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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 8, 2004

Risky business

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

A Waverunner stunt scene was filmed in Nu'uanu Stream, in Honolulu's Chinatown, for NBC's "Hawaii."

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

NBC's "Hawaii" second-unit director and stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker, right, stands over director of photography Sid Sidell as he frames a shot for a Waverunner scene along River Street.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

Colin Fong leaps off the third-floor railing at the state Capitol as state Sens. Avery Chumbley and Rod Tam watch at right. It was part of an event showing lawmakers how Hawai'i benefits from TV and film work.

Advertiser library photo • Feb. 18, 2000

It's always something these days.

If it isn't a couple of Waverunners screaming down Nu'uanu Stream as they're doing on this day, then it's a high-speed car chase in Waikiki, or a bone-crushing wipeout on the North Shore, or a cop and a carjacker duking it out in the back seat of a convertible.

Hawai'i's stunt performers are loving it.

"Things are looking really good right now," says Darin Fujimori, one of dozens of Hawai'i-based stunt professionals enjoying what is rapidly shaping up to be a historic bounty of work.

"The ball is definitely rolling," he says.

With three network dramas — Fox's "North Shore," NBC's "Hawaii" and ABC's "Lost" — in production, and another one on the way in WB's "Rocky Point," producers and stunt coordinators are taking a long, hopeful look at the local talent pool. So far, they've liked what they've seen.

"We've been working with a lot of great guys," says legendary Hollywood stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker, now working as stunt coordinator with the cop drama "Hawaii."

"We've been able to use mostly local stuntmen and augment them with a few that we bring in from the Mainland for specific types of stunts. So far, it's worked out really well for us," Hooker says.

Hooker oversaw an action sequence in which Fujimori, wearing a Steve McGarrett mask, fights series regular Eric Balfour in a stolen convertible.

That mask kept Fujimori's face off the screen, making it a particularly profitable job for him.

"Actors (like to see their face on the big screen), but as a stuntman, if you don't see my face, it means I'll be able to work on that same show again without being recognized by the viewers," he says.

Fujimori said producers and stunt coordinators are still feeling out the local scene — "They're looking at who's capable of doing what," he says — but if things continue to go well, and at least a couple of the shows are picked up by their networks to continue beyond one season, there should be enough work for him and his peers to advance their careers without having to move to L.A.

Fujimori has spent the past few years bouncing between his home in Manoa and Los Angeles, trying to secure work. "It's tough in L.A. because you have 10 people just as good as you competing for every spot," he says.

While he says there haven't been enough productions in Hawai'i during the past couple of years to make it easy for Island stuntmen to establish themselves here, the four TV series raise the potential for steady work here and much-needed contact with producers and coordinators.

Daredevils need not apply

In the past 25 years Colin Fong has been set on fire, punched out, fallen out of windows, rappelled cliffs and rolled some beautiful cars — all in the name of entertainment. So far, broken ribs are the worst he's walked away with. And he's had fun.

"One time, I was doubling for singer Connie Francis on 'Fantasy Island,' " Fong says, "kind of a spoof deal, real tongue-in-cheek. It's a scene with some martial arts. I'm wearing a ski mask and knock these guys over a boat, beat them up. Then the film cuts to her pulling the mask off going 'Shew,' like she did it. It was a pretty funny spoof."

Fong is the vice president of the Hawaii Stunt Association and the stunt coordinator for "Lost." The first thing he'll tell you about stunt people is that none is fearless. You can't be and survive in this profession.

"It's not a daredevil thing," he said. "A stuntman has to respect the danger and what's going on around him. You have to have some fear, and you have to have the guts. There's a point of no return when you're doing a stunt, and at that point, you have to have done your homework. By the time you're doing it, there shouldn't be any doubt how it's going to turn out. Stuntmen don't work not knowing the outcome. We have redundant safety after safety procedures. The expertise, the safety crew, the equipment at our fingertips, all of it makes it go. Hawai'i is well equpped for these shows that are going on now."

Stunt safety has evolved, Fong says, but there are still pitfalls.

About 12 years ago, Fong's friend died during a shoot in Hollywood when he jumped out of a window and didn't hit the airbag squarely. He caught the corner, and the impact was too great for his body.

Still, the danger for most stunts is reduced by the preparation and planning. And if viewers believe it's the hero saving the day and not some stand-in, it is a job well done.

Actors and actresses "appreciate what we do," Fong says. "Some of the stunts can be dangerous. Jumping from three, four, five stories up or turning cars with incredible G force ... if the stunt isn't hooked up right someone could get killed."

