Exclusive: SCREENANARCHY talks with renowned stuntman and ActionFest honoree Mickey Gilbert

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Exclusive: SCREENANARCHY talks with renowned stuntman and ActionFest honoree Mickey Gilbert
Mickey Gilbert is a tough sonofabitch, a direct line to the glory days action cinema. His credits go back decades, from his his dozens of roles in The Wild Bunchas and acting as Redford's double in Butch Cassidy, to 2nd unit and stunt coordination on giant shows like Waterworld and Apollo 13. Over the years he's been the stunt double for the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson,  Lee Majors, Billy Crystal and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy (!). Mickey will be receiving recognition at this year's ActionFest in Asheville, North Carolina for his body of work. Looking over his list of films, the diversity of what he has accomplished is pretty astounding.

With almost a hundred films under his belt, we could have talked for hours - When the likes of Blues Brothers doesn't get mentioned, you know there was too much to take in! Still, we got to talk Peckinpah, The Fall Guy, the changing role of the stunt performer, and which director he always wanted to work with but never got a chance.

First of all, congratulations on your invitation to ActionFest

Well, I'm kinda looking forward to it, I think there's some kind of question and answer things they want me to do, they're going to show some movies I was in, one's The Wild Bunch, then The Fury. That'll be kinda fun to talk about that.

Speaking of The Wild Bunch, can you please talk about working with Peckinpah and your experiences on that film?

It was my first film with Sam, and I'd heard a lot about him, about how he was the type of guy that if you told him about something you could do, and it didn't work out, you wouldn't get any second chances. Most of his films he averaged firing around 32 people per film.
I really liked him because I liked his style. I was new in the business, and my Father-in-law, Joe Yrigoyen [ed. who had a 50 year careerof his own ], he's the one that got be down on that show, because he knew Sam, and he knew a lot of a lot of the stuntmen, the old timers that were...well, in those days they weren't old timers, they were the young guys coming up.
One of the shots we were going to do, at the opening of the show when they ride into town, William Holden and Ernie Borgnine to rob the express office. They put Robert Ryan, L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin up on a building to ambush these guys because they knew they were coming.

Something about Sam, a lot of people were really afraid to talk to him. He was a little guy, but he had these little dark, beady eyes and he'd look right through ya if you let him.
I had a few incidences where I was going to show him some things, what I could do, and he'd say "Yeah, I like that".

So on the shot of me, where I come out of the Express Office with a bag, we think it's silver or gold, and they start shooting guys off the roof, I come down and grab the saddle bags and put them on a horse. Robert Ryan's hollering "Shoot 'em! Shoot 'em!", and they supposedly shoot me off the horse.

Well, I talk Sam into having Robert Ryan say "Shoot the Horse!" So, they shoot the horse, and my Father-in-law and I, we rigged a cable on the horse, where [Yrigoyen] was off to the side. So I'm riding the horse, I get shot first, and I'm hung into my stirrup. They shoot the horse, and the horse falls with me, draggin' me along side of it.

So, Sam liked that idea. We do all that stuff, and he came to me later on and said, "You know, I think the best stunt in the movie is when you did the drag and the horse fall."
So, I went to Sam towards the end of the show, and said I'd really like to coordinate your next movie, and he said "Hey, you got it!". So, we did a movie called Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen. So, I was stunt coordinator and doubled McQueen and some stuff, and set up all the action on the show and got to know Sam.

I did another show for him called... what's it called again, it's with Jason Robards... Anyway, I learned a lot from Sam, because he was the first guy to do high speed action, and to make everything slow down, especially with squibs going off getting blown out of your body. He really made action look real.

I followed that all through my career, where when I finally got into directing, I did the same exact thing. Directors and producers loved it, you know. He taught me a lot about shooting from 500 frames per second, really going slow, to where say like you're shooting a bull, spinning and spinning, as he spins his head's coming towards camera but he's moving sooo slooow, and all of a suddenly he cuts to 24 [ed. frames per second, the conventional frame rate] and the head just goes "Weeeeyooosh!" right by your lens, speed up stuff to make it more impactful.

So, I got a lot out of Sam. I really liked him.

