention to these things — like the scene in Speed you show, where Sandra Bullock’s stunt double had to be pulled along the ground in this tiny skirt. You realize how difficult it is — beyond the physical component, which is already hugely difficult anyway.
Exactly, exactly. Things you would not think of, but now you do!
This movie’s good at balancing an appreciation for what these women do and just how cool it is while also acknowledging the struggles that they face, because women aren’t historically treated equally in this field.
I think it’s a good example of Hollywood overall—and maybe the country and the world in general — that there have been patterns in history and systems that have been built that don’t bring in women and people of color as much as they should. We’re talking about this overall, and we’re talking about it in Hollywood. And we’re looking at some of the statistics around women directors that have not changed too much since the ’70s. And when you look at stuntwomen, it’s the same thing. Except for them, it’s compounded a bit because of all the physicality and testosterone involved in that specific profession. But I think that’s why the film resonates with a lot of people. Because it’s specifically stuntwomen, but it’s really the story of all of us.
These women are so resilient!
You feel empowered after you watch it. You’re pumped up!
I want to go jump off a building or stunt drive a car.
You want to go work out! Imagine me shooting this every day. It was a plus that I got to wear workout clothes every day—you want to be in their world, so that was cool and easy that I didn’t have to dress up or anything. Every day after shooting you were just exhilarated, like, ‘Wow, I gotta do something! I gotta do something with my life! I gotta do something in the world!’ You really feel inspired and pumped up after spending time with them, because they’re just so amazing and inspiring and energetic.
It was so amazing to hear the story of Julie Ann Johnson, who was a stunt coordinator on Charlie’s Angels in the ’70s and blew the whistle on drug use on-set.
She spoke up, and she basically lost her career. And it is a shame. People know of her legend, kind of, in Hollywood. The younger generation does. But they don’t really know her. And so it was important for me to include her in the film. And not only let her say what she wanted to say about her story and about how she’s still trying to fight for equality, but also to really show her work and what she did and how big she was and how good she was. And that she really was one of the best. She wasn’t just a woman who complained. She was a woman who was one of the best, who got sidelined because she spoke up about something that she should have spoken up about. It’s a tough story.
“Don’t do cocaine before a stunt that requires perfect timing or else people get hurt” doesn’t seem like a controversial statement.
I’m afraid a lot of them did back in the day. But I don’t think it was just stuntpeople. We did show that it was just Hollywood at that time, that that was something that everybody was doing and not really looking at that side of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.