Untapped market

Filming began here on July 15 for the ABC survivor drama "Lost," a story about an airliner disaster. Hawai'i's movie and TV artisans work in a feast-or-famine business, and right now it's their biggest lu'au ever.


Hawai'i has its established stunt professionals, including ubiquitous waterman Brian Keaulana ("North Shore," "Blue Crush," "Pearl Harbor" and "Waterworld" are among his credits), multi-Aurora and Telly Award winner Dale Radomski, and the late Jack Lord's stand-in and stunt double, John Nordlum.

Fong, who also works as a professional pianist, says Hawai'i has an untapped market of talented stunt people.

For "Lost," Fong relies heavily on Island stunt performers whom he knows and trusts.

"The most important thing is proper attitude, the ability to pay attention," he says. "I have to work with people I know are reliable and trustworthy, because we are literally dealing with life-and-death situations.

"You have to know how the other people think so you don't have to guess on the set. You're all on the same page."

Fong says Hollywood producers and stunt coordinators often prefer to bring in stuntmen from the Mainland because they have established relationships with people they know and with whom they've worked.

Still, Fong hopes that by getting Hawai'i stunt performers regular work, he'll get the message out that the local performers are reliable and — because they don't need to be housed — cost-effective.

"(The Hawaii Stunt Association's) motto is to help local people get work," Fong says. "But it's really hard because of the competition. The people (that stunt coordinators) bring in from the Mainland have a tremendous level of skill. There are so many talented people. That said, there are a lot of talented people right here who can do the job."

To help usher in the next generation of Hawai'i stunt performers, Fong says, he works closely with promising up-and-comers on building the skills and focus needed to survive the job.

Respectful rivalry

Two years ago, seven of 10 Hawaii Stunt Association members broke away to form the Hawaiian Stunt Connection. The group recently opened a satellite facility in L.A. to help young performers hone their skills.

While some tension clearly exists between the two groups, members of both organizations downplay any conflict and are quick to emphasize their willingness to work side by side.

Radomski, a Stunt Connection member, plays "the tourniquet man," a plane-crash survivor, on "Lost." Despite some awkwardness, Radomski said he and Fong were able to put aside hard feelings and reconnect as friends during the shoots.

Achilles Gacis, another founding member of the Hawaiian Stunt Connection, might not agree with Fong's leadership style but shares Fong's commitment to the art of stunt work.

Gacis said he became intrigued with the process as a child watching old Billy Jack movies, and later by classic kung-fu films.

"Growing up in the '70s completely destroyed you with kung-fu movies," he says. "I always liked the way kung-fu movies conveyed action. I've always liked the physical type of acting."

To Gacis, holder of a doctorate and master's degrees in religion and seminary, the best stunts are those that support the telling of the story, that work alongside plot, character, setting and other dramatic concerns to create a meaningful entertainment experience.

He also believes there is no substitute for a well-planned, well-executed stunt.

"The eye can't be fooled," he says. "You want to suspend disbelief, and to do that you have to convey the physical action properly, subject to the laws of physics and the natural way the body moves through space under the influence of gravity.

An emerging Island style

"CGI is nice, but it's not a replacement for old-school stunt work," he says.

Gacis says Hawai'i stunt performers have something unique to offer TV and film productions: an evolving, emerging style that grows out of the unique range of experiences available here. He just wishes Hollywood would recognize it.

"Actors and actresses, and stuntmen and stuntwomen, exist in Hawai'i, and I think productions should look at what is here first before they bring people in," he says.

The problem, Gacis says, is that in an industry where personal connections drive many productions, stunt coordinators and stunt performers are often chosen because of whom they know, not what they can do.

"The way it works most often is payback happens first, then they throw the local guys a bone," Gacis says. "It's the nature of the business, and I'm not complaining. I just wish it were different and better, so more people here would have an opportunity to share their talents."

Hooker, the "Hawaii" stunt coordinator, says Island stunt performers will get more and better opportunities as they continue to hone their skills. With four productions based in Hawai'i, that process should be accelerated.

"There has been a steady upgrade of talent here despite there not being an abundance of work," says Hooker, who has worked on Hawai'i-based productions several times.

While Hooker doesn't hesitate to call on Hawai'i stunt performers for water activities, fight scenes and most other jobs, he still brings in professionals from the Mainland for more involved stunts like car rollovers.

"You can practice all you want, but it's different with a camera around, and you have to be precise and on point when you're doing those types of stunts," he says. "It's not that local guys aren't good or capable, but it takes time, and the only way to develop these skills is working on productions.

"I'd like to help these guys develop stunt expertise," Hooker says. "I'd like to hire as many local people as I can."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.