Double Dare (2004)

There is still a great big glass ceiling in Hollywood. While stuntwomen have been active in the industry for nearly 50 years, their occupation is the last chauvinist sticking point on most major movie shoots. Very few females are leaders in the trade and even fewer oversee the hiring and helming of stunt units. Not the most friendly or favorable field to make your life’s endeavor.

Zoë Bell isn’t out to change any of this. All this gifted athlete and fearless performer wants to do is ply her craft, to substitute her body for that of more famous and better paid faces. Her dreams are bolstered by stunt veteran Jeannie Epper, whose work has made the massive barrier to gender equality finally low enough to leap over safely. The stories of both women ground the documentary, Double Dare, recently released on DVD.

There are actually two ways to view director Amandi Micheli’s fascinating narrative. Bell seeks validation and recognition, leaving the security of a longtime, familial job atmosphere to ply her considerable skills and nerve. When we first meet her, she is about to end her run as Lucy Lawless’ stunt double on Xena: Warrior Princess. Unsure of her next move, the native New Zealander (Xena was shot in and around Auckland) looks to Hollywood as the logical next step.

Here Epper takes her under her mother hen wing. The daughter of a famous stuntman, she has been working for nearly 50 years, including doubling Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Epper knows the ropes, understands who knots them, and can usually warn against those who will unravel them — while you’re holding on for dear life. She’s survived the overt sexism of the ’60s and ’70s, broke through some barriers, and set a standard of professionalism that will benefit newcomers.

Some may think Double Dare represents a changing of the guard: as a vibrant novice begins her steady rise, the previous generation plays mentor. But this reading is romanticized, and rather incorrect. Epper actually stands for longevity, not retirement, the example that Bell might follow once all the bright lights disappear. And Bell is far from a babe in the woods. She’s damn good at what she does. Double Dare is more about camaraderie than competition. This surreal version of the Cinderella/Fairy Godmother dynamic has Bell looking not quite serious enough as she awaits her big break, while Epper knows that only hard physical work and shmoozing bring jobs. So while the perky party girl stares with wide-eyed wonder, Epper is shilling to keep her apprentice’s name in constant contention.

And then, as if by magic, a scout for Quentin Tarantino spots Bell. He is looking for someone to double Uma Thurman in the upcoming Kill Bill. As Bell attempts to impress with specialized tumbles and falls, Epper corrals the casting agent, explaining why this mostly untried talent would be perfect for a martial arts movie. Similar efforts with Tarantino pay off. In the DVD’s extended interviews, he makes it very clear that Bell had the part the minute she walked into the training center. No other stuntwomen had her spark and bravery. To show respect to Epper, the production team brings her in as a consultant, and a cameo.

This in itself is a breakthrough. As Double Dare makes clear, stuntwomen don’t become stunt coordinators, ever. Steven Spielberg, a longtime friend of the Epper family (several of them appeared in 1941), speaks in favor of giving a woman this chance, but when asked why he hasn’t hired one, he doesn’t have an answer.

And so, along with teaching Bell how to land a 35-foot fall and wield a weapon, Bell doesn’t pull punches when educating her about industry limits. Women are needed to crash the car or tumble down the stairs, but men dictate the terms of their trade; one revealing scene has Epper shouted down for even suggesting that the newly formed Stunt Awards show feature separate categories for men and women. Epper wants her protégé to enjoy the Kill Bill experience, her time on Xena, and store them away for safe keeping. They will come in handy when the phone stops ringing, or injury temporarily sidelines her (as it has Epper’s daughter, Eurlyne).

So will the large extended family that is the stunt community. Here, men are somewhat benevolent to their sisters in risk. A love letter to the people who make action movies awe-inspiring and fight scenes frantic, Double Dare emphasizes their cross-gender alliance. While the film shows snippets of Bell and Epper’s lives outside of the movie business (including a humanitarian act by Epper that is stunning in its selflessness), it’s plainly focused on what happens when the cameras roll. And glimpses behind the scenes only confirm what we already know — Bell and Epper are amazing women and their uncertain futures unfair.

It’s comforting to know that neither woman has stopped working since the film. During the DVD commentary track, Epper discusses being trapped in a space pod with Tom Cruise during the making of War of the Worlds, while Bell lets it slip that she stood in for Sharon Stone for Catwoman‘s fight scenes. Though men are still the one stunt performers who get executive credit, Double Dare suggests this can’t be the case forever, not with innovators like Bell coming up in the ranks. That is, if Epper doesn’t beat her to it.