Legend of the fall

This weekend at The Carolina Asheville, the second annual ActionFest—the only film festival dedicated to action cinema and the people who help make it happen—will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to stuntman and stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker.

While not by any means a household name, Hooker has nevertheless been a huge part of not only action films, but cinema as a whole, working with directors as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby and Sam Peckinpah. With fifty years in the film industry, working on numbers of titles, from the obscure—like the wonderfully titled Battletruck (1982)—to staples of modern pop cinema, such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. The man’s credits are a phone book’s worth of big-name titles, to the point that it’s almost impossible to have passed over his work. Buddy Joe talked with Xpress via telephone to discuss stunts, film, and what it’s like to jump off a cliff.

Mountain Xpress: How do you feel about being selected for a lifetime achievement award?

Buddy Joe Hooker: Of course, it’s an incredible honor to be recognized for what you do, and to be honored for their specific art form is something every person looks forward to. I never really thought about looking forward to it, but now that it’s here, it’s been an unbelievable thing to think about, to be honored for all the stuff you just love to do your whole life and it’s been part of your life. And now you get to have some acclaim for it because other people like what you’re doing. I think that’s the most exciting part for me, is to know other people appreciate what I’ve been doing. I think that’s the coolest part.

Doing your type of work, it’s usually behind-the-scenes.

You know, the behind-the-scenes stuff really doesn’t bug me, that’s kind of been the way it is since day one. The early parts of filmmaking, they kept stunt people in the back because they wanted the audience to believe it was actually the actor doing everything. As time has gone on, the audiences have become more sophisticated, they understand all of that.

A lot of the time, we’re not really behind-the-scenes. I definitely get my moment on stage. When I’m doing these big stunts, I have all the attention, everything is directed totally to what I’m doing. It’s like a performer who works in the theater, you get that moment. So the behind-the-scene stuff doesn’t really bother me too much, and it’s always recorded on film, so I can always look at it later. It’s not that bad.

How important do you find a film festival like ActionFest?

I think that a festival like ActionFest is really important, because there’s a definitely large group of the filmgoing audience that are aware of the action pieces in film and their contributions. So I think that ActionFest is something for this group of people. It’s very important, and I think as time goes on, that whole audience is going to get bigger and bigger.

Because when you think about it, since day one, when films started in the silent movies, action was a big part of it, and it’s remained that way. Some of the highest grossing and most important films of all time have been action oriented. I think it’s a great platform for action films, plus the audience to get involved, for people to understand what we do as stuntmen and how things are done and all of those contributions, I think that’s just a great thing.

I read that your father was a stuntman, as are your wife, your brother, and both of your sons. How did that become the family business?

It all started with my father. My father was from Texas, he grew up with horses and was sort of a horse trainer and everything, and came to California in the early ‘40s and got a small little ranch in the San Fernando Valley near Hollywood. And he had horses, and he started breeding these horses to be in the film industry. They call them cast horses, where all the big stars wanted to ride the best horses. So, it ended up that my father had the horses for The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy and Lash LaRue, all these people. From that part, then he started doing stunts in the film industry, which the only stunts that were done were Western stunts, so he was great at that. So that’s sort of how it evolved, from a real Texas cowboy getting into the film industry and becoming a stuntman.

He didn’t want me to be a stuntman, he wanted me to be an actor, so that’s how my young acting career started. He wanted me to avoid the pitfalls of being a stuntman. After a while, I just couldn’t resist it because it was a lot more fun, and I felt that I did a much better job as a stuntman than I did as an actor.

Can you—at this point—imagine yourself doing anything else as a career?

At this point, no, and I’ve often asked myself what would I’ve done. I had several options, I could’ve been an actor, I had a scholarship to an art school, so I could’ve been an artist. I could’ve been a lot of things. But looking back on it, there isn’t one thing I would change in my life so far as my stunt career, except that maybe I could’ve done more stunts. I don’t know how that would be possible, but the only thing I would’ve like to do is more of it. It’s just been an incredible life, and I know that I’ve been very fortunate because it is a dangerous business, and you do get physically abused, and a lot of stuntmen have been hurt very seriously, or even killed. So I feel fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to have this long of a duration with—knock on wood—relatively few injuries, and have been able to do some incredible stunts, some that I look back on and might not want to do again. And that I have the opportunity and the skills to do it. I can’t see myself doing anything else, nor would I want to.

While we’re on the topic of the danger of being a stuntman, do you find it stressful, or does it come naturally to you?

There’s a lot of different types of stuntmen. There are stuntment that do a certain category of stunts, and there are stuntmen that try and go outside the envelope and search for the biggest, the most dangerous, the most difficult kinds of stunts, and that’s kind of where I was. When I started, to make a name for yourself, you really had to do some extraordinary things to get noticed, to develop a name. Anybody who says they do these things and they have no fear, those people worry me.

