Monday, 28 January 2013

LADY ELEANOR EXCLUSIVE: Life as a Stuntman - Mike Carpenter

Hail Mighty Readers,
Here at Falcata Times we're always on the lookout for something a little different to bring to you and with todays release of Continuum, Lady Eleanor has found something very special for you with a guest blog by Stuntman Mike Carpenter who has worked not only for the aforementioned show but also Supernatural.

So without further ado, I bring you his blog, we hope you enjoy:
I have always dreamt of being in the movies.  When I first started watching television I wasnʼt quite old enough to understand movies were a pretend world so much so that when I was little, I even asked my mom to take me to Sesame Street. 

As a kid I remember my mom peppering me with the question, “what do you want to do when you grow up”?  My reply was different on an hourly basis.  One minute it was a cop, a fireman, boat
captain, baseball player, ski racer, motorcycle racer, car racer, hockey player, must have been a motherʼs worst nightmare.  Wordʼs such as Doctor, Accountant, Lawyer, none of the classics were ever uttered from my lips. 

She was in for a rough ride with me and the trips to the hospital started at a young age.  Iʼll never forget how my buddies and I would pile all my Dadʼs empty beer cans into a giant beer can wall. Our
house at the time was at the bottom of a downhill driveway and I remember charging that beer can wall with my Big Wheel and blasting through it with glee. 

As I grew older and learned how to ride a two wheeler I started building jumps and trying to emulate Evel Knieval.  Mom even made me a white suite with the stars on it and I remember racing down
that driveway when the brakes on my bike failed.  I couldnʼt get the back wheel to lock up and skid to a stop that I figured was so darn cool.  Instead I took a header into my momʼs flower garden.  Yep, first trip to the hospital to get my forehead zippered back up.  Helmets were not a cool accessory back in the 70ʼs and to be honest  I would say that that bike crash was my scariest stunt to this day outside of the car hit on Supernatural.

As a kid I was lucky to have had parents that exposed me to a lot of team sports, and being from Canada one can ultimately guess what my favorite was.  It was all about Hockey in the winter months and Baseball in the summers.  These are pretty traditional sports in Canada and I did well in both playing on high level Rep teams up into my late teens.  I loved both these sports
but the political pressures of hockey in Canada just ruined it for me. 

I remember going skiing one weekend when I was around 13 or 14, and it was so freeing.  Just me and the mountain.  No screaming coaches and crazy hockey parents, I fell in love with it.  To my
fatherʼs dismay I packed up my hockey gear and stuffed it in storage, I was going skiing come hell or high water. 

When I quit hockey I was angry inside, frustrated that something I loved wasnʼt fun anymore.  I felt a little robbed and was determined to take out that energy in other places.  For me it was the ski hill and then came martial arts.  I liked all the training and sparring.  The owner of the club and fight promoter really wanted me to fight for his club.  I was game but I still had to have my parents sign off on it because I was under 18. It was a no go.  My mom was all about education and wasnʼt interested in seeing me get my head scrambled like so many young fighters. 

I was pretty flattered to have been asked because there were a lot of really successful fighters out of the club (some Canadian champs in both kickboxing and boxing.)   I was fortunate to have good
instruction at that time.  Nowadays a lot of those techniques are old school, especially in the movies but at the time it was great training and though I didnʼt know it at the time all these different loves were helping to carve a path towards my destiny.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I kept myself pretty busy.  I was pursuing all these physical activities as well as going to University unfortunately University and I were not the best of friends.  I constantly found myself butting heads with professors over their philosophies, ideologies and general opinions.  This didnʼt help me in my educational pursuits and in reality I was just putting in time although in my heart I knew this wasnʼt for me.

My biggest hero has always been my father.  My Dad was in the fishing industry and owned as well as ran big commercial fishing boats.  I thought this was so cool and adventurous.  I begged him to take me to sea with him.  He was never big on me following in his foot steps but I really wanted to spend some time with him and learn about the water. 

As one can imagine he was away a lot when I was growing up and wanted to bond. Man did we ever bond, he worked the living shit out of me.  I donʼt think I slept for four years.  I figured if Iʼm going to be in this business Iʼm going to be the Captain so I signed up for the Marine academy and earned my Master Marinerʼs Certificate by the time I was 26. During that period I also took some courses in film. I really wanted to give it an honest shot.  I remember auditing a film school when I was around 19 but changed my ideas after seeing some of the students.  They were all dark and brooding like Johnny Depp in Edward Scissor Hands.  Then there was me, a complete jock/fisherman and I felt really out of place.  I put the film idea to the wayside.

