In 2011, a 22-year-old stunt performer from Australia named Destan Arslanoski suffered a career-ending injury while working on a film in Malaysia.
Arslanoski says that the performer who was scripted to swing a prop ax at his back, Craig Fairbrass, had been told to “tone down” the aggression of his approach during rehearsals. Nonetheless, Fairbrass missed the spine protector Arslanoski was wearing, hitting his lower back and causing an immediate and long-term injury.
Representatives for Fairbrass declined to comment for this story. The film’s production company also declined to comment.
“I collapsed to the ground and couldn’t feel my legs,” says Arslanoski, who today, at 30, is working as a corrections department custodial officer and serving part-time in the Royal Australian Air Force. Crew members dragged him near a fan in the almost 120-degree heat, and he lay prone and waited for nearly an hour before paramedics finally arrived — there were none manning the set — to take him to a hospital.
The surgeon who treated him — who, Arslanoski later learned, worked directly for the production company — diagnosed only “bruising.” But after being discharged and returning to his hotel, Arslanoski says he experienced severe bowel problems several hours later that affected him for a week. Over the course of the next few weeks, he lost more than 50 pounds, making him realize the trauma to his lower back was serious.
The medical expertise he sought during the subsequent legal battle diagnosed “chronic low back pain probably resulting from soft tissue trauma to the lumbar region.” Pain from the incident continues. “This is a permanent injury,” he says. “The older I get, the more I feel it.”
It wasn’t the only injury on the set of the film, which Arslanoski cannot name due to a nondisclosure agreement included in his settlement. Nor was he the only victim of perceived mistreatment by the production company. A female stunt performer suffered a broken bone, and a cast member who suffered a torn bicep claims he was subsequently denied insurance coverage.
These are just several in a long and ignominious run of accidents, injuries and deaths among stunt performers. Since video surfaced earlier this year of Uma Thurman being injured on the set of “Kill Bill,” incidents continue to come to light — including stunt performer deaths on the productions of “Deadpool 2” and “The Walking Dead.”
While Arslanoski doesn’t consider the shoot’s stunt coordinator, Yasca Sinigaglia, fully responsible for his injury, he does offer that “at the end of the day the stunt coordinator should have said no [to the stunt] and stood his ground.”
Arslanoski believes that, in its own way, stunt safety is as big a problem in the industry as the widespread sex abuse that’s come to light over the past year. “Maybe I’m the first person to bring this to people’s attention,” he says. “Other people might say, ‘You know what? This did happen to me, and we’re afraid to talk about it.’”
“It takes a very strong coordinator to turn around and say, “This isn’t what we discussed.”’
George Cottle, stunt performer-coordinator
The former stunt performer describes himself as having been “young and naive” about procedures and paper trails. He signed a talent release form but no contract; he and his colleagues entered Malaysia on tourist visas (work visas were issued later); they were paid weekly in cash. Career ambitions played no small role. “I wanted to have a name as an international stunt performer,” he explains. “Once you have that on your résumé you can be hired anywhere.”
That’s a common issue in the stunt world, says veteran stunt performer and coordinator George Cottle (“Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Black Panther,” “Kong: Skull Island”), who agrees that the industry imposes a disincentive to speak up.
“The coordinator, of course, wants to keep his producer or director happy, and the performer wants to do the same for the coordinator,” Cottle says. “It takes a very strong coordinator to turn around and say, ‘This isn’t what we discussed.’”
SAG-AFTRA recently published new standards and practices for stunt coordinators and has long operated a hotline for performers to report concerns.
While that will help, Cottle thinks a large part of the problem is that the management of stunts is not fully in the hands of stunt experts. “I just wish that people who aren’t [part of] this industry would stop trying to force the issue,” he says. “That is honestly when people get hurt.”