Talking with Mollie Gregory, author of STUNTWOMEN: The Untold Hollywood Story
Interviewed by Ilene Kahn Power
Trustee Women In Film Board of Directors
Notable best selling author and former Women In Film President MOLLIE GREGORY has written a fascinating new book about the history of Stuntwomen in Hollywood. The book, STUNTWOMEN: THE UNTOLD HOLLYWOOD STORY is now available in bookstores and online
Mollie Gregory began as a documentary filmmaker. She wrote a book about her experiences, and it changed her life. She became an author of fiction and non-fiction books, a sought-after speaker, particularly on the role and treatment of women in the entertainment industry.
In Women Who Run the Show, How A Brilliant and Creative New Generation Stormed Hollywood, published by St. Martin’s Press, Mollie interviewed 125 women from trainees to studio heads in the Hollywood film/TV industry. Lynda Obst, producer said “We are indebted to Gregory for committing to history those who would underestimate their own gains . . . how a band of sisters crashed the all-boys party that was Hollywood.”
Mollie is a frequent speaker on film subjects where she has been keynote speaker at national universities. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America, past president of P. E. N. Center USA, she has also served as a U.S. Vice President of the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers. As a longtime member of Women In Film, she created its History Preservation Plan, and now chairs “For the Record,” a program that compiled a history of the 43-year-old organization to expand and encourage Women In Film and other women’s groups to preserve their history. She has written a narrative version to be released as a CD to the public.
A cinema school graduate of New York University (BA, MA), she has taught a variety of film and writing courses at schools such as the University of Southern California (“Writing the Documentary”), San Francisco State University (“Movies as Role Models”), UCLA (“Writing the Novel”), Los Angeles City College (“Screenwriting and Film Criticism”), and CSU Northridge (“Film Financing and Distribution”), drawing on her documentary work recounted in her book, Making Films Your Business. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it “a cogent and impressively thorough book that may become as indispensable as your film, tape or talent.”
Mollie’s published novels include Equal to Princes, Triplets, Privileged Lies. Currently, she is finishing a new novel, Separate Screens, the story of two families in the movie industry, one black, one white, as well as a suspense novel around the legal and not-so-legal antics in a Hollywood talent agency, titled, LoveYouBye.
Mollie, why write about stuntwomen?
When my book, WOMEN WHO RUN THE SHOW was published, a stuntwoman, Julie Ann Johnson, asked me to sign her copy. She told me a little about stunts, some amusing and harrowing stories, and she thought I should write a book about stuntwomen. I didn’t know much about stuntwomen. I was working on three novels, I didn’t want to write another nonfiction book, but when she told me about discrimination and how the business of stunts really worked–that’s when I began to feel maybe I could take a year to write about stuntwomen. Years later, I’d after I’d interviewed about 65 stuntwomen and a number of men, the book was finished.
Why do you like to write? Isn’t it lonely?
But I meet such interesting people–the characters I dream up, their conflicts in various situations. My brother read one of my first novels and asked me how I could make up dialogue that sounded so real. I said it was pretty easy because once you know your characters, they talk to me. Sounds wacky, I know. I did not remind him that when I was about three years old, I had an imaginary family who often ‘visited’ me and told me about their escapades. A year younger than I, he’d been quite caught up in my stories about them.
And the challenges of this book?
Many. I had a lot to learn. The stuntwomen I interviewed taught me about their unique line of work. This book exists only because they shared their experiences. Collectively, their story is a classic come-from-behind, risk-all saga. All stunt performers risk injury, and women took the same risks, but in addition they faced institutional discrimination and other inequities to gain the work that could injure, and sometimes kill them. They are athletes – some are champions. They may weigh 115 pounds, but they are all muscle, and they are brave. I wrote about stuntwomen in Hollywood and New York, but stunt players work in many countries that regularly produce movies–China, Australia, Japan, England, France, and others. I wanted to interview women in other countries, but then it would have taken me 20 years.
Stunts are an engine of the movies. On screen, a stunt seems like a spontaneous physical feat but it is a carefully planned set of actions, and that’s the art of it. Each stunt has character, conflict and resolution–it’s a little action story in itself that contributes to the whole movie story being told. A pretty woman takes a swim in the ocean and a shark attacks her. That’s the opening sequence in JAWS, and how the stunt was done is described in the book.
Who were the first stuntwomen?
Actresses who were athletic could do high dives or ride horses. In fact in the first years when hundreds of women descended on Hollywood and New York to “be in the movies,” they had to be able to drive a car. Movies, cars, planes and the possible vote for women–all were developing around that time. It must have been thrilling because women didn’t have financial rights, educations, and couldn’t serve on juries. The movies hired women and immigrants that other employers excluded. By about 1915, all the stars of
the popular serials were women. Those serials had plenty of stunts. Other women in silent films were directing, producing, writing and editing. When movies became respectable and profitable, men took over most of the work, women were eased out and that included stuntwomen. But, as I wrote in the book, stuntwomen were just beginning and like the plot of a great movie their story had everything: humiliation, injustice, injury and death, determination, courage, and finally hard fought success.
