Major parts of downtown Toronto were shut down on the last weekend of November for the filming of stunt driving scenes for The Man From Toronto, an upcoming Hollywood action comedy film starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson.
None of the eager Toronto fans who have been posting shaky behind-the- scenes photos and videos likely came out to see Joel Labelle, one of Toronto’s busiest stunt performers. He has been part of the stunt team for The Man From Toronto since production started in October.
“If there’s a car involved, very rarely will you let an A-lister, B-lister…get in the car.”Joel Labelle.
Labelle is one of the hundreds of stunt performers in Canada whose craft is seen by millions of people onscreen, yet their names remain relatively unknown. Now, some Canadian stunt performers and coordinators are speaking out about what really goes into a stunt scene: without their work, and talent, action scenes simply wouldn’t happen.
Stunt driving is almost always done by a stunt performer. The production team won’t let actors do stunts even if they ask to do them, because of insurance, Labelle said.
“If an A-lister gets hurt we can’t keep shooting the movie,” said Labelle during a phone interview with the Toronto Observer on his way to the set of the film The Man From Toronto. “But if a stunt person gets hurt, you know, the movie can go on, show goes on.”
That day, Labelle was preparing for a stunt scene where actors are falling from really high up. Before a scene like this can roll into action with the actor, the stunt team has to build rigs. A stunt rig is the engineering behind making people fly. It usually involves cables and pulleys, but more importantly, it requires someone to figure out the equation.
“Anytime anyone is moving in space someone has to set that up,” Labelle said. “It’s crazy intricate, and it’s time-consuming.”
After the rigs are set, they needed to be tested with weights and bags. The stunt performers will be the first ones to test a rig.
Photos courtesy of Joel Labelle
Stunt coordinators are the masters behind the curtain: often they will get a script that just says there’s a fight. They are the ones who design the entire stunt scene, and plan how it plays out.
“If there’s any action, the director will often be a stunt coordinator,” Labelle said.
The Canadian Screen Awards handed out the first Best Stunt Coordinator award in March 2020. However stunt performers find it frustrating that the Academy Awards still refuse to have a Best Stunt Coordination category.
This is despite a nearly 30 year campaign by Jake Gill, an American stunt coordinator, who has been trying get the Academy to recognize their work.
The Oscars snub isn’t the only controversy in the industry. Some stunt performers are now speaking up about how the film industry still fails to reflect ethnic diversity.
With a black star and white co-star in the film The Man From Toronto, things appear to be diverse on the surface. But Canadian stunt performers say that the industry is far from what it should be especially for performers of colour.
“The film industry has evolved but it hasn’t evolved with the rest of the world,” said Tommy Chang, a Korean-Canadian stunt performer, stunt coordinator and producer.
Chang is a 7th Degree taekwondo and an 8th Degree hapkido Master whose stunt performances and stunt coordination work has been seen in blockbuster films like Pacific Rim, and RoboCop and in some Netflix hit TV series like Nikita and The Umbrella Academy to name a few.
Chang moved to Canada with his family from South Korea when he was a child, in the early ’70s. His experience growing up in Canada is filled with memories of racism and bullying.
He remembers a time when he and his siblings were surrounded by roughly 20 kids chanting “Ching, Chong, Chinaman”, and pushing and shoving the Changs to the ground.
Chang was so terrified that he ran away, leaving his siblings behind.
“I ran away, leaving my younger brother and sister,” Chang said. “To this day I regret running away because I felt like a coward.”
That horrible incident became a significant moment for Chang and his siblings as they started taking lessons at a martial arts school. Chang became a good fighter. He worked as a bouncer at one of the very first nightclubs in downtown Toronto called Kongo, where he met a friend Bronco, who was a stuntman and a stunt coordinator. It was how Chang, now 54, got his foot in the door as a stunt performer.
As a stuntman for over 30 years, Chang believes that diversity in the film industry should not be limited to specific Asian TV shows like the Canadian hit Kim’s Convenience and or the film Crazy Rich Asians, where the cast is predominantly actors of Asian descent.
Ethnic diversity should be reflected proportionally in films the way it is seen in the real world, he said, and that includes stunt performers.
“We the stunt coordinators have the ability, and the producers have the ability to put that diversity in there,” Chang said. “Instead of bringing all white males, or all white males and females, you can actually bring some minorities in.”
Chang founded ReelStunts, the first Canadian martial arts studio lead by world-class martial artists, with stunt skills and experiences. He has trained many A-listers, including Laurence Fishburne, Tom Hooper from The Umbrella Academy and Simu Liu, a Canadian actor who is starring as Shang-Chi, the new Marvel superhero.
Women in stunts
Angelica Lisk-Hann, the first Black female stunt coordinator in Canada, says that with the movement of more women into film, and more diversity in the industry, some people might think it’s become easier for people of colour to land the job of a stunt coordinator.
And while Lisk-Hann has performed in Shazam!, The Umbrella Academy and X-Men: Dark Phoenix and stunt coordinated Kick Ass 2, she has dealt with her share of systemic racism offscreen.
People don’t realize when they make certain comments about people’s physical appearance, such as their hair or skin colour, they’re commenting about the way they were born, she said, adding that in the end, what is most important is excellent training.
“People aren’t going to be hired just because of a skin colour, or just because they’re a woman,” Lisk-Hann said. “You’re not going to give somebody a role as a stunt coordinator on a show if they don’t know what they’re doing. People’s lives are at stake.”
Filming during COVID
While Toronto’s film sector continues to operate under strict public health safety guidelines, filming during COVID-19 is posing significant obstacles for crew members and performers. Everyone on the set of all film and TV productions is being tested for COVID-19 an average of three times a week. Labelle, who is filming The Man From Toronto full time, as part of the stunt team, is being tested every 24 hours.
For stunt performers, wearing masks while rehearsing a stunt scene is like running a marathon with a mask on.
“You can imagine breathing really heavy and then having a mask over top,” Lisk-Hann said.
As the stunt coordinator for an upcoming TV series that is currently being filmed in Toronto, Lisk-Hann explained that stunt coordinators are finding different ways to do stunts because of COVID-19. They have to be mindful of stunt scenes involving people being in close proximity and how to fight creatively in a safe way.
“You can’t just have three people fighting in a close-up,” Lisk-Hann said. “Because now you’re in their face.”
While Canadian stunt performers including Lisk-Hann, Chang, Labelle are only three amongst countless in the industry whose names and faces are not featured on movie posters, they want fans to know that stunts in films don’t happen without them.
“It takes a special type of person to figure that out,” Lisk-Hann said. “These people need to get recognized.”