There might be little connection between Richard Donner’s propensity for pulling stunts on co-workers and his action meister’s expertise in working with stunt pros, but his reputation for levity and giving lattitude on the set makes crashing cars, setting fires and blowing up stuff as fun for the cast and crew as it for the audience.
The stuntmen who have made those fireworks happen feel that Donner is one of the most knowledgeable and safest directors when it comes to stunt gags.
“Dick’s a good decisionmaker,” says Mic Rodgers, who was stunt coordinator on “Scrooged” and “Maverick” and co-coordinator on “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Lethal Weapon 3.” “He doesn’t let grass grow under his feet. He’s utterly safe to a point where he won’t let you do stuff. He pushes you to be creative, but he won’t push you into any kind of danger.”
Charlie Pizerni, who was Rodgers’ co-coordinator on the last two “Lethal Weapon” pics and had worked stunts in episodic television for the director in the 1970s on such shows as “Kojak” and “The Streets of San Francisco,” concurs.
“Of all the guys I’ve worked with, he really knows action,” Pizerni says. “He knows where to put the camera. And he’s always got a lot of harmony going with the crew. Dick knows a little bit about everything, which makes it easier to work with him. Even with the actors, he always keeps the energy going, which oftentimes is what makes the movie work.”
Conrad Palmisano, who was stunt coordinator and second unit director on “Assassins” and “Conspiracy Theory,” recalls Donner’s passion for filmmaking.
“We’ll all say the same things — he’s a wonderful guy, he’s safety-conscious and he looks at pictures in a big, exciting fashion, which is contagious. But what Dick Donner instills in you is an openness so that you’re free to express your own creative ideas. It’s an open working relationship.
“Maybe the first idea won’t be used. But one idea may key another idea,” Palmisano continues. “There are few people in the industry as open as he is. For me, one of the great joys is to be allowed to be able to bring out the best in yourself.”
Palmisano, whose films include “Batman Forever,” “Under Siege,” “Uncommon Valor” and “First Blood,” says that sometimes the biggest explosion isn’t the best.
“One of the good things about Dick is that it’s not that the fireball has to be bigger or that the car rolls over more times than the last one,” he notes. “It’s how he ties it all in with actors.
“We had Antonio Banderas banging against a bus in that bus-taxi chase in ‘Assassins.’ Antonio was acting his heart out and people said, ‘How could you put an actor in that dangerous situation?’ Well, we didn’t. We did it on rollers with rear-screen projection and had four grips pushing the cab against the bus.
“But that’s Dick. As he speaks to you, he edits in his mind. Then he says, ‘OK, what can you guys get if we do it this way?’ ”
Rodgers, who has been Mel Gibson’s stunt double for 10 years and was stunt coordinator and second unit director in charge of the epic battle sequences in Gibson’s Academy Award-winning best picture “Braveheart,” remembers Donner’s trepidation when the coordinator suggested the team-to-team stagecoach transfer that became a highlight of “Maverick.”
“Yakima Canutt did it in the original ‘Stagecoach,’ ” Rodgers says, “and Dean Smith did it in the remake, but nobody remembers the film. Terry Leonard, who was directing the second unit on ‘Maverick,’ was the only other guy to have done it, but he broke both hips doing it on ‘Legend of the Lone Ranger,’ but nobody went to see that, either.
“It wasn’t in the script. But Dick was good about trying it and about working Mel into it as safely as possible. He’s always safety-conscious,” Rodgers adds. “When you do horse work, it’s a whole other arena of expertise. Rigging is crucial, and because we’ve departed so much in the past few years (from Westerns), there aren’t a whole lot of guys around who have that kind of knowledge. You’re not only thinking of yourself, you’re trying to outsmart the animal.
“It’s tremendous bad luck to catch both horses out of stride. One may stumble, the other one picks him up,” Rodgers explains. “When I jumped from the swing team onto the leaders, the left lead horse put his nose in the dirt for about 30 feet. I was just waiting for the coach to land on me, for all of them to wad up underneath me. The only thing that kept them up was the four horses behind them, pushing them.”
Pizerni drove the red BMW in the chase sequence in “Lethal Weapon 2.” “Dick says, ‘Why don’t we have an explosion here where they go through the intersection?’ ” Pizerni recalls. “That made it more visual, gave it more energy. He has ideas like that, stuff that’s not in the script.
“Then he leaves it up to the coordinator to lay out the action. But it’s a lot easier when you have a director who knows what he wants. He’s a storyboard guy and has all the locations on the storyboard,” Pizerni says.
“And he’ll never go beyond what he knows we can do. He’s the best as far as safety. Mel was doing quite a bit of his own stuff and Dick got worried. He won’t let him go too far.”
And despite being one director whose own decibel level renders useless one of the props of the trade, the megaphone, he rarely uses that voice to scold.
“If you’re the second unit director and you didn’t shoot what he had in mind the way he wanted it, he always approaches you by saying, ‘Can you go back and do this for me?’ ” Palmisano says. “If I could trade three wishes for one, it would be to have a lot more Dick Donners in the movie business. We could all use a lot more guys like him.”