The Full Burn: On the Set, at the Bar, Behind the Wheel, and Over the Edge with Hollywood Stuntmen
By Kevin Conley
List Price: $24.99
Skid and Burn
I keep a running tally when I visit stunt teams and second units, a completely hypothetical "Could I ever do that?" list. (High fall: No. Stair fall: One take, maybe. Basic smacking around: Sure. Horse fall, horse-to-train transfer, horse anything: Ha. Hang gliding, base jumping, parachuting into a moving sports car: Ha-ha. Parkour-style jump from a rooftop in the Casbah through a window across the street: No way. Firearms, scuba diving, mountain climbing, free-swimming with sharks: No, no, no, no. And so on.) Most stunt professionals have a similar list, except for them it's a printout of specialties that goes with their head shot. Their lists tend to grow longer as they stick around the business, since most start as specialists and then systematically add to their skills. That's why they're so much more likely to be hurt off the set than on it: they're building the résumé.
So when it came time for me to try one big stunt myself, I had the perfect choice: the full burn. The gag was both legitimately terrifying and, according to my research, the only one that I could reliably survive. It seemed ideally suited to my situation: it required a high degree of professionalism but none of it on my part. For a full burn, it was okay that I had about as much talent as a candle. The only thing I needed, really, was to find somebody who could put me out.
When I called Dan Bradley to see if he knew somebody who could help me, he said he'd set it up himself. I'd met him a few times, most recently when he was shooting the climactic chase scene in The Bourne Ultimatum. Luckily, when I reached him he was between jobs: he'd just got back from Hawaii, where he'd been directing the action on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and he'd given himself about a week in L.A. before he had to start work on the next Bond film in Italy. I called him first not because of his style on fim, which is raw and unsettling, but because he has a reputation for being extremely safe. A sergeant in the NYPD Film and TV division assigned to the Bourne shoot said he'd never seen a safer set.
So I flew into L.A. on Labor Day weekend, the day before Bradley said he could do it. He e-mailed me: "I've got a couple of guys lined up for fire safety and I have the fire extinguishers!" Just like that, with friendly exclamation points, like he was inviting me to a cookout. (Great! I'll bring the Merlot!) Then he gave me an address in the desert foothills north of L.A., up where they made all the blood-and-thunder serials back in the silent era.
I pulled up around noon with a couple of friends and witnesses. He already had a big black backdrop set up in his driveway. There were two coolers by the garage door, a few saw horses, some dry-wall, a furniture pad thrown down on the cobblestones, a big black Rubbermaid bucket filled with water, a C-stand sitting on a tarp, a few industrial fans. As we walked up the drive, a guy in an International Stunt Association T-shirt was getting off his bike, and I recognized Pat Dailey, a key grip turned "wire automation operator" I'd met at a Spider-Man stunt rehearsal (Dailey made up the title, and he helped make up the job: he ran the software controlling the high-speed winches that flew stuntmen through the air). Bradley has a condo, but this is his desert getaway, the one he never gets to. It looked and felt more like a movie set than a weekend house. The next-door neighbor stuck his head over the fence and apologized for all the noise he was making: he had his dogs out and his music playing, he said, while he was fixing some stuff in his yard. "No worries," Dailey said. "We're just going to light this guy on fire."
I'd brought a shopping bag full of old clothes to burn. And that was all I'd done to prepare. Bradley'd taken care of everything on the safety checklist, and as I was wandering around with my friends (Sara and Josh, watching through a video cam, and Craig the photographer), he came out to greet us with a couple of bags of ice that he handed to Frank Lloyd, the guy in the ISA T-shirt, who started loading them into the coolers.
"What's all the ice for?" Sara asked.
"Beer later," Lloyd said. "Right before we light him on fire we all drink two or three beers. It's just one of the old habits that stunt guys started out doing years ago."
"How long before we do this?" Dailey asked Bradley. The workaday quality of the question actually relaxed me, the same way you'd be glad to hear that your surgeon had done four thousand vasectomies.
