May 10, 2012

Australia's Greatest Stuntman: An Interview with Grant Page

Referred to as "Australia's Greatest Stuntman" by his peers and fans, Grant Page has been a stunt performer and stunt coordinator on some of the biggest action films out of Australia in the 70's through the 80's. Grant continues to work today in Australia, and his autobiography "Man on Fire: A Stunt of a Life" is currently available through Amazon and other retailers. Mr. Page has some great stories and was kind enough to share some of them with me. Below is a transcription of an audio interview that we did for the Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. To hear the entire interview, including tons of extra conversation not featured in this post, click on any of the links at the bottom of this post.

Death Rattle: When you started as a stuntman, did you have anyone that you looked to for inspiration in our out of your profession, or did you break into the business on your own?
Grant: It was funny because I came in by accident. I often say I'm the most accidental stuntman on Earth. I was lucky enough to start as a science teacher - years of teaching the natural physics, which is the basis of how all things work in life and how all stunt work is made safe. I didn't want to continue teaching for the rest of my life, so I wanted to become a parachuter. I joined the Commandos, and I was with the Australian Commandos for two-and-a-half years while we were developing escape systems for getting down cliff-faces under enemy fire. LIFE Magazine got onto that and wrote an article back in 1963. It became abseiling, but at that stage it was an Army exercise to escape enemy bullets. After that article came out in LIFE Magazine, I kept picking up the odd jobs and the odd ads, but after about six months I said "Wow. I must be a stuntman!" In a kind of a way it was an accidental arrival, but everything I'd done in my past had steered me into the skills that are necessary to be a stuntman.

Death Rattle: As far as getting into stunts as a career, how has it changed from when you started to now? Is the process the same, and do you think it's easier or harder to get work as a younger stuntman these days?
Grant: One of the main things about stunt work is that you've got to double the actor. As I get older and the actors get younger, the doubling situation isn't as likely, but, as a (stunt coordinator), the amount of experience that you build up - in my case, over 50 years - means that there's not very much that can come up in a script that you haven't had some association with. So, it does mean that your experience level builds up enormously, although your physicality may have slowed down a little. It does mean that you don't have to work as hard to get it done because you've been there before.

Death Rattle: As a stunt coordinator during the "Ozploitation" era in the 70's and 80's, did you have a regular crew of guys that you worked with, or was it a matter of getting whoever was available at the time?
Grant: At that stage there wasn't many stunt people in Australia, so ones pool of doubles wasn't very large. But we were a big family, and that's one of the things that was great about our group in the early days. Everybody was on everybody else's side. As the industry's grown and stunt work's grown, it's fractioned off into little groups, most of which tend to be a little competitive with each other. In fact, I remember the same experience in Los Angeles when I was doing American films; there was very much a group mentality, and it is a shame, because in a kind of a way we rely on each other for our own survival, and the more cooperation we've got the safer we're gonna be and the better our work's gonna look.

Death Rattle: How exactly does one get into the stunt profession? Are there schools you go to?
Grant: There's not much in the school area in Australia. There are some in America, but we've tended to sit to the old adage of: "If you can, you do it. If you can't, teach it." You tend to avoid the school situation. I must admit that now that I'm in my 70s, I'm starting to feel that natural inclination to pass on what I know. I think it's that human nature thing where one doesn't want to die with the knowledge that's taken you 50 years to build up, and it's interesting, in that Newtonian physics - action, reaction, inertia, momentum, frictions - all stays the same. So, although technology has developed enormously, that tends to take you away from the basic principle of the way you can predict how some action is gonna happen. It's Newtonian physics, and it's not changing year in and year out; technology is, and it's getting good at fooling the audience with blue screen and wire, but the physics around being a stunt man doesn't change.

Death Rattle: When you double for an actor, do you work closely with the actor, or do you work more with the director?
Grant: Mostly we have males for males and females for females, mainly because a female will walk and move and be a particular style that you can feel, whereas a male walks in a different way. Quite a few years back, I had to double for Shelley Winters in Montreal. Shelley tends to die in a lot of disaster movies, and I was doing a big disaster movie in Montreal - CITY ON FIRE with Henry Fonda and Eva Gardener - and I had to spend the morning walking around behind Shelley and watching the way she moved so that I could develop that. Because, intuitively, although the stuntee will use what we call the "stuntee hunch", where he hides his face if he's not the perfect double while, at the same time, you see the body moving. So my job then was to try and develop the style of moving that Shelley had, and that was not easy, mate.

