One Room With A View goes 12 Rounds with the unstoppable Annie Ellis. A master of horses, expert stunt driver, and qualified badass, Annie has survived everything the stunt industry can throw at her on- and off-screen for four decades. She’s a true Iron Lady, a pioneer of the stunt professional world, and simply awesome.
1. How did you get into the industry? What was your background?
My brother, David Ellis, got into stunts a few years before me through a guy called Buddy Joe Hooker. I was the youngest sister of [David], and he didn’t really want his baby sister to do stunts, he said it was too dangerous. I was studying to be a veterinarian and I’d worked with the local vets since I was 14. I was national and world champion at horse riding; I could do anything on a horse. My dad and my brother were in big surf contests and motorcycle races, so we grew up in the ocean, surfing from a young age, which led to my first job. A veteran stuntman named Ronnie Rondell was the stunt coordinator on the Charlie’s Angels TV Show. He knew my brother and my dad, though my father wasn’t in stunts yet. He knew I surfed and called me to double Cheryl Ladd on Charlie’s Angels, surfing. It was a day that was flat all morning, but the afternoon had huge waves because there was a hurricane off Baja, California. I’ll never forget Ronnie going like “Oh, that was great! OK! Go over the falls again.” I’d come up with bloody legs from hitting the rocks, and it was great! And I was out there saying “I’m getting paid to do this?!” My first stunt coordinating job was on Homeward Bound 2 [directed by brother David Ellis]. He was my best friend and mentor. We did stunt work together. I coordinated several films he directed. David got me my DGA [Directors Guild of America] card, also, when I 2nd-Unit directed for him. I was starting to go [the directing] route, but it’s hard for a female to stunt coordinate, let alone 2nd-unit direct. I was so lucky and blessed, my brother saw my qualities and I hope now that he is gone I can continue to direct and coordinate.
2. In what ways has the stunt industry developed the most since you started your career as a stunt professional in the 1980s?
How I’ve seen the industry evolving is all the safety, across the whole stunt industry. Now the big studios have their own safety guys that actually visit the set, but I’m talking about the safety equipment that has been put into play to really help us. [At the start of Annie’s career] When you got hit by a car, you got hit by a car. And when you’d have to hang on to the front of the car, you’d have to hang onto the windshield wiper. Now they have harnesses on, tethered up with wires, so it’s so much safer than it used to be. A big example was when they had the stunt coordinator’s girlfriend doubling the actress riding in the car, but they were doing head-on stunts in cars. Somebody didn’t go right when they should’ve gone right, and so they did a head-on crash. There was not one seatbelt in the cars, and she went through the windshield and was paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Now you will never see a seatbelt not being used. The cars are prepped for films with big roll cages, hanging harnesses and five-point seat belts.
What I don’t care for is too much CGI to be used on a film. Computer Generated Imaging got to be overused for a while. While it has become less expensive sometimes to use CGI than to do the stunt for real, there are many times it is used too much and you can really tell on a film that what you are watching is just not real. It takes the suspense out of a film.
3. You’ve moved into Stunt Coordinating – can you describe your process when planning a stunt for the screen?
The stunt coordinator will start the planning process first. When I stunt coordinate, I obviously start from reading the script. I’ll read it several times, and I’ll do my own booklet of each stunt and what I’m going to need for it. What my brother always told me was “You think of what can go wrong, and then you think of what can go wrong.” I’ve always remembered that line because it has saved my life, literally, on several occasions. On [a well-known disaster movie], I would’ve been dead if I hadn’t spoken up.
As a Stunt Coordinator, you’ll go through a script and break it down: you think if you need any equipment, which pads you need etc. Stunt preparation starts from day one. I’ll call riggers to set them up, talk to the special effects guys to make sure they’ll have all the stuff you need. On Twister, doubling Helen Hunt, we went and storm-chased 6 weeks before [making] that movie. Our Stunt Coordinator, Mic Rodgers, talked to Special Effects and made sure they had the flexiglass for the glass windows of the truck, and many other safety issues. If we hadn’t done that we would’ve been burnt up, blown up etc. Next you start to think about who you are going to hire. Stunt doubles who look like the actors, and nondescript stunt people who will be the best for the job. We had 100 stunt people on Matrix: Reloaded for a four-month car chase. I actually kept daily maps to know where everybody was, because months later we’d say “we’re going back to scene 47” and the stunt guys would say “What car was I in a month ago?”