"Well, Paul's not here and he's got most of the Nomex."
"I've got two layers," Dailey said.
"Well, Paul's got the Kevlar suit. If we use that we can go with just one layer of Nomex and he can go dry."
Nomex looks just like long underwear. It provides a good deal of protection on its own—a lot of firefighters wear it on the job and it's often sold as "stationwear." But being near a burning building—or even in one—is not the same as being doused in gas and lamp oil and then ignited. (The gas in the mixture gives volume to the flame and the lamp oil burns a rich orange that reads better on film.) At some point in the nineties, stunt designers discovered that if you soaked the Nomex in flame-retardant gel and kept it on ice, you could do away with almost all other protection. You can easily spot this shift in technique on film: before the discovery, stuntmen wore heavy suits that made them look like astronauts, and the full-burn sequence was usually filmed in long shot to disguise this bulk. But once stuntmen started wearing wet Nomex and covering it up with the character's normal clothes, the sequence could be shot much closer. And dressed in the slimmer Nomex, stuntmen could move more naturally, even nimbly. Still, I didn't have to move—all I wanted was an author photo—so Bradley thought I should "go dry," or wear a Kevlar fire suit, which would be slimmer than the hazmat-style suits that stuntmen used to wear but still a little bulkier than the wet Nomex look. Imagine the sort of overalls the nascar drivers wear.
"Maybe wet's better," I said, hoping to look as slim as possible.
"You'll be wet enough."
"So I can wear my glasses?"
"I think that'll be okay. We're going to want to keep the flames off your head anyway," Bradley said. That's why he had the fans, to point at my face and blow the wall of flame away.
Dailey asked why I wanted to do a full burn, and I mentioned the book and how it didn't feel right to go through the whole project without trying something myself. I thought a full burn seemed like the best choice, about as low risk as I could get.
"Low risk?" he said.
Bradley said, "It's only low risk if you've got two guys ready to put you out." And everybody chuckled, remembering the dicey setups they'd been through. "Like if you're doing a low-budget movie, and they haven't tested the fire extinguishers because they're afraid of spending the money."
When Paul Short showed up with his big gear bag, things started to move quickly. Bradley explained the advantage of the Kevlar suit—you can do multiple takes, which you can't do if you're wearing layers of wet Nomex, because the gel soaks through your clothes and inhibits the flame. The constraints of the author photo—I'd be still, as for a portrait—posed additional problems. In most full burns, the stuntman is moving. This is both logical, since nobody stands still when he's on fire, and safer, since a stuntman on the move gets himself out of the superheated air. Bradley warned me to hold my breath, to avoid burning my lungs. "We're not going to go very long. You can easily hold your breath, because it'll be like ten seconds," he said. "The minute you feel anything, you just go down. We'll put a pad, a wet furniture blanket, in front of you. Your going down is the cue to put you out. We have the two CO2 extinguishers. We have the wet furni pad that'll be on the ground. And there'll be somebody holding another one. The CO2 displaces the oxygen instantly. The furni pads take longer because it's all about oxygen starvation—you're trying to smother the fire. So we'll primarily be using the CO2, but if it's taking too long..."
"You'll just roll me up?"
"Yeah," he said. "'Where's Kevin?' 'He's a taco.'"
Bradley led me inside to a bathroom so I could change. Short gave me a Kevlar suit and some baby powder to keep me dry. The suit was legal-pad yellow, stiff, and bulky—once I put it on, I looked much stockier and couldn't easily bend down to tie my shoes. I reached in my bag for Burnable Outfit Number One and put it on over the suit: a gray cotton shirt, a pair of khakis, and some old-school plain-white sneakers. As I came out of the bathroom, the radio in Bradley's living room was playing "Stayin' Alive."
"So, how do you feel?" Bradley asked. "Ready?"
"Worst-case scenario," Dailey said, pointing out the wet furni pad, just steps from the black backdrop. "You walk away and go down here."
