4 out of 5 dentists agree. We didn't believe it either.
With more than 50 film and TV credits to his name, he’s appeared in some of the biggest blockbusters of the last 15 years as well as being in over 100 episodes of the hit TV show Smallville. But, if he’s doing his job properly, you don’t even know he’s been on your screen.
DNM recently had the opportunity to sit down with respected stunt performer Chris Webb to find out what drives these unsung heroes.
DNM MAGAZINE: How long have you been in the industry?
CHRIS WEBB: Since I moved over to Vancouver from Campbell River right at the end of ’99.
DNM: And what made you decide on stunt work?
CW: I guess I didn’t really ever think it was something you could do for money. I was a bit of a wild kid. I liked fast cars and extreme sports and that kind of stuff. When I got out of high school, it was sort of expected I would go on to post-secondary education. I got good grades, I was in the honour society but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I also knew I really respected my dad and my grandfather for the west coast lifestyle they had lived, and I wanted to experience that, so I went off on fish boats and fished for prawns and salmon and cod and halibut and crab, all up and down the coast. I did that for 3 or 4 years, I guess until I got to the point where I thought I might have to start thinking about buying a boat. But to get a million dollars credit at 20 or 21 with no credit history, it’s not easy. I didn’t necessarily want to be a deckhand forever and stay within the fishing industry. But honestly I just got tired of killing things! I remember feeling that intensely at one point. I hit this fish, got covered in blood and thought no, I don’t want to live like this the rest of my life. I got to thinking about my grandpa and his logging camp stories, and I ended up getting a job with a forest consultant. After a couple of years I was running a crew with timber cruisers and a resource management team. I went on a trip to Africa, Europe and South America because business was slow and then I came home and it was still slow and I thought it’s not going to get much better. They had this thing at the time called the Forest Renewal BC Grant where they were trying to get people out of the forest industry and retrain them in other things.
I was looking on the internet and I saw the stunt school and I thought that might be a neat thing! So I wrote a letter to the minister, the case worker and convinced them to send me to the Kahana Stunt School in Florida. Basically the deal was like a little bit of a scholarship but it was with money that was put aside for the forest industry. I liked my job and if I can say so, I was really good at it; I just wanted to try something new and I knew that some stuff has a time limit. I knew you couldn’t decide at 40 you want to be a stunt man; it’s too late. Even when I did it I was 26, and that was probably right near the end because you don’t just get to come here and start working. Considering I had been fairly rough on myself previously anyway, you only have so much time; like a hockey player, you only have so many times you can hit the ground, you know? So I went down to the school just outside Groveland, Florida, near Orlando, and we stayed in these crappy buildings with this old guy who used to be a Hawaiian fire dancer, and he was a third generation Kempo master. A lot of the stuff we learned there quite honestly was really antiquated, but they had a high fall tower, exploding mortar, air rams, mini trampolines, and stuff like that which you don’t have in regular life. We had this guy there who was almost a superstar from Korea who came over to learn and was probably realistically more of a stunt man than anyone who has ever attended that school. He just wanted to come to the States because he just wanted to learn new techniques. I don’t know that he learned a lot. He taught us a lot though.
DNM: It sounds like it was a good experience for you to be around him.
