5 Great Movie Scenes Made Possible by Reckless Endangerment
Sometimes, the only way to capture a truly horrifying and brutal moment on film is to horrify and brutalize the actors, as happens surprisingly often.
Yes, even in the age of computer effects and entire sequences shot in front of a green screen with tennis balls, there is still no substitute for gross neglect of human safety.
Inglourious Basterds: The Actors Almost Burn in the Theater Fire
SPOILERS: In the climax of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's narrative veers off course from historical fiction and gives the audience a more cathartic and hyper-violent Hitler death than the boring old suicide in a bunker we're all used to. Specifically, some Nazi-killing Jews shoot him in the face hundreds of times with machine guns while a theater burns to the ground around them.
"Thank God we shot him before the fire killed him!"
Ironically, shooting the assassination of Hitler nearly killed the two actors (Eli Roth and Omar Doom) who were supposed to be doing the assassinating. Who could have predicted that actually lighting the set on fire around them would be so dangerous?
That's right -- while it's possible to use CGI to make a building look like it's on fire, it's far more convincing to actually set it ablaze and yell "ACTION!" So the flames that were roaring in the background during the Basterds' murder spree were very much real, and those actors were actually inside -- that wasn't no goddamned green screen effect. The controlled blaze was supposed to never get closer than 20 feet from the actors, but fire rarely does exactly what it's told.
So, predictably, the flames roared across the theater almost immediately, and the fire was right on top of both actors within 30 seconds.
"Feel free to cut, Quentin. Whenever you're ready. Any time now."
Of course, that's the expensive set that's burning down around them, so this was their only chance to shoot the scene without rebuilding the whole damned thing. So everyone was forced to hurry and grab the shot before the out-of-control hellblaze overtook them.
The temperature of the fire quickly reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and, while Tarantino and the crew were wearing fire suits, Roth and Doom were only coated in a jelly meant to protect their skin. The heat was so unbearable that Eli Roth passed out once the scene was over, and had to spend the next day with his head and hands in ice. But he still got off lucky.
The platform they were shooting on was about 10 seconds away from collapse when Tarantino called cut and everyone fled. Had they shot even a few seconds longer, Eli Roth and Omar Doom would have burned to death. Or almost to death -- it would have been awful either way.
But it might have been worth a handful of sympathy-Oscars.
The only indication in the movie of how out of control everything got is that giant swastika over the stage behind Roth and Doom. It collapses and crashes to the ground during the fire, but it was never supposed to fall. In fact, it was supported by massive steel cables precisely so it wouldn't fall, but those cables promptly melted in the unbearable heat of the fire.
So as you watch that scene, remember that the two actors are standing in a room that's so hot it's melting steel. We can only hope the guy who played Hitler was OK, because at this point we're assuming they really shot him in the face.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Real Blades, Real Blood, Real Insanity
Near the end of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (so, you know, spoiler alert), all of Sally's (the main character's) friends are dead and hanging from meat hooks or crammed into freezers in the basement. Sally is tied to a chair at a dinner table while the family of murdering cannibals sits around, taunting her. The scene is well over five minutes long, filled with screaming, close-ups of her pupils and some almost unwatchable psychological torture from Leatherface and his family.
"Thomas told us all about you. More potatoes, dear?"
As an audience, sitting through the entire scene, from the moment they feed the grandfather some of her blood to the point when they try to kill her with a hammer, is excruciating. Watching it feels a little like punishment, which isn't that surprising, considering it was infinitely worse for the actors shooting the scene.
Because there was some legitimate psychological torture taking place in that house during the shoot, and it wasn't just aimed at Sally (Marilyn Burns). They shot for 27 hours straight in that dining room in the middle of a Texas summer with temperatures outside reaching 110 degrees, so it was even hotter inside the house, since they blocked off the windows to keep out the light. If that wasn't bad enough, there were also piles of festering head cheese on the dining room table that were originally just props, but pretty quickly made the rooms smell like a rotting carcass.
"It's all worth it for what I'm sure will be a Best Picture nomination!"
All of these elements combined in a perfect mind-melting storm for the actors and crew. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, probably caught it the hardest. He was wearing a heavy leather mask that couldn't be washed the entire shoot (that would cause continuity errors if stains vanished and reappeared in between shots), so he was essentially suffering in his own tiny, stinking oven. Supposedly he got so muddled from the heat that he thought he was actually supposed to kill Marilyn Burns.
In the scene where Leatherface cuts Burns' finger so that the old man can suck her blood, the device that was supposed to release the fake blood clogged for several takes in a row. Hansen, whose mind was already broken and who was willing to do anything to get out of that room, turned away from everyone, removed the safety tape from the knife and then just cut open Marilyn's finger for real.
"Quit squirming or I'm going to screw this up!"
So what you're actually seeing is her blood and her real reaction to having her finger sliced open while tied down in a 115-degree house with people around her who can't remember if they sincerely want her dead or not.
Carrie: Actors Were Blasted in the Face With a Real Fire Hose
While most girls will remember standing in the crowd at their high school prom vaguely wishing they could kill the prom queen, Carrie flips that expectation by allowing the prom queen to psychokinetically murder all her classmates at once.
It starts when the social outcast Carrie White falls for that old classic prank: drenched-by-a-pail-o'-pig's-blood-connected-to-a-rope-leading-to-John-Travolta-under-the-stage. While Carrie has no sense of humor about the cruel prank, she does have telekinesis, which she uses to lock all the doors of the prom, and to slowly murder all the faculty and students present.
"You know, in some countries being doused in pig's blood is an hon-ARGH!"
