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Another Oscar for 'Titanic'?

What Would a Best Stunt Oscar Category Look Like?

"The Fall Guy" team has led the push for the Academy Awards to recognize stunts, so we asked what would warrant a nomination.
'The Fall Guy'
'The Fall Guy'

Behind the scenes, director David Leitch and producer Kelly McCormick have been instrumental in the movement for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts to recognize stunts. The director-producer husband-wife team hasn’t been shy in using their new film, “The Fall Guy,” a love letter to stunt professionals, to advance the cause. And it’s a cause that is increasingly looking like it will become a reality; a significant victory came last spring with the creation of the new Production and Technology Academy branch, which includes stunt professionals and therefore supplies the necessary pathway to a Best Stunt Design category at the Oscars.

“We’ve always been in the shadows, [but] that’s not the problem,” Leitch said when he was a guest on an upcoming episode of the Toolkit podcast to discuss “The Fall Guy.” “That was maybe the misconception for the Academy, ‘Well, these guys want awards because they want recognition for these one-off stunts.’ That’s not it. The recognition that we want is [our] artistic contribution to the movie. So if you look at ‘Ben Hur,’ what is ‘Ben Hur’ without the chariot [races]? It’s not anything.”

Leitch, who started his career as a stunt performer, worked on all types of movies, and with a stunt award, both Leitch and McCormick believe this variety will be reflected in awards campaigns and nominations.

“Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, cinema’s great first directors all were stunt performers and told stories through action,” said Leitch. “And that’s what the stunt department does on your Adam Sandler comedy, as well as your Paul Thomas Anderson [or] A24 [films]. We amplify drama, comedy, stakes, relationships, and in ‘The Fall Guy,’ we amplify a love story.”

Watch the Leitch and McCormick-produced 2024 Oscar Stunt Tribute.

To Leitch’s point, awards season helps frame the conversation about the contribution of different crafts to the artistic process of the best films of the year. His example of “Ben Hur,” which won 11 Oscars in 1960, along with other multi-award-winning dramas that had vital stunt contributions, like “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan,” is purposeful.

“I use those references to clearly make the point to anyone listening, and in the Academy as well, these are dramatic movies. These are Academy Award-worthy movies,” said Leitch. “It’s not what you think when you say ‘xXx’ and someone’s space jumping out of a car that’s flying off a bridge, which is also incredibly compelling — Tim Rigby [aerial and vehicle performer, who did the Base jump on “xXx”] is one of my best friends. Stunt design is really how it impacts the movie going experience.”

McCormick sees the Oscars expansion to 10 Best Picture nominations as having already opened the door to the Academy recognizing more genre films, but she also points to how other craft categories often feature match-ups between prestige dramas and genre films. For example, the Best Sound category last year matched “Zone of Interest,” “Oppenheimer,” and “Maestro” against “The Creator” and “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” This is exactly why “The Fall Guy” producer is looking forward to the potential conversations that a Stunt Award and subsequent race will generate.

“I’m thinking about other departments and what ends up winning versus what doesn’t end up winning, and it’s always questionable, right? It’s always kind of like whatever connects with the voting population,” said McCormick. “I think it’ll be really interesting to watch. Would ‘Everything, Everywhere All at Once’ have won the Stunt Award last year? It won everything else, so probably, right? And was it the biggest action of the year? Not at all, ‘Maverick’ probably was, or even ‘Avatar.’”

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Allyson Riggs/A24

In years the award doesn’t get swept up into a “Everything Everywhere All at Once”-like sweep, McCormick forsees the framing of the horse race conversation gravitating toward more character-based work. Added Leitch, “And so what’s exciting is that maybe more commercial movies can be recognized, like the stuff that Tom [Cruise] and [stunt coordinator] Wade Eastwood do in the ‘Mission [Impossible]’ movies is incredible.”

“Fall Guy” stunt designer Chris O’Hara sees a potential Stunt Award shining a light on stunt performance, which is already its own specific Emmy category, separate from stunt coordination. This would include, but extend far beyond stars like Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Michelle Yeoh, and Charlize Theron, who put the hard prep work into incorporating stunts into their performances.

“It’s the action actors, like, ‘There’s bad guy number two,’ and you know from being in the stunt business, that’s a stunt guy,” said O’Hara. “It’s time we brought light to it so other people see the same thing we do.”

One potential fun complications for Oscar prognosticators and awards strategists will be how multifaceted the stunt department has become. It oversees fight choreography (with a variety of fight styles), wire work, vehicle and aerial stunts, and all the rigging and safety precautions involved with big falls, fire, jumps, and swings through the air.

“That’s the thing that we’re trying to figure out,” said O’Hara. “There are movies that are very vehicle-based, or there’s movies that are very fight-based, or there’s movies that are very rigging-based. And so all these different nuances to the stunt industry make that a very broad [category].”

photo of Bullet Train director David Leith and his wife, producer Kelly McCormick
Director David Leitch and producer Kelly McCormickSony

McCormick points to the Hair and Makeup Oscar as an example. The branch and Academy voters have gone through varying trends of which aspect to focus on between hair styling, makeup design, or special effects prosthetic character work — all of which are separate categories in the Emmy and Guild awards. This is one of the reasons McCormick worked with Universal, the DGA, and SAG-AFTRA to ensure O’Hara received the first-ever stunt designer credit on “The Fall Guy” rather than the commonly used stunt coordinator credit. The word designer not only puts an emphasis on the artistry involved with stunts, but it also underlines all these different aspects of stunts are part of an overall design.

