Dean Bennett (1963-) is a bit of a legend in South Australia as he was a young film-maker who inspired many other young film-makers through his impressive award-winning Super 8 short films which played local festivals in the late 1970s. His ingenuity in creating exciting stunts and fiery special effects on the pocket money he received from his parents was simply incredible. He also inspired many other teenagers to work with him on his productions. When he showed his short film Refugees From Space (1979) to director David Hemmings, Bennett gained access to the set of The Survivor (1981) and this led to him doing a stunt course which would begin a career in the South Australian film industry which has continued for forty years. A die-hard Dr Who fan and motor-cyclist, Bennett still dabbles at home with film-making and produced the amusing short film The Wishing Machine (2018) for well under a thousand dollars. Here he talks about his early film-making days, sitting on the footpath with Carrie Fisher during the making of The Time Guardian and other tales.
Do you remember the moment as a child when you became obsessed with movies? Was it a particular movie of tv show?
I think the first time I became obsessed with film and tv was from watching Dr Who at a very early age. Probably about the age of 5. But my interest in stunts, according to my Mum, was about 8. She says that while watching an episode of the Adam West Batman series, Mr Freeze opened up the back door of a van, and froze the road with a freeze gun. A policeman on a bike goes skidding down the road. My Mum says I turned to her and asked “How did they do that?” And my Mum said they used a stunt man. So that must have planted the seed.
You won awards for your short films as a teenager… And there was something once upon a time dubbed Dover Studio…. What can you tell me about that period in your life?
It all started when Mum and Dad bought my brother and me a super 8mm film camera and projector. My brother liked the projector, and I took to the camera. This was about 1975 and in my last year at Seaview Downs Primary School. So, I got a couple of friends together and I made The Things of Seaview Downs in about two days. The following year, at my first year of high school (Dover Gardens High School) my Drama school teacher saw the film and suggested that I enter it into the Channel 10 Young Filmmakers Awards. It won first prize. I then made two more films over two years, Plans of Death and The Lone Survivor. They both won second prize. Then in 1979, I was watching a kid’s show on channel 10 called Crackerjack and they were interviewing Greg Rowe (1964-) (who was Storm Boy 1976). He had just completed Blue Fin (1978) and he said he would not mind working on a sci-fi film. I then, at the age of 16, had the crazy idea of sending him a letter, asking if he would like to appear in my next film. (I think I offered him my $6.00 pocket money). About two weeks later I got a reply from him saying he would love to be in the film Refugees From Space (1979 short).
It won first prize. And thanks to Greg’s popularity at the time, my little film and me appeared in TV Week, The Sunday Mail, New Idea, Woman’s Day and many more. I now had a 20-minute film that I was proud of, and could show a few people in the film industry. Little did I know that British actor David Hemmings (1941-2003 heart attack) would see it.
You did work experience on The Survivor (1981) which was directed by actor David Hemmings. You were obviously there for the giant explosions used for the plane crash sequence… Did you meet Hemmings? The film seemed to be your introduction into the stunt industry…
In 1980 it was decided that a film based on a novel called The Survivor (1981) was going to be made not far from where I lived at Pasadena. I read in the paper that the pyro effects were going to be done by Chris Murray (Mad Max 1). A full-size mock-up of a jumbo plane crash had been built at Pasadena, and I knew that some-how I had to be a part of this. So, I rocked up to the set and asked if I could see Chris. I told him that I was a fan and that I had a film that I would like to show him. He very kindly said, we are filming some inside shots at the SA Film Corp tomorrow, so bring down your projector and I will have a look in my lunch break. Next day, I showed him the film and it just blew him away. He could not believe the explosions that I did in the war scene, and how I achieved them with pocket money. He was also impressed with how I asked Greg Rowe to be in the film. Chris knew Greg from doing effects on Blue Fin. He then got up and said wait here, and left the room. He came back with David Hemmings, and said I think you should see this. After the film David said, Hmmm, very interesting. Then Chris asked him if I could be allowed to come onto his closed set for the next 7 weeks, and David shook my hand and said welcome.
