Issue 14.3: June / July 2011

Risky Business

Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Dana Edmunds

Rain is pelting down. We see a large black truck and, inside, a man and woman talking.


INT. TRUCK Woman: Let me cut to the chase. In your work as a stuntman, what’s the closest you’ve ever come to cashing in your cookies? I mean, that is unless you’d rather not …


Man: (interrupts, laughing) That happened on an episode of Lost. I drove a car off the pier at the Ala Wai, and the equipment malfunctioned. The car jackknifed twenty feet into the silt. I was underwater and upside down. Luckily, the inside rail system for the camera kept me from being totally smashed. But the safety guys couldn’t get to me. Eventually I found my regulator when I was on the edge of completely blacking out. As soon as I took my first breath, I went for the passenger side and swam out of a pre-cut hole in the floorboard.


Woman: That sounds terrifying. What did they say at the hospital?


Man: They gave me six stitches and pulled some glass out of my hand. Then I went back to the set and did the same stunt again the next day. As a stuntman you want to keep the level of panic and concern as low as you can.  




Ain’t nothing like the real thing: Mike Trisler dives off the cliffs at O‘ahu’s Spitting Caves, plunging fifty-five feet to the ocean in a stunt he executed for the last episode of Lost. This dive, though, was the easy one—Trisler went on to plunge eighty-five feet headfirst into the ocean in a stunt for the movie Limitless. “I just hate saying no,” he says.

Mike Trisler, the man who never wants to panic anyone, does not live in the world of cubicle dwellers like me (and probably you). He makes his living by crashing cars, brawling in bars, leaping from cliffs and performing other extreme exploits, all in service of injecting real flesh-and-blood action into the make-believe of movies and TV. Trisler is a full-time stuntman, though when I refer to the gig as his job, he corrects me: Stunt work, he says, is not a job for him—it’s a lifestyle bred by O‘ahu’s North Shore.


“This is probably the most testosteronefilled seven-mile stretch on the planet,” Trisler says of the area he calls home. We are in the parking lot of Ted’s Bakery, where carloads of hungry North Shore surfers are pulling in for haupia crème pie after riding the morning’s monster waves. Trisler surfs, too; he also climbs, hunts, boats, parasails and kite-surfs because, he swears, that is what the North Shore forces a man like him do. “We’re adrenaline junkies here. And we all have these stories to tell,” says Trisler, adding, “Not that we talk about ourselves, but, you know, the word gets around and people get to know who’s willing to lay it all on the line.”


If you don’t live on the North Shore and you haven’t gotten the word, no worries — it’s still likely that you’ve seen Trisler and other stunt people from Hawai‘i on screens both big and small. Island daredevils are joining the rarefied and tight-knit world of stunt performers, those adventurers whose skills fall outside the ken and kinesiology of leading men and women. Stunt people conjure larger-than-life heroes but of necessity stay in the shadows: After all, the audience is not supposed to know that that’s not really the actor up there. Stunt work is exceptional for its lack of celebrity and for its exclusivity, too: The profession’s pinnacle guild claims only about 300 members, most of them in and around Los Angeles. Many come to it through family for there’s no formal training in the field, and fathers often groom their sons (and yes, we are talking about a mostly male profession) in the stock and trade of this risky business. Definitely, the fake-it-tillyou- make-it creed that might net your average actor a lucky break could end in an ambulance ride—or worse—for an aspiring stuntman. Given all the challenges, how could anyone in Hawai‘i ever hope to become a full-time stunt professional?


Yet it’s happening. For decades Hollywood has cast these Islands in roles from King Kong’s birthplace to the dinosaur rebreeding grounds of Jurassic Park, and savvy audiences today don’t crave only action, they crave interaction with the Islands’ dazzling water and land. So if you are a high-powered movie producer looking to pay someone comfy union rates to ascend the cliffs of Makapu‘u or to rappel down the cliffs of Kalalau, who are you going to call? Why not someone who does it for fun? As this realization spreads, Hawai‘i performers are finding new opportunities to show their stuff. Trisler is not alone in the demand for his services; the industry is also using the talents of others, including Danny Kim’s mastery of martial arts, Brian Keaulana’s knowledge of land and sea and Ocean Ramsey’s attunement to her namesake.