CW: Yeah. We had people from Norway, Iceland, Korea, a couple boys from Baton Rouge; we all got really fit because our teacher was a slave driver! He used to make us run this sand course every morning, and if we didn’t run it in a certain time we had to run it again until we did it in that time. Literally we’d be running over planks and there would be alligators in the water! It was kind of funny, but we had a good time. So I came back from there and thought “Okay, I can be a stunt man now”. But I realized that all I really learned down there was commitment because I came home and I actually went back to work in forestry. You do what you need to survive, you have to make some money. Eventually I moved over from Campbell River with my girlfriend at the time, and our first year was dismal. It was fun, but financially, we had a little apartment in North Van and the rent was $800 a month and I think the first year I made $14,000 or something like that, so you can do the math! I had a car the whole time; I don’t know how I made it but it was fun. It was interesting. Everything was a new adventure to go from logging camps to modeling auditions; you know, you couldn’t be more opposite! One scenario they could care less how you look and in the other scenario they don’t care what you think! (Laughs) You could just be like a vapid emptiness and they wouldn’t care and that’s fine, as long as you look a certain way. I obviously realized that life wasn’t for me because I was always covered in bruises and I would always get in trouble, trying to get cast for something and I’d show up with a big pedal mark on the back of my leg! That world is brutal, I got a little taste of why the women in the modelling industry aren’t always mentally healthy: it’s literally a line up and they’re going “too fat, too skinny, too whatever”, you know? It doesn’t feel very good. I did a bunch of extra work, some terrible modelling jobs, where I wanted to shoot myself every second but you’re trying to make ends meet. Eventually I ended up getting this commercial, it was a L’Oreal commercial, Mila Jovovich was the star of it, and she would strut across the stage in her slinky dress and she would say (in best Mila Jovovich accent) “This time I’m taking my lashes to the limit”. It was a French commercial, and we were dressed in Hugo Boss suits. There were two of us and we would follow her, stalk her around; it was creepy.
DNM: You were creepy stalker guy!
CW: Yeah, you never know the parts you’re going to have to play! But anyway, the point of that little story was that I went to the casting in a hotel room in the Sutton Place Hotel and we were just told to walk provocatively towards the camera. The person holding the camera turned out to be third assistant director who works on TV commercials around town, Melissa Anderson. Anyway, I did this commercial and when I went for a casting about a year and a half later to be Kevin Sorbo’s photo double on Andromeda, she was third AD there. We had become friends, so she probably helped me get that job, which led to me meeting Ernie Jackson, the stunt coordinator on Andromeda and great guy, just really great. I think he’s Canadian light heavyweight kickboxing champion and world savate (French boxing or kickboxing) champion, and just a humble, down to earth guy. He let me hang around and train and learn from them, and stay for rehearsals. I did this for a few years, I was a stand-in and photo double. Every once in a while they’d throw me a little stunt day, and if I didn’t screw it up they gave me another day. One time the main double of Kevin Sorbo was hit in the head doing a sword fight, it split him open and he had to go for stitches so they didn’t have anyone to do the fight. I had been hanging out watching, and Ernie came up to me and said “Do you think you could do it?” I said “Hell yeah I think I can do it!” It was a big, long fight, he had two swords; it was a cage fight with a big crowd, so it wasn’t really an easy induction into it. There was a lot of pressure! The director was Peter Deluise, Dom Deluise’s son (who’s done Stargate and all this sort of stuff – who, by the way, is quite the character and an awesome, great guy). Anyway, I did the fight, it went pretty well and I just kind of held my breath the whole time. At the end of it, Peter just gave me $20 out of his pocket and I said “Oh I can’t take your money.” He said “You saved my day.” People started hearing that happened, that I got thrown into a 3 minute fight and I somehow didn’t screw it up. I didn’t even know one of the moves, I had to get shown how to do it; my friend Paul Lazenby (who now does MMA Minute) was the guy I was fighting, and he showed me how to do things, worked with me. It was good it was him because he’s a big MMA meathead but he’s a nice human being, you know? He’s a good guy that wants the best for people. I ended up getting a few credits and I ended up getting a job on Cody Banks, sort of just slowly just built from there!
DNM: It’s a weird industry in that it’s hard to get jobs unless you’ve had jobs, but once you’re in and people know you, you can sort of build on that.
CW: Yes, and it’s very specific too. I mean obviously most of my resume was stunt stuff, but I’ve been doing some acting auditioning lately and it’s even hard to transition over to that. Like people look at this (picks up resume) and say “Oh stunt guy, stunt guys can’t act” and maybe they’ve got a point! We have to practice! But the whole thing is we’re trying to get better, right?!