Death Rattle: Speaking of which, is it true that you doubled Mel Gibson on MAD MAX?
Grant: As a matter of fact, way back in the early days, Mel was at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art), where all of our best actors have been to. He was a student, and guess what? He was one of my students, because I was teaching fighting at NIDA. So we started in a student relationship, then when we went on from there with the MAD MAX films. As Mel was gradually developing, I was there at the same time developing my skills to be a stuntman, so we had quite a good relationship in the early days. I lost contact with him when he left Australia, but he was always a sound, solid person in the early days.

Death Rattle: Are there any particular stunts that you've witnessed on the set of one of your films that you wish you had done yourself?
Grant: Over 50-odd years, you can imagine there's been the opportunity to do most things that one would consider as an "Action moment". I believe very much in the fear of the unknown, so once one's developed the knowledge of everything, one doesn't fall into that animal fear that you can go into, except for one of the situations that one can be in, which is working with animals. There was a situation years back when I was doing a TV around-the-world series called DANGERFREAKS, where I was supposed to go down to Africa to work with a crocodile, which I don't mind because crocodiles are fairly predictable and fairly easy to work with, but unfortunately I got there in the winter, and by that time cold-blooded reptiles have gotten a bit sleepy, so (the stunt) wasn't gonna work. Lolly Walder ran location safaris in Africa, and I said "Lolly, what else have you got?", because I didn't want to get back to Australia with egg on my face on no footage, and she said "Well, Grant, we've got a leopard that we caught seven months ago and it's ready for a tryout." Well, nobody told the leopard that it was ready for a tryout. We went out into the open country, and it was (the leopard's) first time out of the cage, and whereas with a background of science and Newtonian physics, I like to have a situation where I can totally predict what will happen. Well, don't work with a very big cat! They're not very predictable. And I unfortunately fell into fear of the unknown, where I overreacted, I did things with the leopard that I shouldn't have done, I got a bit aggressive, and got the rather natural reaction where it didn't like me and it decided to teach me a lesson. Ruined my suit! Chewed the shoulder pads right out of a brand new denim suit.

Death Rattle: Do you or have you ever trained people with no stunt experience whatsoever?
Grant: One tends to do that a lot, because what one's trying to do is to get the audience to believe that the actor is the character that's going through the moment that's important, which means that, in every stunt you do, you've got to be able to cut in short-cuts of the actor being involved. That makes the audience believe that that's the one person they're watching, so every time a stunt comes up, to some degree, I'll have to train the actor to be able to be part-involved.

Death Rattle: From what you've seen, is there a particular common mistake that rookie stunt-people tend to make?
Grant: Believing they already know when they haven't had time to learn yet. That can always be a worry. Every stunt person should go in with the attitude of: "I don't know, and everybody that does can help me." That's one of the things that I love about the stunt group: we still have that animal, tribal feeling thing where we are really caring about each other, and if you know somebody that needs a bit of help, you'll be right there to help him.

Death Rattle: What was the worst injury you've sustained while working, and can you describe the stunt?
Grant: Well, apart from having my suit ruined by that leopard, the only broken bone I've had in 50 years of working a couple of hundred films was riding a motorcycle out to MAD MAX to do a stunt on it and a bloody truck hit me on the way out! I never got there! I got a broken leg out of that one, and they had to change the schedule of MAD MAX to allow my leg to recover. In fact, I was on a motorbike, and I had to drop the bike to slide into the side of the truck, and would you believe that one of the main stunts I had to do in MAD MAX was to drop a motorbike at 100 KMPH and slide it up to the side of a vehicle. Unfortunately, it had to be in the exact position that the actor had delivered his dialogue before I broke my leg.

