After doing stunt school this past summer, you can imagine how my interest was immediately piqued by a new TV show on Speed called Stuntbusters. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at deconstructing and demonstrating stunts – focusing on automotive stunts. I was hoping that they’d cover the full range of stunts – but I understand why they had to focus, if only because they have find the right real-life stuntpeople as hosts.

Ripping off the Roof

Garrett Hammond and Vanessa Vander Pluym serve that role well – they’re photogenic, well-spoken, and do their own stunts on the show. The last part is a really important part of these type of shows – the hosts need to be a credible expert. For example, the Discovery Channel show Future Weapons has a ex-Navy SEAL demonstrating all the cutting-edge weapons they can get their hands on.

Future Weapons Season 1 (3 DVD Set)

The portions of the show where they deconstruct stunts are only mildly interesting – it’s like Mythbusters Lite. In the episode (Ep. 2 “Bulletproof Beater”) where they crash 2 cars head-on, they use the cable-tow system that Mythbusters fans have seen many times.

Mythbusters: Collection 1

What makes Stuntbusters unique is when Vanessa and Garrett actually go and do their own spectacular stunts. Watching Vanessa do the “can-opener” stunt in the first episode is heart-stopping. This is where stuntwoman drives a car at 50mph up a slight ramp, where it proceeds to launch into the air, impact and rip the roof off a target car, then flip end over end to land roof-on-roof onto a third card. Crazy. I remember thinking, “I hope they’re paying these guys a lot to do this.” They’re putting their lives on the line. An injury while hosting a TV show can derail their careers, just as surely as doing stunts on TV and movie gigs. (See the recent injuries and deaths of stuntmen on the movie sets of The Expendables and G.I. Joe 2). That’s why they don’t feature a lot of spectacular (read dangerous) stunts on the show – which unfortunately is exactly what viewers are looking for.

I’ll keep watching the show – I just love to learn about stunts, especially about an area that I’m not familiar with at all. Best wishes to Vanessa and Garrett – stay safe!


Margin Call

Margin Call is a remarkable movie.  The premise is straightforward:  24 hours in the life of a Lehman Brothers-esque finance firm at the start of the 2008 financial crisis.  Since we all know how that turned out, the audience can sit back and just watch the wonderful acting, the smart, tight writing, and atmospheric dread hanging over every shot.

Margin Call [Blu-ray]

Let’s start with the actors. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) plays a young financial analyst who discovers that something’s very wrong with the firm’s books. I’ve liked his acting ever since I saw him as the scarily malevolent Sylar in the TV series Heroes (before it jumped the shark). Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects and so many others) is his world-weary boss. Simon Baker (The Mentalist) plays Kevin Spacey’s boss. Demi Moore (A Few Good Men) and Jeremy Irons (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) round out the star-studded cast. Even Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), and Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) make appearances in the film.

Star Trek (Single-Disc Edition)
Heroes - Season One
The Usual Suspects [Blu-ray]
The Mentalist: The Complete First Season
A Few Good Men (Special Edition)
Die Hard With a Vengeance [Blu-ray]
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 10/20/08
Battlestar Galactica: The Complete 2004 Series [Blu-ray]

All this acting talent is not wasted. The opening scene of mass layoffs at the firm recall the impersonal corporate coldness of George Clooney’s Up in the Air. As the scope of the coming financial disaster is revealed, the situation is “escalated” to ever-higher layers of superiors who are as willfully ignorant of the details of how their own firm runs as they are obscenely rich and profligate in their use of power.

I loved how the director assumes the audience is smart. Financial jargon is largely unexplained, combined with clever use of “plain-English” exposition where the underlings have to explain to the bosses how much trouble they’re in. Even the movie’s title is never mentioned in the movie – if you know what a margin call is, you know it’s bad, and it doesn’t bode well for the firm. Another touch I really liked was the use of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude during a key point in the film. The prelude (Prélude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15) is all about rain – a sweet, light sprinkle in the beginning; stormy and turbulent in the middle; the rain washes away in the end. The passage used was, of course, the middle passage to presage the coming storm. A perfect touch.

