Work / Film

New film by David Ryle and Gem Fletcher reveals the poetry of playing with fire

The stuntman as a cinematic role feels like it belongs to a simpler era of the film industry, before CGI made almost anything possible and when getting the right shot sometimes involved genuine peril. Thankfully, the focus on authenticity in film has in recent years ensured the continued demand for stunt work, while safety standards have at the same time risen a great deal. Yet there is still a sense of genuine danger around stunt work and it still takes a brave person to throw themselves into the path of a moving car or set themselves on fire.

This was partly what drew director David Ryle and art director Gem Fletcher to the subject of stunt work. “David has always loved the album art for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here so we have been hunting for an interesting fire project for a couple of years,” Gem tells It’s Nice That. “When we started looking into stunt work, we were both fascinated by the physical and psychological challenges demanded by the performer.” Since the role was created in the early 1900s, she continues, “stunt performers have risked their lives to create a seemingly impossible action, which only lasts on screen for a few seconds.”

In order to explore the subject first hand, the pair visited the European Stunt School (ESS), an institution founded by Jacob Sebastian Malm, based just outside Copenhagen. It was here that the short film and photography project, both entitled Fire School, started to come together as the pair began working with six performers, Jacob himself and a small crew from the ESS over the course of a few intense days. The film – not unlike fire itself – was unpredictable. “You may have thoughts or ideas about how you want to approach a project, but you never truly know what is possible until you are there,” says David.

“The preparation process was fascinating,” says Gem, who has worked with David several times over the past few years, most notably on Skihopp, a project that focused on ski jumpers and the psychology behind their endeavours. “It’s time and labour-intensive, not to mention expensive to ensure you have the safest equipment, chemicals and a full safety team. A full-body burn requires two hours prep for ten seconds of action.”

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School

The film that emerged from the visit is one that is “rich in contrast and contradiction”, as Gem puts it: “While intense and violent on first look, surreal and poetic moments punctuate the process. We focused on crafting an immersive and textural exploration. The tension between precise safety procedures and the unruly nature of fire, the cold gel and the overwhelming heat, the tender preparation process and the violent action.”

In the film, we see several performers undergoing a full-body burn. We watch the painstaking preparation, we hear Jacob explaining the process in minute and careful detail, we observe the impossibly still moment before the stunt performer is set alight, and then we see their almost dance-like movements before the flames are finally extinguished.

One of the fire performers, Julia, from Belgium, describes the experience: “As I was dressed in ice-cold protective clothing, my heart beat starting racing, and by the end of that process, I could only hear my heartbeat. I tried to focus but it was almost impossible due to the cold, your body starts to freeze. In the end, you just want to be on fire as it’s so, so cold.”

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School

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David Ryle: Fire School