Carrie's primary weapon in the scene is a fire hose that winds around the gym like a snake, spraying students until they fall through tables (there's a type of snake that does that, right?). During the shooting of that scene, director Brian De Palma wanted shots of some of the meaner characters getting hit directly in the face with the water, but the firefighters on set said hitting people in the face, even actors, was too dangerous given the extreme water pressure.
To which Brian De Palma countered, "Ehh," and shot the kids in the face anyway. Check out actress P.J. Soles at 4:40 (the one who inexplicably wore a baseball cap to the prom):
As you can see, they achieved a very realistic "getting sprayed in the head with a hose" shot by actually spraying her in the head with a hose. What's the harm in that? Well, because she had turned her face away from the spray, the water shot directly into her ear, rupturing her eardrum. It was so painful that she collapsed and passed out immediately.
She was deaf in that ear for six months following the accident. So what you're actually seeing in that scene is a young girl who's legitimately unconscious from a shattered tympanum, getting sprayed in the face with a fire hose. And then people paid to watch it! Hollywood magic!
A Clockwork Orange: Broken Ribs and Tortured Eyeballs
We've covered Stanley Kubrick's torture tactics in a previous article, but the guy did so many horrible things to actors throughout his career that we have to wonder if he just decided on directing because it offered a legal loophole for abuse. While shooting A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick did all of his signature crazy shit, like shooting simple scenes 40 or 50 times, but he also practiced a more personal brand of cruelty, focusing it almost exclusively on Malcolm McDowell.
"Once I finish my coffee, I'm going to pee in this cup. And then you get to drink."
Sure, there were the usual Kubrick head games, like insisting that McDowell's character, Alex, have a pet snake despite the fact that McDowell was terrified of snakes (it wasn't in the script). But really, you haven't gotten the full Kubrick treatment until you've suffered some kind of real, medical damage.
So, for instance, during the scene in which a man forces Alex to the ground and stomps on him, the man insisted on selling the realism by actually stomping on McDowell's chest, cracking his ribs.
That's how you know you're doing it right. Acting is a lot like CPR that way.
But hands down the most torturous scene for McDowell was the most famous: the "rehabilitation" scene.
That's when Alex is forced to watch hours of rape and violence with his eyes pried open with what looks like tiny barbecue tongs attached to orthodontia headgear. During that scene, the doctor you see sitting there next to him, applying eye drops to keep Alex's eyes from drying out, was in fact an actual doctor who needed to be there applying those drops or McDowell risked becoming permanently blinded.
"Surprise! The drops are actually Tabasco sauce."
Still, even with those precautions, the apparatus scratched McDowell's cornea so severely that he wanted to stop the shoot. Instead of halting production until it healed, Kubrick told him, "Let's go on with the scene, I'll favor your other eye."
So when you see Alex sitting there in the straitjacket with his eyes pried open by the lid locks, screaming for them to stop it, we have no idea how much of that was acting. We're guessing neither did Kubrick.
"Now, Malcolm, I'm going to show you a slideshow of nude photos I took of myself. DO YOU SEE?"
The Evil Dead: The Whole Movie
The reason you have heard of Bruce Campbell, and the reason director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) has a career, is that in 1981 Raimi and producer Rob Tapert decided to make a zero-budget horror film called The Evil Dead.
They went into the project without a really solid understanding of how to make movies, and certainly didn't know how to make one full of crazy stunts and gore in a way that was safe at all. For one, all of that fancy safety shit is expensive -- it costs a lot more to create the illusion that actors are in danger than to put them in actual danger and just film that. For another, they seemed to think the danger was a necessary element. Josh Becker, who worked on the crew, explained in an interview that Sam Raimi would tell his cast, "If everyone was in extreme pain and misery, that would translate into a horror." No one bothered to correct him on this or to explain what "acting" and "fiction" are, so The Evil Dead shot for over a year in which Raimi and Tapert deliberately tortured the cast. How else would the film capture its gritty sense of slice-of-life realism?
"Would you stop screaming? I know how to carve a damn turkey!"
So, for a take that required the camera to smash through a window pane toward one of the lead actresses, they saw no other way of doing it than to just smash an actual window. When you see the actress shielding her head in that shot, it's because she doesn't want it to be sliced open by the actual shards of glass flying at her face.
Thankfully, they just sliced harmlessly into her wrists.
Keep in mind, all of this was happening in a rented a cabin out in the woods with no running water and no heat (they had to wash their hands with scalding hot water from the coffee maker) over the course of 15 months. At one point Bruce Campbell sprained his ankle, and for the next two weeks, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert would poke at it with sticks to ensure that he kept limping in every scene.
But arguably the most dangerous moment of the entire shoot was the scene in which Bruce Campbell had to fight off a possessed woman who was trying to stab him with a dagger. The trouble was that the contact lenses they used for that iconic possessed look were completely opaque.
So the actress who was supposed to attack him was effectively blind. Oh, and the dagger? It was real. So while the actress' job was to run in Bruce Campbell's general direction, swinging the dagger out in front of her, his job was to not die. If that scene in the movie seems more real than any others, it's because he is legitimately trying to avoid being stabbed.
It's not entirely clear why they were so insistent on using a real blade, but Rob Tapert has a very telling quote on how he feels about actors. After one of the actresses cut her feet to shreds during a bare-footed running scene in the woods, he noticed the blood tracks and said, "I like it when an actor bleeds. It makes me feel like I got my money's worth."
Granted, the budget of that entire movie was less than $400,000, so the actors were probably getting paid in Sizzler coupons, but hey, that's worth bleeding for, right?
For more hell-on-earth acting conditions, check out 6 Beloved TV Shows (That Traumatized Cast Members For Life) and The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Most Screwed Over Man in the History of Movies.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn how to get that ringing out of your ears (with more fireworks).
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