By Yun-hua Chen.
Stuntwomen really represent the larger picture of the ongoing struggle that women and people of color have had, just looking for a fair share in this industry.”
Covering the span of film history, from The Perils of Pauline (1914) through Wonder Woman (1975) to Fast & Furious (2009), April Wright’s documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story brings to light the close-knit community of stuntwomen, whose contributions often remain invisible to the audience and underappreciated in film history. As veterans such as Jeannie Epper, Julie Ann Johnson, Debbie Evans and Jadie David share their experience with young stuntwomen, their personal stories are indeed the untold Hollywood story, one about the changing landscape of stunt performance, and the continuous struggle of women and ethnic minorities in an industry dominated by white men. Narrated by Michelle Rodriguez, it is a delightful and well-researched documentary, and a great opportunity to review some of the best stunts ever performed.
From your previous documentaries Going Attractions to the current Stuntwomen, is your focus shifting from places to people? How did you come across the story of stuntwomen?
I am a cinephile and have been watching as many films as I can ever since I was a little kid. For me, in each of these three films, I covered the whole history of cinema, but from a different point of view. My first documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie (2013) was about drive-in movie theaters and how they fit into the history of how we see films. And the second one Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace (2019) and Stuntwomen are kind of the same thing, on aspects of cinema that I covered from up to a hundred years ago up to the present day. Beside all three of them being about different angles on history of cinema, I really like stuntwomen, being a woman director in Hollywood. It’s been traditionally a very male-dominated field, and so, looking at the history of stuntwomen, which is a smaller group, but they really represent the larger picture of the ongoing struggle that women and people of color have had, just looking for a fair share in this industry. I think it’s a smaller story in that way, but a very relatable story in Hollywood.
Very often film history, like other kinds of history, is told from men’s perspective. Did you feel that there should be more “herstory,” to give voices to those who are invisible in the industry? How did you see your role in pushing the discussion forward?
I agree with that. I think history is told by the storytellers, and we have had more of spotlight and the stories by men. I know there is a lot more awareness now of people looking for voice of women and people of color, and hearing different stories and different points of view. Even in Hollywood, we just mentioned that, in the beginning of cinema, there were a lot of women writing, directing, producing, and doing stunts. There have been a few documentaries looking at female directors and female filmmakers, but in the general knowledge when taught at school, women and people of color were mostly pushed aside. People were not even aware of that. So, I am really thankful that at this point we are re-finding some of these people that make great films a hundred years ago. We are all educating ourselves.
There are many universal gender-related issues across professions in your portrait of stuntwomen, such as stunt being perceived as “men’s job,” men taking over women’s jobs in the industry, “size is an issue,” and women have to try harder to prove themselves. Were you surprised to see that the situation of gender equality in Hollywood, though improved over the years, still has a long way to go?
I think it has come a very long way, although if you look at some of the statistics that has been discussed recently on women working in Hollywood, if you look at the top films, there have been only 4% of women directors. It has been really consistent for about the last 50 years. In television, we are starting to see some better numbers for women and people of color that are working as showrunners or directors. I think we are going to see that being pushed on the film side, as well.
When we talked to the stuntwomen, you do see that they are perfectly capable, they are smart, they are strong, they are good at what they do, so there is no reason for them to be left out. We have always given more opportunities to men, and then men got more experience and a bigger resume, so when those bigger stunts come up, men are more qualified to do that because they have been nurtured all the way and they have all the experience. So, you do have to go back and find all the people with potential, regardless of their race or gender, and start to nurture all those other voices too. That applies to stunt and that applies to everything.
Was that your experience as woman director as well?
I belong to a lot of groups of women directors. It’s interesting because if you talk to any of us, we all feel that we are smart and strong and capable and we are go-getters, so why shouldn’t we be successful? In our mind there isn’t any reason why we can’t and shouldn’t be successful. It’s only when you look at the statistics and you see only 4%, you realized that, oh, it’s not because of me that I am not successful. It really is a systematic problem. There are so few that are let in. I said this as a joke, that if there are 4% of women and 96% of men directing, then if you have a bell curve, at least half of them are very average or below average directors. So, I keep saying, I just want to get in there and have the opportunities that those guys have had.
Can you talk a bit about your choice of pairing of young stuntwomen and veterans in interviews? Why did you pair them in this way to have a generational discussion?
There is a book called Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which the producers wanted to turn into a documentary. When I got involved, that was my idea to follow younger stuntwomen learning their own history. I felt that that would add an extra layer. We could have had the older stuntwomen just as a talking head on screen telling us what they did, but I felt that when you pair them with younger stuntwomen, it’s a little bit more emotional. The younger women are pursuing this career, and what an opportunity to be able to talk to women who broke grounds and broke barriers in the 1960s and 1970s, to hear some of the great things they did, and some of the struggles they had. I wanted to have more of a conversation where they are learning the history that means something to them. We got to learn as well as audience.