“In production design there’s construction, painters, greenery, there’s any number of things,” said McCormick. “If we’re talking about the Academy, I go back to the [stunt] coordinator who’s decided which members of the team to bring together to achieve the things the director wants.”

That sense of a Head of Department, may it be the stunt coordinator, or if stunt designer is adopted as a more widely accepted credit, being the point person who would win the award, or be the name at the top of the list of nominees, will be key to the conversation of uniting the different stunt disciplines.

“It’s not about individual’s work,” said O’Hara. “It’s not the guy who designed that set, it’s about the whole big picture of what the production designer has created in the world of the movie. That’s the idea for the Stunt Design category in the Academy: ‘Did the action fit the story? What’s the whole package of the movie?'”

'The Fall Guy'
‘The Fall Guy’Universal Pictures

“I think that that’s what people don’t really realize is we’re taking a blank slate. We’re taking something that was on a piece of paper and forming it — how do we mold these situations into our locations and our budget and our [schedule],” said O’Hara. “All of these different ideas and working together with different departments to make it all happen, that’s what a stunt designer does.”

One of the things top stunt coordinators, like O’Hara, also do is serve as the second unit director. They not only design the action in front of the camera, but they also design how it is shot (working within the overall vision and visual grammar of the director). This is why the future of a potential Best Stunt Award very well might be interpreted through an even broader and all-encompassing lens of best action design.

It’s a term that was used a few different times in these interviews and speaks to the larger, multi-faceted, and more holistic contribution of the Stunt Department that “The Fall Guy” team sees is what will ultimately be what wins the prospective award.

Below are five films “The Fall Guy” team believes could and should have won a Best Stunt Design award. 

‘Titanic’ (1997)

TITANIC, 1997. TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Titanic’©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: James Cameron
Stunt Coordinator: Simon Crane

“Titanic” was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11, including Best Picture.

Leitch: “‘Titanic’ could have won for best action design. There’s probably like 300 stunt performers credited on that movie. The amount of rigs they’re being thrown from, the water that they had to consume, to make those sequences as dynamic and dramatic as possible.”

‘Saving Private Ryan‘ (1998)

‘Saving Private Ryan’©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stunt Coordinator: Simon Crane

“Saving Private Ryan” was nominated for 11 Oscars and won five, including Best Director.

Leitch: “The storming the beach in Normandy scene is one of the most dramatic moments in cinema history. It probably involves 200 stunt performers hitting air rams, dodging explosions, and getting hit by squibs and falling — it’s incredible choreography. It’s not one thing. Is it gratuitous action? No, we don’t want that. We like how it blends with the other department.”

O’Hara: “It’s a war movie, but they’re all stunt performers, and the action fits the story. That’s what we’re trying to do with this whole stunt design [award], is really show people as a stunt coordinator, he coordinates the stunts with the story.”

‘Mission Impossible’ Films

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, Tom Cruise, 2018. Ph: Chiabella James /© Paramount /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Mission: Impossible Fallout”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Director (last three films): Christopher McQuarrie
Stunt Coordinator (last film films): Wade Eastwood

Tom Cruise has starred in and produced seven “Mission Impossible” films; only the most recent, “Dead Reckoning Part I,” has been nominated for an Oscar (Best Sound and Visual Effects).

Leitch: ”The stuff that Tom [Cruise] and Wade Eastwood do in the ‘Mission’ movies is incredible. And Tom’s doing [the stunts], but his whole team behind them are all really stunt designing it, rehearsing it, R&D’ing it, training Tom and getting him up to speed, doing all the safety protocols, and all of that stuff is what we want to be recognized for, not the one-off stunt.”

‘The Matrix’ (1999)

"The Matrix"
“The Matrix”Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Lana & Lilly Wachowski
Stunt Coordinator: Glenn Boswell

The first “Matrix” film was nominated for and won four Oscars: Best Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects.

O’Hara: “Those movies changed the film industry, especially the first one; I worked on ‘Matrix’ Two and Three. For filmmaking, everybody wanted ‘The Matrix’-type of action, the bullet cam, the visual effects became a really big part of that movie and it transitioned the film business and stunts into something new.”

Leitch [a martial arts stunt performer on the film]: “My generation came in, and ‘The Matrix’ was a big influential time in my career as a stunt performer. I learned and became heavily exposed to wire work, martial arts, and how that all works. And hopefully, we took that to the next level during our 20 years in the stunt world.”

The ‘Bourne’ Films

'The Bourne Ultimatum’
‘The Bourne Ultimatum’Universal

There have been five films starring Matt Damon at Jason Bourne. The franchise has won three Oscars: Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing.

O’Hara: “I think I’ve been really fortunate in my career path that in my 30 years, it’s been pretty cool to be part of a couple of movies that have changed the film industry. I was part of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ [stunt double for Matt Damon], ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ [stunt performer], and ‘Bourne Legacy’ [stunt coordinator]. These are movies that became very stylized and changed the way people wanted to do fight scenes and action. If we had an award at that time, I think that those would have been movies that definitely deserved [recognition].”

Look out for IndieWire’s “Toolkit” episode with David Leitch on podcast platforms May 2. “The Fall Guy” opens in the theaters May 3.

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