The military man who became a stunt double

‘We were crashing vehicles into each other in a water tank with no helmets and no life jackets.’

When Morgan Chetcuti joined the Armed Forces of Malta, he had no idea that he would become a professional stunt coordinator in the future. “My team was deployed with Frontex. We were working on different warships around the Mediterranean,” Morgan recalls. “I did that for 13 years. In the noughties, I began working as a special skills extra in films because they needed people who knew how to handle firearms.”

Originally, Morgan would just take a few days of leave to be able to participate in the shoots, but his big break came with Captain Phillips (2013). “They needed somebody of my colouring to be an actor’s stunt double, drive the boat, go alongside the ship and then climb up the side of it. Up until then, I only used to work locally, but the director and the stunt coordinator asked me if I’d be available to go and work with them in the U.S., the U.K. and Morocco.”

The more film work he did, the greater the parallels he noticed between film production and the military. “It was a very easy transition from the armed forces to stunt work because in the armed forces, you have a chain of command,” Morgan comments. “In film, you’ve also got different departments with various heads of department. As a stunt performer, I knew that I had to go to my superior rather than addressing the director.” Morgan’s time in the armed forces also equipped him with a wide array of skills from driving bulletproof vehicles to learning precision driving techniques. “All of this stuff came in handy when I started doing stunt driving in film because instead of an armoured vehicle, you have a camera attached to the car, so you still have a heavier load,” Morgan says.

In the military, Morgan was a corporal, so he was used to coordinating a group of people and conducting risk assessments. Working as a stunt coordinator involves a similar skillset. The difference was that while stunts can be dangerous, the risk was often not as extreme. “If there’s someone smuggling drugs from North Africa to Sicily, they don’t want to get caught. They’re desperate, so they’re going to use whatever means necessary, including shooting at you. In film, it’s blanks or rubber guns. Nobody is throwing real boat hooks at you.”

Some stunts can be extremely dangerous though, particularly as storylines can keep performers from wearing the safety gear that they would usually wear. “The most dangerous stunt I have coordinated and performed was the jet ski crash in Shark Bait (2022). It took a lot of planning. We were crashing vehicles into each other in a water tank with no helmets and no life jackets. In the risk assessment, we consider the correlation between severity and likelihood. The potential severity of that stunt could have been fatal.”

After the jet ski crash, the stunt performers needed to be dragged through the water for around 60 metres as if they were being pulled along by a shark. One of the challenges was ensuring that it looked like it was the actors who were being dragged along, rather than their stunt doubles. This was achieved by directing the rear end of a dive propulsion vehicle (DPV) towards the actors on a platform in the water tank. Close-up shots of the actors’ faces made it look like the actors were being dragged through the water.

When working as a stunt performer, Morgan would sometimes be directed to make the stunts look less slick. “In Captain Phillips, they told me to bash the ship when I pulled the boat up alongside it. If you do something four times a week, then you aren’t going to find it that challenging, but these guys are supposed to be pirates, not military professionals.”

Having left the military and taken the decision to focus fully on stunt work, Morgan now runs Phantom Stunts, a stunt training facility in Luqa, where he has a team of over 30 stunt performers, ranging from free divers to gymnasts and horse riders. The Jurassic World Dominion (2022) shoot, which took place during the pandemic in Malta, presented a big opportunity for Morgan’s team, many of whom were involved in the shoot.

In his role as a stunt coordinator, Morgan highlights the areas in the script where he thinks stunt doubles might be necessary. “A lot of the time, the director wants the actor to do everything so you can see their face,” Morgan says, “but the producers will know whether the actor has a dodgy back or an ear problem that could prevent them from doing something.” Recent photos of the actors, along with their measurements, help Morgan to find suitable stunt doubles, but depending on the scene, some discrepancies can be concealed. “I’m five foot eight, but I doubled a guy who was six foot four in 13 hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. There was an explosion, the camera was low, and you just see a body flying through the air. Then you see the actor on the floor shouting and screaming in pain. We got away with it in that context.”

More recently, Morgan worked on The Dive (2023), which is newly-released. While the underwater stunts, supervised by Second Unit director Abigail Borg, took place in Germany, the above-ground stunts took place in Malta. “There’s a scene where there’s a goat crossing the road and the stunt double slides the car off the road,” Morgan explains. “We flipped the car with a forklift, removed all the glass and replaced it with rubber glass, so the actress didn’t have any sharp objects around her.” The production decided to go for this option because it was cheaper than getting a stunt performer to flip the car, as this would have required a roll cage, a reinforced vehicle and another car for the actor to be filmed in.

Another challenge is ensuring that stunts do not result in environmental damage. During The Dive shoot, a car had to be lowered to the bottom of Miġra l-Ferħa cliff. “If you flip a car for real, you’re going to have oil spillages and radiator fluid,” Morgan says, “Part of the expense was removing all fluids. Then you have to place the car down there without breaking or scratching any of the rocks.” During the Jurassic World Dominion shoot, a land bridge was suspended on a scaffold platform to avoid endangering the habitat or damaging the cobwebs of a protected spider species near The Red Tower in Mellieħa.

Morgan’s unique career path has taken him from the high seas to water tanks, car crashes and jet ski collisions. The life of a stunt double is not an easy one, but an adrenaline-packed existence that involves measured risks and the mastery of illusion — a life that is anything but humdrum.

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