Stunt co-ordinator Dani Biernet talks us through her scrapes on this year's Doctor Who.
[Published in Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #42 - The 2016 Yearbook (Panini UK Ltd, December 2015), pp. 28-31. Posted here by kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]
There can't be many jobs where you're sent abroad solely to be hung upside-down and then dropped on your head. But for stunt woman Dani Biernat that's exactly what happened on 25 February 2015.
In The Witch's Familiar – the second episode of Doctor Who's latest series – Dani was required to double Jenna Coleman as companion Clara, in a scene where the villainous Missy (Michella Gomez) has her dangling from a rock on the Dalek home planet, Skaro. The scene was recorded in Tenerife, in the extraordinary surroundings of the volcanic Mount Teine, the highest mountain in Spain. But, as Dani explains, it wasn't exactly a holiday.
“I was there for four days,” she says. “The rest of the crew were there a week or maybe two, but I travelled out, the next day we did the recce and set up for recording, the day after that we recorded it, and the next I travelled back home, job done.”
It might have been quick, but it wasn't exactly easy. “The high altitude where we were shooting can make you feel a bit sick, and when you're upside down your sinuses quickly fill up, which isn't a good look in close-ups. But Jenna went upside down a lot herself. She was brilliant – she's always been very good. It's only me for the wide shots.”
When Missy releases Clara and drops her on her head, there's no trick photography: Dani did the fall for real. She and stunt coordinator Gordon Seed, who supervised the shot, had imagined a smallish drop but, says Dani, “the director, Hettie Macdonald, knew it would look better if it was higher off the ground. It ended up being about four feet.
“Normally, if you're doing a drop you try to twist out of it to land on your shoulder, but as I was hanging there, ready to do it, I realised I wouldn't be able to do that. I was harnessed up with wiring down my legs and ropes around my feet so I couldn't twist, I just had to go for it. That's why it looks a bit awkward – I just hit the ground, 'Erk!' And then the director said, 'Can we do it again?'” Dani laughs. “She wanted a closer, different angle. So I looked at Gordon, and he looked at me and went, 'Sorry!' And it was worse the second time, because by then I knew how much it would hurt. And you know what? They used the first take!” She hoots with laughter. “I know, because of how I landed in that one. It hurt more than the second.”
Isn't there a danger of serious injury from being dropped from a height onto your head? Dani shrugs it off. “I had a bit of gravel rash all down my face. Jenna was really concerned. She said, 'I'm glad you did that for me – it looked painful.' I went, 'It was.'” Again, she laughs. “So yeah, a little stunt, a silly one, but awkward to do. But that's my job, isn't it?”
If Dani is doubling for Clara, does she copy Jenna's style of acting and movement. “Not on a drop like that because there's not enough time. But on some of the other ones we've done, I watch what she's doing and try to match it. Like when she dies...” But we'll come to that in a moment.
Dani has provided stunts for Doctor Who on and off since The Christmas Invasion in 2005. The coordinator on that story was her late husband, the renowned film and TV stuntman, Peter Brayham. “He wouldn't just get me in because I was his wife,” Dani explains. “You always get the right person for the particular job. I do cars and fights, but if you want a high fall you get another of the stunt girls. Lucy Allen will do 100 feet backwards.”
In fact, Brayham discouraged Dani from getting into stunts at all. “I met Pete when I was 21 and he was 54, in about 1990. I studied fashion in art, but I was always sporty. He took me on set or I'd be sat with him as he tried out a car, and I thought, 'I quite like this.' But when I told him I wanted to train in stunts, he said, 'No, it's too dangerous!'”
They quickly made a deal. “I wasn't a good swimmer at the time,” says Dani. “We used to go on holiday and he'd be out in the sea while I'd just sit there, watching. So we agreed that if I could conquer my fear of water, then I could become a stuntwoman. So in six months I passed my swimming test and I was rescue diving and scuba diving – and they became two of my special skills when I joined the register in 1996.”