Easily one of my favorite films of the year.


Special Skills: Ping Pong Madness

On an acting resume, the “Special Skills” section is generally where people put those skills that might be useful on the stage or on set. I have a special place in my heart for them, because, let’s face it, the vast majority of on-camera work I’ve done has been more “special skills” than “acting”. I booked my first gig (as a ninja on a national TV commercial) because of hobbies I’d pursued for years – and in the logic of commercial casting, Asian + Martial Arts + Gymnastics = Ninja.

One special skill I’ve been training in is ping pong. Purists might refer to it as “table tennis” – I guess because it makes it sounds less like some rinky-dink game, and more like a “sport”. In Chinese, the characters are literally a transliteration of “ping pong”, so it doesn’t bother me to call it that. When I lived in San Francisco, I trained with Masaaki Tajima at the Sunset Table Tennis Club, and even competed in a few tournaments (my last USATT rating was 988, dating from May 2001 – which makes me a good beginner). Then I stopped playing for a long time, and picked it back up in the last couple of years.

After leaving my latest ping pong training session (tired but happy), I thought of how ping pong related to acting. As I’ve mentioned before, you have to build up your foundation of training – the basic core skills of any pursuit. But then, once you’re “performing” in a game or on camera, you have to let your “muscle memory” take over. Overthinking is what will destroy your rhythm and take you out of the moment. In a sport as fast as ping pong, you do your strategy beforehand – once the point starts and the ping-ponging gets crazy, you can only react to what your opponent and the situation is giving you. When the point is over, you have to put it behind you, and move on to the next point. You retain some awareness of what has gone on before, and the general arc of how the game is going, but the important thing is to be present in what’s happening now. Hmm… sounds a lot like the way you’re supposed to approach auditions, or takes, doesn’t it?

Like everything else – eventually the robots will take over. Here’s a video clip of Chinese robots playing ping pong:

Of course, the robots are not quite at this level yet:

Look especially at 2:30, when Timo Boll of Germany switched the paddle to his other hand in mid-point, hit a stroke, switched it back to this original hand, and won the point. Ridiculous.


Situation Normal: All Made Up

I got onto the subway train with my face and hands smudged, looking like I rolled around in the dirt all day. Of course, this being NYC, no one gave me a second look. Maybe they thought I still haven’t recovered from Halloween. More likely though, they didn’t think about it at all – once they decided that I didn’t look or smell like a homeless person. It takes a lot to make a New Yorker give up their hard-won seat on the subway.

It was actually makeup from Hollywood’s version of Occupy Wall Street – shooting on the set of The Dark Knight Rises – the latest Batman movie from director Chris Nolan, starring Christian Bale (Batman), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Catwoman), Tom Hardy (Bane), and others.

Here’s a taste of one of the mass fight scenes, filmed by someone who lives above Wall Street, where we were shooting. I was one of over 1000 extras, which apparently breaks the record for the number of paid extras used for shooting a movie in NYC.

Showbiz is often surreal. One moment you’re running down Wall Street, screaming your head off with a thousand other people in full costume. Next thing you know, you’re stepping beyond the barricades surrounding the set, back to the “real world” of paying taxes, hanging out with friends, and having fun the normal way, like going to the movies… oh wait. Is the real world actually that different?

Wardrobe? Business clothes – check.
Hair & makeup? You have to look the right way every day – check.
Script? “To be or not to be, that is the question” vs. “let’s get on the same page about the synergies from pooling these value-added services with your portfolio” – check.
Credit? You get a title to play a role on the company org chart – check.
Resume? Listing your professional training, experience and skills – check!

Of course – there are differences, if you want to nitpick. Perhaps showbiz is a little more upfront about the fact that you’re putting on a show. And the same applies in reverse – show business is just that – a business. However, that doesn’t take away the creativity – just as there are showbiz people who are great on the business side, there are designers and engineers and managers in the corporate world who are just as creative as anybody in showbiz. Just specific skills applied in different contexts. And I will always admire and respect professional behavior and spectacular work, wherever I encounter it.