Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Zoë Bell has worked as a stuntwoman for years, making a reputation as a fearles performer—particularly for her work in "Death Proof." Now she stars in the new thriller "Raze." We got a chance to catch up with her and talk about her work.
MZS: Is this the first time that you've really carried a movie, in that sort of Steve McQueen kind of way?
Zoë Bell: I love that you just referenced Steve McQueen! That just put a big grin on my face. Yeah, there was another film called Angel of Death that was a web series that got turned into a movie, where I was the lead and I played an assassin, so that was the first time. This one has definitely been the most...big of my experiences being an actor.
MZS: You've been a big stunt performer for a while: fifteen, sixteen years?
Bell: Don't age me, but yeah.
MZS: Did you ever imagine that you would eventually cross over into acting?
Bell: No. I had moments where I would watch the actors and think, "God, that would be fun to be both sides of the character, to be able to do the whole thing," but it never occurred to me that it was a transition I should be making or that there's another career.
I was a stunt girl. I thought, "What could possibly be better than this?" I've got the coolest job on the planet!
MZS: How did you end up in this movie?
Bell: In the early stages, it was a short film. They approached me to do a cameo at the end, and then they offered me to [do stunt coordination], and then they offered me to be involved as a producer, at which point I was excited at the concept of producing for the first time. So…it wasn't really a character piece [for me] when I first joined.
MZS: And at what point did it become one?
Bell: Well, we shot the short, and while we were shooting the short film, Rachel Nichols was the lead of the short, and it basically ended at the end of the first fight that you see in the [feature], and there was a whole extra piece at the beginning. When we were shooting that short, I don't know exactly how that happened, but a couple websites picked up on it, got excited about it, wanted to know when the release date of the feature was, and we were all, "Hang on a second, it's not even a feature!" We'd always planned on making the short and then using it to extend into either a feature or a web series or TV show—we always had plans of it being bigger than just a short, but it just happened really soon.
So we got Robert Beaucage, who wrote the short, to write a feature over Christmas. We shot in November, wrote over Christmas, and shot in April the first year.
MZS:Did you talk about classic prison pictures when you were making "Raze"?
Bell: No, we didn't. Obviously things came up in conversation when we were writing the script, but it was probably more of a conscious decision to not reference other movies, because I think we were sort of like, you've got women in prison so you're already a genre film, it doesn't matter which way you slice it at that point, and it's a fight film. The director Josh Waller in particular was looking to avoid the formula of a genre film, I think. So we certainly weren't referencing.
Listen, what I was going for with Sabrina was a silent type. In other scenes, she was meant to not speak, and then they go on and on, she finally says something, and [another inmate named] Phoebe says, "Chatterbox." So that was a conscious decision that Sabrina be a viewer, that she takes it in.
And I was definitely inspired by Steve McQueen and Mel Gibson, if you can imagine mixing those two.
MZS: The film certainly attains Mel Gibson levels of violence as it goes along.
Bell: I love that. The last scene when she's fed up and the whole thing's getting a bit ridiculous was definitely inspired by Martin Riggs in "Lethal Weapon."
MZS: And were you choreographing the fights during the production as well as acting?
Bell: We had a fight choreographer, James Young. I, very early on, said I'd be involved and have opinions, but I needed to spend my time figuring out Sabrina and creating a life for her. Creating fight choreography takes a lot of time, you know? I choreographed the first fight because it was just the short. After that James choreographed the rest, and I came in and added a little Zoë flavor to that.
MZS: What makes a good movie fight scene?
Bell: It depends what kind of fight scene. The things that were important to us were that the action be realistic: if you're going to kill someone by strangling them, we can't hold on you the whole time because it's a long time, but we could imply that it was a long time. We can't kill people by ripping someone's head off because that wouldn't be realistic. We didn't want to step out of the world…let people have relief from it [and] going, "That's not real."
The emotional realism, for us, of females fighting, was needing to stay true to the characters. These women don't want to fight, this is not about winning: this is about not letting someone you love die. For us, we wanted to avoid close shaky-cams, but we were struggling with the fact that we had a small arena. We wanted you to be able to see the choreography as well.