DNM: And you do stunt driving as well?
CW: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I’ve always loved. It’s funny, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into stunts because I love, as cheesy as they are, shows like the Dukes of Hazzard, and their car chase scenes. I’ve always loved cars: I build them, and I love motorcycles; I love all that stuff. My first long job, for 6 seasons, was on Smallville – Superman, the only guy in the world who never gets in a car, why would he bother getting in a car?! You don’t get to drive right away, even if you’re a good driver; that’s reserved for the more senior people. I was very busy working on Smallville, but a lot of the other guys I came up with were getting to develop their car skills. Since I’ve finished with Smallville, it’s been sort of what I’ve been concentrating on. In fact, recently I’ve been getting more and more driving stuff, but in the meantime I’ve been racing: I have an ice racing car. We race on a frozen lake up in Ashcroft in the winter time, and I have a couple of championships from that. I race my off-road motorcycle in Mexico in the Baja 500 and 1000. I haven’t won one of those yet but we’ve got a 2nd a 3rd and a 4th.
DNM: It’ll come!
CW: Yes, hopefully! Our last time down there we had a disaster. We had a couple big wrecks on our team, but that’s the whole reason I wanted to do this stuff. I love to race cars, I love to race motorcycles.
DNM: And even though you had experience driving and riding motorcycles, did you still have to go to school for that?
CW: Oh yeah, we train. I’m a member of the BC Stunt Committee; 6 of us get nominated to try to keep an eye on what’s happening, make sure our UBCP union is paying attention to current events and current concerns for the stunt community. One thing we’re trying to do is elevate the level of respect that stunt people get because I honestly don’t know any profession where people practice and train and continue to learn as much as stunt people. You have to be fit; if you want to be a working person you have to know how to fight, you have to know how to drive, you have to be a martial artist. As a driver you probably also have to ride a motorcycle; you have to understand film, you have to know how to shoot your own film. We practice all this stuff all the time, probably more so than just about anyone. I mean, you can’t just go to school and say “Okay, well I’ve been to the Rick Seamans Driving Academy, I’m a stunt driver now.” You know, in most professions, once you go to the course and you’ve done the course, you’re done.
I have a car at home that is just my slide car – I don’t drive it anywhere else, I don’t do anything else with it, I have a sandwich board that I put up where I know the security guards – and late at night when everyone else is sleeping, me and maybe a couple of other guys are out there sliding through cones, hitting marks, over and over. We rent the Tradex centre sometimes, there’s a group of 10 or 12 of us and we’ll set up multi-car scenarios, put a bunch of cones out, set up false intersections, and all slide together. It’s an ongoing thing. I mean, I drive my car or I try to get out twice a week, or at least once a week, and that’s just one aspect of what you do. So a lot of times, on set, because the movies or the TV shows get sold on the face of the famous people, what happens is you’re on set, and the actors are forgetting their lines and screwing up, and you end up with no time because they always seem to save the stunts for the end of the day. Then you have these big complicated stunt sequences and it doesn’t happen exactly perfectly with the ten explosions and everything on the first take and they’re like “Aw bunch of idiots”. It’s just an interesting attitude that kind of permeates the industry. We practice filming, we make our own little short movies and we try to understand, a lot of us are taking acting classes and going to auditions. That’s what we’re trying to do right now, elevate the typical image of stunt person as someone who doesn’t have a lot of self-respect and will do anything for money.
DNM: Well, I think it’s like you were saying – you still have to know how to hit a mark. You still have to know if a camera’s over there where you need to be to get the right angle.
