Thomas Jane Training with SEALS for Punisher Movie

A USA Today article detailing the perils of stunt work in Hollywood reveals that Thomas Jane is gearing up for action in "The Punisher" by training with four Navy SEALs. The actor is receiving daily, basic weapons training from the military men in Hunting
(If you just want to read the Punisher stuff, scroll down to the bolded bits.)

LOS ANGELES β€” This is the summer of the stunt. Keanu Reeves flies. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu race motorcycles. Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett crash a convertible. Paul Walker drives a car through a barricaded street and onto a yacht. Arnold Schwarzenegger annihilates anything in his way.

Joel Abrecht, left, and "Mad" Mike Jones pull a stunt in Full Throttle.

Or so it seems.

Stunts are supposed to push the limits of the imagination and believability. From John Wayne movies with doubles doing saloon fights, to the James Bond franchise with gadgets galore, to Jackie Chan films filled with his incredible kicks and flips, stunts make us gasp.

Falling down for the job

Of about 6,600 stunt performers who are registered with the Screen Actors Guild, slightly fewer than 1,000 earned more than $25,000 last year.

Basic minimum SAG pay for a stunt performer is $2,525 a week, but most beef up their paychecks by doing specialty stunts. And stunt performers, stunt coordinators and second-unit directors, who oversee all stunts on a movie, often negotiate higher salaries. A core group of 200 to 300 support themselves and their families doing stunt work, with incomes ranging from $40,000 to $700,000 a year. Part of the money comes from residuals.

How safe is the industry? According to California's Office for Safety and Health Administration, in a report covering January 1998 to May 2003, there were only two deaths involved with motion picture production. Cal/OSHA also reports that in the past five years, there have been 20 hospitalized injuries and six non-hospitalized injuries.

Most stunt workers buy health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild; a basic policy generally pays $400 a week in disability. Many buy supplemental policies. Stunt man Chris Tuck says a typical policy costs about $10,000 a year and will pay $25,000 a month if a stunt person is injured.

For years, no movie company would insure legendary martial artist Jackie Chan, who insisted on doing his own stunts. He paid all his stunt men and their medical bills when needed. For the first time, he used stunt doubles for last year's The Tuxedo.

In recent years, stunts have grown even more fantastic; most in the industry say the turning point was 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which took martial arts stunts to new heights.

To keep up in a filmmaking world that's increasingly computer-driven β€”The Hulk monster is completely CG β€” the stunt world is evolving, too.

Tough stunt doubles who used to fall into cardboard boxes, for example, now fall using elaborate rigging systems and airbags. Safer methods for lighting people on fire have been developed.

"The intrusion of computer-generated images and the whole world of visual effects has created a whole new world of stunt work," says veteran stuntman Terry Leonard, second-unit director/stunt coordinator for 2 Fast 2 Furious, opening today. "Producers are asking me for more. We're reaching for more."

So while filmmakers push the envelope with computer-doctored footage, stunt people are pushing the envelope with their expertise and daring, insisting the industry not leave them behind. And always pushing to keep it looking real.

Perpetuating the myth

For years, stunt doubles were the unknown, unsung risk-takers of movies. Now, that's changing.

"There's more brains than brawn in stunt work today," says producer Gale Anne Hurd, who has made 22 action movies. Her newest, The Hulk, which opens June 20, employed dozens of stunt performers, even though the Hulk himself is a figment of the computer. "He's 15 feet tall, and he's green," she says. "If we could have found an actor that size, we would have."

She avows, "I don't believe any human should ever be replaced by a computer."

For much of his 37 years in the business, Leonard wouldn't talk about doubling for anyone. "In the old days, you never went on the set in the clothes of the actor you were doubling. It's a courtesy you gave the actor." He adds, "You wanted to perpetuate the myth."

Then, as he was doubling Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, doing the famous hand-over-hand, under-the car scene, a TV special was made about it, and Leonard was interviewed. Once the special aired, he suddenly started getting recognized in airports.

Actors have long wanted to perpetuate the myth, too.

Paul Walker told Oprah Winfrey that he did all his own stunts on The Fast and the Furious two years ago, which Chris Tuck, Walker's stunt double, found amusing. Tuck was the one making the jump from the speeding car to the speeding semi β€” one of the most dangerous of his career. But he doesn't mind Walker, an accomplished driver who does a lot of his own driving in 2 Fast 2 Furious, claiming credit. "I totally understand it. Maybe it'll get him another job, and it might get me one, too."

A stunt person is like an actor, living job to job. And it's not always fun: Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves' double in the Matrix films, says he only really thought about a career change when a film called for him to be buried alive. And Gloria Fontenot, who doubled Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, realizes now that sitting just about a foot away from an unrestrained mountain lion for a movie stunt was probably tempting fate a little too much.

But all stunt performers say the business is about safety.

In 1980, stunt woman Heidi von Beltz was left paralyzed from a stunt car crash on the set of Cannonball Run. Two years later Vic Morrow and two children died in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Since then, stricter safety standards have been put into effect; the Screen Actors Guild does much of the policing, sending representatives to sets and keeping updated on safety regulations.

"My biggest stunt is driving to work every morning," says Tuck, 32. He says the industry is "constantly getting safer." According to California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, only two movie production deaths were investigated in the past five years.

At Sunday's Taurus World Stunt Awards, a check was given to the widow of Harry O'Connor, known throughout the community as one of the best in skydiving-related stunts. He died in April 2002 at age 45 while filming a stunt in Prague for the movie XXX. The stunt involved parasailing under a bridge. He had performed it several times and was doing one more take. But he wound up being just a fraction of an inch off, however, and it cost him his life.

The night was sort of the Oscars for stunt people, executive-
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