Safety On The Set

As the stunts that fill the cinema seats get better, so do the dangers of filming them. Yet 2009 recorded no major accidents, compared to the high-profile mishaps of years past. Egypt Today goes behind the scenes to fi nd out what is going right in the world of stuntmen. By Lamia Hassan

actor's safety (courtesy Andrew McKenzie, international stunt)

(Egypt Today Magazine, October 2009)

Actors lead a dangerous life. In this summer’s controversial hit Ehky Ya Shahrzad (Tell Us, Scheherazade), Mona Zaki’s character was brutally beaten up and dragged by her hair across a room by her husband, played by Hassan El-Radad. Later in the year, the actress was hanging off the back of a car with actor Ahmed Helmy as they were dragged through a parking lot. She walked away from both scenes with barely a scratch

Action star Ahmed El-Sakka was not so lucky during the filming of his 2007 thriller El-Gezira (The Island). In a mishap with a prop handgun, El-Sakka was shot in the eye and had to undergo surgery. He was off work for three months while he recovered.

The big-budget action thriller is still a relatively new genre for local filmmakers, with 2002’s Mafia, directed by Sherif Arafa and starring El-Sakka, considered the first Egyptian-made smash-bang flick to hit local theaters. Audiences flocked to see it, and Mafia grossed more than LE 10 million in box office receipts alone. Since then, explosions, car crashes and fight scenes have become a staple of not only thrillers, but also comedies, TV series and even commercials. But no one is actually supposed to get hurt.

Egypt has earned a reputation for its well-developed film industry with talented set designers, camera crews and directors, but high-profile accidents in recent years would suggest that safety standards have been left on the storyboard. That is slowly beginning to change.

Bringing in the Big Guns

Directors and actors have long complained about dealing with local stuntmen or stunt coordinators. Most are adventurous young men hired off the street with little training or knowledge about proper safety measures. In a June 2007 article, Arafa told Egypt Today “With action films, you need people to help you, with special effects and Egypt still doesn’t have those people — we have to work mostly with foreigners. But we have to start somewhere.”

The foreigner most directors turn to is Andrew McKenzie, international stunt coordinator and the nation’s only film safety officer.

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

On the set of the Chevrolet’s Optra commercial, where Helmy and Zaki are taken for a drag around CityStars, the stunt coordinator could easily be mistaken for the director, as he barked out directions, double-checked riggings and ushered Helmy and Zaki into position behind the car. “Obviously if you do this […] you will lose all the skin on your chest, arms and legs, but we have got a little technique here that enables us to do it safely and make it look real too,” says Mckenzie, declining to give away any industry secrets.

McKenzie’s stunt team first worked with El-Sakka in South Africa during the production of Mafia. His first project in Egypt was for El-Gezira: After El-Sakka, who insists on doing his own stunts, injured his eye on the set, McKenzie came to coach the actor.

“I mainly work with El-Sakka, but I have also worked on other movies, some television stuff as well as commercials,” the stunt coordinator says. McKenzie’s local projects have included Ibrahim El-Abyad with El-Sakka; El-Dealer, which i s being shot in Ukraine; 1,000 Mabrouk (A Thousand Congratulations); Mona Zaki’s two new movies, Awlad El-Am (Cousins) and Khalf Aswar El-Kamar (Behind the Moon’s Gates); and Amr Waked’s Moshtabah Zero (Suspect Zero), among others. Internationally, he has also done stunts for the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, with Nicholas Cage, and the 2005 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, as well as work on TV series and other films.

Hiring foreign professionals to work on local productions is not a popular option for the budget-conscious studios, which would rather bring in much cheaper local talent. But cutting costs on safety may ultimately end up hurting the bottom line more.

“We are here to make sure that work is done professionally. We do not charge much more than the others and we are not here to make money. We want to make better movies, and if you look at the movies that were made in 2000 as opposed to what we are doing today, they are completely different,” says McKenzie. “We have taken the action right up to give it a more international look, and we can do it safely. Some people might save money from working with other people, but when you hurt an actor you don’t get to shoot for six weeks.”

When actors such as El-Sakka refuse to have stuntmen do the scenes for them, they must rely on a good team behind the scenes to do these stunts safely. McKenzie feels that injuries like El-Sakka’s are avoidable. “There is no reason to get hurt; you could do all the action and come out of the movie with only the usual bumps and bruises you get sometimes while shooting.”

The Art of Stunts

Being a stunt coordinator is more involved than just telling others which stunts to attempt. “Stunt coordination is a science, a specialization that requires a lot of training, but what we have here in Egypt has nothing to do with this science,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with McKenzie on this year’s Ibrahim El-Abyad and with another foreign team on his debut film Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building, 2006). “That is why I prefer working with foreigners.”

