Fight Safety

I still plan to do most of my thinking/writing on this site, but I wrote the linked piece below for broader share-ability as a reaction to the allegations of what went on on the set of Kill Bill. I first heard about the choking scene in Inglourious Basterds from a director on a student film I was helping out with; he seemed titillated by Tarantino’s ability to convince actors to do something so extreme. To get the right shot, having a stunt-person’s hands around a fellow actor’s neck might be appropriate. When I learned that it was Tarantino himself who did the choking, I knew I had to respond. A few points that were beyond the scope of this piece:

  1. I tried hard not to pass judgment on the necessity or merit of any of the scenes involved; that’s a matter of directorial discretion. Shooting the same scenes in a better/safer way isn’t.
  2. As I thought about this (especially in the context of China/U.S. cultural differences) I was struck by the extent to which this reflects a vision of the great director as an individual who will not/cannot be denied in the pursuit of his (it’s usually a man in this narrative) art. Movies (and theater) aren’t actually like that- the best sets I’ve been on are highly collaborative, trusting environments in which the fight people talk to the costumers and the lighting designers and try to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. American business culture is prone to the same limited perspective (viz., the hagiography of Steve Jobs, not necessarily the accountants/engineers/coders who made his idea possible, to say nothing of the shop workers).
  3. In lean manufacturing, there’s a concept known as the Andan cord: a red cord that anyone can pull that halts production as soon as they see that something has gone wrong. It reduces waste of parts and labor because defective products don’t continue to be worked on, and the source of the issue can be identified and resolved. When physically risky stunts are involved, everyone on set is responsible for pulling the Andan cord/calling a halt if there’s an issue.
  4. Options/job security matters. I’ve been able to fearlessly tell directors that I can’t/won’t do things the way that they want because I’ve always had a day job and never needed a positive review or to be re-hired by a particular director. The pressures are different for someone who views a project as their one break.
  5. Tone matters. In the first conversation with both actors and directors I tell them that my primary goal is to keep them safe. At that point, before rehearsals or shooting have started, everyone agrees on that goal. Then, when decisions need to be made later, that goal is still in the back of everyone’s mind.

Quentin Tarantino’s Unsafe Sets


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