Cort L. Hessler III is currently Emmy nominated for ‘Outstanding Stunt Coordination for a Drama Series, Limited Series or Movie’ for NBC’s crime thriller The Blacklist. This marks Hessler’s 10th Emmy nomination, making him the most Emmy nominated stunt coordinator. He has been nominated every year for The Blacklist since 2014. He credits one of the reasons to his success being that The Blacklist is one of those rare shows that has a lot of “Big action” he calls it, like that of a feature film. What also sets him apart from others is he tries to use minimal CGI with the stunts he coordinates. The end result looking so real, that he sometimes gets calls asking if the stuntman was injured during filming. We spoke with Hessler more in-depth about his work on the long running hit show below.
Congrats on your current Emmy nomination! This is your fifth Emmy nomination for The Blacklist. Why do you think your work on this show keeps resonating with voters?
Thank You! I think maybe it’s the realism of the action. I try to keep everything looking as real as possible. Like when someone gets shot, I don’t have them go flying across the room. I simply have them drop straight to the ground as if they were a puppet and someone cut their strings. Also, I try to use as little CGI as possible. The action that the writers write is the kind you find on big feature films which is a rare thing in the TV world mostly due to time and budgets.
Was there every time in Season 5 that one of the actors really wanted to do their own stunts but you didn’t think it was a good idea? What scene was it and what was the outcome?
By a season 5 in a series you should already know the abilities of the actors working on the show. At the beginning of a series is where your question would come into play. So I’ll tell you a little story that relates to your question that happened years ago on another show.
There was a scene where it called for the character to be tackled through a floor to ceiling window and go to the ground. The actor wanted to do it himself and I said “No” then the actor went to the producers and demanded that he do it. Long story short they let him do it and when he went through window he cut his forehead and had to get 10 stitches. He came up to me afterwards hugged me and said “From now on I listen to you.” LOL
What is your process like? Do you first go through the scripts with the director and decide if things will be green screen or live action before shooting starts?
My process starts by reading the script alone. Then I will meet with the director to see what kind of tone they want with the action. From there I give them options. Sometimes it will include green screen as a tool but we almost always do our action live on The Blacklist. It will also depend on the location that we pick out for the sequence. The location can in itself dictate the kind of action that we will do. Here is NYC everything is so close together that location plays into the building of the action sequence every time.
Since you have been working on The Blacklist what do you think has been the most intricate stunt you have coordinated for the show?
It was season 3, We had a motorcycle chase that ended with the motorcycle being t-boned by a truck. Normally we would hit the truck with the bike and send the stunt person flying to the ground. In this case the director wanted the truck to hit the bike and run over it to make it look like the bad guy was killed. So we did a series for shots with a stunt guy on the bike going in front of a moving truck without hitting him. Then we took a bike and built a hydraulic cable system and put a dummy on the bike. We pulled the bike the same speed that the stunt guy rode the bike. The result was a seamless transition of a motorcycle crash that takes your breath away. I got calls from stunt performers who watched the show and was checking to see if the stunt rider was ok. That’s when you know it was a good gag when you can fool the professionals in your own business! P.S. The rider was all-good as he watched the dummy take the hit.
Was there a stunt in Season 5 that didn’t look very complicated but ended up being pretty intricate?
In the first episode of season 5 we introduce a character by having him fall from the ceiling to a table. When I first read the script I was like ok no problem this will be fun. Then I saw the set that was built and between the railings in the way and the height of the ceiling it all ended up being way more intricate than originally thought. I ended up having them replace the railing spindles with break away one. Also, we had him land on a table with break away legs with a little trick I use by putting plant foam (yes plant foam, LOL the green stuff that you put in pots for fake flowers) to help soften the landing for the Stunt Double. The result was a very hard-hitting fall to the table but the stunt double said he didn’t feel a thing.
You used to be a stuntman and just coordinate now. When did you decide to make that transition? Why?
Well I’m not in my 20’s anymore. LOL The older you get the harder it is to recover from the “Big” hits. So, my last big hit was on the first season of The Blacklist, I was driving a Camero that gets T-Boned by a giant semi dump truck. I separated my shoulder and it took about 8 weeks for it to heal. Since then I have done a few stunts but I coordinate so much that I’ve kind of been just letting the younger more improved stunt performers have the fun.
What’s your favorite part about working on The Blacklist?
The Blacklist is one of those shows that is hard to come by. There is a lot of action, “Big Action,” not your typical TV action. Also, the cast and crew are like family. We have all been together for 5 years now. With many of us having been working together on the same projects for almost 20 years. Great memories will be talked about for years to come when talking about The Blacklist.