So those are the things we really concentrated on: the realism of the action and the emotions of the characters. When you look at Crouching Tiger, that's a very different style, and Matrix, you know?
MZS: Yes, more like a ballet.
MZS: Critics always compare action scenes to ballets, but I always feel something like what you're doing in this movie is more like a Nicholas Brothers tap dancing routine.
Bell:I definitely don't feel like I'm watching ballet during "Raze." I think we need to do "Raze the Musical." I think it would be hilarious!
MZS: That's funny, because when I first saw the one-word title without having read the synopsis, my immediate assumption was that it was a musical.
Bell: I'm not joking! There are people who've been like, "So what's this movie called? "Rahh-ZAY?". And I say, "That's what the musical's going to be called."
MZS: From the long tradition of one-syllable musical titles.
Bell: I just think it would be so brilliant to do these kinds of fights on a stage! What a challenge. That'd be great.
MZS: A number of years ago, there was a New York production of "Road House."They re-created the Patrick Swayze movie and had a fight choreographer come in to do the fights on stage.So it's not inconceivable that something like "Raze" could be a stage production.
Bell: If you look at "Stomp"and Cirque de Soleil, the amount of physical practice and precision that needs to go into that, I think we could do it! You get someone like ["Raze"] costar Tracy [Thom] who can belt out showtunes, and it's like, "We can make this work!"
MZS: For a stunt performer, what does the profession mean that now computer-generated effects can do almost anything? Do you as a stunt performer feel threatened by CGI? And as an audience member, when you're watching a stunt in a movie, is there ever a moment when you think "How much of this stunt is the performer and how much is the computer?"
Bell: I guess one could feel threatened by it. I personally never have. Maybe I'm just in denial, but I always feel that we're heading to a meeting of the two worlds. There's always going to be a need for…
I don't know., maybe I'm that ignorant person and twenty years from now there'll be CGI acting. But I think CG allows you to do things with humans you couldn't do without killing them: you can throw them off buildings that might be twenty stories too high to do otherwise, or be hit by a car that, if you were to do it, someone would get killed.
I don't know, I'm still a little bit like, when you blend CGI well with real life, it's impressive, but if you remove real life completely, I still get pulled out of the movie a bit.
MZS: Was one of the reasons why your famous stunts in "Death Proof" were shot the way they were shot? To tell audiences, "This is real, this is not CGI?"
Bell: Yes. Quentin [Tarantino] would love to tie in the road and the wheel moving with me being on the car and then going wide so you could see it. And that's a perfect example of the reason people have such a visceral response to that sequence, because there is no bull----. There's no double, there's no CGI, it's all practical, and you're seeing that the person crying is the same one falling off the car.
I think, on some deep, subconscious level, it triggers as "real" to the people watching.
MZS: Maybe because they are real. I mean, in addition to being events within a story, film stunts are also a record of an incredible thing that some stunt person did.
Bell: Yeah. The cool thing about film and TV is that you've got a video journal of things you've done. For me, each movie is like a little video journal of a chapter in my life. It's why I can't be objective about any movie I've ever worked on, because it's representative of a personal experience to me, and it's hard for me to remove myself from that.
MZS: Here are Zoë Bell's vacation pictures. There's Zoë, hanging on the hood of a car, breaking someone's neck, riding a horse into a raging inferno. Meanwhile, what did I do on my summer vacation? I sat by the pool and read "Bossypants."
Bell: I love that book!
MZS: It's not on the same level as Zoë Bell's vacation, though.
Bell: Funny, because that's often the way I am when I'm watching a movie, and I know that I was behind that set reading my book, or that I got kicked off set because I was laughing so hard.
So it's not just what I'm doing on the screen that's familiar to me, it's where I was in my life during that day of shooting.
MZS: Where were you in your life, emotionally, when you were doing stunts in "Death Proof"?
Bell: Personally, it was a really warm, family-type sensation mixed with the terror of "What happens if I screw this up?" But during that chase sequence, my boyfriend of three years broke up with me, so that's where I was right around that set piece! I was getting an e-mail from China, being broken up with.
