Sean Skene has set himself on fire – for work

The life of a stunt coordinator

Sean Skene has been beaten up, set on fire and launched from the roof of a moving Jeep – all in the name of a day’s work.

“I think it’s every kid’s dream to be a stuntman. I was born into it,” he says. It was Skene’s good fortune that his father runs a stunt coordination business. “I don’t take that for granted.”

In his youth, Skene watched first-hand as his dad provided stunt coordination for feature films like Passchendaele, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Curse of Chucky. A keen film student, Skene taught himself to use programs like Final Cut Pro as early as high school, following his father’s footsteps.

Despite the pull of family connection, Skene was allowed to make his own career choices.

“If there was any pressure from my dad, I didn’t feel it,” Skene says. “I loved filmmaking. I got 100 per cent in all of my school’s film classes, and I was the only kid who owned Final Cut, so I had a big advantage.”

As he got older and earned stuntman credits in TV shows like Fargo, Suits and Once Upon a Time, Skene made the most of his advantages by moving into stunt coordination at a relatively early stage in his career.

“Most stunt coordinators usually have long careers in stunt performing before they get into stunt coordination. I was fast-tracked, because I grew up doing it.”

As a stunt coordinator, it’s Skene’s job to work with directors to create the illusion of danger. To do so, he says, requires him to establish a culture of trust.

“Our rule is, ‘It’s not safe unless you feel safe.’ If someone’s falling into a bed I can’t say, ‘That’s easy. You can do that.’ That’s not up to me. That’s their choice,” Skene says.

“The real strategy is to have a conversation. Let them know that it’s their body. It’s their choice.”

Of course, not all the stunts Skene coordinates are as straightforward as someone falling into a bed. One of Skene’s most recent stunt coordination credits is for Winnipeg’s own Lovesick. In it, Ali Tataryn’s character Nora is thrown from the handlebars of her love interest’s bicycle, landing directly on her face.

“We made it extremely safe in the close-up and let Ali fall out of frame onto a huge, cushy high-fall mat. Then we put in Kristen Sawatzky, who is an unbelievable stunt woman – she does the best faceplants in the world – we did it so well the first time that they had to reshoot it,” Skene says. “They thought it would have killed Ali in the story, like, ‘No, she would never get up from that.’”

Skene credits Sawatzky’s background as a contemporary dancer for her skills as a stuntperson before clarifying a common misconception about stunt work.

“We don’t hire daredevils,” he says. “We hire really smart people who understand the illusion. When you’re doing stunts, the best chance of success is exactly in the middle – 50 per cent keen and 50 per cent cautious. As soon as you’re 100 per cent confident, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

Has Skene ever hurt himself in the line of duty?

“I had to do a fall off a Jeep – off the hood of a Jeep. A grizzly bear hits the back of it, catapulting me into the air, and I land on top of the Jeep and then roll off onto the ground,” Skene says.

“The shot was picked up from the ground with the actor, so I had to get to the ground. I had a big catapult boom, jumped in the air – big flat back, kind of a Home Alone, both feet in the air – and smashed onto the back of the Jeep.”

When he hit the Jeep, he stuck on top of it.

“I had to sneak my hand off the Jeep as fast as I could, shove my finger in the grill and pull myself off as if I was falling off. What happened was I got my finger caught in (the) grill, and I snapped my finger as I did that,” Skene says.

Given the risks inherent in stunt work as a career, Skene says his attitude often comes back to family values.

“I work with my family a lot, and everyone else that comes into our stunt team, we treat as family,” he says.

“In stunt work, when you’re creating really painful scenes at the apex of the most emotional moment for the actor, all this trust is involved. Trust and love is what we go to. If you do this in any other way and you forget the human elements, someone’s going to get hurt physically, emotionally,” Skene says.

“So you really have to treat people like family because, if you’re not, then you shouldn’t be doing this job.”

Skene’s current job is stunt coordination for Cult of Chucky, the seventh film in the Child’s Play horror franchise. He is also working on promoting Fisher Cove, a short thriller which he wrote, directed, produced and acted in.

Given Skene’s family values, it comes as no surprise that stunt coordination for Fisher Cove was provided by his father at Skene Stunts.

Fisher Cove Teaser from Sean Skene on Vimeo.

Published in Volume 71, Number 21 of The Uniter (February 22, 2017)

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