Hollywood stuntman – one of those careers you really can’t just apply for straight out of school.
For Tommy Harper, the time elapsed since this leap of faith into the ludicrous world of the stunt business has been sizeable, the man himself now a legend of the game across the industry. With his grandfather a test pilot, and his dad a stuntman also, a natural immersion within the world of pushing the limits meant Tommy’s eventual career seemed like a logical progression.
One of his first blockbusters was Point Break (1991), a film where the stunt guys were considered the actors. Tommy tells us that ironically, its all now come full circle as his son (who is now in the family business also) was in fact the lead stunt double in the 2015 remake.
What all began riding as dirt bikes as a kid, Tommy is still Hollywood’s point man for when things get dangerous on camera. We crossed his path upon the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales to home cinema, with a mission to tap into the mind of the film’s stunt coordinator.
What may only take up 60 seconds of a film’s screen time, the crazy and elaborate action sequences require massive preparation efforts to get them right. For latest Pirates film’s impressive guillotine stunt, which by all accounts wasn’t significantly reliant on CGI, Tommy tells us it took about four long months from conception to shooting. “We rehearse and do dummy runs, show it to the directors and they tweak it…by the time we actually shoot we know what we’re doing and we’ve got it down.”
“I reach out to my man Kyle Gardiner, who’s the stunt guy in Australia (the film was shot here in Queensland) and say, alright, we need someone for this, you know who’s good I’ll let you source the right person.”
Given the nature of the industry, technology has been a huge asset to Tommy’s work, while also ensuring people like him need to keep up to speed with the latest. “I’ve had to study it hard, a lot has changed and we of course rely quite heavily on CGI where it makes our work easier – but we’re not out of a job just yet. There’s a lot of coordination between my team and the guys in the studio to make sure we get it right”
Actors may love to claim they do their own stunts but what you may not have previously thought about is who’s job it is to tell them no. Enter Tommy. We were curious if the specifics of who gets to do what were arranged by the actors’ management or the studio legal teams, but no.
“That’s all on me [laughs]. It’s a big responsibility yeah but I have good relations with the actors – I know Johnny [Depp] well for example. I’ll say to him look, Johnny, I’m gonna need you to do this one and he’ll be like, well I didn’t really want to, but okay.”
From here it’s a matter of easing into it, making sure Tommy and the actors know exactly who’s doing what and when. “We literally walk right through it from start to finish. We’ll take baby steps and work up to it so by the time we get to shooting everyone is well aware of what to do and how. It’s as safe as it can possibly be.”
The man’s rap sheet is long, with IMDB listing almost 100 films that Tommy has had some form of hand in, the stunt coordinator also dabbling in second unit directing in his more recent years. If you think of your favourite film from the last two decades, chances are he’s been at the helm of the action. From Iron Man to the Fast and Furious franchise, it was naturally difficult for Tommy to pinpoint a career highlight.
“Ah man, that’s so tough as each film has meaning to you in some unique way. Given the scale of Iron Man, that was definitely a big film for me, for sure. Although The Lone Ranger (also starring Depp) would have to be up there, filming across four states with these epic long train track sequences. The landscape was incredible and the sets unreal. The Pirates films, however, have just been pure fun.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and online.