J. Mark Eiden takes a tumble for the silver screen
Ironic. That’s probably the best way to describe J. Mark Eiden, a professional stuntman who is not only afraid of heights, but was once told he likely wouldn’t walk again.
Now 52 years old, the founder of 45th Parallel Productions in Traverse City had injured his back while serving with the U.S. Army’s elite Airborne Rangers unit when he was in his early 20s. A parachute failure caused Eiden to fall several hundred feet, landing him in a hospital bed where doctors told the young man he’d be lucky to walk.
“So that kind of made me mad,” Eiden said matter-of-factly, “and I hired a Russian therapist who got me back to where I could get around.”
Ironically, it wasn’t the fall that gave Eiden the height willies. He’d always been nervous about being up high; even before enlisting, he scheduled a private jump for himself down in Tecumseh “just to try it out.”
Eiden continued to push his fear of heights closer to the edge. Having been dismissed from service duties, he started exploring the career of professional stuntmen.
Within two years of his accident, Eiden was on a plane to the Kahana Stunt School in Los Angeles – one of two professional stunt schools in the world. Only six students were accepted that year and Eiden was one of them.
From 1985 to ’86, Eiden was among students from Spain, Australia and Germany who learned all there was to know about being the on-camera crash dummy for films and television.
“We learned car stunts, studio fighting, pyrotechnics, high falls…” he listed. “We’d fall on airbags, boxes and pads. I had a background in horses as a younger kid, so my first movie was with Kevin Costner— who was an unknown at the time—and I got to do some horseback stunts.”
The on-camera stunts continued, which included military industrial films.
“Because of my background, I was shooting learning videos on what to do and what not to do as part of military training, so I was jumping on grenades and getting blown up,” he said, adding after a momentary pause, “they were all done with air rounds, of course, so I wasn’t hurt.”
IT COMES WITH THE JOB…
Eiden did experience plenty of injuries, however, during his dozens and dozens of film tapings. He’s had surgery on both arms and shoulders, five knee surgeries, six nasal reconstructions, foot and hand surgery and a facial cast.
“In the stunt business, you never want to show you’re hurt. The most important item in a stunt bag is duct tape,” he advised, adding an example of him falling off the top of a car going 40 miles per hour. “One of the stunt car tires blew and I launched onto the pavement. I had to go to the gas station to fix the tire so we taped up my ear. I ended up having a pretty bad concussion and didn’t realize it at the time.”
But despite his accidents, Eiden notes being a stuntman does not mean being a daredevil.
“It’s all about safety, safety, safety. If they know you’re out there being a daredevil, you won’t get hired. We figure in every avenue we can in order to make a stunt look great without jeopardizing someone’s life.”
Part of that comes with trust in the stunt coordinator, Eiden said.
“I had to break the habit of pushing off the ledge with my toes because I was almost overshooting the bag,” he noted of high fall stunts where the drop zones are set farther away. “That’s because the higher up you are, the farther out you fall. So, you could be looking down and there’s all this concrete right below you. But you have to trust the math.”
Preparedness and training are the keys to a well-executed stunt.
That, and landing on your back. “For falls, you never want to land on your front. Always land on your back no matter what the cushion is,” Eiden said. “It’s the way our organs are supported.”
A CHANGE OF PACE…SORT OF
“I was practicing for a 50-foot fall where I was supposed to do a double back flip off a building; but when I went up and did my flip on the way down, I was off to the side too much and came down on the railing and drove my knee into my face.”
His facial bones shattered to the point where he needed a full facial cast.
“I had the two holes for my eyes and everything,” he laughed.
The day he got the cast off was the day Eiden met his wife, Lisa.
“My buddy had talked me into going out to the bar that night. I probably had a bleached white face,” he laughed.
After a few months of dating, the couple was engaged and moved to Eiden’s hometown area of Detroit where he did a handful of stunt work before taking up work as a private investigator.
In 1999, the couple moved to Traverse City where Eiden started focusing more on script writing.
This fall, Eiden will direct his second film by 45th Parallel Productions, Fork, a thriller about a former CIA agent whose past catches up with him.
“We’ll be doing some pretty cool action sequences for this film, plus we’re bringing a couple stunt performers. I’ll be doing my own stunts for this film, including getting blown up,” Eiden smiled.
For more information on Eiden, stunt services and projects by 45th Parallel Productions, visit 45parallelproductions.com.