Stunts And Stardom
By Aubrey BelfordMay 7, 2012
For a small band of foreign stuntmen, Thailand offers a high-stakes tradeoff: physical danger for a shot at celebrity.
Ron Smoorenburg's big break in Thailand started with a polite question and ended with a bloodied mouth.
Smoorenburg had just moved to Bangkok to seek fame and fortune in the movies, and he had managed to wangle a fight scene with Tony Jaa, the undisputed megastar of Thai action, on the set of his 2005 martial arts flick Tom Yum Goong.
"He asked me: 'Ron, can I kick you in the face?'" recalls Smoorenburg, a towering, muscular Dutchman, who has the kind of solid Teutonic features that seem to suggest both sweetness and barely concealed menace.
"I say, 'Yes, it's all good.' I don't want to complain," Smoorenburg says, overflowing with earnestness. "And he made a really hard kick, it was like a side summersault in the air. And out of that spin, in mid-air, there's a kick going, so it's really hard to control it."
Two rehearsals and five takes later, Smoorenburg had added an acting credit and lost one tooth. All in all, it was a decent swap, he says. "It's like a souvenir. We call it stunt tattoos."
Such are the ways of getting ahead in Thailand, a booming hub for movies, television shows and advertisements from all over the world, where a bit of extra physical danger is part of the tradeoff for a shot at fame.
While Asia surges and most of the West struggles, and production shifts from rich countries to poorer nations, Thailand's film industry is riding globalisation's waves. Hollywood and other western producers - the old players - have been drawn in by lower costs and exotic locales. So too have the massive multilingual film industries of India, along with producers from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan and South Korea. Thailand's local industry also is thriving.
As in every other part of the story of Asia's rise, there are the foreigners who come to try their luck. Just like English teachers in Japan or aspiring entrepreneurs in China, they're a mixed bunch - the strivers, the successes and the no-hopers.
In Thailand, hundreds of foreigners who have abandoned the safety and security of home gravitate, at least part-time, towards the film and television industry. At best, it's a long-shot backdoor into Hollywood.
At the pointiest end of it all is a solid core of a few dozen foreign action stars and stuntmen, for whom this backdoor isn't just an uncertain career prospect. It can be a danger to life and limb.
I meet Smoorenburg at one of central Bangkok's new, immaculate, upscale malls. Among Bangkok's community of stuntmen and the other foreigners who come here on and off for work, Smoorenburg is regarded as something of a success story.
Now 38 years old, Smoorenburg grew up in the Netherlands idolising martial arts stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Hollywood star from neighbouring Belgium. When Smoorenburg was still in his early 20s, he managed to snare a spot as an extra on a Dutch shoot for Who Am I?, a Hong Kong film produced by and starring the prolific kung fu actor Jackie Chan. Approaching Chan on set, Smoorenburg showed off what is his undoubted trademark - an extremely high kick - and scored a role opposite Chan in the movie's final fight scene.
It was 1997, the year of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China, and Smoorenburg appeared to have broken in. But when he moved to Hong Kong in the early 2000s to finally try to form a full-time career, he found a local movie industry in freefall, brought down by its own poor standards, rising audience expectations, surging costs and reunification with the mainland.
The iconic Hong Kong action movies of the past, with stars including Bruce Lee, were fading. Many of the foreigners who had gravitated to Hong Kong's films - filling its ranks of baddies, goons and henchmen - moved to Bangkok. After a few years back in Holland, Smoorenburg joined them. He has been now in more than 40 movies, most of them Hollywood, Hong Kong or Indian. On Thai television, Smoorenburg has become well known as a go-to guy for the character of a bad farang, or foreigner.
"I think Thailand is now the centre of action movies," he says. "Before, it was Hong Kong. I think now it's Thailand. It's not America - they have a lot of effects and guns and CGI (computer generated imagery). This is a little bit hardcore, what's going on here."
By "hardcore" Smoorenburg means lots of people get hurt. In fact, at some point, everyone does.
Apart from the tooth, Smoorenburg's "tattoos" include a torn knee ligament, courtesy of a Thai advertisement. One friend ended up for a while in a wheelchair after an on-set car accident. Another had a rib broken on a Thai martial arts set, and yet another had a finger severed in a swordfight scene. Thailand's legal system leaves little room for redress in many cases.
"For example, in America, you need a safety supervisor on set. Here, they just don't [always] have that kind of job," he says. "Some people are really shocked at what goes on here."