McKenzie explains that elsewhere in the world, if  someone aspires to be a stunt coordinator they study and train for many years before actually going on the set. “I was a stuntman for 20 years, and then I was an assistant stunt coordinator for maybe six or seven years,” says McKenzie. “I worked with very well-known stunt coordinators in the world, like Dan Bradley who did James Bond and Independence Day. They trained me every single day for five years before I worked on movie sets being a stunt coordinator.”

In Egypt, there is no guild or other professional organization that trains or certifies stuntmen. Anyone who has worked as a stuntman in two or three movies may call himself a stunt coordinator.

Since moving his entire business to Egypt a year and a half ago, McKenzie has been working to improve not only safety standards, but also the quality of stunt scenes in the local cinema industry. “I look at camera angles, I help the directors [decide] where to put the camera, the best way to shoot. Action needs to be shot in certain ways, and it takes years of experience to learn these things,” he says. “All these things you have to be aware of.”

He is also training Egyptians to be professional stuntmen, teaching them stage combat techniques and fight choreography. McKenzie says there is still a lot of work to be done. “Out of the 20 people that I am training, there are only two that I could rely on 100 percent and five guys that I could use a lot.”

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

One of McKenzie’s protégés, Mohamed Azab made his debut as a stuntman in the 2004 movie Tito. He then worked on several other movies and commercials before becoming a stunt coordinator. He has also worked as a fight choreographer for the movie Al-Hassa Al-Saba’a (The Seventh Sense, 2005), directed by actor/director Ahmed Mekky and starring Ahmed El-Fishawy.

“Working with McKenzie on Ibrahim El-Abyad, we started training really hard for four to six months before they actually started shooting the movie,” says Azab. “And I actually owe him a lot. After I successfully did a stunt where I crash into a car door on a motorcycle and fly over the handlebars through the air, I felt really confident about doing action scenes. This encouraged me to take a huge step [in my career] and handle El-Fishawy’s next movie Telk El-Ayam [These Days] on my own.

“While working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I watched [McKenzie] and tried to learn from what he did everyday. I believe one of the most important things in action is eye-contact and timing,” he continues. “And the most important thing with safety is having your equipment, like vests, mattresses and wires ready. After working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I started buying my own equipment.”

Since Ibrahim El-Abyad, Azab has worked with McKenzie on Awlad El-Amm (The Cousins, in production) and on Lahazat Harega’s (Critical Situations) second season.

Stunts are all the rage not only in action movies, but also in comedies like 1000 Mabrouk. According to McKenzie, action in comedies is demanding because “to be funny, it needs to be really hard.

“With 1000 Mabrouk I sat down with director Ahmed Nader Galal, and he said, Andrew, we need to kill [actor Helmy] 20-30 times. What can we do?’” McKenzie recalls. “I got a good team and we got to play with stuff that has never been done before here in Egypt. We used dummies that were very similar to the actor, we had masks made for this, and we did tricks with rigging.”

With advanced equipment, special effects and stringent safety measures, an actor can do any scene and avoid injuries that could ruin a career, delay shooting or even worse. For 1000 Mabrouk, McKenzie had Helmy suspended in mid-air by only a five-millimeter cable. “I think I’m lucky because they [trust] in what I do.”

Choreography is an essential part of the big-screen magic, as evidenced by the fight scene between Zaki and Al-Radad in Ehky Ya Shahrzad. “That’s pretty much what we do,” says McKenzie. “We make things look violent while keeping the safety level at a maximum.”

Drive to Stay Alive

In a country notorious for poorly maintained roads and real-life traffic fatalities, car chase scenes pose their own special problems for filmmakers. There is more to being a stunt driver than just aggressive driving habits.

To make sure everyone walks away safely from a crash, directors call Amr Mahmoud, better known as ‘Amr McGyver.’ Nicknamed after the brainy hero from the late-1980s American TV action series, the 32-year-old heads the nation’s only professional stunt driving company, McGyver Team, which specializes in car and motorbike chases, crashes and rolls

“I have worked with McGyver,” says McKenzie, “and really, I could rely on him for everything with cars.”

Safety Rigging - Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

McGyver started his film career in 2001 with singer Mohamed Fouad’s movie Rehlet Hob (Love Journey). “Before 2000, we did not have any real car chases in Egypt, but I started the chases in this movie in 2001. A foreign guy did the roll,” says McGyver, whose industry credits now include 55 movies, 10 television series and multiple commercials. “I have a team of 20 professional drivers that do everything, but for the rolls I prefer to do it by myself because I’m used to it.”

