Life and limb
What does it take to forge a career leaping off tall buildings? Just a healthy fear and a childlike sense of fun, Dean Forster tells Leo Benedictus.
Dean Forster gets asked about his job so often that he has learned a routine. “It’s usually five questions,” he says, casually self-assured in wraparound shades as we sip coffee together in Henley-on-Thames. “Have you met anybody famous? Have you been hurt? Is the money good? How did you get into it? And …” He falters for a moment as a cold wind whips around our faces. “… something else.”
So how does he deal with it? “For years I used to shrug quite a lot and say, ‘Oh, I’m embarrassed.’ Then I realised that’s what the job entails, and now I love it. Absolutely love it.” He does not have to convince me. His pleasure at the prospect of talking about his job is unmistakable – even if some of that early bashfulness still lingers at the edges of his schoolboy smile.
The answers to the five – sorry, four – routine questions are quick to arrive. Yes, he has worked with several famous people (including Gary Oldman and Tom Cruise). His injuries, though minor, have been numerous too. “Just as a chef’s going to burn himself,” he shrugs, “we get battered and bruised.” And at anything up to several thousand pounds a day, the money is indeed good. But if injuries or anything else prevent him from working, he is keen to point out, his income falls to zero. As for how he got into doing stunts for a living, well, he was never really into anything else.
“My family used to own a motorcycle display team called the Mohicans,” he explains. “In the 60s, my uncles used to dress up as Red Indians on BSA Gold Star motorbikes and do jumps at fetes and carnivals. As soon as I could walk, they put me on a bike to do little jumps. And it progressed into other areas.” From judo and gymnastics to bicycles and trampolines, if it was fast, physical or involved generally throwing yourself about, then the teenage Forster was obsessed with it.
How to make a living from his passions, however, was the thing that gave him more trouble. At first, the closest he could get was working as a lifeguard in his local sports centre, and yet he knew that this was not enough. “I sat down one day and thought, what do I really, really want to do?” he remembers. “And that was it: I really, really wanted to be a stunt performer. And from that day, that’s it, that’s been my whole adult life – all I wanted to do.”
Which is a good thing. Without such single-minded dedication to his work, Forster probably would not have made it. There are no training courses available in the UK for aspiring stunt performers, so in order to build up his skills he had to find work. And yet he would not be able to work without joining the register of the Joint Industry Stunt Committee, which meant producing six separate sporting qualifications at national or county level and finding at least 60 days’ employment as an extra in order to gain experience in front of a camera. Even then, once he was registered as a probationary stunt performer, for three years he could only work under the supervision of a coordinator.
“And having those qualifications allows you to go on the stunt register,” he cautions. “But it doesn’t make you a good stunt performer.” For this he had to practise individual skills, on his own or with colleagues, on the job or in his spare time, while trying to impress enough people to build up contacts in the film industry. Even now he is a fully qualified stunt coordinator, the learning continues. “I can call [a rental company] and ask them for an airbag, build a tower, and then spend a day practising high falls,” he suggests, by way of example. It sounds expensive. “Yes,” he agrees. “But doing the high falls is good money.” This is the usual equation for stunt performers, of course: the more dangerous the stunt, the more they get paid. And they get the same again each time they do it.
So how much, I wonder tentatively as we move inside to a more sheltered table, does one actually have to learn about jumping off a building on to a giant airbag? “The higher you go, the smaller that thing gets,” says Forster. “You’re standing there on the edge ready to jump, and your whole body and mind are going, ‘Don’t do this. You do this and you’re going to die.’ When you’re looking down like that, then it does become really, really difficult. And it’s never as simple as you think. [In my last high fall] there was computer animation above me, and it was going to hit me so I fly backwards. And they wanted me twisting through the air.”
What stunt is he best at then? “Fire. Absolutely 100%.” He picks up his phone, taps a few buttons, and holds up a picture of a man with a large gun who is wearing a bomber jacket that is engulfed in flames – a lot of flames. “That’s me,” he announces, bringing the image further forward for me to see. “That’s my favourite.” It is hard to imagine that his wife likes it much.
In fact, this immolation masterpiece was not even part of a film, he explains, but was taken by a stunt coordinator friend of his for publicity purposes. “It was the first time I’d done it,” he says. “There’s a lot of science involved. And you do get burned. I know a few people who’ve got some really bad burns. Touch wood, I haven’t.” He reaches out for the table top. “When I hit the deck, they said the flames were 15 feet above my head.” He is wriggling in his seat with excitement. “We’re still kids,” he admits. “I think 90% of stuntmen are still children at heart.”
But fun aside, surely he is just a little afraid when somebody is about to set him on fire? “There has to be fear, otherwise you become complacent,” he says, “and if you become complacent you’ll get hurt… You’re not nervous the first time, because it’s something different. The second time you do it, that’s when you’re scared, because you really know what to expect… It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s what we do.”
