The movie The Place Beyond the Pines, in limited theaters on March 29th and wide-release by mid-April, might star two of the most swoon-worthy stars working in Hollywood today—Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper—but motorcyclists will be more interested in the supporting role played by various Honda CRF-series motocross bikes. Gosling’s character, Luke, is a globe-of-death stuntrider who quits the carnival and turns to moto-enabled bank robberies to support his young family, running afoul of officer Avery Cross (played by Cooper) in the process.
Many actors would happily turn the handlebars over to a stunt double as soon as the action exceeded parking lot speeds. Gosling, a rabid motorcycle enthusiast, actually performed most of the motorcycle stunt riding himself, under the watchful eye of veteran stunt coordinator Brian Smyj. “Ryan did 70 percent of the motorcycle work in this movie,” Smyj says. “He would have done 95 percent of it but he wasn’t available when filming demanded he be in other places. In fact, he might have done all of it if he could have, but there was no way the insurance company was going to sign off on him racing between the headstones through the cemetery, or crashing the motorcycle.”
We recently took a few minutes to discuss with Smyj, whose stunt-coordinating credits over the course of his 27-year career include Gladiator, True Lies, The Departed, Donnie Brasco, and many, many more, the finer points of working with actors like Gosling to safely coordinate all manner of motorcycle-based mayhem. Here’s what he had to say:
Motorcyclist: What’s your title, and what does it mean?
Brian Smyj: Stunt coordinator is the official title, though sometimes I’m also a second-unit director, directing the action with the stunt crew and sometimes the actors. Car stunts, motorcycle stunts, rigging, flying people, throwing guys off buildings or out of windows, setting people on fire—I do everything, but car and motorcycle work is the bulk of what I do.
MC: How do you become a stunt coordinator?
BS: I started as a stuntman. Most of us work our way up the ladder. The best way to become a stunt coordinator is to first do every stunt possible, so you always know what needs to be done, how to make it look better, and how to plug the actor in to really sell it to the audience. And it helps to have an appetite for stress. You’re on a set where they’re spending $30,000 an hour—or more—and the stuntman is the only one on camera and it’s not going right. The producers are only thinking about how much money it’s costing, so, yeah, it’s a pressure business.
MC: Are you a stunt rider?
BS: I am a stuntman and stunt driver. I ride but I don’t consider myself a stunt rider. That’s a very elite group of guys who eat, sleep, and breathe bikes. It’s pretty much all they do.
MC: Are motorcycle stunts more challenging to create than car stunts?
BS: Motorcycle work is much more challenging. There’s a smaller group of capable riders to choose from, and the price to be paid when there’s a mistake is far greater. There’s a scene in The Place Beyond the Pines where Ryan Gosling rides a motorcycle through an intersection filled with 47 stunt drivers. It’s really him going through the intersection—not a stunt double. The preparation to get the insurance company to sign off, and the amount of work we had to do prior with rehearsals and practices, was insane.
MC: Ryan Gosling did much of his own stunt riding in the movie? Is that unusual?
BS: Yes, and yes. Ryan was already a rider, but he still underwent a lot of training to prepare. Rick Miller, a stunt guy from LA, was the one who brought Ryan up to speed, and who was also his stunt double when we used one. Rick’s got an extensive racing resume and his father was in On Any Sunday, so he was practically baptized with motorcycle oil. Rick and Ryan bonded well, which really helped. Becoming a great rider takes a lifetime, and here we had just two months to get Ryan up to speed. But he was great—he hit his marks, and did exactly what we told him to do every single time. That consistency is what you need when you have an actor do everything.
MC: How do you actually train an actor to participate in these stunts?
BS: It’s literally baby steps. We rented an airport and put together the driving set-ups one piece at a time. We dial it in until it’s something Ryan can handle, then we bring him over and start doing it literally at 5 mph, then slowly increase the speed until we get up to whatever the insurance company will allow us to do. Working slowly and methodically, breaking it down like this, helps familiarize Ryan with the whole process and work out the stunt in a way that makes sense to him.
MC: Who’s the best actor that you’ve ever worked with on a motorcycle?
BS: Ryan’s right up there. Keanu Reeves is pretty damn good on a bike. Stallone is pretty good on a bike. James Caan was surprisingly good on a bike. There are a lot of actors out there who are bike enthusiasts, who ride all the time for fun. I’ve never worked with him, but Jay Leno would probably be a good guy.
MC: Who’s the worst?
BS: Oh my god, I couldn’t even answer that. When they’re given to us to train, you just see the effort they’re putting in. Not every guy we work with is going to go out and race around the Malibu canyons. If he’s not one of those guys, but if he’s putting a solid effort in, and showing you some heart, you just have to appreciate what he can do.
Click here to see Gosling show off his riding skills in the trailer for The Place Beyond The Pines.