Death Rattle: That was the only one you've broken in your entire career?
Grant: That's right. Stunts are not for getting hurt. Stunts are to make it look as dangerous as possible and make damn sure it's not! The thing I'm most proud of is that I've never had a stuntman working for me on a film set that hasn't been back on set the next day. The only one is - I hate to say it - my youngest son, who was doing a Blur video clip, where he abseiled off the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a new rope. The rope stretched and we couldn't break him hard enough. I got in underneath him and he landed on me, but his knee was the only thing I didn't catch; it hit the roadway and broke his knee cap.

Death Rattle: How did that Blur music video come about by the way, and what was your experience like working on it?
Grant: It was rather interesting, actually. I was just at home one day and the phone rang. A guy rang up and said "Hi, it's Damon Albarn here. I'm lead singer with a group called Blur, and I'm in a bus in Spain." And he said "We've just been looking at a video called DANGERFREAKS...", which is, funnily enough, the one with that leopard fight in it, "...and I really like the stuff you're doing. Would you be interested in doing a video clip for us?" I said "Yeah, I'd love to." He said "There's only one problem. It's a track called 'M.O.R.' and it's due for release on MTV in six weeks time. Can you still do it?" So we had six weeks to basically script it, get all the permits, shoot it, and get it edited to (the track) "M.O.R.", and it was out on MTV in six weeks.

Death Rattle: It seems that you broke into the business with Brian Trenchard-Smith. How did that relationship begin and what was the genesis of the first project you worked on, which I believe was a documentary called DARE DEVILS?
Grant: Brian is my mentor. Brian taught me all the initial stuff about film-work. As the years have gone on, because he went to America and I stayed in Australia, I sort of picked up on other knowledge from other people since then, but I would have never got started without my introduction to Brian, and it was via another Australian stuntman who unfortunately died. Bob Woodham was his name. Bob was doing DARE DEVILS with Brian and introduced me to Brian, and it just so happened at that stage that I had done all the Commando work and the physical education, and as we talked, Brian was somebody who was a filmmaker looking for Action, and I had a background with a lot of action. Never would have thought of it being in film, but as I had told him stories of things that had happened, (a lightbulb went on over Brian's head) and he thought "Wow, I think I can make some film out of this!" And that started years of working together. We worked in Hong Kong, we went through the early stages of the Kung Fu era. It was a defining moment in my life.

Death Rattle: Other than Brian Trenchard-Smith who you seem to have a good relationship with, did you have any favorite directors that you worked with?
Grant: The other one other than Brian that taught me an enormous amount about the way that you can work an audience to anticipate and, in a kind of way, enjoy the action and the stunts, was George Miller. George talked about the way that he calculated the number of frames in a situation. I've used so many of the tricks that George taught me in the early MAD MAX films, and I still teach them in film schools now. To be quite honest with you, there are many Action directors in Australia, all of which I admire. I might be in my 70s, but every day I go out on the set, I learn something new, and that's only because you keep yourself open. If you think you already know it, then you stop learning. You never stop learning, not 'til the day you die. Things change, things move on. New things come along, and you gotta be able to pick up on those as they come along and not forget the things that got you there in the first place.

Death Rattle: Speaking of change, as far as CGI and special effects being prevalent today as opposed to when you started, what are the positives and negatives in regards to how it's affected the stunt profession?
Grant: Well, the positives, obviously, are that one can create a visual image that you couldn't do for reality by using soft explosions and using all the technology that we've gradually developed. Now that is a big advantage, in that you can go into a situation that will look as if you should be seriously injured or die and you're not, so it's very much part of what we do. But the disadvantages are that, all of a sudden, there's more people involved in the moment that you're trying to portray, and the more people there are involved, the more there is that can go wrong. I have one fear with modern Action work, it's that it's getting so complex that there is getting to be a lot more that can fail, and it only takes one little thing to go wrong in a mechanical or a technological support system. Whereas if you're relying on your own skill, on your own human animal, for which you can develop a very high skill factor and work within soft technology, you can keep yourself safe. So it worries me as things get more complex; there's more to go wrong.

