Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits the late Richard Rush’s penultimate film, The Stunt Man.
We lost another film legend today with the passing of director Richard Rush. He made twelve features through his career, and while it’s an arguably uneven lot there’s no denying the brilliance of Freebie and the Bean (1974) and The Stunt Man (1980). The latter was a labor of love for many involved and a real struggle to see produced, but the end result marks it as an all-timer for its blend of action, comedy, and lovingly twisted look at the art of making movies.
The film is available on Blu-ray as an excellent release from Severin Films, and in addition to some truly insightful and entertaining extras, the disc includes a commentary track with the director and others. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Stunt Man.
The Stunt Man (1980)
Commentators: Richard Rush (director, co-writer), Peter O’Toole (actor), Steve Railsback (actor), Barbara Hershey (actor), Alex Rocco (actor), Sharon Farrell (actor), Chuck Bail (actor, 2nd unit director, stunt coordinator)
1. The image of the buzzard representing Melvin Simons Productions was created solely for the transition to a shot of a real buzzard. Pauline Kael referred to it as “a Rube Goldberg opening” where one beat triggers the next and so on.
2. Rush initially planned to open the film flying over an expansive forest before coming to settle on a cafe, but the cafe he liked best was nowhere near a forest.
3. People have asked why this opening is filled with so many seemingly random items, but Rush sees many of them as elemental ingredients. “I think I’ve used that apple in almost every picture I’ve done, so it becomes a compulsive kind of private trademark.” He adds that he spends a lot of time crafting his openings as they’re an opportunity to surprise viewers and put them in the mood for what’s to come. “Something about a beautiful mouth always intrigued me.”
4. The screen door was supposed to be pre-cut a bit more to allow Cameron (Steve Railsback) to bust through it quickly, but he became stuck. His yelling at the cops “Don’t shoot!” was improvised in character as he struggled to push his way through. Rush sees it as humanizing the action hero
5. People gave Rush flack for destroying a classic Dusseldorf automobile, but “it’s really a 1933 Nash we picked up for $1200 and revamped.”
6. “I think Richard was testing my pucker,” says Peter O’Toole, who was in the helicopter as it flew under bridges, through ravines, and over Catalina Island. He adds that it held, “only just.”
7. The painter at 10:27 is a cameo by co-writer Lawrence B. Marcus.
8. The overhead shots of Chuck Bail down on the beach were filmed by Rush — while Bail was shooting actual 2nd Unit action footage. Bail does double duty here as he plays a stuntman and assistant director while actually working to shoot 2nd Unit footage.
9. Barbara Hershey is introduced in old-age makeup, and she covers her mouth when she giggles to hide her bad teeth. It was something she took from O’Toole who had told her a story about his grandmother who did just that.
10. O’Toole says that his hair “was done every morning and through every take” by Rush himself.
11. “The film wasn’t released, it escaped,” says O’Toole while talking about the absolute struggle to get the film made from pre-production up through its limited theatrical rollout before an eventual Oscar nomination raised its profile.
12. O’Toole is no fan of Lewis Carroll. “I find his flat doodle a bit wearing,” he says, but if I’m being honest I don’t think he says doodle. The point remains though.
13. Sharon Farrell recalls a scene between her and Railsback that had him “squishing my butt” to the point that she was worried that it wouldn’t look good on camera. She asked Rush to tell him not to do it, but “now I look at the movie and I think it would have been great if he was going like that.”
14. Railsback, Hershey, and Rocco show a lot of love towards O’Toole as they discuss his kindness and generosity as an actor. “What you think you would like about him if you got to meet him, you would like about him if you got to meet him. He doesn’t disappoint.”
15. “It seems cruel to say that I hurt him, but I did do it on purpose,” says Bail, regarding physical training he was giving to Railsback one day. The actor was getting a bit overconfident, so Bail let him fall like a pancake once to drive home the danger in relation to self-confidence.
16. Allen Garfield plays the writer, and after falling asleep at a big cast and crew dinner everyone was ushered quietly into place behind him… at which point they took the cast photo with Garfield sleeping at the center.
17. The scene where Eli (O’Toole) and Cameron sit on the camera crane and launch into the air confused Railsback as he couldn’t understand why the character would agree to join the maniacal director on that dangerous ride. O’Toole gave it some thought before recalling a crazy story from his past work experience — “I still don’t want to be picked up for this.” — that saw him driving in a major European city and lost in the pouring rain when he happened upon a traffic cop. He drove towards the officer, “and I wasn’t a very skilled driver,” and he realized too late that he couldn’t stop the car in time. The front bumper caught the cop behind the knees dropping him to the ground, and O’Toole and the others in the car immediately drove off via back roads and escaped the country. So from that lesson, O’Toole suggested that Eli could move slowly behind Cameron as the actor walked and then clip him from behind dropping him into O’Toole’s lap.
