Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chapter Two

It was just more than two years ago, March 18, 1996. A Monday. I'd heard friends from High School -- the ones who ended up working in offices -- complain about Mondays before, but to me, there wasn't anything necessarily different about them. Joys of a strange work schedule, I guess. I worked nights, days, weekends, everything in between, but I still managed to have plenty of time off.

We were in the mountains just north of Los Angeles, filming some shitty action movie that, to my knowledge, still hasn't come out. Probably never well. The script, what little I'd seen of it, was god-awful, filled with terrible cliched action-hero lines and a cartoonishly evil villan character with an army of goony henchmen. But it had a lot of money behind it, and a couple of big names. Big budget and big names on an action film usually means insane stunts, and that's what this one had going for it. And that, my friends, is where I came in.

I wanted to be a stuntman ever since my dad and I moved to Los Angeles when I was 13. Our first week in town, we'd seen some movie filming near one of the skyscrapers downtown, seen a stuntman taking a fall 20-odd stories and getting up to the applause of his crew. Right then and there, I knew what I wanted to do, and the family genetics for being big and scary-looking decided to help out with that one.

By 15, I towered over most of my classmates. I went Varsity in football and spent most of my time in the gym. I read up on all the literature I could find -- books, biographies, behind-the-scenes memoirs, you name it. By the time I graduated high school, I was ready. I knew every answer to every question anyone could ask me when I applied to live my dream.

They asked me nothing. They took one look at me, nodded, and told me I was in.

And for the next eight years, I got blown up, thrown off of buildings, shot at, beaten up, knocked through walls, hit by cars, and any other manner of grisly death you can think of, all for the cameras, of course. And I got paid pretty damn well to do it. It was a blast, and I got to travel all over the world and see all sorts of cool things.

See, it seems a guy like me is tailor-made for playing the large henchman type. The guy who never has any lines, just looks like a big obstacle for the hero of the movie until he gets taken out in any number of fantastic and mostly unbelievable situations. Producers liked me because I looked kind of huge next to the muscled-up action stars, and stunt coordinators liked me because I had my techniques down cold, was up for whatever they asked, and was willing to learn everything I could. A guy like me could work a lot, and I did. I also had the fortunate dual-training in stunt driving, so they got two for the price of one most times.

Which brings us to that Monday in March. We had a midafternoon call time, which was great because I got to sleep in, at my own house no less, and still have plenty of time to drive out to the shoot. Had breakfast with a couple of work buddies, and we piled into one of the waiting studio vans about 11:00 in the morning. We were in a pretty good mood, because my buddy Ethan and I got to get blown up and thrown through the air for today's shoot. Sad that we consider it fun, but we stunt guys are like that -- somewhat mentally deficient, I guess. We dig the dangerous ones, the ones where some actor will walk up to us after and go "man, that was nuts."

I lived for that look they had on their faces when they said that.

But that day, as with pretty much every day, there was a lot of waiting around first. A lot of prep work. The stuff we do might look death-defying in the movies, but we do enjoy, you know, living. Most of the stuff we did had been done thousands of times before in various combinations, and we knew how to do it as safely as possible. That meant checking and triple-checking all of the equipment, doing dry runs of the stunt, then going back and checking eight more times. The only thing better than pulling off an awesome, mindblowing stunt was doing it without so much as a papercut. Bonus points if we didn't even break a sweat.

Unfortunately, none of that was in the cards that day.

I remember setting up for the stunt. Ethan and I were going to be behind a car that exploded while the hero of the movie said hero-of-the-movie-type stuff. The explosion was supposed to blow us back and away -- we were both wearing rigs that would pull us on high-tension wires that someone would remove later in post-production. I remember the first A.D. calling "action," and then, for a few minutes, there's just this blank spot in my mind.

