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For Stunts, Network TV Dramas Prove There’s More Than One Way to Wow an Audience

Beyond their cable counterparts, the bosses on "SEAL Team," "SWAT," and "The Blacklist" discuss the realities of making the biggest stunts possible.

SEAL Team CBS

“Seal Team”

Erik Voake/CBS

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The production pace of network TV is not for the faint of heart. With merely a week — sometimes even less — to produce an hourlong episode of television, there’s even more pressure to make sure the usual flurry of moving parts comes together in a safe and coherent way.

Now, imagine being the people in charge of a sequence where trained performers dangle out of the back of a moving helicopter — that has to be done quickly, safely, and convincingly, too. For stunt coordinators like Peewee Piemonte and Julie Michaels of the CBS show “SEAL Team,” that’s the part of the job they live for. The penultimate episode of the show’s second season featured a Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) maneuver, with a half-dozen team members connected to a rope rig, hanging over the valley below.

“It was something we talked about from back in the pilot. We thought, ‘Wow, that would be really cool!’ People would love to see a bunch of SEALs hanging off the back of a helicopter. It’s something that the military does in training on a regular basis, and they’ve done it on missions. We finally got the ability to do it,” Piemonte said.

But it’s not just the high-profile stunts that make up the bulk of a stunt coordinator’s work on any given series. Like many other elements of TV and film production, stunt teams tread the line between delivering moments that can wow with their craft and being so good at their jobs that you hardly recognize when they’re even doing it.

As Cort Hessler explains, part of that means putting in painstaking prep work. For one sequence from the NBC series “The Blacklist,” Hessler and his team had their work cut out for them to help show Red (James Spader) foiling a bank robbery. It not only involved a car chase, but multiple stunt pros falling out of the back of a dump truck. Hessler explains that there’s often just as much logistical prep work to find a place to film something like this as there is in making sure everyone involved comes out unscathed.

“You have to find streets that don’t have wires. We had the police cars do 180 degree spinouts and the streets were very small with shots on both sides, so I had to set it up so the slide started to happen through the intersection,” Hessler said. “Most dump trucks when they dump their load, the tailgate swings open from the bottom. We had to redesign the door so it drops down like the tailgate of a pickup truck. We put Teflon on it so they could slide on the pavement without building up heat. Every little thing we do there’s a lot of thought that goes into it that you don’t see on the screen. There’s hours, even days, to make it right.”

THE BLACKLIST -- "Robert Diaz (#15)" Episode 622 -- Pictured: (l-r) Deirdre Lovejoy as Cynthia Panabaker, James Spader as Raymond "Red" Reddington, Harry Lennix as Harold Cooper -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

“The Blacklist”

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Some massive stunts can add key spectacle to these network dramas, but there’s an emphasis on making sure it’s something that can be delivered in a controlled environment. In some cases, as Michaels explains, when that control still doesn’t quite produce the desired product, some stunt pros relish the chance to try it again.

“Andy Jones jumped off an oil rig out in the ocean, 100 feet in the air. The first take was great, but [‘SEAL Team’ director of photography] Jimmy Muro said he wanted it again. Andy turned around and said, ‘Yeah!’ and ran back up again and jumped off again. He’s in full kit, military grab and had to throw off his hat in the middle of it,” Michaels said. “It’s timing and it’s everything. We find talent that’s able to give our team of cameramen and our directors exactly what they want.”

Though, even if some of these sequences can be designed to be repeatable, Charlie Brewer, who leads the efforts on the CBS series “S.W.A.T.,” recognizes the value in that ongoing time crunch. Production demands have a way of helping to focus everyone’s efforts, making sure if it’s possible to get everything right on the first try, that’s usually the best way.

“It focuses your attention, makes you on point and more attendant. But on the same side, if you’re jumping a vehicle and it crashes and blows up, in the feature world you have a second car. In the TV world, you don’t have that luxury. You gotta be a lot more fine-tuned and it’s a lot more stressful. Everything’s gotta go as best as it can, as safe as it can.” Brewer said.

Even with the top professionals in the industry, there’s always a risk that comes with extra attempts. Just because some of these stunts (known in the business as “gags”) are repeatable in theory, being efficient doesn’t just mean saving time.

“When you say the word stunt, that means it’s not completely safe. So by doing something over and over again, you’re playing the odds and eventually the odds are gonna run out and you’re gonna get hurt,” Hessler said. “I always plan on doing things once unless I know I have to do them twice. If we do have to go a third time, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I know, after the first two times, people get complacent, things can break, and you just start losing your side of the odds.”

SWAT CBS

“S.W.A.T.”

Bill Inoshita/CBS

A few of the nominees this year take some of their cues from recognizable, real-life precedent. Piemonte and Michaels said that one-third of the “SEAL Team” stunt crew are veterans. Along with a team of advisors, they try to not only stay true to soldiers’ experiences from a technical level, but in the way the audience sees the finished product.

“Jimmy Muro, he knows how to shoot things at a point of view where the audience really gets to be in the center of it. That’s a different point of view than most television shows do. In the SPIE rig, you’ll look up and see Tyler Grey look up and look right into camera. He’s hanging off that SPIE rope, several hundred feet in the air and he looks up as casual as possible,” Michaels said.

“We want the viewer to be part of everything and surprised as the Team is surprised. It tells the story from a different standpoint. But in doing so, it takes away some of the editing tricks that you can work around certain scenes on other scenes. It holds us to a truer standard,” Piemonte said.

That same spirit and energy driving some of the more ambitious centerpiece gags also goes into ensuring each scene that requires a specific kind of physicality, regardless of scale, is executed properly.

“Simple punches or apprehensions or arresting people are always supervised by the stunt coordinator. If it involves an actor, we rehearse it, we document it, we structure it. We can say what we can and cannot do,” Brewer said. “If an actor wants to be involved in a big fight, we put them in certain parts. But the big ugly stuff is always a stunt double. That’s what this profession is about. We can’t risk getting someone hurt, whether it’s a stunt person, a crew member, or an actor.”

This year’s stunt nominees have worked on series of varying lengths, but there’s also a widespread appreciation of the way that the writing staff works hand in hand with the stunt team to make sure that there’s an appropriate scope to what the show tries to put forth. Hessler — who has also directed “Blacklist” episodes in each of the last two seasons and will have another in the upcoming season — says that working with the writers is often a two-way street.

“There’s been a time in a script for a car chase and it’ll say, ‘Details by Cort.’ So they do trust me. A lot of times, they come up with the ideas and I’ll come up with ideas of making it work. I try to bring the script that they create into the locations that we can have. They’re very open to suggestions from me and we have conversations about how to make the script come to life. They’re very receptive to that and they use it,” Hessler said.

And with that ever-moving, eight-day shooting schedule per episode, the work never really ends.

“I spend so much time in pre-production meetings, scouting, working with the director, finding locations that work,” Brewer said. “At some point, it becomes a relief to finally shoot the sequence. Even though you’re filming, you’re prepping the next episode. TV’s a nasty machine like that.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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