"Just go down on your knees," Lloyd said. "Then down to your stomach. And I'll say, 'Hold your breath.'" He held an imaginary fire extinguisher, ready to put me out.
"But you don't want to put your arms underneath you," Bradley added, "because they'll be on fire." He and Lloyd began double-teaming me with advice. "You want to get out."
"So it's a pretty quick move from your knees forward. Because if you do this"—Bradley mimed going down slowly and in stages—"the flame'll come right back at you."
"Go down like a prisoner."
"The fact is, they'll start shooting you with the CO2 before you get down all the way."
Bradley handed me a pair of what looked like falconry gloves with a big cuff that went halfway up my forearm. He soaked a rag with gas and lit it for me so I could get the feel of waving the flame around. The gloves and the suit worked: even though I was whipping the flame around, letting the rag fall against my arm to get a feel for the fire, I hardly noticed it through my layers of protection. After fifteen seconds or so, the heat started working its way through the thick glove and I walked, as casually as possible, over to the Rubbermaid bucket and dropped the flaming rag in the water.
Meanwhile both Short and Lloyd had changed into fire suits of their own. Short had the blowtorch out and Bradley picked up one of the buckets of fire-retardant gel from a cooler, opened it, and held it up to my face. "You know what this smells like? Tell me. What does that smell like?"
Lloyd started dipping his hands in it and slathering it on my face.
"It smells like solvent?"
"No. It smells like money."
The gel was thick as rubber cement and Lloyd couldn't keep the grin off his face as he slopped handfuls of the stuff over my forehead and then smushed it around my head. I appreciated his thoroughness. After he'd covered me with one layer, he started another, enjoying the mess of it all. "It's like playing with mud pies," he said. I closed my eyes so he could get the slime to cover my eyelids. Meanwhile, Short took care of my hands, taking a pair of gel-soaked Nomex gloves out of the cooler and helping me put them on.
"He's covered good."
"Keep that gel on his face, Frankie," Short said. "Especially the front. Do it one more time before he goes."
"Here," Bradley said, guiding me over by the garage and out of the desert sun. "Step over into the shade."
"I'm not hot," I said.
"No, if you stay in the shade, it helps protect the gel."
As Lloyd finished up on my face, Dailey smeared a little gel on the earpieces of my glasses, so they wouldn't melt to my face, and then positioned them perfectly on the bridge of my nose like an optometrist. He mentioned that he'd been working on the 1984 Pepsi commercial when a fireworks display ignited Michael Jackson's Jheri curls. Dailey said he had been the one to put Jackson out. This was somehow reassuring.
"You ready, dude?" Bradley said. "We'll stand him in place and fuel him up right. We ought to do it closer to where we're shooting. Fuel him up here and he'll just take one step." He guided me to the spot where my photographer friend Craig thought I should stand. I moved stiffly, partly because of the suit and also because I didn't want to shake off any of the gel. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Short dousing my arms and legs and back with his plastic pitcher of gasoline.
"So you're stepping from this position. Here we go..."
Short turned on his blowtorch.
"Keep your finger on the trigger," Bradley said to Craig, making sure he was ready to shoot. "He's going to get lit. Right now. Here we go."
Short pointed the flame at my arms and my back first, then ducked under and got my pant legs one at a time.
"You're burning," Bradley said, though, of course, I knew that. I followed his instructions and held my arms out wide in an all-embracing public-speaker gesture ("I still believe in a place called Hope"). Almost immediately I could see the flames rising on either side and dancing up my arms. The bigger wingspan did two things: it made the fire look more impressive and it cut down on the heat going straight to my head. The gel gave me a couple of seconds of invincibility: I could feel the touch of the flames on my face and head without feeling any of the heat. I could hear it, too, the fire rolling over my arms, flickering and snapping overhead, the fuel burning fast and spreading out. But after about five seconds of this sensory experiment, the invincibility came to an end. The heat slammed me from behind and I bowed my head, went to my knees, fell forward on the furni pad, and Bradley and Lloyd shot a few snowy blasts of CO2—brsssshhhhht!—and put me out. I'd been on fire for seven seconds.