The next day on the set Chris introduced me to the film’s stunt coordinator Dennis Hunt and suggested that I bring my projector and film onto the set. All the stunt performers on the film were also doubling for security guards and stayed on set in a caravan, all night to stop people from pinching parts of the plane. One night, I showed the stunt crew Refugees From Space and my life changed. They all spent the next 30 minutes asking how I did this stunt and that stunt. They all welcomed me with open arms and I spent a very enjoyable 7 weeks on the set. I was also allowed to run around with my super 8mm camera and shoot behind the scenes. (this footage has now been included on the special features of The Survivor Blu-ray). After the film was finished, I did some extra work on Gallipoli (1981) and Sara Dane (1982 tv miniseries). I then got a phone call from The Survivor’s stunt coordinator Dennis Hunt, asking if I wanted to be part of a stunt course he was running, in the Adelaide Hills. I said yes, and passed the course and became a stunt performer. So, a very big thanks to Greg Rowe, Chris Murray and Dennis Hunt for changing my life for the next 40 years.
You appear to have been the ballsiest young filmmaker of the period. I remember one of your short films with a train stunt which was such a close call it reminded me of something done by Buster Keaton… You obviously weren’t averse to taking risks…
Just after The Survivor, I made a little film called Train Mania. For some reason a lot of people remember it to this day. One of the effects was what appeared to be two guys carrying a plank of wood across the railway tracks and almost getting hit by a train by inches. But the trick was done very safely. I noticed that the passenger trains looked the same from the front and back. So, me and a friend stood next to the railway with a plank of wood and when the train went past, we both walked backwards across the tracks with the train going away from us. But when the film was reversed, it looked like the train almost hit us. I entered this in the 1981 young film-makers awards, and the films were shown at the Academy Cinemas. Will never forget the gasp from the audience.
You worked on the troubled shoot of The Time Guardian (1987). I understand there was a lot of night shooting to make up for limited time and it was stressful for the crew… Is that true? And you have a Carrie Fisher story…
In 1987, I was asked by stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell if I would like to work on The Time Guardian on and off over 6 weeks. Being a big sci-fi fan, how could I say no. At the time I was also working on a TV show called Pals (1987 tv series), about a stunt man on the run with his kid. Looking back, I don’t know how I did both. As luck would have it, most of Pals was day shoots, and Guardian, night shoots. I was reunited on Time Guardian with effects man Chris Murray, who 8 years before got me onto the set of The Survivor. Except this time, he got to blow me up a few times. Then a big coincidence happened. Who should rock up on set as an extra but Greg Rowe (Storm Boy). He told me that after Blue Fin, he had managed some work on Skyways (1979 tv series), Freedom (1982), and Young Ramsay (1980 tv series), and was looking for some extra money to move to Canada. One BIG memory that I will never forget, involved Carrie Fisher.
We were filming in these big sheds down at Port Adelaide. These were filled with big sets, that represented the futuristic city. Most of the morning Chris had been setting off some big explosions and the shed had become very smoky and hard to breathe. So, I asked Carrie if she wanted to go outside for some fresh air. We sat down in the gutter, in full futuristic costumes and dirt on our faces. I asked her what she had seen of SA, and she was asking me about how I got into stunt work. I then noticed a long-haired hippy looking guy, with a Star Wars t-shirt, heading our way. He walks up to us and looks down and asks if we know where Lipson St is? I give him directions. He then asks what we are doing and why we are dressed like that? I tell him we are making a sci-fi film in that big shed. He says: Who’s in it? And Carrie Fisher in a deep voice says: Carrie Fisher. He says: Wow, I love her. Can I go in and meet her? And Carrie says: NO, it’s a closed set. He says: Bummer. He then thanks me for the directions and walks off. Well, Carrie and me had one of those laughing attacks that hurts, and lasted a long time. I sometimes look back and feel sorry for the guy who met his idol, but never knew that he met her. I had only been in the film industry for 7 years, but that day, it did not matter if I never got another job. But then over the next few weeks I started running around with Carrie in a big Adelaide quarry, with ray gun in hand. One of the highlights of my stunt career.
