The masochists behind Jackass have been putting their bodies through absolute hell for more than 20 years. While they were a bunch of bright-eyed degenerates when their show debuted on MTV, the crew has now solidly entered middle age (Johnny Knoxville is 50 years old, Steve-O is 47, and Wee Man is 48). But in Jackass Forever, the fourth(ish) installment in their film franchise, they’re still hurtling into harm’s way as recklessly as ever. Knoxville let a bull barrel into him for the umpteenth time, leaving him with a broken wrist, a broken rib, a concussion, and a brain hemorrhage. Steve-O took a blow to the shins from a harebrained contraption they call the “skateboard guillotine.” Ehren McGhehey (better known as “Danger Ehren”) subjected his genitals to hits from an MMA heavyweight, an Olympic softball pitcher, and a dude on a pogo stick.
Though you wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, there was someone on set trying to keep these guys from fully dying: Charlie Grisham, the production’s stunt coordinator. After working as a stuntman for more than two decades—appearing in dozens of movies, from Minority Report to Twilight to The Dark Knight Rises—he transitioned from performing stunts to orchestrating them. On a typical set, it’s his job to keep actors and stunt performers from getting hurt. But on Jackass Forever, he faced the difficult task of trying to make everything Knoxville and his buddies did safer without actually making it safe—“letting them thump themselves,” as he put it to me, but not “maim themselves.” He was on-site almost every day, making last-minute tweaks to particularly gnarly stunts, trying to talk director Jeff Tremaine out of accidentally committing manslaughter, and—when he wasn’t on the verge of having a panic attack—laughing his ass off.
Grisham, who’s been working with the Jackass crew since they brought him onboard for Jackass 3D in 2010, has a thorny line to toe. If he doesn’t go far enough in protecting these guys from themselves, he could literally have blood on his hands. But if he takes too much of an edge off their stunts, he could spoil the whole enterprise: Jackass isn’t really Jackass if no one gets hurt.
I called up Grisham to find out how he strikes that balance, and to hear what it was like to witness the wildest scenes in Jackass Forever firsthand. As he tells it, what happened on set was even more dangerous—and often, more debilitating—than it looks on film.
VICE: What do you do on a day-to-day basis during production?
Charlie Grisham: I’m there for 90 percent of everything they shoot. I try to run the other way when the penises come out. But even if it’s not really a stunt-y scene, I’m there with eyes out. These guys are like family to me, so I'm doing everything I can to not let my little brother or big brother get hurt. But it’s a very fine line. If I make it extra safe, we might as well not have even shot it, because it’ll go right to the cutting room floor. There are going to be some injuries, but we have to keep them minimal. That’s where it gets very tricky for me.
Can you flat-out reject stunts the Jackass folks want to do that you think are too dangerous?
Absolutely. I’ve done it before. But it’s very, very, very rare that I veto anything. I grew up a Jackass fan, and I’ve done four movies with Knoxville, so I understand 100 percent what we're trying to do. When they come to me and say, “We want to do this,” I don't say no. I just think of a way to do it [more safely]—like, “What if we scooted it over five feet and he landed on a trashcan instead of the concrete?” If I’m gonna say no, I have another option in my head. It’s their idea, and it’s still insanely crazy. It’s just tweaked to the right or left a little.
“Between drowning and hitting the edge of a ramp at 35 to 40 miles an hour—you’re talking about ripping your face off, possibly.”
Were there any stunts that they wanted to do for Jackass Forever that you axed because they were too risky?
No. But there were a ton of them that in my head I was like, Oh, no. How are we going to do this? This is insanity. Unfortunately, I think it’s only in the credits, but we had this waterski-jetpack deal. It was so dangerous—so dangerous. You’re on this giant floating ramp with a jetpack on your back, waterskiing. You’re thinking, like, What could go wrong? But between drowning and hitting the edge of a ramp at 35 to 40 miles an hour—you’re talking about ripping your face off, possibly.
As a professional stunt guy, I was considered a ground-pounder, meaning that when stuff got a little bit gnarly or really physical, I would get called. I consider myself pretty tough. But at the end of the day, they’re doing stuff that there’s no way you could pay me to do.
What were some other particularly dangerous stunts they pulled, and how did you try to make them as safe as you could?