4. How do you go about rehearsing stunts for screen as a performer and as a coordinator?
Depending on what the stunt is, you may or may not rehearse. For my first car hit, they closed down the whole 2-10 Freeway [in California]. The coordinator called me and said “Annie, I need you. We’re going to do a 2nd Unit and shoot this car hit, can you do it?” and I said “Well, I’ve never done one” and he goes “Yeah, well I know you can do it.” So my brother told me about the timing, and judging the speed and when you want to just lift up a little in the air just before the car gets to you, otherwise you better get out of the way. So I reviewed the timing, etc. but did not actually practice literally getting hit by a car! I had the car drive past me a few times at the 25 miles an hour it would be going, so I could see when to get up off the ground to get up on top of the hood.
Rehearsing depends all on the scene. Big fight scenes with many moves get rehearsed for days, sometimes weeks. A little bar fight, you’d rehearse maybe an hour before you shoot. When you’re dealing with big scenes with a lot of stunts involved, where you have to implement pads or implement a high fall or something like that, then you definitely need to rehearse it. To do a huge high fall, you’ve got to go get an air bag or set up all the boxes. If you’re going into water from 100 feet, you have to put underwater aeration that will make bubbles to break up the water, because [otherwise] the water gets like cement. On Titanic, we were falling 60-80 feet into water. There was one stunt guy who was went all-out from the top and landed flat and broke his back on water. The higher you get jumping in to water the more the water is like cement! Go feet first and feet together. You always want to use stunt performers who really know what they’re doing. There are stunts that you’d rehearse and ones that you don’t, because you pick the people you know can do that job. There’s always a first time for everybody, but if someone is not comfortable with it, then they shouldn’t do it.
5. Describe your training schedule when you’re not working on screen.
For me now my “training” is just staying in good shape. Over my 37-year career, I’ve cracked my back, blew a few vertebras in my back and in my neck, got a triple-neck fusion, lower-back fusion, and a vertebra that broke after surgery. That’s really slowed me down the last eight years for any heavy training. I must say, I’m 57 years old; I’m not really training and learning stunts anymore, the jobs I take I know really well and am still physically able to do. I do some yoga, pilates and walk with my dogs, and also a lot of physical therapy! If you’re younger, keep really fit and if you’re learning stunt work keep learning it, and even if you know stuff, keep learning it. Keep yourself ready to go. Keep your skills honed, the ones that you’re going to put on your resume. I only put [on my resume] the stuff I’m really, really good at. That’s my biggest thing. If you’ve only done a driving class for 3 days, please don’t put on your resume “Stunt Driver”. Get REALLY good before you say you can do it on a movie set! You can never hone too much.
6. You’ve spent 37 years in the industry – what do you do for injury prevention and recovery?
I’m a big believer in physical therapy; right away, after any major surgery. Never let your muscles hang out for a week or two because the atrophy really kicks. I broke my leg in three pieces on a scene that I thought was pretty simple. It’s the simpler [stunt sequences] that you think “this is no big deal” and you let your guard down. The leg [break] was pretty gnarly. We were in the back of an armoured car on the Santa Monica Pier and it goes off the pier into the ocean, sinks and fills with water and then they towed it onto the beach. The special effects guys said “be really careful and keep your limbs in when we open the back door because it is two tons of water pressure gushing out through the little back door, it could snap your arm.” There was another stunt double behind me; when they opened that door I kept my arms in to go through the opening, my legs got sucked a split second before my body and my feet stuck in the wet sand like a suction cup. My foot was stuck in the wet sand a bit crooked, the rest of the water shoved us out and the guy behind me toppled over me. My foot stayed in the sand as I was thrown forward and my leg snapped in three. I was in a full leg cast for a few months. It broke above the knee and a few places below the knee. No matter how easy it seems, you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled and open at all times because anything can happen, and imagine there’s someone else who doesn’t.