There is an attitude in this country–maybe every country–that what women do is not really important. It’s not spoken, but it’s there, and it certainly applies to stuntwomen.
Another attitude: Stunts are not important and anyone who does them must be nuts. Danny Aiello III was a stunt coordinator in New York. People kept asking him, “‘Are you stunt guys crazy?’ No. We’re probably the sanest people on the set. We’re very smart. We have to be. If an actor screws up, all they do is say ‘Cut.’ If we screw up, people can get seriously hurt.”
What surprised you the most?
The superb athletic abilities of stuntwomen (and the men, too), but in early and later movies it was assumed women had few athletic powers.
The women’s courage, tenacity, good humor, and their adaptability–when something in the stunt changes and they must react in seconds.
The deeply engrained discriminatory practices against minorities and women in entertainment industry.
I was surprised that SAG had no qualifications for stunt people. As a stuntman said, “If you have a Screen Actor’s Guild card, you’re as qualified as Lassie.”
And, I was surprised how much the women enjoy their work despite the prohibitions, hassles, and lack promotion opportunities, such as stunt coordination.
What about the status of women in Hollywood today?
It’s not where it should be. The statistics done by Geena Davis’s Institute of Gender in Media, by Annenberg School, and by Dr. Martha Lauzen are appalling – 7% of women direct, 10% of women write; the figures go up and down by 2 or 5 percentage points and some are back at levels cited by Dr. Lauzen in 1998, 17 years ago. We are not gaining ground and I think that will change until the guilds, which negotiate contracts every three years with Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers (AMPTP), demand increased access of women in entertainment industry.
Tell me a few stunt stories.
Julie Ann Johnson, one of the first women to stunt coordinate in 1978-80, sued Aaron Spelling Productions for unlawful termination – and won, then lost on appeal. Many stunt people were called as witnesses. Reading that trial transcript was like a short course on stunt work. Julie did some hair – raising stunts, and they’re in the book. She was very outspoken about discrimination, plus the lack of safety on the job. She was blacklisted, and so were others.
Stuntwoman Shauna Duggins did a car jump into a lake, went down about 18 feet, then realized the doors and windows would not open. She was trapped. She did not panic. She fought on and found a way out.
Stuntwoman Nicole Callender’s unusual specialty inspired her. In college, as a theater major, she studied unarmed, hand-to-hand fights and fights with weapons. “When I picked up a sword I couldn’t believe I hadn’t held one before. It informed my work as an actor. That sword was like I’d found a missing link.” She came to New York as an actor off-Broadway, began her stunt work in 2001. Only later did she realize her image as a woman armed with sword had impact, especially when teaching fight techniques to young actors. “On one level they know women have more opportunities now, but when they see me physically fight with a broadsword, and then do it themselves, I hear them say, ‘I can do anything now—no limits!’ They don’t have to settle for a job behind a desk.”
Sophia Crawford being tossed up over the camera crane. One stunt in an episode of Buffy (“Phases”) was not planned as a wild high fall. Her training and strength saved her. Falls usually start on top of something, they don’t involve being hurled up from the ground and then down into a fall. “In a forest, Buffy stepped on a capture net,” Sophia said, “that was supposed to fold up around her and lift her about six feet off the ground.” The special effects team worked to rig the net, but the production crew ran out of time and when they got to the gag with the net they had to shoot the rehearsal. “The net was made out of rope, big squares woven together. I stepped into position, the net captured me, then, like a slingshot, flung me with great power over and beyond the camera on the crane.” She had one elbow inside the net, but her body was outside it. She’d been hurled fifty feet into the air. “If I hadn’t grabbed onto the net as it was coming down, I don’t know how I would have landed. It was terrifying.”
Marguerite Happy: “As a stuntwoman, I get to crash cars, jump cars and go 110 miles an hour! I’m not a high fall person, but sometimes I get to be pushed or shot off buildings—it’s in the script! We get to hit the decks in explosions, fire automatic weapons, play cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. We get to play aliens!”
In the interviews for this book I asked everyone about what I called “The Joy of the Work,” the great times. Here is one:
“I enjoyed being able to override my body’s natural instincts, push the envelope and not allow fear to overtake my judgment,” Jadie David said. “The more fearless you are in what you do, the fewer regrets you’ll have. I learned those things from doing stunts.” Her work is cited in the National Motion Picture Collection and African American History (The National Archives and Records Administration).
What’s next for you, Mollie?
I want to continue on the Women In Film history and bring it up to date. That’s important. All major organizations preserve and value their history. And then I’ll return to my novels!