Did you hear about the Irish guy who became a stuntman? He fell into it. Peter Dillon tellsabout a career path that has seen him work on Lord of the Rings and many other films
WHEN the stunt actor Peter Dillon goes to work in the morning, the day can throw up some odd tasks. He might be catapulted through the air into a wall or maybe he’ll have to go galloping on a horse into an explosion. Or one that really bugs him — because he suffers from claustrophobia — is when he has to be buried alive in a grave. He took a smartphone with him last time to keep himself distracted.
Talking about it again causes his stomach to clench. Or being set on fire isn’t one that would appeal to a lot of people.
“People often ask me, ‘Is it real fire,’” he says. “I presume what they mean is it computer-generated and then fires are added afterwards. ‘No, if we’re on fire, we’re on fire.’ You wear layers of underwear from head to toe similar to the kind that a Formula One driver would wear. That underwear is soaked overnight in an insulating gel, which is kept in a fridge. The irony of getting set on fire is that you’re freezing when you’re getting burnt. The gel structure keeps the heat away from you up to a certain point. Nothing is fireproof. All you’re looking to do is create a safe zone that lasts maybe 20 seconds so you can get the shot.”
Dillon, who grew up in Killiney, Co Dublin, fell into the stunt trade by chance. He was on a career break from teaching geography and German when he fetched up in New Zealand in 1999.
A friend — who, like Dillon, practiced martial arts — introduced him over lunch to a guy who was involved in the stunt world; the guy asked Dillon if he’d be interested in a job working on the set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was filming in the country at the time. Dillon thought it would make for a good story for his travels if nothing else so he signed up.
“Once I got into it, I thought this is a great world. It’s collaborative, creative, dysfunctional in so many ways,” he says with a laugh, “and it suits a wandering spirit. It really got me. It’s not a job done by crazy people, but one that is done by very well trained professionals. It requires discipline.
“What I liked about the job is that it required absolutely everything of me in the moment that I was doing it — physical, mental and emotional focus. You train and rehearse well to do the job. The stunts are all well planned out. It’s a thing that if it goes wrong, it won’t go wrong in a good way.
“You need to be very present to do the job, which is what I liked about it. When you’re doing it, you’re fully engaged. It demands everything of you, but when you’re not working, you’re not bringing your work home with you in a briefcase in terms of stress.
“Also, most people get into stunts when they’re younger. I was an old man of 35 when I started stunts. The advantage was that I knew who I was. I’d already had plenty of adventures. On top of that, you’re working with a bunch of people who drive you insane or keep you sane or a bit of both. It’s a really tight bond in the team.”
The perils of the job are obvious — Dillon has had colleagues break necks, break backs, smash in their teeth. In the last few years, there have been stunt performers on high-profile films who have lost their lives. Running through a good series of rehearsals is vital; there is a military precision to each stunt undertaken, says Dillon.
“The reason you do it again and again in rehearsal is so that on the day of shooting there is absolute calm. Nobody is freaking out. Nobody is up to 90. Nobody’s wired. A question I’m often asked on set just before doing a stunt is: ‘Do you feel nervous?’ To be honest, that’s the last thing you want to be asked by someone.
“When five people have asked it, you start to think maybe I should be. Genuinely, there would be no nerves. There is just focus. I know what I have to do. I know I’m capable of doing it. Now, let’s do it.
“I remember flipping a car on one job. That was a very expensive set-up because the car was totalled afterwards. It was a 1960s green hornet Mini, which was an awful shame to be thrashing. I had to drive at a metal pipe, which was at an angle from the ground and rose up to about eight feet in the air, which was to cause the car to flip over onto its side. In my case, it cartwheeled.
“I had to drive very quickly — foot to the floor — and in that particular instance I was coming around a corner so I couldn’t see the pipe I was going for until I was about 20 metres away from it.
“It was one of those times where you have to get everything absolutely right first time — otherwise, you’ve thrashed a car without getting the shot.”
Dealing with that level of stress requires a certain level of calm. Dillon attributes his background in Chinese martial arts, which he has been practicing since he was about 18 years of age, as instrumental.
With a filmography that includes The Chronicles of Narnia, James Cameron’s Avatar and the upcoming film Mary Queen of Scots, which stars Saoirse Ronan, stunt acting is a helluva way to make a living.
“I remember once looking out a chopper I was in and seeing five other choppers flying in formation,” he says. “You get helicoptered into these amazing locations that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. They’re special moments.
“I filmed a Peter Pan thing in Genoa, Italy. There was a huge pirate ship that was built for a pirate movie back in the 1980s which is there as a permanent tourist attraction. They use it for films. That was great fun – mucking about on a full, life-sized pirate ship.
“I was down in Spain filming in the same town where they do all the spaghetti westerns on the Penny Dreadful TV series a couple of years ago. I was a marshal.
“I had my badge. I had my six-shooter. I had my Winchester rifle and I had my horse. The eight-year-old me was just so proud.”
Peter Dillon will conduct a stunt workshop at the Fastnet Film Festival, Schull, Co Cork, which runs May 23-27 May. See: www.fastnetfilmfestival.com