18. O’Toole and Railsback got the giggles while sharing a seat high up in the air, and it kept ruining the takes as they passed in front of the camera. They eventually nailed it
19. Stuntman AJ Bakunas broke his leg partway through a high stunt fall, and you can see the snap at 49:32. “And now he’s got another eighty feet to go with a broken leg.” Sadly, Bakunas died four years later when an attempt at a record-setting fall went sour on the set of Steel (1979).
20. Rush hadn’t viewed the film as a comedy, but he had to concede the point after numerous screenings complete with audiences laughing throughout along with the movie. He adds, though, that some screenings played as if it was a dramatic thriller or straight drama.
21. Rush took one of the biplanes up for a spin in the middle of production, despite Bail’s warning that it wasn’t a good idea, and after several minutes of flying Bail noticed that the plane was stuck in a series of spins. It was too close to the ground to be intentional, and Bail thought for sure that Rush was about to die. The filmmaker pulled it out at the last second, landed the plane, and approached Bail. “Was that an accident or did I do it on purpose?” asked Rush, and Bail played nice suggesting it was intentional. “It scared the piss out of me,” admitted Rush.
22. There’s a single frame of Railsback spliced into the camera’s viewfinder at 1:10:07 (while Cameron is watching the footage of the earlier stuntman drowning) to symbolically and subliminally suggest that Cameron’s picturing himself dying during a stunt.
23. The cast spent the entirety of shooting competing to come up with a title for Eli’s movie within the movie. They ended up on Beloved Enemy only to discover that someone beat them to it back in 1936.
24. O’Toole typically waited a full decade before watching one of his own films, but he made an exception for The Stunt Man. Rocco saw him in the parking lot afterward and recalls O’Toole saying almost doubtfully, “I was good in this.” Hershey recalls learning that O’Toole only watched Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time around the time of this film, and he immediately called up an ecstatic David Lean to share the news.
25. The script had a secondary film being made alongside the one Eli was making, and it was a science fiction porn movie called Rings Around Uranus. Rush laments not filming any of it.
26. Rush would have Bail over to the house during pre-production to talk about action sequences, and unbeknownst to Bail the filmmaker was recording them. “All of this dialogue and one-liners went into the movie.”
27. Hershey thinks that while most filmmakers tend to shoot masters first followed by closeups, the ideal order is actually the reverse so that the performers are fresh and energetic for the shots capturing them closer up.
28. Rush doesn’t typically plan via storyboards, “probably for contemptible reasons, and that is if I do storyboards people will know what I’m going to do and they can argue with me in advance.” Hershey denounces them as getting in the way of inspiration, and Railsback adds “They’re for directors to look at in case they forget.”
29. O’Toole had trouble sleeping some nights due to ducks outside his hotel window, and he would perform soliloquies to them using some “very colorful words” each morning.
30. The big end sequences including the bridge sequence were filmed while on the lam from the film’s financiers who wanted the equipment returned. O’Toole says it’s safe to admit as much now that they were essentially hiding from the executives based in LA in order to get the film finished.
31. Bad weather made those last sequences a real struggle, so much so that Rush worried they “went out with a whimper instead of a bang” and has always been concerned that O’Toole was disappointed, but he’s happy with the outcome.
32. Railsback’s big laugh at the end was in response to the cast and crew off-camera making funny faces and mooning him.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Putting a dog licking his balls in the opening title sequence was a way of letting the audience know it was going to be an iconoclastic picture.”
“I’m very concerned about opening sequences.”
“I’ve never read a script like this in my life.”
“The picture is told in subjective reality.”
“I’ve been on a few films that were fun, but none more than The Stunt Man.”
“Any metaphor is only as valuable as the script around it.”
“To a stuntman, story gets in the way.”
“There are no secrets on a movie.”
“I call it the 69 blocking.”
“Who doesn’t have diabetes?”
“If you can’t work with Peter O’Toole get out of the business.”
This is one of those Frankenstein commentary tracks edited together from a few different sources, but it’s no less engaging for it. The Stunt Man remains a fantastic piece of cinema — most films don’t hold your attention beneath a commentary track, but the cast and choices made here are eye-catching and intriguing enough that they actually manage to distract at times from the audio — and hearing everyone’s memories just adds to its power. All of the commenters recall fond memories and share affection for each other, and all speak of the film as a highlight of their careers. Give the film a rewatch in honor of Rush’s passing, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to chase it with the making-of doc called “The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man.” Highly recommended.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.