CW: We have to make things look the way they’re supposed to look. Everyone drives every day. To come driving down the road at 80km/h and stop at a stop sign is one thing. But when you put a whole crew right in front of you, you’ve got a gun out the window and you’re shooting at something and you’ve got an actor in the back without a seat belt on and you have to slide the car: it’s these little things that become important. Or you know, practicing, like we talked about, hitting a mark. In certain circumstances you’re talking about rolling your tire onto a dime and it has to be there otherwise the whole shot doesn’t work, and it can’t look like you’re trying to. That’s part of the reason why I really like it though, because if you don’t want to stop learning there is no excuse to stop learning because there are so many different facets.
DNM: And it’s probably always evolving with different technology as far as the film industry goes?
CW: Yeah, I mean right now as far as cameras go, when I started it was film cameras and they were $250,000 and the lenses were $80,000 and you just couldn’t do anything that looked remotely like anything you could put on TV. Now you go down to Shoppers Drug Mart and get yourself a 5D or a 7D and you can make a movie and it looks like a movie. I think you can buy the reconditioned RED cameras (a 4K digital cinema camera) for $4500, and that’s what they shoot with. I think we were filming with REDs on this pilot I was just shooting. I mean, it’s a RED 1 for $4500 but that’s what they were filming with 5 years ago. So the ability to be involved, to make your own stuff, and to really know what you’re talking about is really good – it’s definitely emergent technology. The guy that made the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man – he shot it all on his iPhone with a Super 8 app for $1. It opened Sundance!
DNM: Do you have a favourite type of stunt to do? Driving seems to be a passion of yours, would that be a favourite?
CW: Well for a long time on Smallville I did a lot of wire work – which is flying and whatnot – and for whatever reason (and I am not a gymnast), I just seem to have a knack for doing things on a wire. I’m a bigger person, and there’s not a lot of bigger people that get a chance to get in enough practice to be good on wires. I actually enjoy that and I enjoy the fact that I think one of the main things with wires is that it’s sort of intimidating; the rigging is often very powerful, and the end result can quite often be very bad if you screw up. You have to be able to do what you did in rehearsal when they say “Action”. That’s what I feel the difference is a lot of the time between a non-stunt person and a stunt person (or a good stunt person and a not so good stunt person): when you rehearse something you have to be able to repeat it. Not give 10% more or 10% less – 10% less in a stunt looks crappy, 10% more and you go away in an ambulance. I think that’s the thing I liked about wire work – a lot of the time it comes down to 1 millisecond where you have to do the right thing to set you off in the right direction, and if you’re not calm you can’t do that. I don’t have a lot of the athletic talent – I’m a good athlete but some of the people we have in the industry can just do anything, and I think that’s the thing that’s allowed me to make a living as a stunt man: I can recreate quite consistently something that’s been rehearsed. And I can learn – I wasn’t a gymnast or a martial artist when I was 4, but I have enough of a variety of things that I can do and enough sense to know, hopefully, that I can suggest hiring someone else for something that I’ve never done. If I’ve got a week to learn, that’s one thing, but I don’t want to go on set and make my bosses or my friends look bad or put someone at risk because I can’t do what I say I can do.
DNM: It’s about integrity and your reputation at that point .
CW: Exactly – reputation and my living. Rather than being the person who’s saying how wonderful they are, understand that while you have to keep your brand alive, you should also err to the side of a little bit of under-sell and little bit over-deliver, rather than the other way round.
DNM: I noticed on your demo reel you did underwater wire work? Was that on Smallville?
CW: That was the only underwater wire work. I’ve done other underwater work I believe, but the only underwater wire work was on Smallville. That was pretty fun, but unfortunately the take that they used in the show was the one I liked the least! We did a bunch of rehearsals and it looked better than that on the first one, just the rehearsal. Still an awesome stunt, it felt so good. The feeling when you’re 10-15 feet underwater, holding your breath, give the diver a little nod and you just get yanked out by the ratchet! Felt like being born in fast forward! The water’s sucking you and then you come out of the water and go shooting into the air like 75 feet, something like that. Maybe 25 feet high and they put me into the sand all in one go. There was no trickery there, it all was real, and it was just fun. When it was over I just thought “Dammit, maybe I should have screwed up that last one so I could do it again!” I knew the chances were I was never going to do that again. It was up at the end of Buntzen Lake. They had a sign that said Crater Lake up at the end – that was the set, Crater Lake. They had a little beach there and everything. So if you ever go up there and go for a swim you can thank Smallville for the sandy beach.