Death Rattle: Has a filmmaker ever proposed a stunt to you that was too risky to pull of for whatever reason?
Grant: I firmly believe when I say this to a lot of directors: There is no such thing as an action sequence that you can't find out some way of shooting it. There are no problems, only solutions we haven't found yet. That applies to so much of life. There's always a way of using the camera and editing. There's always a way of creating the image in a way that the audience is gonna feel it.

Death Rattle: I'm a huge fan of the MAD MAX series, so I have to ask: why didn't you work on the second one? Was it just a timing thing?
Grant: I was in Canada doing CITY ON FIRE, which, at the time, was the biggest action movie I had ever been involved in. Getting to double for Shelly Winters - that was an honor, mate!

Death Rattle: Who do you still keep in touch with from the MAD MAX movies?
Grant: It's a funny thing in the film industry, in that you'll be on a film - and I've got a few hundred of them to my name now - for two months, three months, and you'll get so close with everyone because you're working twelve-hour days, and whatever spare time you have, you're usually drinking at the bar with them. You get so close, that it's like brother and sister, and yet on the day they say "Wrap!", you're on to another film, another group, maybe even another country. You'll kiss somebody goodbye one day, get on a plane, and suddenly you're as close to a total stranger on another film. And, I must admit, after all of these years, a lot of the old crew-lists that I look up and look at the names and I think "Oh, wow! I wonder how they're going!" It's probably one of the saddest things. Most people get to live a life where they develop close contacts, close friendships, and they can live through their lives with those people. In film, one gets that for a moment and then another moment with another group. It hasn't been all that wonderful for my partner relationships, in that I've been with some wonderful people who I've been really close and in love with, and yet because one moves away to another country and life changes, all of a sudden your life goes another way. One of the sad things about film is that you're very much like a film: you're there for that moment and then you're gone. Not much of a social life in some ways. Very exciting, very media-based, very up-front, but a little empty.

Death Rattle: What do the MAD MAX reunions in Australia consist of? Is it just a Question and Answer thing, or do they screen the films at all?
Grant: They screen the movie and then they have a Q&A afterwards, where the audience usually are people who have developed a relationship with the film. They've got various beliefs and attitudes and thoughts, and after years of the film being out, they'll throw those at you, and it's quite interesting because you'll hear it, but it's so different from the film you know. So, in a kind of way, you're thinking on your feet a lot. I find it interesting, in that, having been involved in filmmaking for so long, I can't get swallowed up emotionally by a film because I automatically look at the cuts, I look at where the camera was, I imagine the crew behind the camera, I wonder how many takes they took to get that shot right. I see it from a technician's point of view, so it gives me a different relationship to film than most other people I guess.

Death Rattle: What was working on MAD DOG MORGAN like? I've heard that Dennis Hopper was quite the handful on set.
Grant: When you're leaving America and crossing the Pacific to do a film called MAD DOG MORGAN and you're a character actor, you can imagine how Dennis was when he landed in Sydney. He was literally in character, because Mad Dog Morgan was a character almost like Dennis was in life. His energy on that film was great to work with. I had a moment where I was about to do an 80-foot jump backwards on fire into (11-feet) of water, Dennis, in an interview, said "I ain't seen anything like this." They turned the cameras off and he said "And I don't believe it anyway!" He eventually believed it. Dennis was the most entertaining character you could ever work with. Sure, from the production end he was probably a bit of a nightmare because they had to keep moving him from one motel room to another while the first one got repaired. Well, we'll put it this way, there was one scene in the movie where Mad Dog Morgan had ridden for two days, and he had to ride over the River Murray to get out of New South Wales and into Victoria, or the other way around, I can't remember which it was, because in those days we weren't federated and there were different laws in each of the states, so he could, much like an American, jump the same boundaries; to be the character that he had to be, to look like he'd ridden for two days, he decided to have a party the night before in his room, and his party was he spent the night charging and wrestling with everybody and getting drunker and drunker and rowdier and rowdier until call-time in the morning. The wardrobe girls came in and sort of dragged some clothes onto him, the wranglers took him out to the horse, they put him on the horse, they literally walked beside him to hold him on the horse, and they got him across the river. I reckon it was one of the best scenes in the movie. He was a method actor to the absolute method.