From the perspective of your position as part of the stunt crew, does it matter if you're in a future classic or a run-of-the mill picture? How did you cope with material you didn't think was up to your standards?

Well, on all my movies, I was pretty arty with my mind, and I wasn't afraid to speak up, where a lot of guys are. I always read the script, and of course there would be action sequences in there. But some of the sequences to me, they weren't that good, and I knew they wouldn't photograph or sell that good, so I would rewrite stuff. I'd rewrite even some different type of action, because sometimes writers, they don't really know what we could do. I mean now, it doesn't matter because everything is almost CG [ed. computer graphics]. Back in those days, if you told a guy you could do something, and it didn't work out, well, you didn't get a very good name going. So, whatever you told the producer or director could be done, you'd better get it done right.

What I would do, I'd create action, usually I'd take it to the Producer or the Director and they'd like it, and they'd say "Let's do this instead of what's written!" So they'd give it to the writer, and he'd rewrite it, and da da da da...

A lot of times, the way I got my second unit directing card, was that since I wrote it I'd go to the Director and say, you're not going to have time to shoot all this, why not let me shoot it, and that way I can start directing stuff.

Sometimes, if I wasn't doing stunts, I'm directing, maybe one or two of the stunt guys didn't do it the way I wanted it done so we would repeat it. The problem is, if it's big stuff, and you only got, say, one shot at it, you really want to make sure you've got the right people in the right spot. But sometimes if you didn't, and it didn't go right, you would just have to use it, and take hell for it.

To tell you the truth, that really didn't happen to me too much, I can't even think of when it did.
There was this show I did called Metro, with Eddie Murphy, I wrote a runaway cablecar chase. The director, oh, he went nuts over it because it had never been done before. I said, if you take me on this show, I'm going to try to do stuff that's never been done before in San Francisco, because everybody's waiting for another car chase jumping over the roads, so let's see something different.

I had all these different sequences happening, and there was one time where the gag didn't work the way I had it setup, so we had to change it. It'd be the same kind of gag, but it'd work better. Things like that happen.

You know, when you're doing action, and there's no CG involved, it's got to be setup right or it's just not going to work the way you see it in your mind. You just got to correct it or eat egg.

How do you think the role of the stuntman has changed since you started, and how do you think it'll change in the future?

In the old days, it was so much better, because to accomplish something that was for real, it made a big difference. The new style of shooting now, you get directors that I meet, they don't even know how to talk action, because they think, "Oh, we'll just do it CG". I mean, it's no big deal to them, "I can jump a car over a mountain", "I can fly a horse over the moon", "I can do whatever I want".

When you're working with them like that, it's really no fun, because it's not for real.
It's hurt the stuntman's pocket book a lot because, oh, I'd say 60% of their work has gone down the tubes into computers, where they don't have to do these practical stunts anymore.
I'll go to a show, and the trailers... most of it is all CG that they're showing ya.
To me, where I think it's going to go is, they're going to start creating actors that you've never seen before, because right now they can create people and make it look pretty real. Another 5 years from now, maybe even before that, they're going to make them so real that you'll be thinking "Who's this new actor?", and you won't even know it's computer graphic'd or not.
I just think the movie business has just gone way over the top with all this stuff. The thing I don't like about it is that it's selling tickets, you know, people are buying it.

Are there any films in say the last decade that live up to the golden age of stunt work that you yourself were very much a part of

[pause] Um, no.

Fair enough

Any of the films I've seen lately... I'm a member of the Academy, and so they send me, I get like 50 or 60 films way before the Awards to vote on. As I'm looking at them, I'll start seeing a film that's looking really good, and then all of a sudden there's something that's not really believable to me, it's over the top. It destroys the film for me. I mean, that's because I'm in the business, and I know what's going on, but for the average guy seeing it, he probably doesn't know any better.

You know, when I was doing a movie with Bruce Willis called Striking Distance, this was probably 20 years ago, there was a big second unit, these big car chases, so I'm going to go all over Pittsburgh and find certain streets, and tunnels, and different things I want to make this car chase look good.