There’s definitely a lot of fear involved and a lot of stress, but what I’ve been able to do—and I’ve talked to a lot of other stuntmen about this, the successful ones, they’ve found a way or a device to take the fear part, and put it in a compartment and set it aside and go ahead and do what you have to do. Because when you’re doing a serious stunt, you have to have great confidence, because confidence lessens the fear potential. Then you have to take that fear and understand that it’s a good thing to understand you’re afraid, and you have to put that aside so you can have 100% concentration and focus on what you’re doing. When you can do that, then most everything you do is going to be successful. I’ve seen the stuntmen who have been injured, you can tell going into it that they’re not confident about what they’re doing, and that might be because of their skill set, but you have to be able to take the fear and put it away. It’s always going to be there, and anybody who says it’s not is crazy.

There is a lot of stress. I mean, when you’re standing on the top of a hundred foot cliff, and when they say action, you’ve got to leave the cliff and fall a hundred feet through some trees into an airbag, you’re telling yourself how can I override my sensibilities. My brain is telling me this is just not the right thing to do. You could get hurt here, you could die here. To have the ability to set all that real common sense aside and to believe in what you’re doing, and to tell your brain, “OK, this is all good, I’m still going to do it when they call action.” To have that ability, I think, is very important. It’s not inherent. I’m not sure where it came from. It might’ve been part of my DNA, which I’m sure it was, but a lot of the ability to set fear aside has to do with how confident you are and how good you are in what you do. So that gives you a lot of freedom.

Have you ever encountered a stunt that maybe you couldn’t do, or you didn’t want to do?

Actually, you know, I’ve pondered that question quite a bit, and there never really ever has been a stunt that I never thought I couldn’t do, or I could say no to. What I have done is tell some producers that I can do this stunt but it has to be done this way. As long as I can do the stunt and prepare it, and do what I need to do in order to do it successfully, I’ve never seen one that couldn’t be done physically. I mean, I could jump a car to the Moon if you gave me the proper rockets. It’s just a matter of having the right equipment and all the skills needed.

It’s very hard for me to talk like this because I don’t want to seem egotistical, or telling you how great I am. It’s hard to talk about yourself.

It’s fine. I’m kind of fascinated with it because—on a personal level—roller coasters freak me out. I went on an airplane for the first time this year.

Have you been able to work through that part?

I still don’t want to go on roller coasters, I feel uncomfortable about that, but I did go on an airplane.

I’ve got a quick story. This was maybe ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. I got a job to do a campaign for Dramamine, and the campaign was that every weekend for eight weeks I flew to a different spot in the United States and rode roller coasters. Every major roller coaster in the United States, from Coney Island, all of them. And that was my job, to fly to these roller coasters, do a critique on them, and at the end of the eight weeks tell them which one I thought was the most exciting and the most dangerous and all that kind of stuff. So that’s a job maybe you don’t want.

I mean, if they’re going to pay me …

It was great to get paid to go do something like that, but for me it was no big deal, but I can understand where there are people that just won’t get on a roller coaster. So that’s kind of like when you talk about being a stuntman, certain people that are mentally equipped for it, it’s like that divine law of compensation. You can write great, I can’t write for shit. But I can jump off of stuff.

I’m personally fine not being able to jump off of stuff, but I like that you can do it. You’ve been in the business four decades now, right?

A little bit more than that, but we can say four decades. About fifty years.

How have you seen the business change? I was just curious about how so much stuff now is computer heavy in their special effects.

I’ve seen it change. When I first started, we didn’t really have airbags, we were doing falls where you would take four-by-four cardboard boxes and stack them and do high falls into that. So, as far as the changes in technology and equipment and safety, it’s phenomenal. There’s stuff you can do physically now that was somewhat impossible to do when I started.

As far as the CGI stuff, I don’t think it’s ever going to completely take over. I know there’s a generation who grew up on computer games and they require that and if they see a movie that’s not computer generated, they’re going to be disappointed. I don’t think stunts are going to go away, but at some point people are going to realized that the reason you go to a film in the first place is to get involved in it and believe what’s going on and have some personal involvement in it. With the computer generated stuff, personally I find it hard to believe anything that’s happening. I think at one point, when they want to start doing something different again, they’ll go back to the real-time stuff.

It’s just the style that people are interested in now has dented our business a little bit. I don’t think that stuntmen will ever be totally replaced. It has dwindled quite a bit. The people that make a living doing stunts now as compared to 20 years ago is a lot less. The competition is very stiff now. I don’t tell people that the stunt industry is something you should get as a vocation.

I do agree with what you’re saying about real live effects. I’ve grown up on video games and CGI, and I’m to the point where I’m conditioned to catch them. So when I see real stunts or real anything in a movie, there’s something more solid there, and I prefer it.

And it’s different, too. Producers will say, “Hey, I want to do something real different,” you know, that hasn’t been done, that they’re not doing. And I tell them, “You know what? If you want to do something different, let’s do it real.” There are some moments when CGI is fantastic and can really add some facets to a stunt, or just do something that is impossible, but to have the basis of what you’re doing to be real, to me that’s different. And I understand that everyone likes something different and I think there’s a place for everything, I just have seen a dwindling need for the real stuff.

