When you watch action movies, do you wonder how they do those stunts without getting hurt? Or if they do get hurt, how many bones get broken before a scene is done right? Is there a two-bone maximum? I decided to find out first hand by taking an introductory two-hour class at the Hollywood Stunt School at 73 West St. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I hoped that, being a novice, I’d come out in one piece.
Since I love sharing adventures, I approached my boyfriend, Steve. He just laughed, “Have a good time, and, by the way, is your will in order?”
So I sauntered on over to my son’s room. “Spencer guess what? We can take a stunt class together and learn how to jump out a window!” He just looked at me, “Mom…(long pause)… most parents want to keep their kids away from the window, you want me to jump out of one!”
Determined, I turned to my good friend and assistant on many a project, Dale Killian. Dale said, “When do we go?”
Now that I had an accomplice, I looked on the website to get some information. Turns out most people who enroll in the school want to be professional stunt performers who take the full course and graduate. However, there are the curious bunch like me, who just want to give it a shot and have the opportunity to take a two hour class in either; high falls, trampoline, gymnastics or rappelling. If one wants to go further with stunts but not necessarily become a professional, one can also take a 3-day weekend class, a one-week intensive or a three-week intensive. The website goes into details on what each class offers.
Anyone above the age of 10 can sign up. The only requirements are, you have to be in good physical health and have no pre-existing injuries (and maybe be a little insane to think this is a fun idea). They also rent out the place for parties, team building and are available to do stunt shows. Their clients range from “AM New York to CBS to Yelp.”
After my initial investigation, I called the school to get some details like what I’d have to wear, can I take pictures and what else I needed to know. The very laid back owner, Bob Cotter, answered the phone, after a barrage of questions, and almost silence on his end, I was reassured, “ Fran, Don’t worry. We can teach you the right way to fall off a building, get hit by a car, fly over the handlebars of a bicycle, fall down steps or be lit on fire like one man wanted to do for his 80th birthday. Just dress comfortably and pick a Saturday either at 11 or 1 and come on down.” Seeing as Bob was an action guy and not much of a bragger, I decided to Google him.
Turns out Bob was a former NASCAR driver then turned stunt man and has been one for over 25 years. He’s worked in every form of media; commercials, movies & videos. He himself has done all of the above plus driven cars in high speed chases and had bottles broken over his head. In a nutshell, he’s done all the things most mothers tell their kids not to do, gets paid to do it, and now teaches it.
Bob’s also worked with celebrities in such films as “Rounders” with Matt Damon, and with music videos and bands like Bon Jovi. In fact, he got his stunt start with the Rolling Stones while he was an extra on the set in 1996. Turns out the director was frustrated with an actor who had been hired to fall, (apparently he wasn’t falling right) …out of the blue, Cotter went up to the director and offered to take a whirl at falling. The director hesitated but agreed. Bob did it successfully and his new career began. Years later, after repeatedly being asked, “How to you fall without getting hurt?” Cotter turned that question into a business. He decided to open up on the East Coast where there was a void for this training and thus Hollywood Stunts was born.
Like anyone with a dream Bob put all his energy into the school.
He said, “There were times I second-guessed my dream, but I never stopped reaching for it.” It was a dream that took years to acquire as he kept getting turned down by property owners who were concerned about safety. But Bob believed in himself and so he invested about $150,000 in equipment and pays about $65,000 a year for insurance. He opened his first school in the Bronx in 2007, stayed there for two years and now has been operating out of a long back alley in Brooklyn for the past four years.
I didn’t even meet the man yet and already I liked him.
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The “fall” day came. Dale & I were an hour late due to a GPS error. Apparently you have to put in “Greenpoint” and not “Brooklyn” as the address. Luckily were taking a semi-private class so we were the only two and not holding any other students up. Last thing we wanted was to miss the instructions on how to jump and just get pushed off the scaffold.
Getting to the entrance of the place is an adventure in itself, because you have to go down a back alleyway filled with delivery truck
s that led to a river. I felt I was in a hit scene in the “Soprano’s.” We ducked into the building simply marked, “Hollywood Stunts, NYC.”
We opened the door and into this airplane hanger sized playground. It was filled with gymnastic mats, staircases you could fall down, and huge four-story scaffold with an air mattress the size of a house below it. Posters from the movies that their stuntmen have been in were plastered all over the walls. Sweatshirts that had been burned in movies were framed. It was a hypochondriac’s nightmare and a stunt person’s dream castle.
Bob came over to us. “You ready to start?”
I looked at Dale. “ I guess so.”
