PRODUCER Terence Chang said it was the wind that caused the horrific fatal fire on the set of John Woo's latest epic, "Red Cliff." The production, Asia's most expensive movie ever, was re-creating a major battle from 3rd century China on the outskirts of Beijing last month. Small ships, set ablaze, were purposely torpedoed into a group of large warships that had been chained together.
"It was an outdoor shoot, and the wind was so strong, the fire began blowing in the direction of the stuntmen, who were stationed on a larger ship getting rammed by a fireboat," says Chang, who has produced dozens of films, including "Mission Impossible 2" and "Face/Off." A 23-year-old stuntman was burned to death. Three other stuntmen were burned but will recover. Two more hurt their legs when they jumped off the stunt ship into the water to escape. "It was horrible, truly horrible," Chang says.
"Red Cliff" isn't the only would-be blockbuster beset by accidents and tragedy. Two stuntmen were burned while making the Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." Visual effects technician Conway Wickliffe was killed while prepping the Batmobile for the upcoming "The Dark Knight." According to a production source, Wickliffe and a colleague were videotaping the Batmobile as it spun around a racetrack to see if it was properly rigged to do stunts. Wickliffe was hanging out the window with the video recorder when the driver accidentally careened into a tree. The police investigated and found no wrongdoing.
A Bond curse?
And then there is the upcoming James Bond film, "Quantum of Solace," which has been so riddled with accidents big and small that the English papers have begun talking of "The Bond Curse." An Aston Martin delivery person did manage to drive the $190,000 car into Italy's Lake Garda (he survived; the car didn't).
Yet the far more serious accident -- and the one that actually was the responsibility of the film production -- took place along the twisty, narrow road around the lake, when the Bond team attempted to film "Solace's" spectacular opening sequence.
According to London's Sunday Times, the scene consisted of two Alfa-Romeos chasing Bond's Aston Martin. One of the Alfas gets stuck behind a slow-moving truck, tries to overtake the vehicle and slams into an oncoming truck -- at 100 mph.
There was no driver in the second Alfa, intended for the collision. It was attached to the truck it was supposed to be overtaking, creating the illusion that it had drawn level with it. As the oncoming truck approached, the driver of the carrier truck released the driverless Alfa by detonating explosive charges.
Unfortunately, instead of simply crumpling underneath the wheels of the oncoming truck, the driverless Alfa was catapulted into the air by the force of the collision. It flew across the road and smashed into the first Alfa, carrying stuntmen Aris Comninos and Bruno Verdirosi. Their car veered off course and smashed through the guard wall on the side of the road; half the car hung over a 50-foot drop, the other half wedged against a wall. Verdirosi managed to get out, but Comninos, in his racing harness, was trapped inside. Some crew members sat at the edge of the car to prevent it from toppling over, while others managed to get Comninos out.
Comninos was flown to a hospital in Verona and, according to two sources, is now walking around.
Technology a boon
Anecdotally, it sounds like a lot of accidents, but almost everyone involved in safety issues in Hollywood says that in fact sets have gotten much safer over the last five to 10 years, primarily because of technological advances. For instance, because of computer graphics, stunt people can freely wear wires during highflying scenes -- which are just erased by computer afterward. It's hard for audiences to tell exactly how Spider-Man swings through tall buildings or Bourne survives brutal car crashes; these heroes just do, courtesy the magic of high-tech moviemaking.
"In the last 10 years, and particularly in the last five years, CGI has kept the risk assessment down on most stunts," says Sony's president of physical production, Gary Martin. "We have alternatives. We have safe ways to plan the stunts and keep people out of harm's way."
Sony, like all studios, has a team of safety specialists who travel from set to set to monitor stunts and crew safety. Martin declines to speak specifically about any Sony film -- such as "Quantum of Solace" -- but he says the recent spate of accidents is mostly a reflection of the increased amount of films with stunts and spectacle.
Indeed, one only has to look at the summer lineup from "Iron Man" to "Hancock" to notice the amount of stunts and special effects that have been performed. "It's a function of how many films are made. I also believe that nobody ever hears when the stunt goes [well]. And 99% of the stunts go well," Martin says.