That Was Easy

How To Jump Off a Building And Survive

Udeh Nans, a professional stuntman who worked on 'The Raid,' tried to teach me how to fall. I still messed it all up.
November 7, 2017, 8:31am
Photos by Shalahuddin Al Ayyubi

Stuntmen are the unsung heroes or action films. Sure, Alan Rickman did his own stunts for the iconic Die Hard fall—but he's an exception to the rule. You really think Chris Pratt does all of his own stunts? Think again.

But I, of course, didn't know this when I was a kid. Hell, I didn't even know these scenes were actually stunts and not just amazing feats of human fitness. I, like most kids, grew up watching PG-13 action films like Spiderman—a movie I loved so much that I just had to imitate Spidey somehow. But when I took a leap from a one-and-a-half meter tall cement planter, I landed totally wrong. My groin hurt so bad that my parents had to take me to the hospital to check for a hernia.

SO HOW DO THEY DO IT?

When Alan Rickman was dropped off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard it sure looked like he was falling 20-something stories down. But, in reality, the fall was about seven-and-a-half meters onto a big inflated airbag. Now, maybe I'm feeling a bit over-confident, but falling onto a soft cushion doesn't really seem all that hard. When Alan Rickman was done with Hans Gruber, he went on to act in Harry Potter, so it's not like he was an action star or anything. If Severus Snape can do it, then surely I can too. How hard can it be?

MEET THE EXPERT: UDEH NANS

I called up the only guy I could think of who knew how all of this works. Udeh Nans is the founder of the Pejuang Stunt Indonesia school and a regular stuntman in Indonesia's action movie scene. He's one of the guys behind the bone-crushing stunts of The Raid. Can he teach me how to do what my four-year-old self failed to figure out? Or am I only one wrong leap from another trip to the emergency room?

I sent Udeh a message explaining what I wanted to do. He would surely respect my willingness to go out on a ledge, literally, for my job. I figured the whole thing would make for a good story, plus, leaping from a tall building is a great skill to have just in case… I don't know… I have to escape a burning building one day. "Can I jump off a roof," I asked, exciting with the idea of learning to nonchalantly taking a serious leap of faith.

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"No," he said. "You're going to do it from the second floor."

"But they're going to laugh at me for that," I complained. I mean how high can a second story balcony really be? I wanted to make up for my childhood embarrassment. Am I really going to look like a bad ass leaping from some second-story balcony?

THE LESSON: SPIDER-STYLE

You know those moments when everything looks like it's on the verge of going very wrong and all you can do is wonder "how the hell did I end up here?" That's exactly what was going through my head as I stared at the pile cardboard boxes branded with cigarette logos set out to catch my fall. Turns out the fancy Hollywood airbags cost like Rp 140 million apiece ($10,363 USD)—way too much money to waste on some journalist who only wants to make up for some early childhood shame.

Udeh assured me the boxes were totally safe. His crew even threw some mattresses on top for extra padding. The secret, Udeh said, was in how I fell, not how much the thing I fell on costs. He told me to remain focused, confident, and make sure I stuck the landing. For short jumps like the one I was about to do, stuntmen land on their feet and roll to disperse the impact over their bodies. On higher falls they land flat on their backs, he said.

I stared at the boxes for bit then started to stretch out. The preparations were all pretty easy—a mix of jumping jacks, push-ups, and leg stretches. Professional stuntmen are very strong, Udeh explained, especially in their legs and backs. It's one of the reasons they are able to walk away relatively unscathed from stunts that would kill a lesser being.

Udeh asked one of his crew members, a man named Ian Antono—not the God Bless guitarist, but a friend of Udeh's who is also a professional stuntman—to show me some landing techniques. There are three ways to land from a jump like this, he explained: the "proper" way, the "improper" way, and the "spider" landing.

The spider landing? My mind immediately flashed back to the web-swinging fantasies of my youth. Now that sounds like something I can get behind.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH: TWO STORIES OF TERROR

"You're afraid now, huh?" Udeh asked as I stood there on the balcony looking down at the mat-and-cardboard box landing pad. I started to regret signing up for this crazy assignment. Who the hell really needs to know how stuntmen do their jobs anyway? Just eat your popcorn and enjoy the damn movie.

But I'm not going to get over this Spiderman-related groin trauma without making a leap. They just won't stop making those damn Spiderman movies. I'm never going to escape that hernia memory if I don't do something to wash away all that embarrassment. So, with that on my mind, I said a little prayer, felt a surge of adrenalin and took a leap off the balcony.

How did it look? Let me show you.

I'm laughing here, but let me tell you a secret: I was in shock for like five minutes after it was done. The whole thing was over in like five seconds, but after I landed I just laid there on the mat for like five minutes. I just couldn't believe I did it and survived.

Soon, I snapped out of the shock and immediately decided that I needed to try it again. Big mistake. I totally fucked up the second leap and end up in so much pain. It felt like the Hulk had just stomped on my back. This is what happens when you're overly confident:

Here's what the landing looked like this time:

Yeah, it's pretty rough, right? There's definitely a reason real professionals like Udeh and Ian do this job.

SO WHAT DID I LEARN?

"That kind of fall could make you blind, paralyzed, or even both," Ian told me as I sat there in pain. The reason why my second attempt went so wrong was because I forgot to stay focused. The two stuntmen could see that I lost focus when I hesitated and started to hop up and down to amp myself up. It was a reminder that there's little room for error in the stunt business. You either do your job right, or you spend a few weeks laid up in a hospital bed.

But for those who can commit, there's a real future in stunt work, Udeh said. "If you're an expert in doing high fall scenes, I can guarantee that you'll get many jobs, " he explained. Not that I'm exactly interested in going any higher, especially not after that second fall.

A good stuntman can earn $890 USD a day in the United States, according to the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). "And that's just the daily payment," Udeh said. "The bonuses are higher, and excluded from the daily pay depends on the negotiations you make based on the jump's level of difficulty and sorts. That payment is called 'adjustment'."

But even with the promise of big paychecks, the (potentially) lavish life of a stuntman is not for me. Because, it turns out, jumping from a building—even only the second floor of one—is not as easy as they make it seem in the movies. Go figure.

"That Was Easy," is an ongoing series where we send VICE's writers get the pros to teach them new, difficult, or strange skills. Have an idea of something you want to see us try? Send us a tweet with the hashtag "#thatwaseasy."