“It’s kind of a mystery, even to me.” Brian Keaulana started out as a Honolulu City & County lifeguard and has become another of Hawai‘i’s premier stuntmen as well as a director in his own right. “Stuntmen,” he says, “are actually the safest guys on the set.”

Right now Trisler is tapping his iPhone for further evidence of his extreme outdoorsmanship. He’s showing me an episode of Lost where Sawyer kisses Kate inside a helicopter and then jumps out over the ocean. I ask him to slow-mo it, but I still see only a seamless transition from the close-up of Josh Holloway’s Sawyer (shot on terra firma) to Trisler’s actual plunge 105 feet into the waters off O‘ahu’s leeward coast. “I think the producers would tell you that some of the things we did for Lost, no one had ever done,” he says. “Sometimes they were skeptical, but they got to know me and the local crew, and they knew we could get the shot and keep everyone safe. And that’s success.”


Lost’s unnamed theme park of peril was set mostly within mountain-biking distance of Trisler’s home, and he worked his way up to become the show’s stunt coordinator, a role he held for sixty-seven episodes. Throughout, he did the math to keep everything and everyone in one piece. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Trisler’s love of adrenaline means that he’s simply a gonzo risk-taker. Hypervigilance, he says, is a key attribute of a stuntman and stunt coordinator.


Trisler spent a childhood in a disciplined environment: doing chores and homework on an Indiana farm and earning a scholarship to West Point, where he won the Iron Warrior Award given to the top athlete in each class. He was a US Army Ranger based at Schofield when he first laid eyes on O‘ahu’s North Shore; there he saw a primeval challenge that enthralled him as much as Braveheart. “Now there,” he enthuses of his favorite flick, “is a movie that makes you just want to go out and be a man.” Before leaving the military, he won the worldwide Best Ranger Competition, a grueling three-day contest that pits special ops warriors from around the globe against each other.


He became a county lifeguard, and after bit parts as a swimmer in Baywatch Hawaii, he was working as a minor stuntman on the set of Pearl Harbor when Ben Affleck’s stuntman was fired suddenly. “They put him on a plane, and they lined us up and picked me to fill in. I went straight to makeup and wardrobe, and there I was doubling for Affleck in my first feature film.” He was quickly humbled when he had to throw himself shirtless into a pile of rocks for his opening action sequence. Later he landed the stunt double role for Kevin Costner’s character in The Guardian, and during shooting nearly froze to death in frigid waters off Washington when Coast Guard helicopters had difficulty picking him up. In the end that ordeal garnered him a nomination for the Taurus Award, the Oscar of the stunt world.


Trisler could be working in Hollywood for a fatter paycheck, but he reiterates that he’s not in it for the money, he’s in it to challenge himself. He’s also used the North Shore as a training ground for seven Eco- Challenges, grueling cross-continental races, one of which took him to the jungles of Borneo where he contracted leptospirosis while leading his team through the race. “The challenging stuff is where you find the essence of your soul,” he says. “The suffering reduces you to complete survival, and you find out how tough you really are.”


One day Trisler and I are at a seaside cliff where he jumped for an episode of Lost. Someone jokingly suggests he do it again. “I’m in!” he says. Next thing I know, he is positioned on the ledge; he bows his head and fans his arms into a “V.” His body arcs up, folds in midair and extends like a downward dart out of sight. I hear the splash below.


When he’s back, I ask what went through his mind before he jumped. He says he was calculating the water’s depth, thinking about just how to tuck and roll. What about prayer or meditation? I ask. He concedes that the spoiler in this business comes from within: “I call it ‘body freeze,’ where your body doesn’t want to do what your mind is telling it to do. I absolutely pray before every stunt,” he says. “Any hesitation can be deadly.”