Death Rattle: What about THIRST, the vampire movie? What was that experience like?
Grant: That was an interesting one. It was shot in Melbourne. There was some exciting stuff on it. I remember some of the parties afterwards with David Hemmings drinking vodka on the wall of a 20-story building with (our backs) to the drop. They made the film look quite calm by comparison.

Death Rattle: If you were to pick three films from your career as the best examples of your stunt work, what would they be?
Grant: Well, probably, the one I did with (Brian Trenchard-Smith) where we were going all around the world looking for things to do (DARE DEVILS). That one taught me a lot. MAD MAX obviously taught me a hell of a lot. And then I would actually put together all of the work that I did with Brian Trenchard-Smith, from THE MAN FROM HONG KONG right through to THE LOVE EPIDEMIC and all of the Kung Fu work we did up in Hong Kong as the three areas that taught me the most about what I do, because it isn't as much somebody coming in and teaching you as going through the experience of doing something, coming up with the ideas to make it work, and then working out where your limits are. You see, a stuntman's job is to get right to the point of no return - right to that limit - and be able to predictably stop there. A lot of people could do what we do, but they haven't developed the judgment of when to stop, and knowing that point means that you can make something look very dramatic without the risk of stepping over the point of no return, and that's where experience will come in enormously. I know that right now, after 50 years in the game, I'm safer than back when I was doing the MAD MAX films and things like that because now my judgment is that much better.

Death Rattle: One last movie I'd like to ask you about is PATRICK. It's one of my favorites, not necessarily because of the stunts since it's not an Action film, but it's one of my favorite Aussie movies in general. What was working on that film like?
Grant: Well, I'm not gonna say too much because we're possibly gonna do it again. I'm just talking to (Mark Hartley) and you never know, we might have a new and better and bigger PATRICK to talk about. It's pretty definite at this stage - we're talking about it right now. In fact, that's one of the reasons that I was going down to Melbourne for the MAD MAX Cult Film, but unfortunately the director was out of Melbourne. That was one of the reasons that I couldn't go down.

Grant Page's MAN ON FIRE, available on Amazon

Death Rattle: Can you tell us a little bit about your book, "Man on Fire"?
Grant: I was born in the 30's last century. I'm a pre-war model! I was born before they invented the second World War, but it does mean that over that time I've developed a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, and a lot of them (were) learned the hard way. I don't want to die with that knowledge. I don't want other stuntmen to have to go through what I went through. There's cuts and bruises and scratches - you do get knocked around a little bit. I don't want them to have to go through what I did just to learn when I can pass it on. What I'm finding out now, more and more, is the desire to pass on the knowledge, so when I was approached by the publishers, I said "I'm a typical stuntman, I can't spell." So they got me a ghost writer, and I started going through old thoughts from 50 years back, and it was interesting, in that, while writing the book, I clarified a lot of my own thoughts. It's interesting that, when you have to put something on paper, you're very self-analytic about it, and I managed to put a lot of personal stuff in it, but a lot of what I feel makes stunt-work work, why it is safe to do it. And, in a lot of ways, why I start a lot of lectures by saying "Look, stuntmen are normal; all the rest of you are underdeveloped", it's not meant as putting anyone down, it's because we live in such an overprotective society that a lot of young people aren't given the opportunity to develop the survival skills that they're gonna need at some stage. It's really sad that that isn't even part of the school curriculum, even. We used to have Physical Education, but it was only about teaching sports, not about survival skills. I hope it's gonna be good for everyone that reads it. I'm hoping people will read that book and come away a better person, a stronger person, and a more confident person.

Death Rattle: Thanks for very much for your time, Grant. It's been an honor to speak with you.
Grant: Thank you very much. It is a good moment for people like myself who normally remain as anonymous as possible because we don't want to be noticed to put forward a few of the thoughts that we think are important and would like to pass on to the general public. Get out there and do everything, everyone, and don't let anything hold you back. Every single person listening can do anything that I've ever done in my life if they take the time to develop that skill.

Links to Grant Page's "Man on Fire: A Stunt of a Life":
Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble

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