7. For people who want to get into stunt work, what would be your biggest piece of advice?
Have something in your background. There have been a lot of gymnastic and circus people that have got [into the industry] because of all the wire work on stages now. The best advice for someone coming in is stick with what you know, have some background in a few things, and go for it. If you have that drive, that love and that motivation, and there are a few expertises that you would like to go after, then by all means go after it but really train in it. Learn it really, really, really well before you put it on your resume because it’s not just your life at risk, there are many other people on a set. I’ve done stunts where you’re running down a sidewalk, with windows being blown out, many background artists that might get in your way, and some days they might just not think and they trip the other stunt guy who gets the blast exploding right in his face. My advice is stick with what you know; have some background. If there’s something you’re not real good with, go learn it, but not just a 3-4 day driving class. Don’t say you’re a stunt driver if you’ve only done a class where you drive around cones. Go and really learn from the guys that know. You don’t have to do every single stunt, and you can’t learn something in a couple of days. Remember it’s not about crash and burn, most jobs are getting something done without crashing! You may have to do it 50 times, and you need to be ready to come to work the next day.
8. In your honest opinion, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Stunt work is exciting and challenging, and keeping your skills honed is key. One of my hardest challenges now is not working as much, as I am the happiest when I’m working. Much of our work has gone to other states, and getting older I can’t double the young actresses any more.
9. Which actors/directors have you most enjoyed working with/were most impressive to work with?
My favorite director ever was David Ellis, my brother. Vic Armstrong is another of my favorites. One of my favorite big actors to work with was Robert Redford. He was the coolest, nicest guy. He directed a film that I doubled two people on. Brad Pitt was on it when he was just a kid. It was called A River Runs Through It. Robert Redford sat us down at the dining room table to go over the scene, I was doubling the grandma who breaks up the boys fighting. He was such a pleasure to work with. Paul Newman, too. The first time I met him, I was actually near my house riding horses with Katherine Ross, who was on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She’s a good friend of mine, and that’s when I met him. He came out of his house and those blue eyes he has, in person they were amazing. I was just blown away when I first met him.
Glenn Close, who I doubled on three films including Fatal Attraction, was fabulous. Anne Archer, I went on to double on Patriot Games, was fabulous. There are so many cool actors. My newest favorite who I’ve doubled for is Betty White. I did a Superbowl Snickers commercial where Betty White gets tackled playing football. They actually brought in a real football player to tackle me, and the tackle was for real just as hard as it looked! There are so many cool actors I’ve had the privilege to work with. I’ve been really, really lucky in my career.
10. What is the most dangerous stunt you’ve undertaken?
This is the perfect example of “you better know what the hell you are doing.” On [a well- known disaster film] they had a tanker truck full of gasoline. It’s on a 100 foot crane, and we’re across [a bridge] in a truck; I was riding passenger. They put a big mark on the bridge. When we hit that mark, the special effects guy would hit the button and it would release the tanker, and it would drop to the ground and explode right in front of us. When it explodes, you can’t see a thing except for fire. It was a huge explosion and the other stunt performer, who was doubling the actor, had to drive around to make sure he misses the tanker, because he can’t see it. He had to know exactly where the front of that tanker landed. When I look back at it, I still think how lucky we were. So we do it, and we get through it.