The bulls scare me so bad. This one in particular in Jackass Forever, that's the biggest bull I’ve ever seen. I mean, that's a big-time, professional rodeo bull. It was insane. I’m watching Knoxville, and I’m like, We know he’s going to get knocked up in the air. Let’s soften the ground as much as possible and dig the dirt up in the arena. You're talking about an inch more dirt to land in, which isn’t really much. But let’s try to make it as soft as possible. Let's have the ambulance as close as possible. Let’s make sure the driver knows exactly where he's going. Let’s maybe have a police escort to escort him there. If we need to airlift him out of there, where are we going to land the helicopter?
“As gnarly as it looked on film, the film didn't even do it justice. I thought he might have been dead.”
You just take the worst-case scenario and start planning from there, backwards, and do everything you can. You go to our cowboy and our bull wrangler and you say, “How many rodeo clowns do you recommend to keep Knoxville safe?” And if he says three, then I go, “Great—we'll have five.” Because if he gets knocked out, which obviously he did, he's helpless in there with that bull. So let’s have as many rodeo clowns as possible. Then we’ve got cameras there. Those bulls can hop that fence if they really want to—they're that athletic. The camera guys want to push and push and push, and they want to get closer and closer to get the shot. Now I’ve got to worry about Knoxville and I’ve got to worry about the crew. It's just a lot going on.
That was one of the scariest days I think I’ve ever had. That hit he took was insane. As gnarly as it looked on film, the film didn't even do it justice. I thought he might have been dead. I was the first one to him, and I wanted to grab him because he was only about two or three feet from the fence. At the same time, I know the whole deal is: Don't move him. I saw how he landed, and I thought there was an easy chance he broke his neck. So now I can't move him, and I’m worried about the bull. It looked at us a couple times; it wanted more. Their mentality is that they literally want to kill everybody there. Not hurt them. Not just flick ’em. They want to kill everybody there. That bull thing, it’s stuck in my head forever.
Was there anything else they filmed that stood out to you as being particularly gnarly?
With live animals, it’s literally a flip of the coin. And you’ve got a bear there on Ehren’s crotch. As funny as it is, if that bear starts to maul him, with one swipe he can take your head off.
“The more concussions you get, the easier it is to concuss you. I feel like you could just pop [Knoxville] in the back of the head with your hand and he’s gonna be concussed.”
Another stunt that was super dangerous—and you’d never realize it from seeing it—is when they’re marching [with instruments] and they jump on that treadmill. That treadmill was flying. I was trying to figure out how they could fall so that it doesn't whip them to their heads. And I came to find out that no matter how you fell on that, you're getting whipped to your head. It’s a major concussion [risk]. And five or six of them were doing it in a row. Then you’ve got to worry about all these instruments getting flung at 20 to 25 miles an hour. And they were getting shot back into a metal wall. Steve-O landed on his head and neck. Knoxville got it on his head. Knoxville was a little concussed, just because the more concussions you get, the easier it is to concuss you. I feel like you could just pop him in the back of the head with your hand and he’s gonna be concussed.
We had an FSO [Fire Safety Officer] with us that day. The FSO is very important on a movie set. He can shut down the whole production really quick. He was used to normal movie sets where you don’t put a scratch on an actor. Well, these guys all got up there and just got hammered. And the FSO was just yelling at me like, “What are you doing?” It was frustrating for me because I was looking around like, I thought that went pretty well! I get it: Steve-O’s got a neck brace on. That’s not good. But nobody split their head open and got 10 or 15 stitches. Nobody’s broken their neck. Everyone's moving their limbs. Yeah, a couple of them are a little ding-y. But for what that was, I thought it went pretty well.
Did anyone get hurt especially badly on set—other than Knoxville, who obviously got clobbered by that bull?
It’s the medium-to-small stunts that don’t look like anything on camera where someone can get seriously hurt. We were out in an equestrian center, and we had a horse pulling Steve-O, who was on skis with a ski rope. We had built this ramp; it was only like three feet high, maybe four feet high at the most. He was going to water ski through the dirt getting pulled by a horse, go up the ramp, and at the end of the ramp, we had those giant blue barrels all laid on their side, about 30 of them, and he was going to ski the whole barrel deal. It was going to be really funny. We’re in the softest dirt you could ever imagine. He’s only three or four feet in the air. And Steve-O is so athletic. He’s like a cat. He’s one of the guys that I don’t worry about too much.