You worked on a few of director Craig Lahiff’s (1947-2013) movies. He sounds like a complex man from several reports… What was it like working with him?
I first met Craig on a film called Fever (1989). A stunt coordinator called Vic Wilson and me did a big explosion for the start of the film at the Wingfield dump. One of the smelliest location lunch-breaks I have ever had on a film set. The next film I got to work on with Craig was Ebbtide (1994) with Harry Hamlin (1951-). I was doing some stunt work for the film and one day Craig came over to me and asked if I still did a bit of pyro on the side. I said yes. He said that at the start of the film he needs a car to go over a cliff at Hallett Cove, then explode, but the budget does not allow it, and do I have any ideas? The next day he came round my house at Dover Gardens and took me to the location. We looked over the cliff and at the bottom was an old car that someone had left as rubbish. We then both came up with the idea of showing the broken barrier at the top of the cliff and the camera pans down, and I explode the car on cue. A few days later me and my brother spent all day, spray-painting the rusted-out car silver, so it matched the car that the actor was driving. A shot that was going to cost production $5000, now only cost $800. This is one of the only times that I have been taken to a location, by the Director, instead of someone from a department of a department, and not achieving anything. I learnt that day that Craig loved film-making, and if he had an idea in his head, and someone higher up, said it could not be done, he was willing to find another way of doing it. I am so proud that Craig gave me two credits at the end of the film. Stunts and Explosive Special Effects. My last work with Craig was on a film called Heaven’s Burning (1997). I was doing some stunt work for a bank robbery scene, and had to have my hair dyed to match the actor. I then went into costume and they shoved a full-faced balaclava on me. What a waste of money and time, dying my hair. Craig came over to me and I showed him. He just nodded his head and laughed. Dean, he said, look what happens when the budget gets bigger. One department not talking to the other. I, to this day, believe that Craig loved the struggle of a low budget, because he had a lot of control over his vision. RIP Craig. And a big thanks for using South Australian stunt performers in your early films.
I heard you broke a rib when Russell Crowe punched you on the set of Hammers Over the Anvil (1993). Any memories?
Over the 40 years of stunting, you are going to have a few injuries, no matter how careful you are. A film set is the same as any other work-place. No one wants an accident, because the paper-work can go on forever. This is why every stunt starts about 3 to 6 weeks before. Rehearsals are very important. It is very important for the costume department. If you are doing a fight scene, then weeks before you have to have meetings so that they can allow room for elbow pads, back pads and knee pads. But sometimes, a little mistake in measurements can result in injury. I was doing a fight scene with Russell Crowe (1964-) for the film Hammers Over the Anvil. Two guys hold him back, by his arms, and I come running up to him and he kicks me in the stomach, and I go flying back, onto this wooden floor, in a hall in Hahndorf. My costume was too small and all my padding was showing. It had to be taken off. I came running at Russell a bit faster, and Russell, kicked a bit bigger, and crack. Rib cracked. Now, I must stress that this was no fault of Russell, and I take all the blame. Should have toned it down, with no padding, but it was the end of a long night. But it is not often that an actor comes up to you and says: I think that was fantastic, and are you ok. Charlotte Rampling (1946-) then gave me a big hug. I don’t get star struck on a film set, but that really meant a lot.
You died well in cult movie Zone 39 (1996) … I also understand you chose that movie over working on Love Serenade (1996) where a stuntman actually got killed. Do you remember your decision?
