Professional stunt drivers represent a highly specialized addition to any crew. Whether hiring one for the first time or the fifty-first time, producers should always keep up to date on the best practices for working with these trained professionals.
That’s why this post goes straight to the source to answer all your burning questions about stunt car driving. We spoke to a professional driver and stunt coordinator to build this essential guide to the stunt driving experience. Below, we’ll talk about what stunt drivers do, where to find them, and how to work with them.
We tend to think of stunt drivers as individuals who pilot vehicles through dangerous maneuvers for the sake of filmed entertainment. Stunt driving schools made them experts in engines, adrenaline, and the fine art of not looking back at explosions. While there is truth to all that, the role of a stunt car driver is actually quite nuanced.
To get a view from the driver’s seat, we spoke to Ryan Sturz. Ryan is a professional stunt driver and stunt coordinator, with credits ranging from Chip ‘n Dale to This is America. Ryan also runs the Motion Picture Driving Clinic, a stunt driver school that’s been training Hollywood’s best and the brightest behind the wheel for over 25 years.
Seeking an expert opinion, we posed the question to Ryan: what does a stunt driver do? His response was simple.
Stunt drivers are storytellers.
The real craft of a stunt driver is in communicating a director’s vision with a vehicle. Like actors, their job is to perform in the service of a story. Unlike actors, of course, the stunt driver’s performance is delivered through 4 tons of roaring metal.
For producers, the decision to hire a stunt driver is never taken lightly. Stunt drivers are specially trained professionals. Their day rates can take a sizable bite out of a small budget.
To make the decision easier, the SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract offers a few rules of thumb. It states that a driver doubling an on-camera performer in a commercial qualifies as a stunt performer when any one of the following stunt guidelines is met:
Additionally, SAG-AFTRA offers a few more guidelines that are not explicitly written in the contract:
If you’re specifically planning to engage in any of the above scenarios, it’s imperative that you hire professional stunt drivers.
However, it’s worth noting that even SAG’s rules will not provide crystal clarity in every situation. Many of the above guidelines are subjective and rely on a producer’s best judgment to make the right call.
These decisions can become particularly murky when alternative crew positions come into play. Sometimes, producers must debate not only whether they need to hire stunt drivers, but whether they could instead hire “precision drivers” or “background drivers”. They sound similar, but those positions come with less training and a significantly lower price tag. For our purposes, the existence of these alternatives begs a critical question.
The terms “stunt driver”, “precision driver”, and “background driver” are job titles, not qualifications. There are no tests or courses at stunt driving school to specifically sort drivers into each category.
In fact, there’s no industry-standard requirement that any of them attend stunt driving school at all. These titles only exist on paper to guide contract rates and terms.
So what’s stopping you from hiring a precision driver at a lower rate instead of a stunt driver at a higher rate?
In some cases, producers absolutely have the freedom to make that decision. In others, your SAG-AFTRA contract will dictate the appropriate title for them. However, the most important thing in any case is to hire the right person for the job.
Stunt car driving is dangerous. While passing stunt driver school is not a legal requirement, lacking qualifications is certainly a red flag.
Above all else, it is critical that you hire drivers that are qualified for the work you’re planning, even if that means hiring them at a higher rate than you’d prefer.
Why? Two reasons.
Safety is paramount on any production, but especially so when dealing with cars. The presence of even a single moving vehicle on set inherently increases the risk of harm to personnel and equipment alike.
Qualified stunt drivers develop the expertise to mitigate these risks. Stunt driver schools teach their students to safely push their vehicles to their limits, maintaining control while conjuring an illusion of peril. Seasoned stunt drivers leverage their experience to create safer sets, guiding productions away from danger with simple advice and recommendations.
But what happens if unqualified personnel are forced to handle dangerous circumstances?
Unfortunately, we can look to far too many real-world tragedies to answer that question. During production of 1994’s The Crow, lead actor Brandon Lee was fatally wounded due to a mishandled prop weapon. Corners were cut to support the budget, and a series of small mistakes led to his untimely death.
Stunt car driving is a storyteller’s craft. Beyond safety, stunt driving schools teach their students to perform through their vehicles with precision.
If you consider the number of moving parts required for any vehicle stunt, it’s easy to see how this precision performance can save a production tons of time.
For example, what if you hire a driver from the transportation department to drive a truck through certain shots instead of a stunt driver? Sure, they know how to handle a big rig, but do they understand how it appears on camera?
Do they know how to set a specific tone or pace with their driving? How long do you think it’ll take before they figure these things out?