A few years later while Commercial Fishing we were caught in a huge storm up in the Queen Charlotte Islands where we could do nothing but wait it out. I remember going to bed and as cliche as it may sound I had a dream where I was in front of a bunch of movie lights and I was flying through the air.  I woke up and thatʼs when I decided I was going to go for it.  I distinctly remember it.  When I finished the season I packed my stuff and moved to Vancouver ready to chase the Hollywood dream. What a joke that was...

I didnʼt have a clue what I was doing. Lucky for me my roommate who is now a very successful 1st AD and very good friend was in the same boat and we helped each other along.  I was doing a little extra work through some shady background agency that never paid me.  My roommate ended up getting some PA work, and he helped me get a job.  To this day I think a PA is one of the toughest jobs on set and everyone should have to do it to appreciate how lucky one is when they move up the hierarchy.  Never forget your roots and always respect people.  There is a saying, PA one day Producer the next.  Regardless of that fact every job on a set is important and they are there for a reason.

I canʼt stand arrogance or attitude on a film set from any person including actors.  Itʼs unacceptable, we arenʼt saving the world here. We are making films and we are no more special than any other occupation.  Itʼs just that film is high profile because we are in entertainment.  I was fortunate that I met others with that same down to earth attitude and they gave me opportunities.

One day working as a PA I was looking after a location in Lynn Canyon and a couple of guys came down and started building a high line. (A high line is a tight steel cable...Itʼs like a zip line.)   I started talking to the guys and asking them what they did. They gave me a little run down and the next day they showed up on set dressed as military soldiers. They were firing guns, jumping off cliffs, and hanging off the high line.

Suddenly it all came crashing down on me.  Dressing up and playing super hero when I was a kid, my sporting background, my love of movies, my rigging background from being on the all made sense!  This is what Iʼm meant to do!  Iʼm going to be a stuntman!  It was a grind. I became a movie Grip to pay the bills but I was studying acting and taking as many Special Skills jobs as I could get. (Special Skills are the background people that often are the cops, soldiers, hockey players etc on films.)  It was a discouraging few years in the sense that I was getting a lot of “look seeʼs” and “maybes”,  just about getting the stunt job but it never quite worked out as there is a process to getting work.  That if there is someone in the biz that is already established and can do the job, the new person is not getting it.

We have unions and respect for the established performerʼs.  I was really getting frustrated with the whole stunt thing and felt like throwing in the towel and admitting defeat... then opportunity finally knocked.

I was working on the Lizzy McGuire movie as a Best Boy Grip when Scott Ateah a very established stunt coordinator and performer I knew from hockey was working on the same show.  We got to talking one day and I told him that Iʼve been pursuing stunts but didnʼt want to hit him up because we were friends. (Duh!)  What was I have to be strategically aggressive in this business.  It turned out about a month later the stars aligned for me.  Scott and I were standing in the catering line and he mentioned to me he was trying to find someone 6ʼ 3” that could do the splits and he was getting frustrated.  He had been searching everywhere for someone.  Dance studios, Dojoʼs, you name it.  To bad he never took a trip to the Grip truck in the first place. The Grips are the McGyverʼs on a film set.  I looked at him dead pan and said I can do the splits no problem.  He couldnʼt believe it so I warmed up and showed him. Thank god for martial arts and a high pain threshold. He asked me to stay loose as he was going to call me in a few weeks.

At that stage of the game I didnʼt have too high of hopes after several disappointments but I stayed limber just in case. Sure enough just like clockwork the phone rang three weeks later and I was working on a little film entitled ELF doubling Will Ferrell.  Scott was a tough cookie.  He didnʼt just give me the job. It was one gag at a time. He would ask me if I could do certain things and then rehearse them with me. I kept passing each test and after a few weeks I ended up getting to carry the load. I realized he needed me as much as I needed him.  Ever since that job he has been both
my mentor and one of my best friends.  We are often line mates on our beer league hockey team.  He still acts like my boss on the ice so I feed him the puck as much as I can even though he never friggin scores!

