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Female Gaze: Saskia Neville

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years we’ve been watching women on the big screen, but seldom have they been the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. Thankfully, that is now changing. In this series of interviews with inspirational female makers, they talk about their own work, illustrated by a clip from a film by another female maker. In this third interview, stuntwoman Saskia Neville talks about the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with stunts performed by no other than the lead Angelina Jolie.

By Gina Miroula06 December 2021

Portrait of Saskia in a fighting pose, painted by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts.

Saskia Neville (superhero T-shirt, green legwarmers, hair up) arrives 30 minutes early for her interview. Seated along the waterside in front of Eye Filmmuseum – there where people skateboard, dance and box – she says: “The first question I always get is: ‘have you ever broken any bones?’ which is based on a stereotype about stunt performers that I’d love to see gone.”

Saskia is a stuntwoman for feature films, series and commercials, but started her career some ten years ago as a freerunner. Saskia selected Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) with stunts by Angelina Jolie as the core around which to base this interview.

Saskia grew up in Voorschoten. She could regularly be found upside down in a tree or climbing frame. “My mother once put the child seat on top of the shopping cart at the garden centre; I immediately crawled out of the five-point belt. The same happened in the car.” Her father, a gymnast, encouraged her to take up sports. Starting from age six, she took part in gymnastics, got her climbing and sailing certificates and received martial arts training. “I have always been pretty mobile.”

In the year she lost out in the lottery to get into medicine at university, she regularly went surfing in Scheveningen. “They had redone the boulevard and one day I was working hard there.” An instructor discovered her and recommended that Saskia join the Jump Freerun club in The Hague. “That advice changed my life.”

You selected Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. What makes this film special for you?

“The opening scene is a fight in a tomb. Viewers think the scene is 'real'. Croft shoots, performs somersaults and flies through the air. Finally she pulls the wires from her opponent and inserts a tape into the computer in their midriff: Lara’s Party Mix then plays. The thing proves to be a training robot.” Saskia grins: “This woman is so hardcore. She creates ultimate carnage before breakfast and the men get to clean up the mess.”

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The opening fight from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Saskia was ten in 2001 when this film was released. “At home I gave my Barbies crew cuts. They were given Action Man’s harpoon and I cut bin liners into parachutes. We went on the coolest missions together. As a child I knew nothing about stunt doubles, but I wanted to do what Croft did.”

In another scene Jolie swings through her immense home during a sort of bungee ballet. To relax, her body is suspended in stretchy elastic. There’s lightning outside, classical piano music in the background. Suddenly intruders attack Jolie through the glass ceiling. Saskia never forgot that stunt. “At the time I thought: oh, that’s nice. Graceful female ballets with an automatic weapon are okay. It was the first time I realised I didn’t have to be pigeonholed.”

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The scene in which Lara Croft bungees through her home.

What fascinates you about being a stunt woman?

“A while ago, I was asked to fall down some stairs for a film. The telephone I was holding had to be thrown out of shot over my left shoulder. Shortly thereafter, I did the same fall again, but with a hat on which meant I couldn’t see. It’s not just: ‘You are going to fall now,’ sometimes I wear heavy combat boots, other times I tiptoe along guttering in slippers. I get bored if I do the same thing twice. I really have to sell my body language during film shoots. I have to walk with more swagger or, conversely, very timidly. I am capable of a lot and keep learning new things.”

Saskia’s stunts (she works as a stunt double and stunt coordinator for Stuntteam De Beukelaer) started as a physical challenge. “I could be on fire or fall from a great height. I gradually developed a love of cinema. My freerunning had led to me doing commercials. But feature films are different. There is so much to think about: how do I fight realistically? How do I fall better so my silhouette looks good on camera? Endless new puzzles that you have to solve yourself.”

Does your work influence you psychologically?

“When I started doing stunts for films I suffered from impostor syndrome. My thinking was: anyone can somersault over a fence or do a backflip? While freerunning I was surrounded by athletic people, but whilst filming I suddenly realised that not everyone can quickly jump a fence.”

The work also does a lot for her personally. “In the past, I wanted to work out and prepare every possible scenario in detail. This is impossible in the film industry: you constantly have to adapt to the day. Nowadays, I have confidence in my capacities and can devise solutions on the spot. This also makes me more relaxed in daily life. Whereas before I wanted to help everyone, and primarily took the feelings and needs of others into account – an annoying female trait, we dismiss our own needs way too easily – I tackle things differently now. Age and my stunt jobs have made me better at setting my boundaries.”

You have been working for Stuntteam de Beukelaer for some years now. They hook you up with new film jobs. How do you subsequently set to work?

“The script comes in first and we extract the stunts from that. We then hold a breakdown meeting with the director and the production team. If the script says there is a ‘huge fight on a battlefield’ that can easily take up three days of filming with 30 staff. The budget is another consideration. How many people and which materials are required? Will we stay in the Netherlands or do we have to go abroad? What could be farmed out at a smaller scale or can be solved using smart camera angles?”

De Beukelaer works with approx. ten coordinators and alongside that has specialists on file. “For instance, there is a man who rides motorbikes and crashes them at precisely the right time and in the right place.” The profession has a lot of niches. Team de Beukelaer has people of countless shapes and skin tones. “You have to look like someone to be their stunt double. If there is a special request, say someone 1.90 m tall, weighing 130 kg, we try to find them ourselves. It’s quite tricky to find someone Hulk-sized.”