That glint is back in his eye. Clearly he does enjoy a bit of danger – or is proud of himself for braving it, at least. Yet everything he does, he insists, is as safe as it can be. “We’re not daredevils,” he says. “We take calculated risks… If somebody said to me now, ‘Jump through that window.’ I’d say, ‘No. Do I look stupid?’ With a stunt it’s different, because they’ll put little dents in the window, so the second I go through it it’s going to explode. And I’m going to wear knee pads and arm pads to protect myself. And there aren’t going to be people walking past the window – or if there are they’re going to be stunt performers who know I’m coming through.” I glance outside. None of the well-dressed ladies of Henley look like stunt performers.
Forster’s first paid stunt was in fact very similar to the scene he has just described. It was for a “water explosion” in the film Mission: Impossible. “Tom Cruise is in a restaurant in Prague,” he recalls. “He throws his chewing gum at the [aquarium], and the restaurant caves in with water, and then he runs out of the restaurant. I was sitting opposite Tom Cruise when that happened, doubling the actor he was talking to. That was my first job.”
Since then, he has worked on The Fifth Element, Tomorrow Never Dies, Lost in Space, Layer Cake, Dr Who, Life on Mars and many other projects. And yet still he is waiting to try the one stunt he has always dreamed of, the one that entices him even more than fire. “My absolute ultimate,” he says, getting restless in his seat again, “and I was booked to do this a few years ago – although truthfully I would have done it free of charge – would be the classic jumping off a bridge on to a steam train, and running from carriage to carriage to carriage. Actually I would probably pay to do that. But they found somebody else.”
Forster’s chance to run along a train may yet come, although his time is running out. At the age of 40, as is normal in his profession, he now takes more work as a coordinator and less as a performer. “I feel like I’ve got another 10 years of performing in me,” says Forster, who keeps fit practising karate. “and then we’ll see what happens then. When I’m 50 I don’t really want to be knocked down by a car or fall down stairs. Not because I don’t want to,” he adds hastily, as if anyone might doubt his enthusiasm, “just because of all the aches and pains.”
Pay “It depends. It could be £30,000 a year, it could be £100,000. It is good money, but we’re self-employed. So when we’re not working, we’re not earning.”
Hours “It’s unpredictable, but usually you’d be looking at a minimum of a 10-hour day. It can be one day a week, it can be seven. I’ve actually been six months without a day’s work. That was scary.”
Best thing “The phone call. When the phone rings and someone says, ‘I’ve got a job for you.’ That’s the best part of the job.”
Worst thing “When you’re not working.”
Interviewed By Wendy Jones 2009
‘If My Whole Body’s on Fire, I could be Paid Anything up to Six or Seven Grand.’
I interviewed Dean in a busy Starbucks in Henley-on-Thames. It was first sunny day of spring. We sat down and Dean looked around, commenting, ‘It’s lovely, an ideal place to have a fight. If we were doing a fight in here it’d be brilliant because I’ve got so many tables to fall over, chairs to kick around, people to move.’ Dean had brought his daughter, who is three, along with him and when she had finished playing with her stickers, she spent the rest of the time climbing on a stack of wooden chairs. ‘My daughter’s a stuntwoman in the making,’ Dean said.
“The fire jobs are picturesque. It is high impact, really explosive; it’s just my favourite to do! And it looks nice – I know it sounds really bizarre. The fire jobs are stunning, absolutely stunning.
How much I get paid for a fire job depends. It depends how long they want me to burn for, how severe the fire is, whether I move or if they just want me standing there. Costumes are a big factor. I can technically do a full fire job in a swimming costume. If I’ve got a swimming costume on, I’ve got gel on. It looks really nasty but I don’t burn for very long. If I’m wearing a full costume and a full fire mask I can burn for quite a long time. The world record is about two and half minutes, full burn. That’s without breathing apparatus. Most of the time I don’t have fire on my face. If it’s just my arm on fire, the danger aspect isn’t very much, and if something goes wrong I’m going to burn my arm. I could be paid just a couple of hundred quid if my arm’s on fire but if my whole body’s on fire and I’ve got fire everywhere it could be very dangerous so it’s worth more money. If my whole body’s on fire, I could be paid up to six or seven grand. The more dangerous something is, the more money involved.
It’s a very strange experience when I’m set on fire. I hear a WHOOF, I see the fire blazing and I’m thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, I can’t work this out,’ because I don’t feel anything but after a while I feel the heat penetrating and it does get very, very hot. It is frightening; it’sreally frightening because I can’t feel the heat until it penetrates though my suit. I don’t feel the heat until the very end. I won’t go into great detail because I don’t want to explain to people how to set themselves on fire, because it’s not very nice! The science involved in it is absolutely incredible: the suits, the gels. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m going to set myself on fire.’ There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it. I have to have a good safety crew and fire brigade to make sure everything is okay because I don’t want things to go wrong. That is the problem with the job, even though it’s safe, if something goes wrong, it does go wrong, really bad.
