Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Skene-ing up a dream

Winnipeg teacher, playwright and actor having a great time as the go-to stunt co-ordinator in the city's expanding film industry

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LATE one night, Rick Skene was driving home to his house in Deer Lodge when he noticed a couple of guys fighting on Portage Avenue. He assumed they were two buddies who had maybe had one too many drinks that night. In any case, he pulled his truck over.

Not to intervene, but to take notes.

Call it professional curiosity.

When a play requiring a fight scene comes to town, say Richard III at Manitoba Theatre Centre, Skene is the man who is likely to get the job choreographing the violence in a safe, but convincing way. He even teaches a course in stage combat at the University of Winnipeg.

A movie may require the same kind of service. When Joely Fisher was playing an FBI agent in the locally lensed movie Nostradamus, and needed to look like she could convincingly disarm a suspect, Skene taught her the moves, and also taught her how to handle a gun.

And in fact, if anybody has to die in a movie, and has to expire in an especially spectacular manner, Skene is the go-to guy on every local producer's Rolodex.

Skene, 45, wears many hats: teacher, playwright, actor. But since the boom in the local film industry over the past few years, the one he seems to wear most often is the midnight blue baseball cap bearing the logo: Skene Stunts.

* * *

In Winnipeg, the name Skene is pretty much synonymous with theatre, and not just through the solid reputation of Rick and his actress wife Jan. (If you want an image of the two of them, picture that commercial about gambling addiction currently being broadcast on local channels. Jan is the woman alienating everyone over a board game. Rick is the guy she hits in the head with a game piece.)

Rick's dad is former theatre instructor and Free Press theatre critic Reg Skene.

"My father didn't take me to ball games or hockey games," Rick says at a coffee shop near his home. "When I was three, he hauled me to Shakespeare and he talked to me about it on the way home. He always used to discuss theatre with me like I was 40 years old.

"And when he would direct something, because we had five kids in my family, he'd throw me in the car to come to rehearsal. So I watched plays being put together and directed as long as I could remember. To me it was kind of normal."

But Rick grew up with diverse interests. He loved sports. He installed the motor in his first car. And he loved pretty girls, which was ultimately one of the attractions that brought him to the theatre program at the University of Winnipeg, a distraction from his presumed vocation in geology.

In a way, all the talents he accumulated in his youth would be employed in the business of stunt co-ordination.

From his job waiting tables at the Maryland Hotel, he learned about the physics of fights. He knows enough about cars to know how to safely flip a car off a ramp perfectly on the mark for an opening sequence in the movie Wishmaster 3. He knows enough about dramatic beats and buttons to suggest to the director, as he did, that a three-storey fall at the climax of an Inspector Murdoch Mystery, shot in town last month, needed a little extra something.

"It was just too dry. I looked at it and said: '{The faller) has to be on fire.' And the director went: 'Yeah!'"

Hence, yes, Rick's brother Craig takes a three-storey backwards fall, in flames, at the climax of the Bravo network TV movie.

"Knowing what piece you're in is really important, and serving the story is really important," Skene says.

In the past 14 years, the learning curve has been steep, as the stunts have become hairier. His first movie gig was teaching children how to fall without hurting themselves for the 1989 movie The Last Winter. He's worn a fat suit to double for Ed Asner on the movie Heads, he's worn a grey wig and fallen through a Walker Theatre trap door doubling for Christopher Plummer in Clown at Midnight.

Doubling for Sam Neill in the movie Framed took Skene to the Bahamas for a car chase. One of the highlights of his video highlight reel is certainly rolling that car and taking a burst of flying windshield glass to the face, alongside his wife, for that spectacular car flip in Wishmaster 3.

Skene is still amazed that the field has flourished much as it has.

"I didn't expect that. I just thought it would be a sideline to what I do," he says. "We've had to get bigger as the industry has grown. I've got about 24 people of various ages and sizes and shapes that come out and work with us when needed."

His two sons, Sean, 17 and Daniel, 19, are already following in dad's footsteps, doing the occasional stuntwork when a younger actor needs doubling. As many as a dozen of Skene's protégés have taken their skills to Vancouver or Toronto for more work opportunities. Skene is content here.

"I've had people say to me: 'What are you doing here? You could be in L.A.,'" he says.

"Why would I want to be in L.A.? Do they have a good hockey program? I like it here. I have a great life. It's a great place to raise kids. How much money do you need?"

As for the danger, Skene emphatically denies the cliché about stunt work. It is not a field for the fearless. Fear, in fact, is a good thing to have.

"People think it's about being a daredevil and having balls of steel. The myth is you eat bullets and piss gasoline," he says.

"In fact, it's a great career for someone who's really bright, but with a short attention span because you just drop this and go one to the next fall," he says. "It's creative, it's problem solving."

Hence his interest in that street fight.

"I had to really see how it unfolded, knowing I would call an ambulance if it got out of hand, or I would have stepped in." (Skene has a brown belt in Shotokan, a Karate-based martial art.) "It's just gathering, gathering, gathering.

"I watch science programs, autopsies. Someone might ask: 'What does a knife do when you're pulling it out?' It actually grabs," he says. "And it's important to know these little details, as morbid as it is. It's really kind of a gathering, problem-solving tradition."

Rick says he's never broken a bone in the commission of his stunts, although he acknowledges "boo-boos" -- bruises, strains, pulled muscles, and perhaps the inability to sit on one or the other of his buttocks for days at a time -- are an inevitable part of the gig. But he remains a calm and cautious force in the business.

"You know the feeling when you're loading your friend into the ambulance? Maybe you've been having fun, jumping your bikes and you end up with that sick feeling when you think about what you would have done if you could do it all over again.

"The stunt co-ordinator is the one person paid to remember that," he says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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