And with that he introduced us to two of his 17 friendly but professional instructors, Kelvin (who’s into pro-wrestling) and Zack who likes to crash cars.
Without much ado, Kelvin jumped up on a stack of mats that was about, 5 feet tall and said, “Here is where you are going to learn how to fall. We’ll practice this a few times down here and when we feel you got it, you’ll jump off the scaffold. Okay?”
I stared at the 4-story scaffold. “That’s it, practice a few times, then climb that thing up the ladder and jump?”
Zack smiled, ”Yup.”
I looked at Dale. We both shrugged. “Okay.”
Kelvin explained, “The key here is to safely land on your back. It’s going to be counter intuitive as usually when people fall they try to break their fall with their hands or protect their head from hitting the ground. Here every part of your body from your head to your toes must hit and land on the mat at the same time. You will stand up here, take a step forward, stick your chest out, and keep your head straight out, or you will get whiplash when you hit the bag.”
I am a visual learner. “Just show me and I’ll get it.”
He jumped up like a cat, and in a few seconds, he was on his back smiling. I made him do it again, just to be sure.
After the second time I was ready to try. The first time doing anything is always scary because you don’t know what to expect. The mat seemed hard so I thought my head would hurt. I did my count, took a step, lunged my body out and hit the mat. It was over in a few seconds and it didn’t hurt.
Dale was up next. He hesitate a bit, reaffirmed the directions, then boom, he landed too. We did this a few more times. Bob was off silently to the side, laying down on a matt just observing.
So now the real test comes, jumping from the first platform which was 20 feet high. The blue Airbag is blown up full height to about 7 feet. It was now the moment of truth. I was about to climb up when Dale leaned over and whispered, “Did I ever tell you I am afraid of heights?”
I looked at him, “Are you serious?”
“Yup, thought this was a good way to get over it.”
Great, now I had to act even braver so my friend wouldn’t freak out.
Kelvin told us to relax. All we had to do was the same thing we did on the other mat, just a little bit higher. I asked him to demonstrate. He climbed the ladder, jumped, hit the mat, and rolled off the huge mat where Zack was waiting to help him down. We were instructed to roll with our arms across our chest. Now it was the moment of truth. Did I have what it takes to jump out of the equivalent of a 2 story building.
I climbed up the steel ladder which had slip proof guards on the steps, just in case some one “might” be nervous and sweat.
In my mind 20 feet is not that high, it’s only two stories. But when you get there and look down, well it seems a lot higher. Kelvin greeted me on the platform.
“Now it’s your turn. Take your time and try to hit that big rectangle patch in the middle.”
“What I have to aim too?”
I took a deep breath, yelled out, “Falling” to alert Zack. Then I just stood there. I had to brace myself and do that internal talk, “Capo just jump for goodness sakes, there is an air mat!” So I took a deep breath and jumped. As I hit the mat I was relieved. I rolled and moved to the side so Dale could go up next.
Bob came up to me and said, “You hesitated a split second, that could get you hurt. Decide to do it and jump.” In my mind I didn’t but to the trained eye, it was a blip that was on his radar. I took his advice not to hesitate the next time around. It is good advice for life as well.
With one high jump under my belt I felt better, now I knew what to expect.
Dale now climbed the ladder. I saw him looking, talking, looking, talking, talking some more, then finally he jumped. We were both relieved.
We got our critiques, then tried it a few more times. It was a little bit exhausting since there was only the two of us, so there was no waiting around for others to climb. After two tries each on the second story we were ready to move up in the stunt world.
All I can say was 3 stories is a LOT higher than 2. Yeah, yeah…it’s only a mere 30 feet, but the next time you pass a building look at the 3rd story window and tell me how readily you’d jump out of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of heights but more how hard I will hit the ground. On the three story I did one false start, gathered my courage and said, “Capo, just do it.” I did and bam! I was fine.
Dale was now up. I was worried about my friend. He not only had to jump but conquer his fear as well. I waited, he talked, I waited, he jumped. YES!!!
Before I could even finish my thought he already had jumped, yelling, in victory as he did. I smiled. Mission accomplished.
We leaped off the three story platform a few more times. On the last time Dale yelled out in victory: mission accomplished. I smiled.
With that I got a few more pointers from Bob on how to improve our jumps and then class was over. Amazing how fast two hours of jumping can go. So the next time you walk past a three story building think of me and say, ‘Hey Capo did that, and if I want I can too!”
Here’s to happy and safe stunts!
For more info, contact Hollywood Stunt School: Phone: (917) 548-5461; E-Mail: [email protected]