Superheroes Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman hit box office gold in recent years with the help of the top stuntwomen in the business. But female actors dating back over a hundred years ago were doing their own stunts, especially during World War I when men were at war. Women were also playing prominent roles behind the camera including writing, directing and producing.
April Wright’s latest documentary, “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” available on digital platforms Sept. 22, looks at the history of women performing stunts in film, dating back to the early silent film days.
The film portrays stuntwomens' struggle to find equal rights, battle sexism and harassment, all while risking their lives for the filmgoers entertainment.
“There was a lot of struggle in the 60s and 70s that aligns with the women's movement, the civil rights movement, where some of the women and people of color really fought to make sure they were getting opportunities to do this work,” Wright said. “They paved the way, especially in recent years.”
The Hermosa Beach filmmaker's starting point for the documentary was Mollie Gregory’s book of the same title.
Wright followed up with her own research and interviewed many of the iconic stuntwomen in film history. She also spoke to film historian and Turner Classic Movie host Ben Mankiewicz, producer Paul Feig and director Paul Verhoeven. The film is narrated by Michelle Rodriguez of “Fast & Furious” franchise fame.
Women have been risking life and limb since the beginning of cinema and stuntwomen face many “routine dangers” at the office, says Rodriguez in the opening minutes of the documentary, including explosions, playing in traffic, taking a punch, and working with sharp objects.
“Actresses play characters but stuntwomen have to play actresses playing characters while driving fast and kicking ass,” said Rodriquez in “Stuntwomen.”
Expanding on that, Wright added that the actress and stuntwoman are working together to bring to the big screen different sides of the character.
“If that's not seamless, they haven't done their job,” Wright said. “And so what that entails is that they have to be good actors themselves in the sense that they have to observe what the actress is doing with that character, how she's moving, how she's walking, and then they have to kind of mimic that in the way that they replace that character to do the stunts.”
Women also filled Nickelodeon’s and early movie theaters as audiences watched serials like “The Perils of Pauline” or “The Hazards of Helen” where the star would often do her own stunts, Wright said.
“How can you say women can't do these things now, look what they were doing over 100 years ago,” Wright said. “They were jumping from motorcycles onto trains or from a bridge unto moving trains.”
Wright said through the decades, there continues to be a struggle for stuntwomen in terms of what people think they are capable of. But at times it was a challenge to get them to open up about their struggles.
“I always say that I'm making a film, but it's their life and livelihood,” Wright said. “So there is a process where you have to tell the movie from inside the community, not from the outside looking in. If you get inside and and meet the right people, they'll tell you who should be in the film, they'll tell you how they feel. And so listening and being part of that community and having them trust you, and having integrity and how you tell their story is super important.”
“Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story will be available on video on demand on Sept. 22.
Wright’s last film, which features images of Hermosa Beach’s historic Bijou Theatre, “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” will be available on VOD/DVD on Oct. 20.
For more information, visit https://www.shoutfactory.com/blog/stuntwomen/