Newswise — The new action movie “The Fall Guy” and the 1980s television series that inspired it center on the adventures of a Hollywood stunt performer. The movie’s director, David Leitch, began his career as a stuntman, and has said he hopes “The Fall Guy” will bring more recognition to this often-anonymous profession.

Virginia Tech theater professor Cara Rawlings specializes in choreographing fights and falls for stage productions, and students of hers have gone on to successful stunt work careers in film and television, including Saturday Night Live and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She sympathizes with Leitch’s goals.

“Anything the industry can do to bring attention to the crucial role that stunts play in storytelling is a win,” Rawlings said. “Fight directors and stunt coordinators are critical members of the creative team. The Tony Awards recognize the contributions from every creative design area including best choreographer, yet a category to recognize fight direction has yet to be included in the awards.  Similarly, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not yet identified an Oscar category that recognizes stunt coordination as an integral creative role in filmmaking.”

Rawlings answered questions about what goes into stunt work in stage and cinema and why more credit is needed.

Q: Why might a theater production need fight direction?

“Fight direction in theatre and stunt coordination in film are needed to stage any action that requires overt physicality from a one-on-one shove to a Shakespearean battle scene.  Our task is to create safe, repeatable choreography that tells a clear and dynamic story.  High falls are pretty standard in theatre productions from opera to outdoor dramas, so they require specific fall training and special equipment like crash pads, mats, and padding incorporated into the actors’ costumes. Shows that take place in heightened or stylized worlds, such as ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Wicked,’ are more likely to include rigging that allows characters to do fantastical action like flying or jumping that we typically see in film.”

Q: How is film stunt work different from theater stunt work?

“My work is primarily in theatre where falls and any other extreme physical action like fights must be safe enough to repeat and perform eight shows a week. Stunts in film are a bit of a different animal.  Stunt performers use similar techniques to those we use on stage, though additional training is required to perform specific skills like wire work, fire burns, stunt driving, and other skills necessary to create both practical and computer-generated illusions of violence.  Stunt performance in film differs from theatre performance in that, once the cameras are rolling, they typically have to fight, fall, etc., twice as fast as they did in any rehearsal, and they take more physical impact since they will only do a stunt a few times.”  

 Q: Can a movie like “The Fall Guy” assist in calling attention to this behind-the-scenes work?

“I am excited to see ‘The Fall Guy.’ I remember watching Lee Majors in the television series in the 1980s, way before I understood anything about the actual practice and business of performing stunts.  In the trailer for the new film, Ryan Gosling’s character is referred to several times as, ‘Just a stunt guy,’ as if there were a never-ending supply of people willing to do these death-defying stunts. It is a bit of an industry in-joke, but I hope that audiences walk away from a film like this more curious about the artistry and skill involved in stunt coordination and performance.”  

About Rawlings
An associate professor in the
School of Performing Arts for Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, Cara Rawlings teaches movement, acting, and stage combat and has worked as a movement and acting coach, fight director, and dance choreographer for multiple productions. She is a Certified Stage Combat Instructor with The Society of American Fight Directors. Read more about her here.

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