The Stuntman

Brian Smyj has coordinated or engaged in stunts from Gladiator to The Dark Knight Rises, but perhaps no film has proven more creatively challenging than his work for THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Scott Macaulay profiles this stunt legend.

In films like Gladiator, The Dark Knight Rises and I am Legend, stunt coordinator, stuntman, rigger and driver Brian Smyj has engaged in epic hand-to-hand combat, monster car crashes, and thrown top Hollywood stars — or, rather, their doubles — off of giant buildings. On The Bourne Ultimatum he found himself pinned underneath a semi following a stunt gone wrong. So why does Smyj state that some of the most pulse-pounding moments of his career occurred on Derek Cianfrance’s terse, character-based crime drama, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES? “As a stunt coordinator you evaluate the worst-case scenario and work back from there,” he says. On THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, that worst case was “Ryan [Gosling] getting hit by one of the cars, and he’s right in front of me and I run him over. That’s what kept me up at night.”

The scene Smyj is describing, a riveting high-speed car-chase, occurs near the mid-point of the movie. Gosling’s character, Luke, a motocross stunt man trying to provide for his infant son, has given up carnival daredevilry for the more lucrative work of robbing banks. Increasingly desperate circumstances push him towards a solo heist without his usual getaway driver, and the lengthy sequence, which includes a crash and, miles away, a shoot-out, is captured in just three shots. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt follows a gun-toting Luke with a Steadicam as he enters the bank, jumps on the countertops, scoops up the cash, and then throws himself onto his bike and launches himself into traffic. Weaving his way through rush hour, it seems like all clear for Luke — until first one and then several cop cars scream in pursuit. Luke attempts to throw them off by cutting across a cemetery (a single take, up until this point), criss-crossing nearby suburban streets, and then, after crashing, breaking into an occupied split-level home with a cop, Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), in gun-drawn pursuit.

Turn into the cemetary

Gosling does 70% of the driving in this sequence himself, including everything out of the bank, through the traffic and up until the cemetery. And that’s highly unusual. “In the movie Drive, he [Gosling] didn’t do any of the driving,” says Smyj. That’s because the bond company — who insure a film will be completed by, in part, signing off on stunt work involving irreplaceable lead actors — wouldn’t allow it. But Cianfrance insisted on the realism that would result from Gosling doing the chase scene himself. “He wanted to shoot it like a documentary, like when cops film a chase [with a hood-mounted camera],” says Smyj. “[The goal] was to display the reckless nature of [Gosling’s] character at that point — his desperation to try and get the money for his son.” To make the scene even more difficult for Smyj, Cianfrance insisted the stunt coordinator himself play Officer Jefferson, the cop who tails Gosling for most of the chase. “That was one of the things Derek sprung on me during one of the scouts,” he says. “He said, ‘Brian’s going to be playing Officer Jefferson, and I went, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he went, ‘Yes you are!’ The whole sequence is stressful enough when you have a stuntman driving through an intersection with 47 other stunt drivers. But here it was me right behind Gosling in the police car.”

Escape from the bank with Gosling riding

To design and prepare for the scene, Smyj first had to make sure the producers, director and crew all understood the dangers involved. “I told people a million times, ‘Listen, the space shuttle blew up twice, right? The people that built it are smarter than I’ll be in 20 lifetimes, and they made a mistake and killed people. So anybody can make a mistake. Nobody is safe.’”

He also had to make sure he had the proper resources. “This wasn’t Transformers 6,” laughs Smyj. “A very significant portion of the budget would have to go towards making this happen.” Smyj praises the film’s producers for approving that expenditure, which included a one-week rehearsal in an empty airfield and Smyj’s pick of the nation’s best stunt drivers. “Forty-seven guys in an airport for a week — do you know what the price tag on that was? No less than $150,000 for those guys.”

“We went to the airport and set it up pieces at a time,” explains Smyj. “Derek originally wanted it in one [shot], and I told him, you can’t afford to put that much of your budget into what you would have to do. You’re talking about 100, 150 stunt guys. With three pieces, I can move these guys around and use the same guys.”

Smyj started by working with Gosling, “having him do stuff at one mile an hour, and then two miles an hour and in between different crash mats.” Next, Smyj brought all the drivers up and began rehearsals, which each speed-up, swerve, and near miss worked over again and again. “I broke it all down into the smallest, easiest steps,” he says. “We jumped through hoops for the bond company, showing them each piece. And when they thought it was safe they’d allow us to move on to the next one. It was painstaking.”

“The insurance company was not going to let [Gosling] do the crash,” continues Smyj. “We knew that.” So, Smyj brought in Ricky Miller, who overlaps with Gosling at the cemetery. “This kid was baptized with motorcycle oil. He’s the son of Dick Miller, an editor of Motocross Magazine who was on On Any Sunday (1971) with Steve McQueen. Ricky was National Speedway champ, and Fifth Place Individual World Teen champ. He has done massive stunts in his career, and he’s the guy who laid that bike down -- hitting a car, getting up and running into the house.” By that point, the car Smyj was driving had wrecked as well, and the cop following Gosling is the film’s other lead, Bradley Cooper, playing Officer Avery Cross. “The camera is in the passenger seat,” explains Smyj, and “[Cooper] has to slide the car to a stop in front of the bike, pitched at an angle so the DP can get out of the car and follow [Miller, doubling Gosling] into the house.”

Smyj, 56, says he first fell in love with the movies when his dad would take him to pictures at Radio City Music Hall. “Finian’s Rainbow, The Sound of Music, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines — I was so drawn to them,” he says. Having picked up some martial arts, gymnastics and rock climbing, Smyj entered the Marine Corps, going back to civilian life in the mid-’70s in San Francisco. He still remembers the day when he chanced upon a location shoot for the TV show The Streets of San Francisco. “Paul Sorvino was guest-starring, playing a cop chasing a killer, played by David McCollum, from New York to California. I’m standing there on the street, and Paul said something. I said something to him. [Sorvino replied], ‘Where are you from? Yonkers? I’m from Pelham Bay! Come stand over here.’ You know, 1976, the world was a smaller place. You didn’t see people from New York in California.”

Smyj says he “became enamored” with the film business and started training, finally getting a break in the late 1970s doing “film student stuff.” “Then I got into the union, and it was a roller coaster ride from there.”

Smyj has a number of pictures coming up in addition to THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, including the Colin Farrell-starring Dead Man Down, and Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He’s also got his company, Never Quit Stunts, which in addition to supplying stunt personnel to films develops custom rigging. But, after almost three decades in the business, Smyj is also a touch philosophical about stunt performing as a career. “I’m 56 now,” he says, “and in October I did a wild commercial. There were aliens, a car blowing up, and I had to run down the street and fall. I did it once, and I felt something pull in my leg. I did it a third time and I popped an insertion in my hip. First injury in my career I had to go to the hospital for. And then two weeks ago on [the TNT cop drama] Southland I got knocked out in a car and ended up in an ambulance. At this point in my career, I should just be pointing fingers [and directing other stunt performers], but it’s so hard to let go. It’s almost an admission of age. But it’s a fact — your body can only take so much. I’ve done a tremendous amount of damage to my body, training and rehearsing, but nothing on camera for 27 years. If that commercial was the first thing and Southland the second, I’ve done pretty damn good.”