How do you prefer to collaborate with a stunt coordinator on set?

“De Beukelaer has a fluid management style. Everyone is equal, there is mutual respect. Our team meets on a weekly basis and we know everyone’s strengths. My boss Marco Maas or someone else coordinates my stunts. I never feel pushed to do things I am not comfortable with.”

Saskia is no fan of stunts involving water. “Luckily there is always a safety diver on set who ensures there is nothing sharp in the canal. For a crime series I had to drown in my own aquarium, struggling among the fish. For the series Meisjes van plezier I had to jump into the water from a pleasure cruiser. I am often afraid of dark, motionless water; that something will suddenly grab my ankles. I also detest all the fronds on my bare feet.”

Which stunts do you excel at?

“Thanks to my gymnastics, freerunning and climbing background I am good at falling. Flying through the air and landing properly feels like second nature to me. You have to properly master stunts so you use half your capacities to perform the stunt and the other half for acting. Falling means I have time and energy to spare, I am relaxed, I can adjust things and watch my body language at the same time.”

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Saskia Neville's showreel uit 2017.

For the Dutch thriller VALS (Dennis Bots, 2019) Saskia performed stunts in the Ardennes in Belgium. “During a fight, one of the girls smashes another one out of the window. To this end, I had to jump through sugar glass in the evening, then roll off a lean-to to land in the snow. I always wanted to climb out of my window as a child, but was never allowed to. Now I was.” Saskia explains about the switch she toggles in herself. “I become hyper focused during the countdown. I feel especially relaxed. It has to go right first time, because you can’t practice: you can only break the glass once.”

You have recently started coordinating stunts yourself. Can you tell us more about this? 

“In Finland I worked on a children’s film Sihja the Rebel Fairy (Marja Pyykkö, 2021). The main character is a small fairy. This rigging project (a rigger works with lines, pullies and carabiners, but also hoists for making people/objects float or move) was coordinated by my boss Marco Maas in collaboration with my colleague Brian van de Vooren as the key rigger. I worked as a rigger and coached the actors. As a team, we built a wide variety of rigs. We performed stunts on the ceiling, outside on rooftops and had children fly under a crane.”

For the film Rookie (Lieven Van Baelen, 2021) Saskia also supported key rigger Brian van de Vooren. He made a motorbike spin in the air. “The device we use to do this is called a hammer jack and it’s really powerful. It’s akin to a massive arm: a V, on its side. This is forced open by an oil cylinder. Lines have been woven up and down on the side that opens. When the device opens more than a metre, it reels in eight metres of line; 16 metres when it opens two metres. You can shoot a motorbike 16 metres into the air in less than one second. We did so in a residential area.”

Saskia says people often don’t expect a woman to operate the heavy machinery and damage the set. “At a certain point in time, I indicated I would like to develop myself as a rigger. This was embraced and accepted by my team.”

How do you view women’s current position in the stunt field?

“At De Beukelaer I am the only female coordinator. We don’t really have a training programme, you have to show initiative yourself. Half my colleagues specialise in rigging. I really had to prove myself and show that I can provide something extra in this area. I had to disprove the stereotypes. For instance, when arriving on set I am sometimes asked: ‘Are you the production assistant or the intern?’ My male counterparts never get asked things like this. We have never had a female rigger before, so as the ‘blonde girl’ I don’t fit the picture.”

To expand her options even further, Saskia took a motorcycle course. “There was another girl on the course. She wore a flowery skirt and I automatically thought, why do you want to learn to ride a motorbike? Biases are hard-wired into us. This was an enormous misjudgement on my part.”

Which types of stunt films are still lacking in Dutch cinema?

“A while back, a request came in for Slag om de Schelde. For moment I was briefly optimistic, but I sort of knew: women don’t shoot in historical films.” Saskia has however handled weapons, namely for her very first stunt fight for the TV series Smeris. “In the scene I was thrown down the stairs and disarmed.” In the future she would love to storm a house with a SWAT team. “And then shoot an AK-47. This genre isn’t common, or rather: not for women in the Dutch cinema scene.”

Methods are different abroad. For example, Saskia was a stunt double in Wonder Woman 1984. “England is much more hierarchic. Everything is higher, bigger and faster. You are brought in to do your trick and don’t get involved in anything else. Budgets are bigger, but your life is in the hands of coordinators you hardly know.” In the Netherlands Saskia can stop a shot if it feels unsafe. “After a shoot we discuss the day with the team. We ask each other critical questions and are open to feedback and suggestions. Everyone is equal, even the boss is open to criticism. I think honesty, sincerity and responsibility are very important in my profession.”

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Saskia told RTL News more about her stunts for i.e. Wonder Woman 1984. This video is in Dutch.

Which upcoming projects can we expect to see you in?

“Over the summer, I coached Abbey Hoes for the new Costa! film which is set for a Spring 2022 release.” Asked if she has specific wishes for the future, she says: “I’d love to slide a motorbike across some tarmac or fall from a window on fire. However, the day after tomorrow I am off on a risk-free beach holiday. Time to relax after my long hours of great responsibility.”