Grant Page: Feeling it in the Guts

November 23, 2021
In Mark Hartley’s doco Not Quite Hollywood (2008), director Brian Trenchard-Smith summed up, tongue-in-cheek, the Grant Page skill set: “He’s the guy you get to dodge the cars, slide down the cliff on fire, jump into the water and fight the shark.”

Page, now eighty-two, is a genuine legend of the Australian film industry with a career spanning more than five decades. His extraordinary ability to create onscreen mayhem as both stunt performer and co-ordinator has made essential contributions to pictures like Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (Miller, George Olgilvie,1985) and Roadgames (Richard Franklin, 1981).

His recent credits include Gods of Egypt (Alex Proyas, 2016), The Mechanic: Resurrection (Dennis Gansel, 2016), Legend of the Five (Joanne Samuel, 2020) and George Miller’s soon to be completed Three Thousand Years of Longing.

Known for his physical courage, Page is not much impressed with the lack of “nitty-gritty” he finds in modern stunt work, especially coming out of the Comic Book Universe. “I think people have an understanding of how the body moves,” he told FilmInk. “The moment you exaggerate that too much… the Marvel stuff is so far beyond reality, you don’t feel it in the guts.”

We spoke to Grant Page via phone from his home on the mid-north coast of NSW about his brilliant career and his long-term partnership with friend and director Brian Trenchard-Smith.

What got you interested in stunt work?

“I was very athletic. I was supposed to become a physical education teacher. I quickly realised it was not for me. One day, I was driving through the countryside. I saw these blokes diving out of a plane. This was in the late 1950s and there was no sport parachuting then, but I was so intrigued, I thought ‘I’d like to do that’. It turned out that these guys were ex-Army. They told me the best way to learn this stuff was to join up! I spent two years as a Commando. That’s where I learnt to abseil, work with ropes, originally used in combat techniques.”

‘Rope work’ is one of your specialities. You’ve done it all… fire, water, vehicles, falls, do you have a favourite kind of stunt?

“Think ‘anything on a cliff face’. [Laughs]”

You didn’t see action in the Army but at one time a famous mercenary tried to recruit you as a soldier of fortune for action in Africa! This was the ‘60s. Tell us about that.

“Right! That was ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare.”

His adventures were immortalised in Andrew V McLaglen’s The Wild Geese (1977). Richard Burton played a character based very closely on him. Was Hoare at all as charming as the screen version?

“No! Hoare was an absolute ego driven maniac! My career choices at that time seem to be – become a mercenary or go into the film industry! I wasn’t sure which one was more dangerous. [Laughs]”

Your friend and one-time manager Brian Trenchard-Smith said you are the kind of person who “blocks out pain.” But you have always insisted that within obvious limits, what you do is ‘safe’?

“Right. I used to run a course at AFTRS called ‘The Illusion of Danger’. That’s what it is all about – illusion. The idea was to make things look as dangerous as possible and make damn sure it wasn’t. Our safety on set was more valuable than what we were doing.”

Still, for film and TV, you’ve done things that look insane; climbing free hand up tall buildings or one of our favourites – dangling by a rope underneath a cable-car suspended over a 270metre drop in the Blue Mountains…

“Well, I usually have myself covered. You hide it completely in those situations. With the free hand climbing, that’s a pretty secure stunt; it’s a bit like climbing a ladder, ‘this hand up, foot here, now push, that hand’, you know?”

One ‘did-he-really-do-that?’ stunt you became heavily associated with is the ‘transfer’. That’s when you climb out of the window of one car into another car travelling side by side. At very high speed. That looks risky?

“If the two vehicles were parked and not moving it would be the same; they are not moving in relation to each other. The only thing ‘moving’ is the ground. With skilled drivers who can keep the cars in parallel… it’s a pretty safe stunt once you break it down.”

Your collaboration with Trenchard-Smith started with his documentaries The Stuntmen (1973), Kung Fu Killers (1974) and then famously The Man from Hong Kong (1974). He built Stunt Rock (1978) around you; it’s like a greatest hits! Why did you two click?