After that job my career just exploded, and I was thankful. The earlier you get into the stunt game, the longer your career will be.  I had to make up for some lost time. It was tough but rewarding.  I figured the odds of me being the next Wayne Gretzky or Brad Pitt were against me so I split the difference and became a stunt performer.

Bumps and bruises have long been a part of my life so that end of the business has never bothered me much.  What does bother me is when people judge a movie stunt person as crazy or reckless thrill seekers.  I think that attitude is kind of cheesy. I canʼt stand the extremest guys that talk all cocky about how if they screw up theyʼll die and how rad they are.  Listening to people talk and say they donʼt care if they die doing what they love is just a bad omen and a terrible example.

If you love something so much youʼd care if you died doing it because as far as Iʼm concerned if one is having so much fun doing something, wouldnʼt you want to keep on doing it!?  The true professionals donʼt have this attitude. We are athletes that narrow down our margin of risk to the
greatest degree we can. I like to compare a stunt person to the Fonz. We can make something look gnarly and dangerous but to us itʼs a walk in the park.  Itʼs much cooler to walk away from something that looked crazy and is executed in a controlled manner than leave the scene in an ambulance.  Thatʼs a stunt person.  Itʼs important to respect your body.  It is how we feed ourselves and is our ultimate tool.  Performerʼs train hard, hours in the gym, martial arts, yoga, driving, you name it.  If a person wants longevity you must be well rounded and keep your body strong and healthy.  I always love the negative comments from individuals.  Sometimeʼs even Doctorʼs make negative comments on how you must be feeling it, or you canʼt do it forever, you should think about retiring.  I tell you this, there may be some truth in what people say but as far as Iʼm concerned Iʼm in a job that requires me to keep my body and mind physically healthy.  I want to be like some of the older guys in there 50ʼs and 60ʼs still going at it because they love what they do and enjoy an active lifestyle. I hope when Iʼm that age Iʼll still physically have the skills to pull off a car hit, I just hope to have enough brains in my head to say no at that stage of the game.

I have been lucky in my career in both avoiding injuries and being employed.  I have had the great joy of being involved in the TV series Supernatural doubling the very talented and classy Jared Padalecki taking the hits for the Sam character.  Jared and Jensen are two of the classiest actors I have ever worked alongside.

Another series I worked on last year was Continuum and that looks as though there will be some work coming up in the near future.

Last year was an interesting one for me travel wise. I ended up in Belarus for the summer working on a remake of the 72 Summit series playing a Canadian hockey player. Itʼs a Russian film called Kharlamov No.17.  From there I took a leave of absence from Supernatural and was off in Mexico working on a project with Matt Damon, Jodi Foster William Fichtner, and Diego Luna called Elysium.

All these people were amazing, down to earth and fun to work with.  Mattʼs a real beauty.  He made me feel comfortable whenever I was performing alongside him. It is still surreal when I get to work with some of my favorite film stars.  Elysium should be one exciting movie!  Iʼm not allowed to say too much about this one but I played a character...well two actually, but only one where you will see my face...if I donʼt end up on the cutting room
floor first.

As far as conventions go I havenʼt had the opportunity to attend any yet. If Iʼm ever asked I would jump at it if my schedule allows.

Performing has been a wonderful experience. Iʼve had the opportunity to work with many great actors and directors. Many are some of the most talented, humble and kind people I have ever met...others have been a disappointment. What I have learned is there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in Hollywood.  Itʼs not the glamour that the outside world may think it is. Itʼs long hours, hard work, sacrifice, and disappointment is not uncommon. There are a lot of highs and lows but if a person can mentally adjust to this, the business makes for one interesting ride. Anyone fortunate enough to make a living in it should thank their lucky stars for we are truly blessed. Without fans and movie lovers weʼd have to go out and tough it out in the real world.  Now thatʼs a stunt.


Unknown said...

Thank you Mike, this is a great article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your life and work. I'd like to wish you all the very best for a long (and healthy) career and keep up the incredible work on Supernatural!

Anonymous said...

Mike, this was very interesting. Funny how all the choices you made as you were growing up coalesced and crystallized into one clearly delineated career. You've been an integral part of Supernatural, even though your best stunts are "invisible" to us as YOU. Like Amanda, I hope you have a long and healthy career -- and retain the sense to know when to say no well into old age!

I wonder if the sentiment "Break a leg" is supposedly lucky for all performers or if it is not a good thing to say to stunt people? I think I'll stick with "Thank you and best wishes".