When I opened my eyes again, I was looking up at the desert sky. There was a lot of noise around me, a lot of movement. I rolled my head to the side and saw one of the actors, a little Scottish guy who wasn't exactly a big name but well on his way, sitting on the tailgate of the medic's ambulance getting his hands bandaged.

Shit, I thought. Something went wrong.

This was going to be a problem. Actors weren't supposed to get hurt -- it was on my boss, the stunt coordinator, to make sure of that. But the little Scottish guy hadn't even been in the shot. I remembered that. He was in a shot later in the day, but the last time I'd seen him, he'd been drinking coffee over at craft services.

While I was trying to figure out what happened, I decided to get up and ask some questions. Much as I tried, though, I couldn't make my legs move. I tried to look down at my feet, but my head movement seemed restricted to rolling from side to side.

"Shit. Look, Jake, I need you not to move, OK?" I heard a voice from my right. [P} I rolled my head that way and saw Bryan, one of our medics, crouched down beside me. From his face, I could tell I was messed up something bad.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Try not to talk. We're getting you to the hospital, but just stay still until then, OK?"

That's when I passed out again. I wouldn't find out until much later, but the stunt had gone terribly wrong. My rig hadn't activated when the explosion hit, and I was on fire. Then, the rig fired late and off-target, slamming me into the ground at high speed. I ended up with burns, cuts, bruises, and a concussion, but that was minor. I also ended up with a back that was broken in three places.

It was quite a while before I even got out of the hospital. Hell, it was quite a while before I was even conscious again. But the second I had my wits about me, I knew my career was going nowhere fast.

See, here's the thing. No one was going to come right out and say I wasn't going to work as a stuntman anymore. No one was even going to intimate that the accident had been in any way my fault. In fact, no one was going to say anything -- but everyone involved knew where this was headed. My injury had cost a ton in insurance. Lost time. Overtime. Bad press. I would eventually heal up all right, but the damage to my career was irreprable.

No one wanted to hire a stuntman who had cost his last production millions. Even if the producers could ignore that fact (and they couldn't), none of them would want to take the risk on a stuntman who'd had a terrible back injury. The spine is one of those things that never heals right, or so most people think. I feel fine most days, but I can definitely feel it when I do something I shouldn't. . . so I guess I agree with "most people" on that one.

Fortunately, productions carry really good insurance on stuntmen, pretty much for just such an eventuality. I was covered for my entire hospital stay, my physical therapy, my rehab time. But once that all ran out, I was down to my savings, which I'd mostly burned through in six months. I moved to a cheaper place, but the writing was on the wall by then: no studios were going to call. Find a new career, and find it now.

Which is when Ethan called me. He needed me to come bail him out of jail. Seems he'd gotten into a drunken brawl at a club on La Cienega. I pulled the rest of the cash out of my savings account, called a bail bondsman, and made my way out to the Parker Center jail. I didn't know then that the bail bondsman I'd called would turn out to be my boss, and more than that, my best friend.

The first thing I noticed about the bondsman was that he was a little guy, little and kind of pale. It was two in the morning, but he looked awake and sharp, his dark eyes barely blinking on either side of his thin nose. He smelled heavily of cigarette smoke, and had a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand when he walked into the visiting area.

"Whoa. You're a big motherfucker, aren't you?" the bondsman said, looking up at me as he chugged from his coffee.

"Uh. . ." I started.

"You Jacob Harris?” he asked.

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“Hey. Mike Shaw, Ace Bail Bonds. Magistrate set bond for your buddy yet?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “No one’s really telling me much.”

“Hang out right here, big man.”

Mike vanished into the police station, and reemerged a couple of minutes later with a file folder.

“You’re all set, pal. Your guy Ethan’s being processed out now.”

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

“Two thousand. So what is it you do for a living, man?”

“Right now? Nothing.”

“Hm. You wanna drop the money by my office tomorrow.”

It wasn’t a question.

“I’ve got it with me now.”

“Tomorrow. Got an interesting proposition for you.”

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