Sony sent a guy back to me, and he was the computer guy, and the wanted him to go with me for weeks and weeks and weeks while I'm setting up these different types of locations for what I want to do. And I said, "what's this for?" because this is the first time I've ever heard of computer graphics. He said, "Well, instead of doing story boards where we have an artist draw it out, we're going to put it on tape to where it'll look real, but it won't be real, yet it'll give your director and idea of what your ideas are in this chase you're going to make".

So, the guy started going out with me, and he'd measure the length of tunnels, the width of tunnels, the different cars and buses and stuff I had, then he left. He said, "I'll have this put together in about 2 or 3 weeks", I said "OK" but I still didn't really get what it was going to look like.

He came back before we started shooting, and on the monitor he started showing me, and he's say, "OK, now this your 17mm that you've got hanging off the bumper of the car right off the highway, this is the shot". So, you'd see a highway, and you'd see these square blocks, which were cars, or trucks, and the camera's going in and out of them, near misses and all this stuff. And he'd say, "This is the Camera that you have on the same car that's shooting down over the roof", so you'd see the same shot, and these different angles.  There's this tunnel, and these car jumping off these roads... but everything was in box form.

I got to looking at this, and I said, "Wow... You know what, this is going to kill us".
I asked him "Hey, how long do you think it'll be until all these box figures turn into actually being a car, or a truck, or a bus, and have colour, and look real". And he kinda laughed at me, and said "Probably 10 years", and the guy was right on.

I saw it starting to come, and develop, and here it is.

Can you talk then about the last throws of your big action films before CGI took over, from BARTON FINK to CITY SLICKERS 1 and 2. Was there a fundamental difference between the stuff you were doing then and what Yakima Canutt was doing in the 30s with STAGECOACH?

The only difference to me was that you had more accessibility to different types of lenses, different types of cameras, lighter weight cameras where you could put them in different places, to make the shots look more vivid, coming into your face more. In the older days they were more or less master shots, they never got into cutting into inside action stuff.
From that era that you're talking about, things just got better even before computer graphics, I think it was because of the technology of cameras, and what your dream was with different lenses.

I've had a Director of Photography with me [ed. Don McCuaig] for almost 30 years, the guy has never won an Academy Award but if anybody should have he should have. He just knew what lenses to do. Even the long lenses came more into power than they were way back when, to where you could really get inside of stuff. And then mounting cameras, nobody used to mount cameras to much in those old days, on vehicles, or on horses, or you name it, so it's really change a lot.

So on all the City Slickers, man I had cameras underneath of wagons, buried under the ground where they dragged bodies over them, all kinds of stuff.

On CITY SLICKERS 2 there's the explicit reference to Canutt and STAGECOACH, a man crawling under charging horses. You're tied to these early works - regardless of how it's being shot, you're still putting your life in danger with whatever rudimentary safety devices you've got. That is the spirit of what it is to be a stuntman, is it not?

Oh, yeah. It was pretty much the same as far as what they did way back in those days to what I was doing then. We were doing the same stuff, it's just the equipment we had during my era was much better than what my father-in-law had during his era.

As he started growing out of the business and I started getting in to it, learning from him a lot.
He did Ben Hur, he was one of the big drivers of the chariots. They just didn't have some of the equipment to do what I was doing, as far as physical stuff goes, forget the cameras, yeah we're doing almost the same thing that they were doing. But at least we could see a guy go under a chariot, in modern day shot, we could see a guy fall under and hang a camera there. We could see his body underneath and the wheels almost killing him. We could cut into that shot.

In those days they couldn't, but we would do the same actual physical stuff.

So what improved, basically, was the ability to capture the pain and agony you guys were going through. They were still going through it in both eras, you were just better able to capture it.

Absolutely. I've got to give the credit to the cameras.

I and another friend, a stunt guy, we developed a gun sight camera. We went to the government and bought some cameras which were 16mm film cameras, and the weighed about one and a half pounds, and you could hold them in your hand like an iPhone.

We wanted to do point of view shots from all kinds of angles, and then we were going to take the film and push it into 35mm, we even got some small Panavision lenses. That thing went like hotcakes for about ten years because these little cameras I could put anywhere. I could hold it at the end of a stick, underneath a horse, and the hooves are coming right into the camera, it was just making things change all over. It put the people right involved in there.

