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Stunt performer Jason Oettlé: “Burnings are great”

What’s it like being set on fire in Game of Thrones? Or jumping off a multi-storey building? Stuntman Jason Oettlé spills the beans.

Jason Oettlé on location in Prague. Photo: Courtesy of Jason Oettlé

How did you get into the business of being stunt performer?

It was never something that crossed my radar. A friend of mine wanted a ride into town after his car broke down and asked me to come with him to speak to an agent he was seeing. The agent found out I did horse riding and asked if I was interested in stunts. At the time, I was a skipper of a 40-foot catamaran doing tours around Cape Town, but it was winter so it was quiet. It sounded like fun, but I didn’t think it was something I’d make a career out of.

On my first real stunt, I was told to hide two daggers in my chest and fall off the back of a horse. I’d never done anything like that, so I was pretty nervous about it. On the third take, my foot got caught in the stirrup and everything went into slow motion. I knew it wasn’t good and I was like ‘I need to pull myself further forward and get my foot out of the stirrup. There’s a horse behind me, so I’ll need to roll away’. Then everything went full speed again. That was fascinating to me. Using adrenaline to get into a heightened state of awareness – that’s what really got me hooked.

Stunt performing seems like such a fearless profession. Do you not get nervous jumping off buildings?

Yes, there’s always a certain level of nervousness, but it’s actually a good thing because that’s energy you can use to focus. Complacency is the biggest risk in the industry. But it’s exhilarating too. It’s good fun jumping off a building into boxes. How you stack them is important, same with what you put between the layers, but cardboard boxes are some of the softest materials to land on.

I’ve had a couple of decent burns and some really hard knocks, but otherwise, I’ve been lucky.

What’s the craziest stunt you’ve done?

It was probably the 160m jump out of a helicopter with a rope tied to the other side of a bridge that was 360m above ground. This was for a UK TV series called Don’t Try This at Home! back in the late ‘90s.

Is it always exhilarating or is there a side to the job which isn’t as exciting?

A lot of stunt work is just about discomfort. If a character is lying in a puddle in the cold, it isn’t going to be the actor, it’s going to be a stunt double. If someone has to run down a hill with a few potholes in it, you can’t allow the actor to do it because they might sprain an ankle and delay shooting for a couple of weeks. A lot of what we do isn’t necessarily spectacular.

With the Night King on Game of Thrones, season eight. Photo: Courtesy of Jason Oettlé

You also do stunt rigging and now stunt coordination. What was it like going from doing the physical work to the planning and set-up?

Stunt performing is a lot more about focusing on yourself, your training and your fitness. It’s fun working to get better all the time and improving your skills. We do such a wide range of stuff, you’re never 100 percent ready for the next job. As I progressed in my career, the technical aspects became more interesting, the question of how to do something.

It’s interesting to create images and work with directors to make something that looks amazing. I didn’t want to jump the gun too quickly with stunt coordination and a good friend of mine, a French stunt coordinator, suggested focusing on stunt rigging for a couple of years first.

I followed his advice and started working more in England, where I built a reputation as one of the most sought after stunt riggers in the UK and worked on projects like Game of Thrones.

You also did some of the stunts for Game of Thrones and were one of 22 performers set on fire during season eight. What’s it like being engulfed in flames?

Burnings are great, rewarding stunts. They’re well-paid and look really dangerous but the chance of something going wrong is low. If you get hit by a car and go up over the top and land on the other side, you get paid more or less the same amount but you get a lot more battered and bruised. With burnings, sometimes you have a small regulator and an air tank, but that’s hard to hide and usually only used for long burns. Usually, you just have to hold your breath. You can’t breathe in when you’re burning or you’ll probably kill yourself. If it’s a big, all-engulfing burn then masks are generally used. That can be claustrophobic because you can’t hear much and have really restricted sight.

On the set of Game of Thrones, season seven, in Spain. Photo: Courtesy of Jason Oettlé

You were recently an Assistant Stunt Coordinator for the upcoming Aquaman 2 and Batman films. How stressful is it holding responsibility for the safety of the stunt crew on big productions like that?

I really enjoy the creative work in developing action sequences on these bigger projects because you have more resources to do big action. In terms of stress, a big part of what we do is risk assessments. On a big production, it’s not unusual for performers to sprain their ankles or get a bit bashed up. It can’t be avoided completely, but sometimes a director wants a certain thing and you have to call it and say it’s not safe.

Sometimes performers need to do a stunt multiple times to get the shot, so it’s also a matter of being able to go to the director and say it’s enough. It’s stressful if the sun is going down, there’s two minutes to get a shot and you have to say ‘stop! This isn’t safe’. But at the end of the day, we’re making a movie. It’s not life or death – we shouldn’t be taking risks that will put us in a bad situation.

Have you ever been badly injured on set?

I’ve only broken my scaphoid, which is something I still struggle with today. It was a small horror film in Berlin years ago, I don’t even remember the name of it. I was coming down off a carwash roof that was slippery. I slipped and fell about two and a half meters and onto some grids. I didn’t realise it was broken until a few days later when I slipped and fell on ice again. That’s the worst I’ve had, I’ve had a couple of decent burns and some really hard knocks, but otherwise, I’ve been lucky.

A fall from 18 metres, depending on the complexity, could be around €1000 per take.

You’re on the German Stunt Association’s board of directors. What are some of its priorities for stunt performers in Germany right now?

Health and safety is at the top of our agenda, then supporting stunt performers coming up through the ranks and giving a voice to the industry. As a group, we were able to negotiate third party insurance on a national scheme. We’ve also been battling with maintaining our status as self-employed artists in Germany. This has to do with pensions. Germany, like many parts of the world, has an ageing population, so there’s less people paying into pension funds and more people benefitting from them.

There’s a lot of pressure politically to get people employed rather than self-employed, so that people can get their pensions from companies rather than the state. What happens is they go after companies who have employed stunt performers and say that, because they were working under the company, the company has to pay the pension. Through membership fees, we’ve supported five court cases fighting for the right to stay self-employed.

What are some of the typical rates associated with the job?
Rates start at around €900 per day. A full body burn with a silicon mask, completely engulfed in flames could be around €2000. A fall from 18 metres, depending on the complexity, could be around €1000 per take. In some cases you might agree to do up to three jumps for €1500, and then €800 per jump after that. This sounds like a lot, but the costs of training, insurance and personal equipment are also substantial.

Does the stunts side of the industry gets enough recognition?

When I started in the industry, we had to fight for recognition to not be treated as second class members of the crew in South Africa. One of the things back then was the actor was doing the stunts himself. You were
the unseen person supporting that role and character. Now, there’s a lot more international recognition for stunt doubles. I think it would be good to get recognition for stunt coordination at the Oscars. If hair and makeup are recognised, costume and special effects too, why wouldn’t you also give recognition to stunt coordinators?

Jason Oettlé is a South African stunt performer, rigger, and coordinator. He began his career on the set of Sinbad in Cape Town and has lived in Berlin since 2000, shooting mostly in Germany and the UK. He has appeared in films including V for Vendetta, Resident Evil and The Bourne Supremacy. He is the assistant stunt coordinator for upcoming features The Batman and Aquaman 2, set to be released this year.