Among Thailand's stuntmen, the one case that still looms large is the near death in late 2010 of Scott McLean, an Australian stuntman who had travelled here to take part in the major Hollywood comedy The Hangover Part II. McLean was doubling for the actor Ed Helms during the shooting of a car chase scene in Bangkok. McLean's head was dangling out a car window when he was struck by another stunt vehicle; the flesh was ripped from his skull and he ended up in a coma for several weeks, according to media reports and others familiar with the case.
McLean filed a lawsuit in the United States against the film studio, Warner Bros., and the stunt-coordinator for the film. The case has since been "resolved amicably" in an out-of-court settlement, Paul McGuire, a spokesman for the studio, said in an email to The Global Mail.
In Bulgaria, which has seen recent growth in films as a sort of Thailand-in-Europe, one stuntman was killed in an accident late last year while filming The Expendables 2, a Hollywood action film.
But for stuntmen in Thailand, while the Hangover accident looms large, the risks on Hollywood productions are far outweighed by those on other kinds of productions, both Thai and foreign.
Thailand, and developing Asian countries in general, are just plain dangerous, says Yasca Sinigaglia, the director of the Australia-based Film Industry Stunt Team, which has worked across Asia, including India and Thailand. Arriving on set for productions often means introducing crews to equipment and safety standards they have never heard of.
"I think that applies to a lot of those countries," he says. "People, just their safety standards all-round in the workplace."
There's no question that Thailand is a country with a cavalier attitude to safety. Over the recent songkran festivities for Thai New Year, in April, 320 people died in accidents on Thailand's roads amid days of celebratory drinking and water fights.
Still, some people are happy with the risks.
Byron Gibson is a tattooed and bearded 42-year-old from Cambridge who, in his own words, "got pissed off with living in England" before deciding to move to Thailand in 2005. His girlfriend already had secured work in Thailand as a dancer, and life in Thailand seemed better than the grimness of the United Kingdom. "The weather. It's expensive. Just working too hard and going nowhere, to be honest," he says.
Since getting into movies in mid-2008, Gibson has, by his own count, appeared in 20 films, 11 of them Hollywood films. Some of the work has been in stunts, including The Hangover Part II, but he also has secured some full acting roles. When we meet in a McDonald's in central Bangkok, Gibson says he's considering a move to the UK or US, and has had talks about setting up some meetings.
Gibson says he is exceptionally lucky, however. Like Smoorenburg, he's a friendly man who can also cut a menacing figure. He's chosen to embrace his rough look, and his bread and butter has become bad-guy work. But others have not had such good fortune or judgment.
"There's a community of people here, there's about 500 or 600 of them. A lot of them get all the extra work and all that, but a lot of them think they're going to come here and they're going to get the cream, you know," he says. Among the work these foreigners are competing for was a pie of 606 foreign productions in 2011 - including films, advertisements, TV shows and film clips - on top of local productions, according to figures from the Thailand Film Office.
In reality, perhaps one out of 50 foreigners will get regular work and a remote shot at Hollywood, Gibson says.
Some others will end up in the lower-paying (and more dangerous) track of working for Thai or East Asian productions. Yet others will become dependent on Indian films, which are considered something of both a career black hole and a hazard to your health.
While Western productions normally insist on higher standards, and even many Thai stunt teams are considered excellent, both Gibson and Smoorenburg say Indian productions are often slipshod. Indian producers tend to be very un-picky about who they hire for stunts, what sort of qualifications they have, and the kind of safety standards their actors need. That is where many of the worst accidents happen, both men say.
"I probably wouldn't do some of the crazy Indian shit, you know," Gibson says. "There are a lot of people that are kind of stuck here and will do whatever people throw at them."
Smoorenburg, for his part, is one of those actors who has managed to get work from all sorts of sources. He has even detected a chance that he, too, could have a crack at Hollywood, although he admits he hasn't yet seen anyone successfully make the jump.
"Of course, it would be great to have a breakthrough in America, like Jean-Claude van Damme or so, but I discovered my heart is a little bit more in Asia. It's the feeling, it's the atmosphere, it's the Thai boxing, the whole Asian, I don't know, martial arts culture," he says.
The lure of American movies may have motivated Smoorenburg to start with, but he's made a life here now, marrying a Thai woman and fathering a five-month-old son. He says he's happy where he's ended up.
"If people think they will get rich from it here, they can forget it. They will never, ever be."