I went to Spain, doubling Charlie Bronson on a show, I took this camera with me, I mounted it on a helmet to the side of my head. I went out on a horse, and I roped wild horses. You'd see my hand out in front of the camera, you'd see the horses head, you'd see me throw the rope, you'd see the rope go around the neck of the horse in front of me.  And then we'd cut to another shot, of master cameras shooting the same thing where I'm dressed in doubles gear.

Different types of cameras have really helped. Since now that they've gone digital, they have all these little lipstick cameras, you don't even know are anywhere. You can do marvelous things with them, you know? Most everything's going digital - that's why Kodak's going broke, because nobody's using film anymore.

So, stuntmen and Kodak are a dying breed?

Oh, yeah.

I'm getting ready to go to Russia, if the show goes, in September. I said, "Are you guys doing digital, or what?", and they said, "Oh, no, we're going to go the old way, we're going film", and I said "Wow!"

What that means is, they're going to have to use bigger cameras... These digital cameras, boy, some of them, you don't even know there's a camera there. I just did a little commercial for one of my kids on this new skateboard they have, and we've got a camera on the back of the skate board, it's a little bigger than a lipstick thing. We mounted it on the back with tape, runs on a little battery, shooting up the back of this guy on the skateboard, just getting wild looking shots.

Without these different techniques, with the new technology of the cameras they're making, from the old days, you wouldn't have what you have today, that's for sure.

As a stunt performer, does it matter who you're doubling? Do you double Robert Redford different than you double Steve McQueen?

Oh, no. No. Stunts are stunts.

The only thing that's different is maybe a hat and a mustache, or whatever the wardrobe is. That's the only difference.

Doing the action you don't even think about it, you're just a human being up there doing your part.

Is there a particular stunt  that you have done that you think might be underappreciated?

Man, that's a question I'd have to really think about.

There's things that look hard that might be relatively easy, and things that look easy that are incredibly difficult. People look at you, jumping off the cliff as Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY, and that's a very impressive, dynamic shot, that may or may not have been difficult to execute. There may be a stunt that you did that looks fairly tame on screen, because that's what the character and the story requires, but is really quite challenging. I'm wondering if you can break those things down if possible.

Hrm, that's a toughie... Because, when I think of horse work, when I think well... I've done so much stuff, from high falls, to fight work, to underwater work, to horse work, to car work. Jumping cars...

On one show, I think it's called Our Winning Season. There's a car, a red Mustang, that jumps through a drive-in theatre. Maybe to the public, well, it was wild looking... You know, that's really a hard question.

Sorry my friend!

[Mickey's wife chips in] "Let me answer that for you [referring to Mickey]..."
"Often you, because of your physical fitness, because you're such a good athlete, you would make things look easy. They would look at it and say, "Oh, that looks too easy!", because you were so physically fit."

"You made it look easy, but it wasn't easy, a lot of other people couldn't have done it"
Did you hear my wife?

I did, she sounds like she's a good supporter of your activities!

Well, yeah.

All through my career, even been rodeo cowboy and stuntman, I did do things easier, but we're talking about stunts. I just can't think of a stunt...

[His wife again] "Well, there are the helicopter stuff.."

Ah, well, here's one for you, OK, Helicopter work. I did a lot of Helicopter work, hanging under choppers, doing all kinds of stuff.


Well, here's a gag for you. It was on a TV series called The Fall Guy, I was doubling Lee Majors for like five years.

They wanted to do a shot where I'm in this Maserati, and I'm being chased by these bad guys. He's like a James Bond. In the seat we have this thing where it's going to eject me, and I'm going to fly about a hundred feet. Up! Up! Up!

There's a helicopter up there, and I'm going to grab the skids, OK?

Well, the way I did this gag, I had Lee Majors in the car, and I had him just kinda lift real quick, stand up in the car. He had his feet under him where he could just hold onto the wheel and just stand up like he's going to be blown out of the car.

So, then what I do is, I go up on a helicopter, and I'm hanging on to the skids. They fly me over a big trapeze net that I rigged. And I let go, and I'm falling, and I'm falling, and I'm falling, and I'm falling...