Your film involves a significant amount of archival work. How did you start? Was it difficult to research through all the archival material?
Since all my films are about Hollywood history, different aspects of that, I have used a lot of clips. To tell the story, you have to have the context of the films in different eras. For stuntwomen, how can we have a movie where they tell us about the stunts if we don’t show the stunts they did? So, for the clips, we used an attorney. Because of my experience on the other films, I have been through those cycles of understanding what can or cannot work based on the precedence, so it is a certain technique to figure out how much you can use to tell the story but not be gratuitous and overuse the clips and then you go through the whole process of getting that reviewed. Since I have gone through that a few times, I kind of understand how you are able to use that material in a fair way to tell the story.
What was your interviewees’ reaction when you approached them for the film? Did they like how they were portrayed in the end?
I believe when you are doing a documentary, it’s important not to be an outsider. You need to get to know them and understand how they work, how they think, how they feel. They will also help tell you who should be in the film because they would tell you who they admire. There were some stuntwomen that I already knew, and they were able to introduce me to the others, but people are always a bit suspicious. I am making a film, but it’s their life. It’s how they make money, so it’s very important for them to have the story told the right way. So, earning their trust, being in that community, getting to know them, it’s a huge part of what I have to do as a director.
It did take a little while for some of them to get to know me and to know that I have integrity and what I intended to do. Sometimes it’s just scheduling and trying to coordinate that is difficult. They are very busy, and they travel all over the world. I am very happy that I got to know some of them, and we trust each other.
And for the second part of the question, I did have a couple of screenings to which a lot of the stuntwomen in the film came, and they do like the film. Melissa R. Stubbs, whom we show towards the end, who is second unit directing and stunt coordinating, after the screening she was very emotional. She told me, other people have wanted to tell the story, but I did it and I nailed it and I got it right and this is who they really are and how they really feel. Getting that feedback from her, it meant the world. That’s exactly what you want. You want them to feel that I got their story right. I am very proud of that.
You mentioned that you are a cinephile, and your subject matters have been very cinephilic. With the ongoing pandemic this year, did you feel that this cinephilic culture may be in danger right now?
That’s a great question. It has been a very interesting time. My first documentary was about drive-in movie theaters. That was the first documentary that I made, and it came out seven years ago, and now it’s kind of in the spotlight and people are interested in learning more about drive-ins now. They are kind of the only show in town for a while because concert venues were closed and drive-ins were having church services, graduations, dance recitals, and concerts, and they still are. As things are opening back up now, some of the indoor cinemas are opening.
I was actually on the road doing the theatrical release with my second film Movie Palace when Covid hit. I was in Chicago, screening at all these great historical theaters. And then NBA decided to suspend the season, and we were like, oh, this is getting much more serious quickly. So, I had a big audience at first, and then a smaller and smaller audience. By the time I was in New York for our New York premiere, it got called off, so I felt it really sharply. Especially for the movie palaces that are not being owned by a big chain, a lot of them being non-profits, they have been hit very hard. I know it’s going to take time for people to feel more comfortable going back to theaters.
Here in the US, it depends on which state you are in. Most of them, when they are open, they are on limited capacity. Streamers are benefiting right now. A lot of people are at home watching things, and that’s been really great, but I hope that when theaters come back, people will embrace them even more than in recent years. That experience of seeing something with an audience where it has all your attention. At home when you are streaming, you are doing other things too. It’s not the same immersive experience that you will have in a theater with a big screen and with other people. There is something about that communal experience. I hope that it comes back and thrives, but you are right, it’s taking a huge hit.
In your film, we see a strong sense of solidarity between stuntwomen. Do you feel a similar sense of solidarity between women in Hollywood?
The stunt community is a small community. They really look at each other as family, especially because they are responsible for each other’s safety. They call each other brothers and sisters, and they do look at each other that way. I do think also, among women, there is something about how women work together and sometimes, women are depicted as fighting with each other. Sometimes I think it is more a male point of view. I think most of the time women push each other up and are friends and sisters. That’s what I see from my perspective in the film industry.
In the Stuntwomen documentary, when Jadie David talks about the formation of the black stuntmen association, and how whey they formed, they had women as charter members because they had the same struggle and understood that. That’s what’s happening right now in Hollywood, in our country, in the world in general. Women and people of color are realizing that it’s sort of the same systems that are suppressing both, so we all need to support each other and work together to press forward and to get the level of equality that we deserve.
Would you like to talk a bit about your next projects?
After the theatrical release of Movie Palace, we are finally releasing DVD and VOD on October 22th. That’s coming up right after Stuntwomen, and then I have been using the lockdown time to write a bunch of new material and work on projects with different partners, some feature films, some television. Hopefully some of them would get traction. And I also have shot a whole documentary about a travelling carnival that I need to edit. I shot that one over the last few years and I just need to get into editing it. I think we are still going to be in lockdown enough that I will be able to get it done!
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.