MZS: When something like that happens, do you put it into the work?
Bell: Oh yes, and I think it was really therapeutic. The first day, I was walking around, and I don't know if half the people on set know this, but I had my sunglasses on the whole day, and I would take them off when we were shooting, when the car would start moving. Then I'd put them back on when we went back to one.
And Quentin at one point said, "I'm loving the emotion I'm getting, can we re-shoot the lines we did yesterday?" I was method acting without realizing it!
MZS: You have tremendous physical control, more than a person like me could ever dream of, but still I wonder: do you ever just open a car door, sprain your wrist, and think, "Damn it!"
Bell: The two biggest injuries I've had were at work, but they were fundamentally pretty heinous. It would've required something like a car crash to do it otherwise. But you hit the nail on the head. I can't decide if I was born so clumsy that my body had to overcompensate and get really coordinated, or if I was born coordinated enough so that my body got really lazy. When I'm on, I'm on, but I'm that person who'll leave the table to get their tea and bang their elbow, or bang my shoulder on a doorway twice my width. I'm basically klutzy.
MZS: Have you ever been thought about doing a slapstick comedy, like an Ace Ventura or Jerry Lewis sort of thing? It seems like stunt performing is fairly close to that anyway.
Bell: Totally. I haven't yet, and if I don't get approached soon, I may have to create one for myself. The concept of comedy has, very recently, become incredibly interesting to me. I would love to do a comedy, and I think physical comedy is something I probably have a knack on.
MZS: The first time that you do a stunt when you could conceivably be killed, what does that feel like? Do you have a mental routine you go through to psych yourself up? Do you ever get scared when doing stunts, or is it all a matter of math and physics, like, "OK, I have to run a little faster to get over that ledge." Do you ever have a moment beforehand where you think, "What the f--- am I doing?"
Bell: Yes, I get scared. Yes, I have moments—not "what the f--- am I doing?" but more like, "Am I crazy for even considering this?"
The process I go through is not a conscious one. It's not like I talk myself through it, but I've had to ask this question a few times, and I think it's a matter of looking at the stunt in its entirety, and having a moment. If my body has an understanding that it can make this work—my body and my brain have to communicate with each other, without me. Once they've decided this is something I can complete safely and well, then in that moment, I've made a decision that I'm committed to doing it. Once I'm committed, I'm responsible to the directors, producers, actor, whole production and crew.
And once that decision has been made, it's more about performance anxiety, and not screwing up the shot. If I'm still asking that question, "Am I really doing this?" when I'm about to go, that means the stunt is really dangerous, and the answer's probably, "No, I shouldn't be doing it."
MZS: Either that or you should stop doing interviews, because if journalists keep asking you these types of questions over and over, maybe you will get neurotic about it!
Bell: Yeah! Maybe I run into the wrong building and think, "Oh my god, I remember when someone asked me that question, now what do I do?"
I think it's a commitment thing, and I'm only committed once I've decided it's something I'm capable of completing. That doesn't remove the fear, but it becomes a fear I can manage, and I can somehow use it.
MZS: Were you doing things that most people would consider dangerous before you became a professional stunt person?
Bell: Well, I've always been a daredevil of sorts. And that ties into the last question: I've bungee jumped and jumped out of planes, but I'm not the guy who's going to go crazy mountain biking just to feel alive. If it's fun, I want to do it, but I don't see myself as an adrenalin junkie. Prior to being a stuntwoman, I did gymnastics. I did flipping, which a lot of people think is cool and scary. I'm also that girl who did cartwheels on handrails above train tracks, things my Mom would be unhappy to witness me doing.
As I'm talking, I'm thinking: maybe I was an adrenaline junkie, I just didn't realize it.
But being Evel Knievel, that didn't appeal to me. I loved watching him do his craziness, but I never thought, "I want to be that guy when I grow up!" But I would watch Olympic gymnastics and think, "I want to do that!" There's a differentiation for me, and yet it's the same, as once I decide that I can do it, it becomes a calculated risk, and not a death-defying feat.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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