But all the time I'm falling, I have to have my arms up, and I have to have my head up, looking at the chopper. So, as I'm falling, I'm looking up, and it's really hard to do, because you want to look down to see where you're going.

So, anyway, the shot is, as Lee leaves the car throwing his hands up and his body starts to leave frame, it cuts to me, we do a reverse print. So as I'm falling down, all of a sudden I'm going up! So, my head's looking up, and you see me grab the skids of the chopper.
It was a wild looking shot, but yet, it looked pretty easy, like I left the car and went up in the air and grabbed the skids, yet it was a real tough, tough shot to do.


Can you picture what I just said with the reverse print?

I used to do a lot of reverse printing. I could set a camera right up against your face if you're laying on the street, and the camera would be attached to a car. It's right against your nose, and your mouth is wide open screaming. Then I can back the car up, and shoot it at about 12 frames per second, and then reverse the frame, and that car is going to come screaming at you with your mouth open, "EeeeeYOWP!" Right?

Stuff like that I used to do a lot of - I still do it, because it's wild looking stuff.

So that's my thought of that helicopter thing with Majors.

How surreal was it to be on a TV show that had a star that's supposed to be a stunt guy, and you're the stunt guy for that person?

You know what, that was such a great show for me. That's where two of my sons started out their careers as stunt guys.

I'd get scripts, every week, it'd say "First act - Action to be written",  "Second act - Action to be written". And I'd write all the action. I mean, I had that thing sewed up.  I would just write our paycheques, on each page!

They liked our action so well they gave me the liberty to write any kind of action I wanted, so we did all kinds of action on that show. It was probably one of the most fun shows I ever did.
I wasn't really into TV, I was a feature guy, but when this thing came along I thought, "Wow, this could be good". As Lee being a stunt man in the movies, it just fit into everything that I was doing.

Can you tell me a bit more about your father-in-law, Joe Yrigoyen?

Yeah, he was a big guy, he was Yakima Canutt's right hand man. He setup everything for Yakima to shoot. Yakima didn't set up stuff as well as I would have thought. I worked for Yakima a few times, and I worked with his boys, and they said, "Well, that's kinda the way our dad is, he lets us set the stuff up and he just kind of shoots them".  

But, my father-in-law, he would setup all the action on any shows he'd did with Yak. He was quite a guy, I learned a lot from him.

Finally, what is your favourite stunt movie that you're not a part of? What is the movie that you sat in the theatre and thought, "Damn, that's a good action movie!"

You know what, not really, most of the movies out there aren't real action, you can just see the graphics taking over.

I don't mean contemporary films, film from any period

Well, the Chariot race on Ben Hur was spectacular. I'd say that's one of the best movies I've ever watched.

And you happen to be in it!

All these Biblical pictures, like Troy, and Alexander, and all those.... When you see the graphics in there, and there are thousands of ships coming into Troy, just all the people involved, all the battles that are taking place....

Ok, here's one, I really liked Braveheart. It was a true story, and they just overemphasized all the action in it, with all the troops, which were more or less computer graphic'd in an all that stuff. But I still enjoyed the movie a lot, I would have liked to have done that movie.

I'll tell you what, the movie that I would have loved to have done, and the director I would have loved to have worked for, was, um, I had it on the tip of my tongue, that's how far back it goes. It's the one with Julie Christie and the snow...


Yes, Doctor Zhivago.

David Lean

David Lean. I would have loved to have to have worked for David Lean and just get his techniques, because that was in the real days, you know? He was just quite a director, and I thought that was just one of the greatest movies ever done.

Excellent - I'll be coming down to Asheville, so look forward to meeting you in person. Give my best to your wife, who has been extremely helpful as well!

Great, it's been fun talking to you!
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Find more of Jason Gorber's cineruminations at www.Filmfest.ca or follow his tweets @ twitter.com/filmfest_ca
Ard VijnApril 12, 2012 1:34 PM

That is one hell of an interview Jason! Congrats.
You must have had a whale of a time with Mr. Gilbert. And I think I actually remember that helicopter stunt.