He tells me about a recent stunt, just splashed all over the world’s cineplexes. The movie Limitless was shot in Puerto Vallarta, and Trisler doubled for star Bradley Cooper in a cliff dive that was changed from fifty feet to eighty-five feet four days before the shoot, by a producer looking to enhance the drama. Trisler could have backed out but didn’t. He estimates he hit the water headfirst at more than fifty miles per hour, “tweaking just a few cervical vertebrae,” he deadpans. It was, he says, nothing painful enough to send him to a medical doctor. I ask if he would seek relief from another notable subculture around his North Shore home, alternative healers. Beer is a better cure, he jokes, adding that he doesn’t regret taking the plunge. He doesn’t regret anything. “I just hate saying no,” he adds. “It’s kind of a mystery, even to me.”


The man in black: John Nordlum spent years doing stunts as Jack Lord’s character Steve McGarrett in the original Hawaii Five-O and as Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum in Magnum, P.I. Nordlum was the stunt driver of McGarrett’s iconic 1974 Mercury Marquis (seen here), a car that symbolized the detective’s moral force as he muscled out mafia mavens, drug dealers and madmen. When Five-O wrapped for good, Lord gave Nordlum the car. “You’re a confidante like no one else can be,” Nordlum says of a stuntman’s work. He treasures the Marquis still and recently lent it to the new incarnation of the series.

John Nordlum,
a pioneer in Hawai‘i’s stunt business, is a spry man who seems none the worse for whatever wear he endured during twenty-five years as a TV stuntman. Asked over lunch about “tricks of the trade,” he answers by jumping to his feet obligingly and throwing a punch that lands I know not where because his torso is cleverly angled to block my field of vision. Nordlum is gracious and modest—“I’ve always said it helps to be a coward in the stunt business. I plan for everything that could possibly go wrong, the only reason I never broke a bone”— and he attributes the fact that he mastered stunt work exclusively in Hawai‘i to his first show-biz boss, Jack Lord, who played Steve McGarrett in the first Hawaii Five-O, which ran an epic twelve seasons starting in 1968. Nordlum was Lord’s double; he also doubled for Tom Selleck in the eightyear run of Magnum, P.I.
Nordlum credits Lord for inaugurating a Hawai‘i-based stuntman profession. He recalls a Five-O shoot that called for the bad guys to dive out of the way as McGarrett drove his big, black Mercury Marquis into their midst. The Hollywood stunt guys kept missing their marks, much to Lord’s displeasure. “You guys came all the way to Hawai‘i to fall down?” Nordlum says, channeling Lord. “We pay you first-class airfare and hotel to Hawai‘i to fall down? Don’t we have any guys in Hawai‘i who can fall down?”


With Lord’s encouragement Nordlum opened the Hawaii Stunt Association, a one-stop service to train performers in everything from fire gags to bullet hits and to supply crash pads, trampolines, air bags and other safety paraphernalia. Nordlum says Lord’s support of the association was part of a larger effort to show Hollywood that coming to Hawai‘i didn’t mean extra time and money.


Nordlum was Lord’s stunt driver in the iconic Mercury Marquis. Five-O’s car stunts were particularly dicey, he says, because of the hands-on acumen needed back in the day to skid, spin and even flip the big hunks of chrome and steel. When the series ended, Lord handed over the Mercury’s keys to Nordlum, who worked hard to maintain the car’s V-8 engine and made sure that it could still “run like hell.” Last year he agreed to let the producers of the new Five-O write the famous rig into the story line: McGarrett’s son, a former Navy SEAL, returns to Hawai‘i to avenge his father’s death. He assumes command of the elite Five-O police force, but as an outlet for his grief, he pulls the mighty Mercury out of storage and tinkers with it. The car becomes his obsession, as if it still carried the elder McGarrett’s spirit. Nordlum, who cried after the Teamsters loaded the Mercury onto a trailer and hauled it off to the new Five-O encampment, muses that there might just be something to that premise.  


Kim Possible: Danny Kim came to the world of stunt work from his background as a fifth-degree black-belt master who once ran a taekwondo school. “I was like every other Hawai‘i kid,” he says. “I wanted to be like Bruce Lee in the movies.” Most of Kim’s work has been doing stunts for actor Daniel Dae Kim, first on Lost, in which Dae Kim played Jin Kwon, and now on the new version of Hawaii Five-O, in which Dae Kim plays Detective Chin Ho Kelly. “He’s been helping me look good for seven years,” says Dae Kim of Danny. “As much as I love doing my own stunts, I know he’s the capable one.”