The Joint Industry Stunt Committee – which Dani's late husband helped set up – publishes a register of stunt performers and coordinators to ensure the highest standard of performance and safety in the industry. “It's really strict,” she explains. “When I was going for it, you needed six specialist skills out of 36 in four different categories, and high standards in each. So in martial arts you'd need to be black belt, in scuba diving I think you've now got to be a dive master.”
But as one of only around 50 women on the register, Dani's skills were quickly in demand. “My first proper year working, 1997, I doubled for Natalie Portman in Star Wars [although The Phantom Menace was not released until 1999], for Posh Spice in Spiceworld and Michelle Yeoh in the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Yeah, that first year was phenomenal.” She's remained busy every since.
Dani has recently progressed to co-ordinating stunts performed by other people. Sometimes a job requires her co-ordinate and perform the stunts. In once such instance her contract read: 'Clara hangs out of the TARDIS.' “Jenna was brilliant doing that,” says Dani. “That was me doubling for her as well as co-ordinating. I did it, and then she wanted to have a go. We had her wired off, hanging upside-down about 20 feet over the TARDIS, in the car park at the BBC.”
Is it a problem letting the stars of the show perform their own stunts? “Well, if she gets badly injured or breaks a leg, yeah. Depending what it is, you'll get the double in but if the actor is willing to give it a go and you feel it's safe enough, then you let them. I mean, you talk to the director first, and the producers, who have to think about insurance and stuff.”
On 16 June, Dani was back on set for Face the Raven. Her eyes light up as she reads the contract. “'Clara falls to the floor dead.' Now, I don't get to read every page of the scripts, just the bits I'm doing. But that was exciting. We had a raven – a real raven – fly into her and she falls down onto the floor. I was co-ordinating it, but doubling for her, too. A raven is a heck of a big bird to come at you, and it comes really close because it's heading to its trainer, who was stood just behind me. And Jenna did it – she was really brave. She did most of that scene but I had to be there for some of the shots, dressed as her. So I watched her movements, how she fell to the floor, and tried to do the same. Sometimes we talk it through: me advising her on the stunt, her advising me on how to act it.”
Dani returned for 2 and 3 July to co-ordinate a scene on Heaven Sent in which 'The Doctor smashes the window with a stool then dives through it.' “We're setting it up,” she laughs, “and Peter Capaldi suddenly said, 'I'm going to do it like this!' – and jumps over the bed. That was great, so for the stunt we got the double, Leo Woodruff, to do the same and then dive through sugar glass [which breaks easily and is less likely to injure performers than real glass]. But it's in a castle, so it's a very narrow window. There's a ledge, and it's high up, and Leo – like Peter – is tall. That makes it all a bit more complicated. We had cameras inside and outside, so we get him going through the window and then falling through the air the other side without doing it at separate takes.”
On 21 and 22 July, Dani co-ordinated scenes on Heaven Sent, directed by Rachel Talalay, supervising Peter Capaldi as he punched a wall. In September, Dani was again on set to supervise scenes on the forthcoming Christmas special. “Crispin Layfield [the show's regular stunt coordinator] did most of it, I was just filling in – as was [fellow stuntwoman] Jo McLaren. I had to supervise a scene with Peter and Alex Kingston [River Song] where they fall backwards. I put crash-mats underneath them.”
“Then the director, Douglas [Mackinnon] wanted a shot of them landing in a forest – just their feet as they hit the ground. Now, to make that work you need a jump down of four or five feet, and it's something simple like that where things can go wrong. You can land awkwardly and sprain an ankle, which would not be good for the schedule, so I couldn't get Peter and Alex to do it. You think on your feet. I could double for Alex – in heels. I got the assistant director, Gareth Jones, to put on Peter's clothes. Gareth's great. I set up some scaffolding sort of like goal posts, and we hung ourselves from the cross bar for 15, 20 seconds – which is not as easy as it sounds – and then dropped down on cue. I don't think Gareth minded, getting to be Doctor Who.
“Yeah,” she shrugs, “You make it work, and then it's on to the next job...”