Oh yes, the long Chinese New Year weekend is upon us! That means it’s the perfect time to chill and catch up on the tons of movies and TV shows. For your consideration: Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix movie, The Laundromat.
Based on the 2016’s Panama Papers scandal, the tax-dodging saga stars Meryl Streep — making her debut on the streamer! — as a housewife who begins investigating a fake insurance policy following a ferry accident which killed scores of people, including her husband (James Cromwell).
That harrowing sequence, which involves a tour boat — packed with mostly elderly folks — capsizing, lasted merely 35 seconds on screen, long enough for the viewer to see Streep floating beneath the overturned ship, surrounded by pandemonium as passengers struggle to reach the surface for air.
To pull off this seemingly fleeting mishap was no walk in the park, though. Like any other stunt, it’s a delicate endeavour that required meticulous planning and expert supervision. Speaking with 8days.sg from LA, stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell tells us how he prepped the 70-year-old Oscar-feted actress for the set-piece.
On working on The Laundromat…
The origins of The Laundromat underwater stunt could be traced back to Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, the Denzel Washington-starring drama about a junkie pilot. “On that movie, we rolled over a full-sized plane with people onboard on a gimbal and it was a similar stunt we had to do on The Laundromat,” says Croughwell, a four-decade veteran who got his big break as Michael J Fox’s double in Back to the Future.
There was another reason Croughwell was the go-to guy: he knows his way around water. “I enjoy being in the water, on the water,” says Croughwell, who once spent a year in Taiwan working on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Not only did Croughwell, a certified diver himself, taught Lee a thing or two about the art of submergence, but he also taught actor Suraj Sharma to swim. “Life of Pi was one of the most rewarding films I’ve worked on,” he adds.
On shooting the capsizing sequence…
The sequence required two days shoot at the diving tank. Both days involved testing the rig and the stunt performers and production crew thoroughly familarising themselves with the rollover mechanisms, and safety gear and protocols. Croughwell says, “Once everybody is satisfied that it’s safe and there’s nothing that we perceive can potentially go wrong, we got everyone dressed and ready to shoot the scene.”
For the stunt, besides the doubles for the 37 elderly actors (they were 80 years old and up) playing the doomed vessel’s passengers, Croughwell also had a safety team of 14 watermen, divers and retired Navy Seals to monitor the situation. “It only took us eight hours to shoot that entire scene, which is unheard of,” Croughwell says. “Steven Soderbergh has got to be one of the most prepared directors I have ever worked with.”
A normal filming day is 12 hours, and “most people will take that full 12 hours,” Croughwell explains. But not Soderbergh. “His background as an editor, director of photography and cameraman really came into play when he approached the scene. He knew exactly what he wanted to do because he could see the shots in his head. With Steven Soderbergh, nobody worked more than eight hours a day.”
On prepping Meryl Streep…
"Water is an environment that a lot of people are not comfortable with,” says Croughwell, whose three children are also in the family business (daughter Callie happened to be Streep’s double in The Laundromat).
“I let production know that I needed to get Meryl’s take on her gag and comfort with water scenes, and that we would need to get her in the tank at Body Glove,” says Croughwell. “Body Glove is the original inventor and developer of the wet suit. They are also good friends of mine and have a dive facility in Redondo Beach that we use regularly.”
On the day of the rehearsal, Croughwell recalls, “We had two dive masters, two water safety swimmers, my daughter, Callie, who was her double, and myself waiting for her to arrive.” And The wait was nerve-wracking.
“Because you don’t know how that person, especially if you haven’t had a conversation with them, is going to react in the water,” he says. The second Streep arrived, Croughwell wanted her to put on a wetsuit but she had other things on her mind. “She said, ‘As a matter of fact, what I have on right now is what I’ll be wearing in the film.’ You just gotta love someone like her.
“She showed up on set 100 per cent ready to go in the clothes she knew could potentially create problems. I asked, ‘Is there anything else you need?’ ‘No, let’s get in there and get going.’ And we all jumped into the water. We went through the safety protocols with regards to her breathing air tanks. We were done with her within 30 minutes. She was absolutely amazing. She clearly had no issues with water whatsoever.”
Did Streep having worked on the 1994 rafting thriller The River Wild help? “I would imagine that she learnt a lot from that movie,” says Croughwell. “I don’t think that in itself prepare someone to do water works if they were not comfortable in that environment. I think she has a longer history in and around water. Because she has absolutely no problem taking care of herself in that environment.”
On keeping stunts safe …
“You go into this line of work understanding that there is a good possibility of getting hurt or killed,” says Croughwell who’s “broken a few bones” in the line of duty. (He broke his wrist on Back to the Future in the ‘Peeping Tom’ scene where Marty McFly gets hit by a car after pushing his father out of its way.) “You don’t want to get killed. You do everything you can to prevent that.”
“The stunt community is a kind of an odd lot. They approach stunts with the enthusiasm of a daredevil but the calculations of an engineer,” says Croughwell, who studied engineering before he found his calling in stunt work. “These days, stuntmen has become more like engineers. We design stunts that we do, we understand the physics of what we do and the limitations of what we and the people around us can and cannot do.
“Our process is very calculated. We have years and years and years of experience not only from our selves but people who have come before us and the stunt community shares that information freely. It’s very competitive but at the same time, everyone is extremely close to everyone else. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone has everyone’s back because they know what they have to gone through. We are very supportive of one another.”
The Laundromat is on Netflix; Call of the Wild opens in cinemas Feb 20.
Photos: Claudette Barius/Netflix (main), Charlie Croughwell, Netflix, UIP