The Mercury monster is nowhere to be seen at Honolulu Harbor’s Pier 36, where shooting for the new Five-O is in progress. The dock looks like Ringling Brothers crossed with a paramilitary operation: Canvas tents, mazes of coil and rows of video monitors are everywhere. Almost everyone carries tools or walkie-talkies and wireless headphones. And the last shot of the day is the one everyone’s waiting for. Scott Caan (the new Detective Danno) and his partner Daniel Dae Kim (Detective Chin Ho Kelly) are expected to sprint with guns drawn, leap off the pier and roll onto the deck of a moving boat. This has been deemed hazardous: If they were to miss their mark and land in the water, they would be in the path of the boat’s propeller.

And so Five-O’s stunt coordinator has decided to bring in stunt performers. He is putting them through their paces in the parking lot where they rehearse a graceful zigzag routine. I turn away and then back again, only to see the Kelly character hit the pavement. But wait! That’s the real Daniel Dae Kim. He is laughing and telling his stuntman, “They wouldn’t let me do this anyway.” The stuntman’s name is — are you ready?—Danny Kim. He looks familiar to me, not only because of his resemblance to the high-profile star, but because he lives in my Honolulu neighborhood, Palolo.


Danny is a fifth-degree black-belt master who used to operate a popular taekwondo school. His entrée into this business came through a stroke of serendipity. “I was like every other Hawai‘i kid. I wanted to be like Bruce Lee in the movies,” he says. He had never heard the term “stuntman” until he met fellow martial artists who’d come to Hawai‘i to work on scenes from the movie Windtalker. “That’s when I realized what stunt guys do. They make Bruce Lee look good. They’re the ones going down when Bruce Lee throws a punch,” says Kim.


In the role of Jin on Lost, Daniel Dae Kim needed a stuntman. Danny Kim auditioned and got the job. The two Kims share not just name and appearance, but trace their ancestry back to the same bustling beachside city in South Korea. From the start Danny Kim addressed the actor with a term of respect that means older brother, hyung.


“He’s been helping me look good for seven years,” says Daniel Dae Kim of Danny. “As much as I love doing my own stunts, I know he’s the capable one. This is the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a stunt double.” For today’s stunt, Danny has mapped out the timing of three variables: his movement, the motion of his partner and the boat. He is to jump second, so the shot would be ruined if he jumped and obscured the camera’s view of the other two elements.


The younger Kim seems utterly relaxed as the crew begins to swirl and reposition everything. There’s a collective breathholding as the director yells, “Action!” The boat churns forward, and a blur of perfectly airborne bodies is visible on the monitor, followed by a loud burst of spontaneous applause. The crew looks more animated than they have all day. Some pat Danny on the back. Stuntmen, for all their anonymity in the public’s eye, get their due in their own milieu.


“The question that everyone asks me is what goes through my mind just before a stunt,” says Danny. “And the answer is always the same: I clear my mind, slow down and stay in the moment.” That, he says, reduces the risk of the danger—his big responsibility and his key to job security.  


Sea nymph: Ocean Ramsey sports silver rings with designs of dolphins and can be seen on YouTube freediving with tiger sharks and even a great white. “I go diving all the time and I’ve been swimming since I was a kid,” says the adventurer. “Confidence is key for keeping danger at bay.” Her prowess in the water was first tapped for the movie Into the Blue 2: The Reef, where she doubled for the lead actress in underwater scenes; she made her television debut in Off the Map, diving off cliffs and sliding down mountains. “I’m not as fragile as I look,” she says.

Most stuntmen are experts
at faking mortal harm. Brian Keaulana, legendary Honolulu County lifeguard, big-wave champion and all-around Westside water sports champ, grew up keeping others out of harm’s way. He knows water currents, winds, tides and weather patterns that would otherwise shred the continuity of a production. “In Makaha we go to school every time we go into the ocean,” he observes. “This is how you deal with fear. You get to know everything you need to know, and this means knowing your own weaknesses and working on them.” A daredevil he is not, he emphasizes. He prefers to think of himself as a risk technician, able to act on knowledge acquired from his upbringing. “Being raised the way I was—knowing you have to give respect to the environment and community—has definitely given me an advantage in the stunt business,” he says.

