The Schwarzeneggian Moments. They are, like the former Mr. Olympia, the bigger-than-life, brawny and awesome stunt sequences that hallmark his dozen action-adventure epics — and occasional comedies — stretching from the sword and sorcery of “Conan” to the high-tech rollercoaster of “Eraser.”
“There’s usually one in each regular action movie, but in Arnold’s movies there are usually ten,” counts Joel Kramer. Kramer has been Schwarzenegger’s stunt double since the 1985 “Commando” and coordinator and/or second unit director on most of his films .
How can you double for an actor whose body won Mr. Olympia seven times and Mr. Universe thrice? Often as not you don’t. Worldwide audiences are paying to see the ubermensch muscles in action. “Let’s go back to ‘Predator,'” documents Kramer. “One of the biggest stunt sequences was a huge waterfall sequence in which Arnold’s getting away from the Predator, and we went through this whole series of Class 2 and 3 rapids. Arnold actually was in them, tumbling and swimming.”
Then there’s the opening sequence in “Red Heat,” in which Schwarzenegger fights five guys in a sauna, with the brawl bursting outside into the snows of the mountains of Austria, the “Austrian Oak” wearing nothing but a loin cloth. “That’s Arnold tumbling down the snow hills in the fight. It took us a while to get that done, because we were in bare feet. It was real snow, and it was real cold,” recalls Kramer.
Kramer himself pumps iron. “When I went to my first wardrobe fitting on ‘Commando,’ Arnold looks at me and says, ‘Finally a stunt man that’s a little bit built.’ They still had to build a rubber body suit for me to match his arms, his shoulders, and his chest. Arnold says, ‘Come to gym every night with me,’ and he started teaching me training techniques a million people would like to learn.
“He taught me a lot about discipline. We’d be at the end of a 14-hour day, just drained. He’d say, ‘Let’s go to the gym. Never sit down. Go right from the set to the gym. Then sit down.’
“He still works out every day. On the set after a 12-hour day, he’ll do a half-hour of cardio on a Stairmaster or a Lifecycle and usually 45 minutes to an hour of weight training every day. On top of that he’ll play tennis and golf, if he has the time. He has a traveling trailer of gym equipment, and instead of eating a lot of lunch, he’ll do half of his workout. That’s discipline. He’s got it down to a science.”
In a dozen films, Kramer has choreographed fights for that well-trained physique. “Stunts are an illusion … a realistic illusion but still an illusion. I like to keep things realistic. A fight sequence should be no more than 10 to 15 seconds. Arnold’s fights are brutal, quick, and choreographed to a point. A couple of good hits to somebody, they’re not getting up. It’s all over. Nobody can take that kind of punishment.
“If you look at his fight sequences, he does them all. I’ve never really had to double Arnold in a fight. He takes the falls to the ground. He does the karate kicks and judo moves. He rehearses with us. I want Arnold to come in big and with a bang, slam them, do his moves, and move on to the next. It’s more dynamic that way. Less is more.
“He’s not one of these martial artsy type of actors, where you’re flying through the air and doing all this trick dancing. I try to make everything as realistic as I can. Arnold comes in with certain moves that work for big guys … not running, spinning, flying back kicks. Be short and to the point. The bathroom fight in ‘True Lies’ is classic, a great fight sequence.
“In the middle of his schedule, Arnold comes in for 20 to 30 minutes a day, two weeks prior, and we’ll just go over the choreography and rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it. So by the time we go to shoot it, he knows it frontward and backward. The shooting goes so smooth.
“Take ‘Eraser’ for instance, Arnold did the fights, all the gunfight sequences, the explosion sequences. He puts in a lot of work and a lot of hours. The whole dock sequence was pretty nice — the rail gun hits, people flying through the air, Arnold coming up through the floor, diving through machinery, the fight sequence on top of the container … a lot of memorable action that was really done well.”
The beginning of “Eraser” features one of the all-time stunt “illusions” — Schwarzenegger dodging the villains’ bullets in a jetliner, then jumping out without a parachute, or, rather, after a parachute. “Arnold loved the idea. The more perilous the better,” explains Kramer.
“He had his own ideas. ‘I should be falling upside down with the parachute entangled.’ ‘We can rig that. We’ll use hidden rigs, and we’ll build the shroud lines in the wardrobe to tear away.’ We had Arnold rigged up on descenders — a hundred feet in the air, dropping at 40 miles an hour, with parachutes opening above him, looking like he’s free-falling on green screens.”
“Arnold has no fear of heights,” insists Kramer. “On ‘Jingle All the Way,’ the whole flying sequence as TurboMan we had Arnold on Fan descenders, on flying rigs, and he probably did 60% of it himself.
“In ‘Last Action Hero,’ the great action stuff we did on top of the building with the elevator, you saw Arnold fall 160 feet. We put him on a Fan descender over a big huge green screen down below, and he probably did 20 drops. The camera fell with him on another Fan deceleration system. And it stayed with him about 50 feet, and then Arnold fell away from the camera. It was a really unique shot that John McTiernan wanted, and we rigged it off of two descenders. You can’t fake that.”
When does one fake it? The question is not one of physical courage or ability, but economics. When the star’s big action movies gross hundreds of millions of dollars each internationally, a stunt double is required insurance.
“There are certain times where I say, ‘Arnold, we can’t have you do this, because it’s too dangerous,’ even though he could,” says Kramer. “It’s my call, where I have to draw the line.”
The line was drawn in the spectacular sequence at the end of “True Lies.” A limousine in the Florida Keys hurtles at a real 90 miles an hour down a causeway, with a 200-foot gap in it abruptly blown away. Jamie Lee Curtis, playing Schwarzenegger’s wife, is captive inside. At the last second, as the limo hurls off the edge to its fiery and watery doom, Schwarzenegger’s character hangs from the rail of a chasing helicopter, reaches through the limo’s sunroof, and plucks his wife to safety.
“We actually had Jamie and Arnold hanging off the helicopter in the air in close-up shots,” insists Kramer. But the real stunt with a remote-controlled limousine was practiced like a space shot for six months, first at the Mojave Airport and then on the shattered Florida causeway, with every possible accident scenario tested. At that high speed on the limited straightaway, there was only a 16-second window.
In reality both stunt doubles Donna Keegan and Kramer were wired to the helicopter. “But it looks like she’s only holding my hand,” explains Kramer. “The real hero of the shot was our helicopter pilot Chuck Tamburro. As we got up to our approach speed and got on our target line, Chuck dipped down, and we inserted Donna the double in the car. Theoretically, the car jumps off the pier, it falls away from her and we fly off. And it worked great. Donna just rolled right out of the sun roof, because basically she was just suspended from a wire above.”
For precise and dangerous illusions like that, the stunt doubles earn their pay. “But there’s a big shoot-out in the villain’s mansion at the end of ‘Commando,'” recalls Kramer. “And it was really Arnold that you saw jumping through windows, flipping on the ground, shooting people, going through glass doors … a lot of his own stunts like that. He looks at me one day and says, ‘Boy, you sure do get banged up doing this stuff.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, it goes with the territory. A lot of this stuff you don’t have to do, if you don’t want to.’
“He just kind of smiled, went through a French door on the next shot, did a big shoulder roll and came up firing a shotgun.”