Hard to imagine that back in the 80s and 90s sometimes you get offered two films at once. And you have to make a decision. This happened when I had a call to do some safety, with an air bag, for a stunt fall, for a movie called Love Serenade (1996). Or go to Woomera and get shot by Peter Phelps (1960-) on a sci-fi called Zone 39? Being a big sci-fi fan, I picked Zone. Plus, I was asked by a stunt coordinator legend. Archie Roberts. Some of his credits included Homicide, Division 4, Number 96 (yes, there was stunts in No 96, think the big bomb episode). So, I make my way to Adelaide airport, and I get on this larger than I thought plane. I am the only one on it. I fly to Woomera, and I get off, and no one. The plane leaves, and I sit in this shelter, in the middle of nowhere, just hoping that someone is going to pick me up. Eventually, a car comes along, with a woman from production and takes me to the hotel. The next day, I get wired up by an effects guy called Aron, and have my guts (fake) blown out from a future car driven by Peter Phelps. Looking back, I was so lucky to be doing stunt work in the 80s and 90s because we were the only ones in shot, a lot of the time. At the start of the 2000, when big Hollywood productions came to Australia, stunt schools popped up everywhere in Queensland. And over the years a few have worked in SA and I ask them what they have worked on. One was very proud to show me himself, on his phone, 28 persons in the background, getting punched, in a crowd of 100 stunt performers. I showed him me getting shot, in Zone 39. Told him I had a plane, by myself. He walked off saying: yeah right. Now I hope that does not sound like ego, but South Australia has produced some of the film industry’s best stunt coordinators.
Glenn Boswell (Mortal Engines 2018) Richard Boue (Star Wars 2 and 3), Zev Elefheriou, (The Water Diviner 2014). Anyway, after filming finished on Zone 39, I got to drive back to Adelaide with the film’s stunt coordinator Archie. He told me that doing the car chases for Division 4 and Homicide, was some of the most fun ever. He said that they never got permission to film any of them. If the gangsters almost got hit by a tram, in a car, they would just drive over the level crossings, scaring the hell out of the tram drivers. It took about 5 hours to drive back to Adelaide, and I just wish I had recorded Archie’s Crawford (Productions) stunt jobs. RIP. I then got back to Adelaide only to find out that a stunt death had happened on Love Serenade. But that is another stunt coordinator’s story.
You seem to be a pyrotechnics man at heart going back to the beginning of your career as a teenager…. Working in the stunt industry seems to be a pyromaniac’s dream come true…
I think my interest in pyro started from running home from school, to watch Lost in Space (1960s tv series). And I am so lucky to have grown up in an age, in Australia, that I could go to the local corner shop and buy fireworks, at the age of 11. No licence required. What fun those nights were. But then, one night, after fireworks were banned, I filled up a balloon with gas, from my parents’ BBQ gas cylinder. It, when ignited, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. So, I wrote a whole film about an army vs aliens, with a big war scene, with lots of explosions. That became Refugees From Space. True story. In the 90s a Japanese tv show came to Adelaide, called Ultraman. Some of the scenes, needed fire balls, on the sets, at the SA film corp. This was knocked back by safety consultants. So, I came in with my balloons full of gas, and kaboom. The beauty of this is there is no fire to be put out, after the explosion. On one day, we heard that Channel 9 was coming down to do a news story on Ultraman, and they would like to see one of these balloon explosions. I very quickly went to the shops and got all black balloons. It looked a lot better on the news story, than a bunch of pink, yellow, orange, balloons sitting around.
And is there a greatest stunt man of all time? Who do you admire?
Greatest stunt man? Buster Keaton (1895-1966 throat cancer). Incredible. But, I also have to say, that I admire a stunt group called HAVOC. This group of British stunt performers mainly worked for the BBC in the 60s and 70s. But their work on Dr Who, for very little money, is amazing. I was very inspired by their work, involving an army called UNIT. Mainly run by Terry Walsh (1939-2002), Tip Tipping (1958-1993 parachute failed during a stunt) and Stuart Fell (no info).