McGyver is constantly trying new things in each project. “Working with McKenzie increased my knowledge because he has been working for years in this industry and has studied the physics of the different speeds, dimensions and weights,” he explains. “We actually tried new things together, like in Mohamed Heneidy’s last movie Ramadan Mabrouk Aboul Alamein Hamouda [2009]. For the first time, we made a car roll while hitting the ramp from the side and not head-on.”

Worse for Wear

This year has seen few major accidents reported from the movie industry and no fatalities, a marked improvement over years past. The 2008 Ramadan serial El-Fanar (The Lighthouse) was particularly accident prone: Actors Ahmed Rateb and Tarek Lotfy were filming a scene in Port Said in which Lotfy’s character is drowning and his father, played by Rateb, jumps into the water to rescue him. Rateb actually slid and almost drowned, because not a single member of the cast noticed until the coast guard rescued him. Other El-Fanar actors also missed work from injuries incurred during filming.

While McKenzie’s work within the industry appears to be paying off, actors and directors admit that stunt professionalism is still a serious concern. For director Tarek Abdel Moaty, it was a lack of professionalism that delayed shooting on Agamista (2007) for an entire day. Starring Sherif Ramzy, Khaled Aboul Naga and Donia, the movie is about a man (Aboul Naga) who, while in the North Coast, befriends a young man (Ramzy) on the run from drug dealers.

For a scene involving a car chase followed by a figh, Ramzy recalls, “The director hired someone to bring stuntmen to this scene, but right on the set, just as we were about to film, they refused to do the scene. I actually did the scene after the stuntmen refused and I got hurt. After finishing the most difficult scene, we went on with the rest of the movie without using stuntmen.”

It was Abdel Moaty’s first experience as a director, and he found using stuntmen was almost impossible. “In the international cinema, stunt work has rules, but here in Egypt they know nothing about it, and at the end of the day, I cannot force stuntmen to do the scene,” says Abdel Moaty, explaining that most Egyptian stuntmen are amateurs.

“It’s the stuntmen’s job to do the action scenes, and they should be trained to do so,” Ramzy adds, “but here in Egypt they do it by luck.”

It is not only the lack of professionalism that create  problems, but also a lack of experience and training. Pressured by deadlines and budgets, producers often do not give enough time for actors to adequately prepare for stunts.

“In the movie El-Eyal Herbet (The Kids Ran Away, 2006), I had to drive a motorbike and I was hurt because I was not given enough time to train well for it,” says Ramzy.

This carelessness can even extend to filming commercials. “At the beginning of my career I was in one of Chipsy’s old ads, and I was supposed to break through a glass wall,” recalls stuntman Mohamed Azab. “But because of the lack of experience of the people who were responsible for it, they forgot to make sure that it is powdered glass and not real glass. I ended up [cutting myself and] bleeding for a while.”

McKenzie says that attention to detail and proper preparation saves lives. “We were shooting Leilat El-Baby Doll [Baby Doll Night, 2008] in Syria, and we had two cars crashing into each other. Everyone was in a hurry and they have seen us do it and it doesn’t look dangerous, and they wanted us to put the actors in the car,” recalls McKenzie. “I said there was no way that I would put an actor in. I put the stuntmen in the cars. I was [installing] seatbelts, and the producers said it’s not dangerous, you do not have to do this. I said, ‘If I am doing this job then I will do it properly.’”

The stunt coordinator finished installing the safety belts and made sure his team was driving the cars. Sure enough, during the crash scene, one of the cars rolled. “If there weren’t seatbelts, [the stuntmen] would have been dead.”

Despite these difficulties, McKenzie has no intention of taking his business elsewhere. “Egypt probably has one of the best camera departments in the world, the directors of photography and everything with the camera departments is world class. The directors are also very talented, [and] the set designers are close to the best in the world.” says McKenzie. “Overseas we generally get told what they want and it is very boring, people aren’t looking to try new things. In Egypt, we get to design a lot of action and there are certain things we have done in Egypt that have not been done anywhere else in the world, which is great.”

Building up the profession of stuntmen will go a long way in securing the Egyptian film industry’s place in the spotlight. “If people get hurt or injured or killed on sets in Egypt, people hear about this worldwide, and [this] takes [away from] everything that the cameramen are doing, the directors and everything big [production] companies like Good News are doing, what they have built in Egypt … It takes all of that away and it makes people in Egypt look like amateurs, and they are