The first one went just fine. They had 14 cameras on it. They saw the crane sitting there in a couple of shots, and the director wanted to do it again. So they spent the next two weeks, while we were shooting other stuff, rebuilding another tanker truck, and they doubled the primer chord and doubled the gasoline. So we get to the set and we’re on the bridge and the director says “OK, we do not need a rehearsal Annie, because you did it two weeks ago and I want to just do it. I want you to do it 10 miles an hour faster.” I said “Really? Well no, I want a rehearsal because, if we go faster, we’re going to get there quicker and if you hit the button to drop the tanker truck at the same mark we used two weeks ago, we’re going to be right underneath that thing when it explodes on the ground.” We were told “You don’t need a rehearsal, it’s a waste of time, I want to do it now… ” I looked over at the producers and I called them over. I said “We NEED a rehearsal,” and explained to them WHY. The rehearsal was the special effects guy over the radio [saying] “3… 2… 1… BANG” when the truck would be hitting the ground. We were directly under the tanker when he said “Bang.”
If I hadn’t had [spoken up], we would’ve been dead. If our Stunt Coordinator hadn’t’ve had them put plexiglass inside the windows then when the windshield blew out, we would’ve been fried. I had this little ice bucket in there as it got so hot I had to put the towel up to my face. It felt like I was on fire. On the film when we come out of the giant flames you can see me pull down the towel. The truck was on fire and they cut and we get out, the stunt coordinator comes running up. You could only see his eyes because he had fire gear on. He looking at us all crazy, and I was like “Oh my god! That was so insane! Wasn’t that great?!” But looking at his huge eyes I said “What’s wrong?” because he was really upset. He says “You guys were in there way too long” – he was worried we had stalled or hit the semi truck. He had reason to be so worried, because the explosion was so much bigger and wider, our truck had started to stall. Those guys wouldn’t have been able to save us fast enough in their fire suits if our truck had stopped.
11. In your honest opinion, what is the state of the stunt industry in the US?
Well, it started with Canada. They were the first to give big [tax] breaks to the industry. They started getting a lot of TV shows and a lot of films [made in Canada]. A few states [in America] started doing it. In the Screen Actors Guild rules, it says that the hub of the film industry is still Hollywood, California. That’s absolutely not true. I think last year only three of the biggest movies were made in California because you have all these other states giving giant tax breaks. Film productions are getting 45% tax breaks to be made in New York, Louisiana, and Georgia. Those are the three offering the largest breaks right now. About 7-8 years ago, it was New Mexico [where many films were made]. They even built new studios there.
Georgia is now building studios, so has Louisiana. I think Louisiana has given the tax breaks the longest now. They’re smart to keep the tax breaks going, because that’s so much income for their state. I don’t know what it is but the State of California is so in debt, for billions of dollars. If they would give the same tax breaks for here, they would bring back much of what they’ve lost. I know so many older stunt performers that have moved their entire family to Georgia because there’s not enough work here and in the last ten years we’ve had a giant influx of stunt people, who started their careers in other states to get to work as “locals” in those states, as it is cheaper for productions to use “local” hire.
12. Considering your near 40-year career, what has driven you to keep performing?
My nickname growing up was “Tough Little Annie”, and that was before I even got into stunts. I started working at 14 for the vet, was very in to animals and horses. I looked after all the horses myself.
When I look back on all this, I don’t know how I did it all. I played on the volleyball team at both colleges I went to, and high school. I worked full-time; I opened the first pet store in Malibu. I won the national and world horse championships. I got that nickname because I guess it came from never knowing how to ask for help because I could do it all myself: “I’m good, I got this.” I just really love what I do; I get really bored if I’m not working because I love being around the crew and all that. I love figuring out puzzles. My favourite part is putting stunts together and getting them set up. I love coordinating.
I’ve been doing it for 15 years. It was great when my brother could get me on as a coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director, knowing that [some people] were reluctant because I was a female, but I just loved doing it. I physically can’t get hit by cars anymore or do car hits or fall down stairs. I still do some acting parts and a lot of driving stunts.
When I came up in the business, you climbed the ladder. You don’t just become a stunt coordinator overnight. You should probably know what you’re doing before you coordinate. I’m a multitasker and a perfectionist, hence my other nickname of “One Skid Annie” – because I wanted to hit that same skid mark every time. I didn’t want to be one inch off, let alone a few feet. I like being able to do it right every time. I love my job.