Stunts: The Foundation Of “House”
There’s no doubt about it: "House M.D." is a medical drama. So it may have come as a surprise to discover Jim Vickers was nominated for Outstanding Stunt Coordination from this very show when the 2010 Emmy nominations were released.
"David Shore, our show runner and executive producer called me up and we were laughing because it’s like, ‘You got nominated for what? Stunts?’ But we do a lot of stunts, and some very elaborate stunts," said Vickers. “We’ve had a bus turn over, we’ve done big flying sequences. Last year we had Hugh (Laurie, who plays House) over a fly machine, 20 to 30 feet in the air along with the stunt people. We just did a motorcycle wreck. We’ve done some big stuff!"
”Brave Heart,” the particular episode Vickers was nominated for, involved a police chase through a maze of rooms and windows that eventually leads to a building’s roof. The lead officer jumps but fails to clear the neighboring rooftop, and falls many stories down. When dealing with a stunt like this, Vickers’ role as stunt coordinator first involves looking over the script and determining the writer’s intention and needs for the scene, which will dictate the type of athletic abilities required by the stunt performers.
The second most important element is the location. After the director has approved the location scouts’ suggestions, Vickers jumps in.
"It’s my job to come in and look at the location and begin the choreography from where we start, what we’re capable of doing within that space, and how to augment that space to give it another element of excitement and drama to keep that tension going, to keep our audience on the edge of there seating saying ’This is exciting, ‘" said Vickers.
This particular stunt required a tremendous athlete who would be doubling as the main character in the show. He was first dedicated to casting just the right athlete for the role, resulting in actor/stunt man John Seda. Vickers also had to cast a double for Seda in addition to the other stunt performers. Next, Vickers prepped the location. In addition to bringing in obstacles such as boxes and furniture and finding windows for the chase to flow throw, Vickers also introduced both moving and stationary cars the stunt people hurdled over, all while having guns drawn.
Working with a tight television schedule often limits the preparation time for any choreographed sequence. Vickers works closely with other production staff to ensure the need of the stunt are met before cameras roll.
"Especially on ‘House,’ the producers and the production crew are really gracious in giving me the time and resources that I need to make the sequence work well," said Vickers. "In the case in the sequence that we were nominated for, I was actually able to work with the art department and design the augmentations that we were doing to the actual locations. We designed it to work for the sequence."
Vickers will also speak with the cinematographer to identify the best camera equipment needed to cover the shot, and the first unit director to ensure that the lead actors are well out of harms way during the stunt. He also consults with the actors to find their comfort level and ability in handling a stunt. While Hugh Laurie is very athletic and executes 90% of his stunts himself, Vickers must assess each actor’s physical well-being before he allows anyone to engage in a stunt.
"I have to really weigh every decision that I make in regards to safety. At the end of the day it’s my job not just to keep the actors safe but everyone safe," said Vickers. "My stunt people who are coming in are elite athletes, it’s what they do for a living, I trust in their skills without a doubt. As it concerns our actors, it’s all within their capabilities and their limitations. There is the run of the show to be considered and everything is weighed upon that. If there’s a twisting of an ankle, then all of a sudden we have to work around an injury that could exist for weeks or months on end. So that is always a gigantic consideration. Safety is, and I’ll say this time and time again, my number one priority."
To ensure the safety of the cast and crew, Vickers will customize the safety equipment to the needs of the stunt as well as the location. Safety features can range from adding non-slip materials to shoes to adding padding and hand railings. Although stunt professionals will arrive on set with all the protective gear they need, Vickers is always prepared with every element that might be required by an actor, crew member, or stunt person.
Safety and preparedness comes naturally to Vickers. Prior to his career in stunts both on and behind the camera, Vickers was a fire fighter and paramedic. Having studied martial arts for years, he became involved with film when his karate dojo, who was hired as Don Jon’s bodyguard for the television series "Miami Vice," needed some help training actors. Vickers first on screen role as a stunt person came when he was given two weeks to train an actor to be a lethal martial arts master.
"I told the director that the actor’s a great guy and he’s training as hard as he can, but in two weeks I can’t make him appear to be a lethal martial artist," recalled Vickers. “I can have him begin sequences and end sequences properly, but everything in-between won’t look very good. The director said, what do you think of doubling him? And I said sure."
Vickers continued to work in the fire rescue squad until his commander suggested that he make a choice between what was becoming two full time jobs. At that point Vickers made a complete career change, fully immersing himself in stunt work. He was lucky to come into the profession at a time when stunt technology was improving. Wires and cables were being eliminated for more advanced equipment that Vickers was able to master and incorporate into stunts he performed.
"I’ve ridden every piece of equipment that’s out there as a stunt person," said Vickers. "I like to say that the greatest stunt coordinators were great stunt men. You have had to have done it to know what it feels like and to know what to expect. So it really is about experience, and there is no substitution for that.”
To date Vickers has participated in as a stunt man and overseen as a stunt coordinator about every type of stunt and situation used in both film and television productions. The work has also lent itself to being a second unit director. This experience has opened a new door for Vickers, who has found himself interested in writing and directing.
"Being a part of the stunt department is a big part of the story telling; we tell the action part of the story, but at the end of the day we are all story tellers," said Vickers. "As a film maker, I want to tell the entire story. I love doing what I do, I absolutely love being involved in the action, being a stunt coordinator, being a stunt man, and directing second unit, but at the end of the day, I would love to tell the whole story from all sides."