"You hot anywhere?" Short asked. "A little hot anywhere?"
"A little hot back here, just on my occipital bone," I said. Short slathered the gel on it. The area affected wasn't that large—just a patch of skin blistering on a little ridge of bone—but it had been enough to bring me to my knees. (It scabbed over during the week that followed, and because it was on the back of my head in a spot I could only feel, I asked my wife to describe it. She took one look at it and insisted on calling a skin doctor. "A weird lesion appearing on a person's head all of a sudden?" she said. "You should have it looked at. I'm serious." I still hadn't admitted that I'd flown across the country to set myself on fire.)
"Anywhere else? Any other hot spots?"
"Maybe here," I said, pointing to the outer edge of my ear.
"You didn't wait to see how long you could stand it, right?" Bradley said. "You're just going down as soon as you feel it?"
"I was not challenging the boundary."
"Once you do that, it's too late," Short said. "If you have any kind of inkling, get out of there."
There was still a good deal left of my shirt and pants, so I didn't have to change before the second burn. But Lloyd needed to refresh the gel, which is effective for no more than five minutes. Lloyd just slathered more on top of what was already there, and the combined layers of gel began to pool and drip until it looked as if I'd been pelted with egg whites (I know because Craig took a lot of pictures of this stage). The stuff was now so thick that I had trouble opening my eyes and when I parted my lips I felt the goo stretching across my mouth in that howl-of-a-rabid-animal way. I certainly didn't mind if it meant I could keep my face. Also, Lloyd was having so much fun.
"I'm starting to feel like I'm huffing glue," I told him.
"You're so glossy. You're like an egg."
"Like I just got born. I'm Mr. Placenta!"
The second go was much more casual. Bradley told me to step to my mark, then told Short to set me on fire. ("Light him. He's lit.") Maybe there was something in the gel, but somehow this time around the absurdity of the whole proceeding hit me and as the fire roared around me I began to smile like a lunatic, like a Christian martyr. I was enjoying it. This wasn't a metaphor: I was on fire!
The second burn lasted ten seconds—or fourteen, from the perspective of my foot. After that, I took off the Kevlar suit and they slathered gel on my shoulders and triceps, which were beginning to feel a little sunburnt. Short brought out a freezing wet Nomex shirt for me to wear under the fire suit. By the third take, in my second outfit, they wanted me to wave my arms and move a little—I could hear Craig and Bradley directing me—and with just that small change, simply by moving out of my author pose and into cooler air, I was able to stretch the burn out to more than fifteen seconds.
"I hope you guys got enough," Bradley said after that. "Because I think we've found enough tender spots." In 1995, he'd gone about as long as you can go on a full burn, running through the streets of West Hollywood on Spike Jonze's video of the song "California" for the band Wax—and I was more than happy to take him at his word and stop playing with fire. Bradley handed me a towel and I went inside to clean off the goop.
It took about four hard full-body scrubs with some grapefruit exfoliant that I found in Bradley's shower to get the gel off, retroactive proof of the stuff's effectiveness. If I'd been doing the gag for the movies, I would have earned $750—times three—for my three takes, another large deposit of hypothetical assets into the wealth-of-experience fund. Sara's husband, Josh, was taking video of the event, so I've seen it all again since, but I'd have remembered everything without it: some days in life just stand out from the rest (waking up to the Mexico City earthquake; meeting Amy at that pot-luck picnic in Riverside Park). But let's not kid ourselves. I was not going to be setting myself on fire with any regularity, or, with any luck, ever again. Still, watching the others and trying to act as relaxed as they were, I could see how a full burn could become... not routine, but well practiced, every instant of it calculated and precise. When I got back out, Dailey handed me the remains of my first outfit, ghostly and burnt, the cuffs and collar barely hanging on to a few scraps of shirtfront. You could see straight through it.