Then, in the blink of an eye, he was off just a little bit to the side of the ramp, and there was that point where he either has to abort or go for it. I think he thought he could still make it. He crashed and slid on his ribs the whole way up the wooden ramp, and then he came off. He reached back trying to absorb some of the impact, missed the barrels completely, hit the ground, and he dislocated his shoulder. So on a silly gag like that, in the blink of an eye, his ribcage is all bruised up and his shoulder is dislocated, and he's going in for surgery in two days. It was just like, What happened?
Do the Jackass guys push back on you when you try to tweak stunts to make them safer?
Knoxville and Tremaine are the only two who do that with me. Tremaine just wants to make the greatest movie ever. It's tough to rein him in. I’m going, “Hey, I don't want to send Knoxville more than 60, 70 feet in the air.” And Tremaine is like, “Let's just do 100. What's another 25 feet?” And I'm like, “You don’t understand. Hitting water at that height, it’s like concrete.” When we fired Knoxville out of the cannon, they’re like, “If we're gonna do it, let’s go big. Let's not do it twice.” So I always take that into consideration. I sometimes go a hair bigger than I would like to the first time, just knowing that the more times you do it, [the riskier it gets].
Knoxville is so loyal to his fans. He will not wear pads. There are certain gags where nobody would ever possibly know [he was wearing protective gear], and it's just taking a little edge off of [the stunt]. But he refuses to do it. When he got hit by that bull, I insisted that he wear a jockey vest underneath his tuxedo. If that bull hits you in the ribs, it can damage your vital organs. Even our bull wrangler told him he should wear a jacket. I can only argue with Knoxville so much, and then he just gives me this certain look, and he’s like: “I'm not wearing the jacket.” When he looks at me like that and says it like that, there's nothing I can do. It’s rolling the dice, and I feel like shit about it. This could kill him. But it is what it is. The producers know, the studio knows, everyone knows. As a production, as a studio, we’re all on board.
It seems like your job is to walk a fine line between keeping the Jackass folks safe and letting them do the funniest shit they can think of, which involves putting themselves in serious danger. How hard is it to tread that line?
I don’t even know how to describe where that line is in words. I have it in my head. There are stunt coordinators out there that are probably way better than me, but I don’t think they would do OK on this film. They can't wrap their head around the idea of, Let’s hurt this guy, but not hurt him too bad. Where that line is—I don't even know how to describe it. Working with them for all these years, I think it’s just come with experience.
It’s been 10 years since these guys made a Jackass movie. How much more risk are they taking on now, given the fact that they're older and their bodies are more fragile?
When I was younger and I used to hit the concrete, I would almost bounce off of it. Now that I’m older, when I take slammers to the concrete, I don’t bounce. It's almost like a splat. It hurts, and it hurts for months. Me and Knoxville are the same age. I know it takes its toll, and you don't recover. The stupid little bruises and stuff, they stay with you longer.
I think everybody asks this question: “Can these guys do it? These guys are old!” For me, that’s a nightmare. I feel like that bull was a little bit of [Knoxville saying], “I’ll show you how old I am.” It’s almost worse, because it’s like now they've got something to prove. And I’m like, “No, guys—you guys are already doing Jackass stuff. You don’t need to prove anything.” They’re like, “Let’s take it to the next level.” And in my head, I’m going, There is no next level. What are we doing?
When you're on set, are you having fun, or are you mostly freaking out because you’re trying to make sure no one dies?
Eighty to ninety percent of the time, it is so much fun. The Jackass movies are, hands down, the most fun of all the movies I’ve ever worked on. To this day, it’s like Christmas morning. When I go home, I want to hurry up and go to bed so I can get up and go to work the next day. But then there are the four, five, six times during the movie where it’s not fun for me, like the day with the bull. Those days are very, very, very stressful. It’s tough for me, because as a stunt coordinator on a normal set, I don’t ever allow anyone to even have a little scratch on them. But these guys are doing 100 percent of their own stunts. It isn't like we tested it and we know it's 100 percent safe. These are the real deal. When I go to other movie sets, if we even put a little bruise on an actor, I feel like I’ve failed. And over here, we’re gonna hit Knoxville with a professional bull. It’s completely two different worlds.
But it is such a huge honor to work with those guys. I was a fan like you wouldn’t believe growing up, and now those guys are family to me. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for them.
Drew Schwartz is a staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.