My personal view is: I like being put out by a stuntman: I don’t like being put out by a fireman. Because when a fireman is standing there looking at me on fire, his job, his training, involves putting people out, so when he’s seeing me on fire, if he thinks anything is wrong, he’ll jump in and put me out. I’ve been put out by firemen much to early, much, much, too early. Stuntmen just know when you want to be put out and they go in and put you out, because a stuntman’s done it before. They’ve experienced being on fire. A fireman is trained to put you out. If a fireman saw someone on fire the first thing they’d do is put them on the floor, put them out. But stuntmen don’t.
Being a stuntman is worth the money because I don’t sit in an office every day, I don’t do forty hours a week; we sit around a lot, we watch television at work, we play a lot but when we do something, it really takes a toll, physically and mentally. Like falling onto concrete. In rehearsals I fall onto crash pads, but the camera might need to see we’re falling on concrete. One job recently I was getting hit in the throat, throwing my body up and going flat back so I was falling from four foot onto concrete on my back. I’d got body armour on but I was still taking an impact. And I probably did it two or three times but I love every second! Absolutely love every second of it. When somebody phones me up and says, ‘Got a job for you,’ these days I don’t say, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘Yeah, okay. No problem.’ The normally day to day job, the fighting, the falling, the messing about work, the bread and butter work, I don’t even bother asking, I just turn up and do it. And it is fun. It’s nice not knowing.
Stunt people don’t legally need insurance because in this country it’s your right whether you get insured or not. But the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 won’t employ people unless they’re insured. I’m insured. I do it though Equity, the actor’s union. Getting car insurance is probably harder than getting stunt insurance. Because as a stuntman you’re taking calculated risks: if I fall off a ladder, I know I’m going to fall off a ladder, if you fall off a ladder, you’re going to get hurt, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not as expensive as some careers but a lot of insurance companies go, ‘No!’ My stunt insurance covers me basically for anything for work. It’s just different type of insurance, high risk. I’m paying about £600 quid this year for insurance, and that’s personal accident and death are not as much as you imagine. It’s not a lot. And that’s injury as well so if I’m injured and I can’t work, it covers me. There’s a risk involved, so I cover myself. I don’t get knocked down by a car in a swimming costume, I wear pads and body armour and the driver’s a trained stunt performer, it’s timed, everything’s worked out to the last detail. It’s not just stepping out in the street and getting hit by a car. But the stunt has to be convincing. My wife’s seen me on television quite a few times but she knows a lot of its camera angles. It looks worse than it is.
High fall are the best paid, because if something goes wrong – it goes wrong, bad. If you’re dead, you can’t do another day’s work. It’s difficult to say how much money because when you’re talking stunts there’s a lot of things involved. Could run into thousands. It depends whether I’m jumping into water, into an airbag, whether I’m hitting a box, whether I’m twisting in the air. When I jumped off the crane, you’ve got divers in the water surveying the area while I’m jumping – and days beforehand making sure the water’s deep enough. You’ve got a structural engineer looking at the crane, going, ‘That’s safe to jump off.’ On the day you’ve got the full film crew, the actors, the stunt coordinator and the stunt man. You need ambulances on site in case something goes wrong and you’ve got medical advisors. Everybody being paid; it’s not just a couple of hundred quid for a stuntman jumping off a crane. It runs into absolute thousands, thousands upon thousands, just for me to jump off a crane for two seconds of film on Casualty. That was for a Saturday night, shown once, never shown again. There’s a lot, a lot of money involved on a big stunt.
The risks are calculated risks. If somebody said, ‘Oh, jump off a building,’ – don’t do that. I work out every single detail so it becomes not dangerous; I don’t want to hurt myself. If I hurt myself I don’t work the next day. People have been really hurt badly, but again it’s the nature of the business. Say there are about two hundred and fifty stuntmen in the country probably about fifty of them earning good living. I’m living comfortably. Everybody likes to earn a bit more money but, yeah, I’m okay. It’s difficult to say how much I earn! If £24,000 is the average income – I earn a bit more than that! It could be anything. I’ve had really good year, last year I had a good year. But if I break my leg tomorrow…
The pay varies. We earn a good daily rate for being on set not doing anything: £250, £400, £500-ish. It’s negotiable. The more dangerous something is, the more we charge. When I work I can earn a lot of money, but I’m self-employed so if I don’t work, I’m not earning anything. I’m sitting here talking to you and I haven’t got any work lined up. The phone will ring, because it does and there are possibilities of things happening very soon, but I don’t want to push it too much because I’m going on holiday! I’m self employed so last time I was on holiday, I got a phone call, and I drove from holiday, went to Manchester, worked on Life on Mars and came back on holiday. But Life on Mars was a really nice thing to work on, anyway. It was incredible. It was one of those programmes where people go, ‘there’s nothing good on television anymore,’ and you go, ‘Life on Mars.’ And they go, ‘Oh yeah, apart from Life on Mars.’ It was fabulous, really good TV.
I’d like more money! But I think I’m in a position where I live to work, not work to live. I love the business and I love being in it and I love getting paid for it and I enjoy it for everything. Yeah, I do get paid good money but I take some heavy knocks. The normal day-to-day work is lovely; I wake up every morning smiling because I’m going to work. “