Keaulana’s unquestionable physical prowess in the waves got him into the business. During the production of Kevin Costner’s grandiose Waterworld, he joined the film’s stunt crew for the shoot on Hawai‘i Island. In some of the film’s most dangerous sequences, Keaulana was one of seven submerged on jet-skis, breathing through air hoses, until on cue they propelled through the surface for a midair battle. In the first take, amid what felt like a zero-to-eighty mile per hour velocity gain, the machines blew out of their hands, so Keaulana (who invented jet-ski rescue equipment) made some needed adjustments. In later scenes Keaulana rode jet-skis through walls of flame. Great fun, he calls it. And it was a turning point for Keaulana who was handsomely rewarded by Waterworld’s generous paychecks, enough to make him begin to think of detaching from his day job and beginning movie-related enterprises full time. Keaulana has worked on numerous productions in the Islands, both film and television. He was cast as himself in Baywatch Hawaii and became the show’s stunt coordinator, too; was a stuntperson on Pearl Harbor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Tempest and other films; and was the stunt coordinator for productions including In God’s Hands, Blue Crush, North Shore, Pipeline and The Descendants.


As the Makaha native’s credibility grew, landlocked directors relied on him more and more to do their actual work out in the water. This meant he was doing a bigger job than he was hired to do as a stuntman or stunt coordinator. That changed when he got the requisite number of Hollywood directors to recommend him for entry to the Directors Guild. He is now not only Hollywood’s go-to guy for water scenes, he is a credentialed Hollywood director himself.


These days Keaulana is having a ball as a second-unit director on the set of Off the Map. Just last week he set up giant engines in O‘ahu’s central reservoir to fake water rapids and stage a cataclysmic kayak crash. Two weeks ago he choreographed the collapse of a half-constructed church with carpenters left clinging to the bamboo scaffolding. It sounds dicey, but it’s not. Not with Keaulana in control.


In his new directorial role, Keaulana is hiring local talent, creating the same opportunities for others that were created for him. Take, for example, Ocean Ramsey, a petite blond dive instructor who has just begun to rack up film and movie credits. Ramsey came to Keaulana’s attention— and Hollywood’s—with her appearance in Into the Blue 2: The Reef. When the lead actress’ stuntwoman could not perform, Ramsey got a call from a friend on the movie’s water safety crew, and she was hired. In her debut scene she jumped into the ocean and swam deep underwater to get away from the proverbial bad guys. No edits were needed to fake her lung power; she recently timed herself holding her breath and came in at five minutes and forty-five seconds.


Ramsey stayed with Into the Blue as leading lady Laura Vandervoot’s double in water work that called for her to scoot around the ocean floor on “skibobs” and to scuba dive. “It doesn’t feel like work because I go diving all the time, and I’ve been swimming since I was a kid,” says Ramsey. “It just feels like what I do for fun.” Proof of her ease in the ocean can be seen on YouTube in clips where Ramsey freedives with tiger sharks and even grabs a great white shark by its fin.


She made her television debut working with Keaulana in the first episode of Off the Map, when she doubled for one of the leads and jumped off a fifty-five-foot-high cliff, landing at the mouth of an ocean cave below. She had done it before, and with Keaulana directing she felt relaxed, trusting him to time her leap to coincide with the ebbing of the wave. Keaulana knows all too well that trust in the people around you is one of the greatest protections from harm and—in keeping with his überpreparedness— he’s even taken psychology courses in the subject.


Keaulana credits his father, legendary lifeguard captain Buffalo Keaulana, for showing him that knowledge is power— especially when danger is in the picture. The capacity for control is a stunt person’s gift to movies, Keaulana believes. He sums it up this way: “We create our own chaos and design our own dangers. Stuntmen are actually the safest guys on the set. We plan to succeed. And we do.”