DNM: Have you ever been asked to do a stunt that you are reluctant to do or you refuse to do?
CW: I had one thing on Smallville. It was called a static backwards air ram. I wasn’t afraid of it, I just hadn’t done it before, and there was no time to rehearse in a studio. My boss Jacob said “Have you ever done a static backwards air ram?” I said no and it was in a room with a really low ceiling. An air ram, not everyone knows what that is, but it’s basically a catapult. You step on it and the lid shoots you…basically it could fire you to the other side of the street. You stand on it like this (demonstrates), say that’s the lid, you stand on it like this and you either go forward or backwards. So you can do something like a super jump. It was an 8 ft ceiling, and I was supposed to go back 12 ft into a wall. I asked if I could rehearse it ahead of time, and Jacob said the only time we would have to rehearse it is on the set on the day of the shoot and. I didn’t really think that was a good idea if I go in there and the first one gets stuffed into the ceiling or something and it’s embarrassing. I know my friend Heath Stevenson did one recently, and he’s virtually the same size as me so I suggested maybe he should do it. It was more a lack of rehearsal and not wanting to screw it up because I’ve never done it before. I’ve done static forward, I’ve done running forward and sideways, but I’d never done that. So Heath goes there and on the day they change it and he goes forward off it! That’s the only thing I can think of, but it was more that I’d worked on the show for a long time and Heath actually doubled for one of the other characters and we all worked together. It was more like a team thing than “I don’t want to do it”.
DNM: So you knew he would have more ability to do the stunt.
CW: I just knew he’d done virtually the same stunt the week before. It didn’t make any sense to go there and take a risk at it – I wasn’t starving I didn’t need the money so desperately that I didn’t care if I broke my neck in the ceiling. The air ram, if you go in an 8 ft ceiling, it’ll stuff you in there. It would just be embarrassing for everybody!
DNM: I guess it comes back again to knowing your limits and having the confidence to say no or let’s do it a different way. Do you have any scope with that? If a director says this is the way the stunt’s going to go, how much input do you have?
CW: Most of the time the director says “This is what I want to accomplish”, and then it’s up to the stunt coordinator and the bean counters look at how much money they have to do it. They always like to change things on the day of shooting, and it’s your responsibility, either as a coordinator or a performer, to speak up when it’s not going to work, someone’s going to get hurt, or it’s too crazy. Especially when there are cars involved, or fire, or things that are instant and permanent. You have to sort of manage that as it’s going on, but it depends how much you’re doing – if you’re just getting called in for a day on a show, you just go in and do your thing; but if you’re working regularly on a show you have some ability to be creative, which is one of the fun parts too. A lot of peoples’ jobs aren’t creative at all, and we forget sometimes that our whole job is about being creative – finding new ways to do old tricks – a lot of the stuff has been done before.
DNM: New ways to shock the audience!
CW: Yeah, because, you know, you guys are pretty savvy! You know when things are happening that aren’t quite right. I mean, we’re so used to seeing CGI – if it’s not 100% right or if it doesn’t meld with the live action we just know right away. It ruins the suspension of disbelief and the whole thing is kind of for nothing. Because we’re trying to make something that’s not happening look like it’s happening, there are direct consequences as far as our performances or our acting goes. And that’s fun too, to be in a room with a bunch of people and you’re really the only person there who would want to do what you’re doing! So you go do it, wrecking and smashing all this stuff, and you just kind of get up and dust yourself off. That’s fun!
And the fun continues! Watch for part 2 of our awesome talk with Chris Webb, coming very soon!