I wanted to ask what you’re favorite movie is that you’ve worked on? If you have one.

That question is really difficult to answer, because when you do films like The Outsiders and Rumblefish, Harold and Maude and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that kind of stuff, which are kind of monumental films, all because they were just unique and one of a kind. So it’s very difficult.

But as far as a film that I probably enjoyed the physicality of it—and that one I did the stunt coordination on as well—would be To Live and Die in L.A.. That was a great film as far as the physical part of it. I’ve done some incredible films with great directors, but if I had to list one that would be it.

Hooper was my second favorite film, because I got to do all the stunts for Jan Michael Vincent who played the young stuntman, so that was a fun one as well.

That’s based on you, right?

That’s based on myself and Hal Needham, who started out doubling Burt Reynolds. Hal Needham ended up directing it. He wrote it about our experiences, and got the movie made and the result was Hooper.

It was a story about the old-style stuntman and the new stuntman with the new techniques. I think it’s about time for a new one of those.

Do you have a favorite stunt?

One of my favorite stunts was in First Blood, which was the first Rambo film with [Sylvester] Stallone. And I did a fall off a cliff—a 120 foot fall—through a bunch of trees and landed in an airbag. To me, that was one of my favorite stunts, and was something that a lot of people didn’t think was possible.

Aside from ActionFest, the Asheville Film Society will be doing a screening of Harold and Maude at The Carolina as well. What are your feelings towards that movie?

It’s really a sweet, great movie, and Hal Ashby, the director, was just an incredible guy. That was the first film we worked on together, and then we ended up being great friends and did a lot of stuff after that.

You consider him one of your mentors, right?

Yes. Hal Ashby, I spent a lot of time with him, on a personal basis as well as professional. And he’s a very giving guy, one of the most talented directors I’ve ever worked with, and won an Academy Award when he started out as a film editor. So his knowledge of the filmmaking process and directing actors was just phenomenal. And I think that a lot of what I learned from him as far as the content of telling a story and the texture came from him. He really was a giving person as far as knowledge.

The press release ActionFest sent out listed Hal, and also William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola as [your] mentors. Was there anything specific you learned from them?

I think when my whole embodiment of stunt coordinating and my second-unit directing evolved from the knowledge that I got from them. Each one of them, there were different things to learn. You learn about the system, and to do what you need to do and still create and be artful and all of that, and not be compromised by budgeting. By hanging around those people and spending a lot of time around them, you really learn everything about filmmaking, and especially how to do what I do better, because it’s just one component part of the whole process.

As far as one specific thing, it’s kind of hard to list something. I’ve been working the past few years with a director named Jon Avnet, who’s really great, and I’ve learned a lot of specific things from him. With the new system of filmmaking, the budget is really important. So from him I’ve learned how to get everything we want to do within the parameters of the budget. So basically he taught me how to do a film and to do stunt sequences that I’m very happy with, and that I can still have some intelligent content come out of it.

On the other side, are there any directors you haven’t liked working with? Who were maybe reckless?

Not really. Actually, in my early parts, there were some directors that I thought had very little compassion for stuntment, but those names have escaped me. I can’t even remember their names I’ve put them so far out of my mind. If there was one, I didn’t work with him twice.

A guy I worked quite a bit with, Sam Peckinpah, he was a man who really demanded a lot from stuntpeople, and wanted the best, but still was a sweet, compassionate guy, and didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But I’m talking about him in a good way.

On your IMDb page, they have listed that you hold four world records. Is this correct?

So far, the world records that I have, they’re things that, I think, they’re jumping motorcycles a lot further than I am now. What I did then was a ramp-to-ramp jump over a helicopter while its landing. No one’s done that. They’ve jumped further but they haven’t done that kind of thing, so that record still stands. The repel down the 25-story building, I haven’t seen that done anywhere or heard about it, although, at this time, I’m sure they could go 500 feet, because, when we did it for Hooper, we had to have the rope specially made because they didn’t have any repelling rope that was 250 feet long. That was kind of specific back then, it was kind of a big deal. Now, stuntment could do that all day long, though no one has done it. So that’s cool.

Do you have a record that’s your favorite?

The one that I’m proudest of that I don’t think will ever get done again is the 22 rolls in a pick-up truck. I think that one will stand for quite some time. Nobody’s ever going to want to do that again. I don’t!

Actually, I would do it again, but I would but I would use some up-to-date stuff. That was a long time ago. If you see the clip, you can see how the rollcage starts to disintegrate, and—I did it with another friend of mine—and our bodies started whacking against each other and all that.

And for my last question, have you ever watched a film and seen a stunt that you didn’t do, but maybe wished you had?

Not really. I mean, I’ve seen some stuff that I would like to be involved in it, a lot of the car chases, like some of that stuff in Ronin. But nothing I would die for. Every time you see a good car chase, you always wish you were in there doing it. Every time I see one of those, I go, “Aw man, I would love to be in there.” And maybe I would’ve done that turn just a little bit better, or a little bit this or that.

Click here for ongoing coverage of ActionFest 2011.

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