Atlanta author celebrates stunt work in new book, 'Danger on the Silver Screen'

Scott McGee is the author of "Danger on the Silver Screen." (Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies)

When thinking about legendary action films, from “Mad Max” to “The Matrix,” there’s one thing that they all have in common: the often underappreciated craft of stunt work.

Atlanta author and film historian Scott McGee highlights the profession’s importance with his new book, “Danger on the Silver Screen.” In the book, he breaks down the most thrilling stunts from the last century and celebrates the bravery and ingenuity of the people behind some of movies’ most magical moments.

The author joined “City Lights” senior producer Kim Drobes via Zoom to discuss the new book.

Interview highlights:

Pulling from professions far and wide in the early days of stunts:

“They came from all over,” said McGee. “Just a handful of sources that these nascent stunt people came from would be rodeos, pilots who came out of World War I, people who worked in the circus, acrobats, athletes. A lot of people were professional steeplejacks, meaning people that would climb tall buildings or other high structures… like ‘human fly’ situations.”

He continued, “A lot of them, they came to Hollywood with the ability to kind of show off a certain sense of bravery, a willingness to pull off these stunts. It’s important to remember that in the early days of motion pictures, there was no such thing as a special effect. There were no such things as miniatures. And when your script called for, say, a woman to run along the top of a moving freight, you had to find a woman who was willing to run along the top of a moving freight train.”

On the origins of the curious epithet “yucca-nutty:”

“That was a phrase that isn’t used that often in other histories of stunt work, but I stumbled across it in an article in some fan magazine, and it refers to the type of wood that furniture was made of, coming from a yucca plant. It appeared to be a strong piece of furniture, but in reality, it was very brittle and would break quite easily over somebody’s head,” McGee explained. “So the phrase ‘yucca-nutty’ was a terminology to suggest that, perhaps, somebody was hit too much in the head with some of that furniture.”

Remembering the stunt mayhem of 1980’s “The Blues Brothers:”

“John Landis… wanted to make what is essentially a live-action ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoon, that is, one long epic chase with Jake and Elwood Blues, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, being chased by all sorts of people during the course of the movie. They only had a limited budget, to begin with, but as Landis insisted on bigger and better, faster and more bombastic stunts, dealing with vehicles with cars and trucks, the budget just continued to balloon,” recounted McGee. 

“Only John Landis would take over a shopping mall, one that was actually closed at the time, dress it up, and make it look like a functioning mall, complete with thousands and thousands of dollars of merchandise – all to have a car chase being set inside the mall. And so as the cars go to and fro, they crash through all of that merchandise that they bought just to put it on the shelves… It was just a big toy box, and fortunately, Landis had the best stunt people in the business at the time to pull it off.”

Scott McGee’s “Danger on the Silver Screen: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema’s Greatest Stunts” is available here