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Making The Cut: Career Advice From Stunt Man Donal O’Farrell
20 Dec 2012 : By Dylan Newe
Donal O'Farrell has co-ordinated stunts for some of the biggest Irish co-productions of the last 10 years
The exhilarating thrill of overseeing dangerous, often-expensive film stunts is the day-to-day reality of Donal O’Farrell, Ireland’s most accomplished stunt co-ordinator. Having worked in the industry as a stuntman and arranger, Farrell’s CV reads like a veritable checklist of major Irish film productions in the last 20 years. Having worked on the sets of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Braveheart’, ‘Reign of Fire’ and ‘Ella Enchanted’, O’Farrell has mixed with the crème de la crème of Hollywood on a different level.

This year however, has proven to be one of his busiest yet, with almost 20 feature film and TV series credits, including ‘Love/Hate’, ‘Byzantium’, ‘What Richard Did’, ‘Titanic: Blood and Steel’, ‘Shadow Dancer’, ‘The Fall’ and Bollywood feature ‘Ek Tha Tiger’. In our final ‘Making the Cut’ interview of 2012, O’Farrell tells us about the dos and don’ts of being wrapped in chicken wire, and being thrown off the side of a boat is typical part of his day job.

Generally, as a stunt co-ordinator on set my day begins… [I normally arrive] in good time for breakfast in order that I get to talk to relevant departments; special effects, wardrobe, that might be involved in the proposed first scene of the day. I like to be on set early, before unit call. An old saying that has stuck with me is ‘If you’re on time – you’re late’. I think this is relevant because when you arrive a little ahead of when you’re due to, you get to think about the scene before having to propose a scenario or present something you might have rehearsed.

Pull
When I’m not on set I spend a lot of time buried in my office. Like most other people, paper work in the shape of risk assessments, script breakdowns, costing, personnel, all has to be sorted "

For instance, doing a small fight scene with actors that only involves a few move, I may only have been shown a sketch or have seen photos of a chosen location but not have had access to it until the day of the shoot. However a long fight between actors and/or stunt performers would require access to the location for rehearsals on a day prior to arriving on the shoot day.

A day on set, be it complicated or simple, always requires my full attention in both the planning and the execution. This could include involvement from departments like, SFX, action vehicles, art, wardrobe, props, hair, makeup, along with communication with AD’s and locations departments in order to make a scene work.

When I’m not on set I spend a lot of time buried in my office. Like most other people, paper work in the shape of risk assessments, script breakdowns, costing, personnel, all has to be sorted. It’s important to stay on top of it because I could have several projects to manage at any one time. While one production may be at an end another would be starting and yet another might just be rumoured for some time in the future, but if I have received a script it has to be read, broken down to find its requirements, equipment, stunt performers.

I also work out what equipment is needed on what production. Equipment has to be maintained, cleaned, and inspected. All of this often takes place over weekends in order to have it ready for the week ahead.
Set
Donal has co-ordinated stunts for Ireland’s first Bollywood film ‘Ek Tha Tiger’

The most common misconception people have about my job is… that it’s all action-packed from the start of the day to the finish. I could spend hours in the morning doing fencing rehearsals with actors and be on set in the afternoon working through a scene involving stunt performers, actors and extras. Time flies when it’s busy and there’s great satisfaction in developing scenes, working to try and achieve what a director is looking for while at the same time helping actors look good. Of course, I love the days that are like that, but it’s not every day. I could just as easily have a day where an actor has to head butt another actor. We would rehearse on the location, but not necessarily the set because it might not be available to me due to the shooting schedule. I could find myself with three to four hours hanging around waiting for ‘my’ scene to be up, then it’s off to the set and ‘action’.

The practical tips I would give to somebody trying to break into the film stunt industry would be… be aware of what it is you’re trying to get into and do as much research as you can. Look into and ask questions of Equity (Irish Actors Equity here in Ireland or Equity in England). Here you will be given information of the stunt register and what is required to get onto it. This is one of the best routes into the industry.

The greatest helps and influences in my career have been… I actually don’t have any great influences in my career. I think in this industry you realise quite quickly that while you work with all kinds of great people, at the end of the day or the end of a shoot, you part ways and you might not come across them again for a long time. When you do meet again you tend to pick up where you left off and so the cycle continues.

Pull
I have performed ‘fire jobs’ where I double as an actor on fire in a room or at one stage an actor on fire running across bog land. Equally weird, I was tied in a roll of chicken wire and rolled off the side of a boat into the sea "

The best thing about my job is... Lots of things; every project is different, from films to fast-paced TV dramas. Developing ideas that arrive on your computer for an up-coming production; working out with directors how scenes have to be adapted to suit a given project; Dealing with restrictions like budget, locations, weather, travel etc. that have to be overcome in order to help a project work.

My day can have a heavy or light workload. It can include any number of things, co-ordinating a stunt double jump from a moving car, a driving scene that ends in a crash. Job requirements can vary immensely. I have performed ‘fire jobs’ where I double as an actor on fire in a room or at one stage an actor on fire running across bog land. Equally weird but the opposite to fire, I was tied in a roll of chicken wire and rolled off the side of a boat into the sea.

These stunts required the assistance of either stunt and or water safety persons. I would organise, plan and rehearse the action which would have built-in safety measures and back-up plans should a problem arise. There can also be days where what is required on set is for one actor to punch another. This on the face of it should be a simple task, but there are lots of things to be taken into account on even these most basic of days. For instance, the ability of the actors involved, their character type, their age and fitness level. What they want to do and what the director wants them to might be different. I am there to help make the action work and I enjoy the continuing challenge it presents.

Click below for previous 'Making the Cut' interviews:

Ray Harman: ‘Love/Hate’ Composer

Suzie Lavelle: 'The Other Side of Sleep' DoP

Nathan Nugent: 'What Richard Did' Editor

Louise Kiely: 'What Richard Did' Casting Director

Mark Geraghty: 'Ripper Street' Production Designer

Ronan Hill: 'Game of Thrones Sound Recordist


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