“I think Brian saw in me the ability to physically do the things he always wanted to do himself. As a filmmaker, he could imagine it and know how to film it and I provided the understanding of the physics and the elimination of the fear of the unknown.

“What we learnt doing this work was that as a human animal, we have fear; which helps us survive. What is debilitating is fear of the unknown.  If you go into a situation and you have no idea of the outcome, then that is real lock up terrifying fear. The advantage we have in stunt work is we have the chance to develop the knowledge [around fear].”

Still, stunt’s go wrong. You got burnt badly on Mad Dog Morgan (Phillippe Mora, 1976). You did a get-hit-by-the-car-and roll over the top gag on The Don Lane Show in 1977… but you broke the window and landed hard. [[Ed. Page re-did the gag in 1983 with success.]

“Well, for that gag, you need a top driver. Stunt work is co-ordinated teamwork. It’s choreographed like a dance. I have an appreciation of physics – action and reaction, friction, breaking strain.

“So, I spend my toilet time thinking things out [Laughs]. It’s a bit like a billiards shot. If you can run through the stunt gag in your mind in an imagined scenario – a car crash, or a fall – you can predict exactly what is going to happen. You calculate the speed of impact, the angle of refraction…

“On the car hit, the driver breaks, just before the impact, the bonnet dips just as you launch yourself onto it… The first time I did it on Don Lane, the driver was my main professional rival…[Laughs].”

Around the time you started in film, Australia’s first great stunt movie was made, Sandy Harbutt’s Stone (1974).

“I didn’t work on Stone because at that stage Brian and Sandy didn’t like each other. They both wanted to do action movies, and each thought the other inferior [Laughs].”

You had a close call doing the great title sequence in The Man from Hong Kong where you hang glide [a new sport then] from one of Hong Kong’s highest points and land at the bottom of a mountain – on cue!

“I was doubling Rosalind Speirs. They put me in a bra with polystyrene breasts. I was fighting for control all the way down. I had one breast up around my left ear. I had one down by my waist.

“I was supposed to land on a parade ground where a group of police were marching. I was in the air, and I saw these flashes on the ground. It was not until I got closer that I realised it was the sun reflected off the blades of these bayonets! The cops were marching with their rifles on their shoulders! They were like pins and here I am having to land in the middle of them! That was the first take; I aborted and didn’t land on the parade like I was supposed to.”

You worked on Mad Max as stunt co-ordinator/performer. It was a notoriously scary shoot. Did the problems start with the fact that you had a short schedule and little money?

“They did. We didn’t have a chance to develop a stunt. We just had to go out and do it.”

You ‘feature’ unseen in the film’s opening sequence with the Nightrider (Vince Gill). You are actually driving the car.

“I was lying flat on my back with my shoulders between the two seats and my head and shoulders between the two actors. I could just see above the windscreen.

“The car had two front seats with a hand break between them. I had to sit on that fucking hand break! It was literally sticking up my arse.”

What was the riskiest thing on Mad Max?

“The bike stunt near the end. Max (Mel Gibson) drives head-on at three of the bad guys on bikes. One falls. The other two go off a bridge and into the creek below. That was me and Chris Anderson. The problem was, you could not see the creek from the roadway. We drew chalk lines on the bridge to our take off point. We rode shoulder to shoulder and then made a 90 degree turn and you still couldn’t see the creek until you took off and were in mid-air!”

What do you look for in a director?

“I don’t expect them to know what I know. The main thing that I need to understand is exactly what they need to see in the lens. The action might be a minute but what is used might be seconds. But once I have the shot, I can come up with the physicality. George Miller and Brian Trenchard-Smith, they have that ability to imagine how action fits together.”

All of Grant Page’s collaborations with Trenchard-Smith are available from Umbrella, including a restoration of Stunt Rock on Blu-ray, which is out now.

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