A Stunt Woman in Germany
“Bruises are par for the course.”
Falling down, lowering yourself on a rope from a great height or staging a moped accident – for Melanie Benna, this is all part of her everyday working life. The native Berliner works as a stunt woman. How does she assert herself in this male domain?
Ms. Benna, stunt woman is not exactly a typical job for a woman neither an occupation that requires training. So, of course, I have to ask the question of how you became one?
It was actually by accident. I had studied Islamic and Political Science, but there were limits to the amount of joy in life that would bring me. Boredom, for me, means absolute death. I was on the brink of a burnout, when a friend invited me to a stunt workshop in Denmark. It turned out to be great! Fabulous people and a lot of fun. A few months later, I received my first enquiry as to whether I could do a scene lowering myself on a rope down from a great height. As I had been doing extreme sports for years, including height disciplines, that was no problem for me. Further jobs followed. Back then, in 2011, I was in my mid-twenties. I have been doing the job full-time since 2013.
Melanie Benna, born in Berlin in 1983, has been working full-time as a stuntwoman since 2013. | Photo (detail): Melanie Benna You just talked about “lowering yourself down on a rope”. What are all the things you have to be capable of to work as a stuntwoman?
You have to be athletic, aware of your abilities, and flexible with regard to your situation. In addition, a strong awareness of potential dangers is very important. The constant urge to further your training is also essential. I attend at least two major training courses to enhance my skills each year; in 2017, I even took part in five. I myself am a kind of all-rounder, but have various focuses, such working on height stunts, including “rigging”, i.e. the use of rope techniques. However, as I said, that is something I had been into long before I started doing stunts. At some point I realised that I was afraid of heights. I thought it was really quite weird and so I decided to try and do something about it. I increased the heights I was prepared to go to and started working with ropes – which rope would take my weight or which rope system was the best.
You try out what scares you?
Yes, you could put it like that. Anything that causes me to react in a strange way, such as an inexplicable fear with increased heart rate, arouses my interest. There are often unrealistic reasons behind a fear. I come to terms with the situation and, in doing so, I develop into a kind of professional specialist in the respective field. That is why I also focus on working with fire and working underwater.
Feuerspucken für den Dreh | Foto (Ausschnitt): Melanie Benna How often do you work out?
I do sport for at least an hour every day, a mixture of stretch exercises and power training. In addition, kickboxing, stick fighting, fall arrest training, direct stunt training in the acrobatics or trampoline hall, driving training in a car or on a motorcycle. Now and then I get together with others to try out new things, such as rope systems, a fire gel or something similar.
Do you also train against the onset of old age, you have to be pretty fit for this job?
I have only really injured myself once and that was during training. Bruises are par for the course, they are normal. But in the meantime, I have started to reject certain stunts, they can be done by twenty-year-olds. In addition, I don’t just work in front of the camera as a stunt woman, but also behind it – as a stunt coordinator or assistant coordinator. I think it's exciting to create a stunt. You have to coordinate with all departments to develop the perfect version of the stunt for the director. I feel very much at home in the field of team building and for me making films is the perfect example of teamwork, simply great. In addition, if a woman is to make it in this profession and be able to earn a living from it, she has to have a wide range of skills.
Jumping over a car | Photo (detail): Melanie Benna Only a fifth or sixth of all stunt people are women. Why is that?
There are many reasons for this – but mainly because there are fewer scenes for actresses who need a stand-in. How often does a woman have a major role in a movie? In Germany not very often at all. This is not so very different, either, on the international level. When a stand-in has to take the place of a female performer, they actually do so often because their role requires them to act clumsily or be accident-prone. Body stunts are therefore also part of my repertoire, anything connected with falling: falling down a flight of stairs wearing high-heeled shoes, slipping on ice or other perilous surfaces, getting hit by a car, being beaten. Strong, fighting women, however, are much less common. Standing-in for women is often harder than for men, because you cannot wear any protective padding under a skirt or a dress. The risk of injury is greater.
Anything connected with falling: body stunts are part of her repertoire. | Photo (detail): Melanie Benna You have been doing the job for many years. What were your favourite stunts?
I once shot a moped accident with Dany Levi for the film Die Welt der Wunderlichs (i.e.,The World of the Wunderlichs), which was supposed to be funny. I find stunts in comedy super, because you do not take yourself so seriously and the final result is incredibly good. That's why, in my opinion, the best stunt scenes are to be found in comedies. In addition, I love it when you create something totally wacky with the team. It does not always have to be action-packed. For the diving scenes in the film “A Cure for Wellness” we trained older extras to hold their breath for over a minute. In the scene they were then all submerged underwater at the same time with the aid of a rope system so that they would stand upright in the water. We wanted to create the effect of them breathing in special tanks in this water. It was a great challenge and a lot of fun.
Fighting under water | Photo (detail): Melanie Benna You have to be a bit of a daredevil then to do the job, right?
I'm not a daredevil, I'm a very positive and progressive person. I like to develop new things, I like working in a team. These are without a doubt good qualities for this profession. When you get a job, expertise is only half the battle, the rest is all about inventiveness, team competence and flexibility. You have to be able to assess yourself well, and not overestimate yourself, and be able to discuss things sensibly with the director and the team. If you manage to combine these qualities well, then you will be really good at the job. Daredevils are exactly what we do not need, they put themselves in danger and everyone else on the set.
Melanie ist lowering herself on a rope down from a great height. | Photo (detail): Melanie Benna