The Academy Awards are rigged.
Every year the Oscars bring together Hollywood’s best and brightest to dish out awards in 24 categories, ranging from Best Acting and Directing all the way to Best Visual Effects and Sound Mixing. Virtually every aspect of filmmaking is recognized with one major exception -- stunts.
For the past 25 years, the stunt industry has been neglected, or rather shunned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS or the Academy for short).
For Hollywood stunt coordinator and second unit director, Jack Gill, it’s felt like a lifetime. Gill joined the Academy in 1990 as one of the earliest members representing the stunt industry. Today, their numbers have grown to 31 members, which is small compared to larger areas of filmmaking like acting or producing, but still an accurate representation of the niche industry.
Known for his early work on the “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Knight Rider,” Gill has now become one of the most influential stunt coordinators in the business, lauded for his contributions to “The Fast & Furious” franchise, specifically in “Fast Five” and “Furious 7.”
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Gill lamented on his plight for stunt recognition following his induction into the Academy. “The Academy Awards were my first approach to try and get this done, and about five years after that, we started approaching the SAG Awards," he explained. "The Academy had come to me and said, ‘Look, if you can get SAG to come on and jump on board, we’ll be more amiable to you, we’ll talk a little bit more about getting it done here.’ Well, the minute SAG jumped on board, I went back to the Academy and still got a no," he said. "Here I am, 25 years later, and we are not anywhere closer.”
The Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) are one of two major American award shows to recognize stunts, with the other being the Emmy Awards. Both have chosen to highlight stunts differently, but it is the acknowledgment that matters most. The Emmys added “Best Stunt Coordination” and the SAGs recognize the "Best Stunt Ensemble" in both film and television.
For Gill, it is the stunt coordination that takes precedence. “When you see the Oscar categories, it’s the department head that wins that category. It’s the Director of Photography that wins, not the camera operators. Anytime you put a film together, the stunt coordinator is there way before the film starts in pre-production, designing all of the stunts, reads the scripts, sets it all up, finds the locations ... Integral to each and every part of the filmmaking process.”
And Gill is not alone in this fight. Not only has he started petitions that have garnered support from Hollywood greats like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, but he also has the backing of his colleagues like stunt performer Brady Romberg.
Mostly dealing in television, Romberg has also worked on films such as “A Walk Amongst The Tombstones” and doubled for leading men like Miles Teller in the 2015 Oscar-winning film, “Whiplash.”
When speaking with HuffPost, Romberg explained that the root of the problem deals with the reputation of stunts. Yes, they have evolved since the '70s and '80s when extras would be asked to hang off piano wires. “Old perceptions of stunts need to be corrected," he said. "I don’t believe that the Academy is going to lead that charge, but I do believe that it’s going to catch up to them.”
Romberg’s response calls attention to the reactive nature of AMPAS. As was seen through this year’s #OscarsSoWhite disaster, unless the Academy is tarred and feathered in the public’s eye, they would rather choose the cushy status quo over being pioneers that could repair Hollywood’s institutional problems. Only after TWO consecutive years of all white nominees did the Academy decide to become more inclusive and diverse (but that’s a whole different story).
But now, the stunt debate has reached a boiling point. Leading the pack of this year’s Oscar nominations are two action films: “The Revenant” has garnered 12 noms and “Mad Max: Fury Road” is in a close second with 10. Both pictures feature masterful stunt work and would not have existed in their current form without their respective stunt departments.
In the past, the Academy has offered a series of excuses ranging from trying to delete categories instead of adding them (they added Best Animated Feature in 2001) to validating their decision by saying that there is no art or science in stunts.
Romberg disagrees. “You can’t create a film like 'Mad Max' if you’re not really using science and art in the way that you design your stunts. If you’re filming a film like 'The Revenant'... they paid careful detail to the stunts. And they argue that’s the director’s vision so the stunt coordinator has nothing to do with it. Yeah, it is the director’s vision, but it’s a collaboration too. It’s teamwork between the stunt department and the CGI department and the directors and actors.”
Still need convincing? Take Gill’s work on “Fast Five.” For the film’s climax, the stunt department designed a high-speed chase where the main characters drag a vault through the streets of Rio. Originally, this was intended to be entirely CGI, but Gill fought for authenticity by creating a lightweight safe that could hold a stunt performer and car inside to allow the vault to be “driven” with the illusion that it was being dragged. That deserves recognition.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for films that captured the zeitgeist, like “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark." And it is indisputable that modern action films could exist without their stunt departments. In 2015 alone, the highest-grossing films of the year were all action flicks, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Jurassic World,” “Furious 7” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
But, it’s not too late for the future of cinema. The opportunities for amazing stunt work will only grow as franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue to expand and other explosive movie series barrel through Tinseltown.
The Academy claims to “champion the human imagination.” Well, what better way to do so than by acknowledging the stunt departments that have been able to use their imagination to create unbelievable sequences by championing the art and science of the filmmaking industry.
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