In the end, if you hire an unqualified driver, you’ll inevitably shoot more takes to get the stunt right. For each of those takes, your crew will have to reset the entire shot- the cars, the cameras, the light gags and any practical effects. Four or five takes is nothing when shooting a close-up of dialog, but they can eat up hours when shooting stunts.
The bottom line is that not hiring the right drivers costs time. As we all know, time equals money, particularly on set. Qualified stunt drivers might seem expensive in the moment, but the alternative will almost certainly cost you more.
Don’t be penny smart to be pound foolish, as the saying goes.
That goes for safety too. Consider the potential costs of equipment damage, lawsuits, fines, and other unwelcome surprises. Lower rates sound nice now, but are they really worth it over time? If you don’t hire the right people for the job, you could end up spending an awful lot of money just to save a couple bucks.
Now, ideally, you’ve done your due diligence on your stunts. You hired an experienced stunt coordinator, employed competent stunt drivers, and took every precaution.
Things can still go wrong. Now, because you took all those precautions, it will hopefully just result in damaged property and not injury.
But the truth of the matter is that things will still sometimes go wrong. When that happens, you need to protect yourself. When it comes time to talk to your insurance company, you want to be able to prove that you did everything you could to reduce the risk. Including hiring competent professionals to do the job.
To find qualified stunt drivers, the first step is to hire a qualified stunt coordinator. As the head of the stunt department, one of a stunt coordinator’s key responsibilities is to identify and hire the right personnel to perform each stunt.
If you aren’t connected to the stunt community, don’t hesitate to reach out to local stunt driving schools for leads.
Stunt driving schools can be an incredible resource for producers diving into their first stunt driving experience. The instructors at stunt driver schools are seasoned professionals themselves and have the network to prove it.
Plus, there’s no reason to be shy. Pro stunt drivers are looking for jobs, and you’re looking for a pro crew to do a job. Forming a relationship with a local stunt driving school can be beneficial for everyone involved.
Even if you’re still trying to figure out if you need to hire a stunt driver, Ryan says that stunt driver schools are the perfect place to seek consultation. You can reach out to him and his team at Motion Picture Driving Clinic via Instagram or their website.
As a producer, preparing for your first stunt driving experience can be intimidating. Between safety, logistics, and budget requirements, figuring out exactly what you need can be stressful. Fortunately, the entire process can be quite manageable if you hire the right stunt coordinator early on.
If you’ve hired a qualified stunt coordinator, they can tell you exactly what you’ll need. The coordinator will provide expert advice and support to make sure you’re covered from every angle. Broadly speaking, they’ll help you lock down the right permits, adequate production insurance, and any material requirements on a stunt-by-stunt basis.
As far as permits go, different cities maintain different requirements, some of which may vary according to the nature of your stunts. For a quick permit primer on your city of choice, check out these resources from Wrapbook:
In terms of production insurance, your policies will have to be catered to the unique circumstances of your stunt work. From equipment coverage to workers’ comp and beyond, you’ll need to collaborate with your stunt coordinator and your insurance broker to find the policy mix that best protects your project.
Effective stunt car driving requires a great deal of preparation. Once you’ve hired a stunt coordinator and their team, you can make the most of their skills by actively involving them in pre-production.
At the most basic level, a stunt coordinator needs an understanding of the director’s vision and budget limitations. They’ll start their own process by preparing a script breakdown for stunts, then move on to more specific planning with the director and other key creatives.
As a producer, you can maximize the pre-production value of your stunt team by making them part of critical decisions. Have them attend attend all relevant production meetings, as well as any location scouts or tech scouts where their expertise might be handy. In an age of virtual production, you can even get them involved with stunt pre-viz.
If you’re confident that you’ve hired the right person for the job, you can be confident that they know what they’re talking about. The best way to optimize your relationship with your stunt team is to listen to them.
Note that this does not mean that you always have to do what they say. Filmmaking is both a process and a team sport. Real solutions are only arrived at by collaboration and communication.
If you can’t afford to shoot a stunt scene in the way originally conceived, you can work with your stunt coordinator to find a worthwhile compromise.
Think of hiring well-trained stunt drivers as an investment in your production. You’ll see an immediate return as they save you time and keep you safe. As a bonus, they’ll help bring your project to life at the highest quality possible, whether you’re making a major blockbuster or the next indie hit.
Of course, no matter who you hire, things will eventually go wrong. That's why it's so important to make sure you have good film production insurance. Be safe out there!
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