Articles & Notes — September 19, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Azerbaijani horse-riding stuntman from Ukraine reveals craft secrets

Dorayd Refiyev is a professional stuntman of Azerbaijani origin, who currently lives in Ukraine. He’s been a stuntman for over 15 years, while being relatively young.

Refiyev is a specialist in horse-riding stunts, and he’s worked on sixteen feature films. He believes that being a stuntman, allows a man to prove his manliness without hurting anyone. Below are some interesting notes from his interview to the Echo Newspaper.

How did you become a stuntman?

This is hereditary. My father used to be a stuntman, he worked at Odessa film studio in Ukraine, mostly doing horse-riding stunt work, and also did fighting scenes. He didn’t have any special education, yet he wanted to work in the movies very much. He used to be very good with horses, and growing up I saw all that, it influenced me a lot. It is safe to say that I was growing up on the production set, thus becoming a stuntman for me was natural.

Where did you study?

Ther are no colleges or institutions in Ukraine, where they teach you how to be a stuntman. I graduated the physical culture university, and being in great shape really helped me in my profession later. In fact, every stuntman learns on set. Of course at first, you are never allowed to do any stunts, you just stick around, watch and learn. I remember my first film, I had a small part when I was 8 years old. There was a scene, where two kids were beating one other kid, and this child actor got injured, so I became this punching bag. That was the first time I got in front of the camera. Years later, I started taking bit parts, helped out other stuntmen and learned along the way.

How do you actually learn on set?

First you simply observe how others work, trying to remember everything you see. You help out other stuntmen with their clothes, equipment, car stunts, fire arms, and so on. You learn along the way, depending on a stunt that needs to be performed. If we are talking about horses, then it is first required to learn to feed them, clean them up, then how to ride correctly, and also how to fall correctly. Another important thing is to learn how to fall along with the horse, since they don’t like falling down, but they are trained to do so. So, a stuntman’s work in this case is also a tamer’s work.

And when does the real work begin?

A stuntman’s work is different from actor’s work. You always have to be around, in case something urgent comes up. You have to prove you can work as a stuntman, as not only your professional skills are required. If you are a coward, physically weak and unreliable, you do not qualify. Same if you are not persistent. However if you are taken into a team, then the real work begins. In the process, you still learn. For example, I know horses very well, but not every film requires horse-riding stunts. Sitting and waiting for such opportunity to come up is similar to slow death. Therefore you have to improve, get better, evolve as a stuntman.

What is the most important in stunt work?

The most important is the team. Trust in your partner. Every stuntman should be having a stunt coordinator at least. The horse-riding stunts are different – as you’re doing it alone. There’s no way to secure yourself from falling down off a horse. Horse-riding is not really a technique that can be adjusted or calculated, since horses are often unpredictable. As an example – I was working on a war movie, where there are explosions on ground where horses ride. We’ve spent a lot of time, training these horses, so they wouldn’t be scared of these explosions. Everything went fine, until we started shooting – the horse reacted differently, and took off into opposite direction. You cannot secure yourself in this case, or coordinate it in advance.

How would you compare stuntwork in Western countries and in Ukraine?

Theoretically, it is rather good in Ukraine. A stuntman’s profession exists officially in the country, which is a good sign, there are not many countries like that. As my father used to tell me – there was no such thing as a stuntman’s profession in the Soviet times, they only started applying it in the late 80s. Ukraine has established a really good payment system for stuntwork, and it pays both per stunt and per day of work. For example, if you’re on set, but not doing stuntwork at the moment, by the end of the day, you’re still getting paid $500.

Do you work for only one studio?

Of course not. I have a family, a son. They need my support. I work everywhere, where there is work. This includes private studios, sometimes documentary projects that require stunt work, and music clips too. Sometimes I work with foreigners too. Last year this film crew from Italy was working in Ukraine, shooting a war film on nature. They brought all the crew with them, except for stuntmen, whom they searched all over Ukraine. We got paid off very well.

Doesn’t it hurt when an actor is recognized everywhere, while a stuntman always remains in the shadows?

Not really. An actor depends on the studio, on a director, whether he suits the role or not. With stuntmen the situation is different. If you’re good at what you do, there will always be work. It also depends on a character. If you’re ambitious, if you want fame, then of course it hurts. A stuntman is driven by a different stimulus – to defeat himself, overcome the obstacle, do something no one ever did before, and of course gain respect from the people of the same profession.

What about the risks that cannot be calculated on set?

We’re no suiciders, believe me. Every stunt is choreographed, discussed and tested before the shoot. Sometimes even directors are scared to allow stuntmen do a particular stunt because they think it is too dangerous. In such cases we have to prove to them that it is worth it, sometimes prove mathematically. Some stunts are being prepared for a week, so its all very calculated.

Do you ever get scared?

Do not trust those stuntmen, who claim they have no fear, its pure lies. When a stuntman loses a sense of fear, he’s gone beyond the limit. He’s a dead man. Every stuntman is taught from a very young age that there is this limit that has to be felt, and there’s a responsibility to carry. Of course, you cannot calculate everything, as a result sometimes deadly accidents do happen.

How do you think it is possible to limit the number of deadly accidents?

In order to reduce the number of deadly accidents, a stunt coordinator must be a professional, as well as the stuntman himself. That’s why there is a very strict selection in this profession. An actor can fail at acting and make another take. A stuntman breaks his neck only once, there are no second takes. In our time there are so many directors that fill their movies with endless action. All these scenes of course require stunt teams, with a lot of people, and they all have to be professionals. When there is lack of professionalism, you get a group of amateurs, who just want to make a quick buck.

Another good option would be to open a specific, strong union that would control the people who open these “stunt schools”, without accreditation and real proof of stunt work. That would prevent amateurs from opening these schools and teaching others something they themselves know nothing about.

What about luck in your profession?

There should be luck of course, one way or another. A man without luck cannot be a good stuntman. Jackie Chan is one vivid example – this is what a stuntman’s luck should be like.

Are there any particular stunts that you do not do?

Yes, I thus far have not done any stunts with fire. Cannot get over myself. The reason for that is probably because when I was a child  I once saw a house burning, and a man jumped out of the window. He burned to death.

Is there an age limit for stuntmen?

There is no limit, every stuntman works until he feels like he can perform. My father used to work until death, he was 68. He didn’t die on set, just got sick. He did his horse-riding stunts until that age, and also appeared in bit parts. As for the lower limit, the children of course are not allowed to do any stunts, yet sometimes there are occasional exceptions.

How do stuntmen specialize? What is the difference between Western stuntmen and those in CIS countries?

In the U.S. the stuntmen all have their specific niches. Some do only car stunts, other do fight scenes, and so on. We as stuntmen are more universal, we do a bit of everything. Horse riders and car stuntmen can be separated, this is not something every stuntman can do. Another difference between our stuntmen and those of Western states is that they all have acting abilities, at some point. Ours are mostly former athletes, and their acting is not much better than that of Steven Seagal.

Don’t you think that in some time, human stuntmen will be substituted by computer generated effects?

No, yet today pretty much anything can be drawn. Human stuntmen will remain firstly because it is much cheaper to hire a stuntman than a graphic designer specialist.

Can you reveal some secrets on how stunts are being made?

Not all of them of course, but I can reveal some. For example, when a man is hit by a car – it happens at a very low speed, and the recording is later shown at 2x or 3x speed. Another interesting example would be when a man is being run over by a tank – it doesn’t happen on plain ground, a man lies in a small pit that a man is pushed into when a tank rolls over him. Other secrets I’d like to keep, since otherwise watching a movie wouldn’t be interesting.


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