Leo Plank: Where Life Is Larger Than at Home

We know Leo Plank as a stuntman and as one of the world’s leading Russian Arm* drivers. But this is just the tip of an iceberg filled with skills, stories and experiences. Because if you sit down and talk with him, you’ll not only find out that he assisted in shooting Resident Evil, The Hunger Games and the most recent Matrix movie; he will also mention in passing that he helped invent the snowboard. Certainly not your everyday guy.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

Mr. Plank, where are you coming from right now?
Leo Plank: From a multi-function venue called the Power Plant in Duisburg. Florentina Holzinger, an Austrian performance artist, is setting up for a show there at the moment. I tried to help the ladies out a bit and came up with some stunts and moves. But they’re all women.

Meaning what?
They don’t like men. I have no clue why they want me there. Maybe it’s because I don’t give a damn about what they do and who they are. Most of the time, they’re just floating or rolling around naked in one place or the other; so that’s helpful. Their body art is really popular.

That must be quite a contrast from your last movie production.
True. We just finished The Matrix 4. The Ford Bronco we used is still here. It’s all banged up and full of holes because Keanu Reeves went berserk on it with his Smith & Wesson. The two motorbikes that Trinity rode are already gone.

How would you explain to someone who doesn’t know you who you are?
Well, for one thing, I’m a farmer’s boy from Austria. More specifically, from Upper Austria, Freistadt, a little north of Linz. I grew up there, spent very little time at school and started working early. Learned gas-water-plumbing shit and then took off for Lech am Arlberg. I became a ski instructor there when I was sixteen. When I wasn’t even able to drive a car yet. Right from the start I knew that if I wanted to be a ski instructor, I would learn the job and do it right. That’s the most difficult part: if you think you know how to do something, its hard to accept things another way. In my case, I ended up in Lech and I found that life was larger than at home. All white and monotonous, but still a lot more interesting. But I didn’t get anywhere because as an Austrian, I couldn’t understand anyone. The place was full of German, British, French, Spanish and Arab wannabe rich kids.

And what happened then?
Well, I had this one student who came to me carrying a surfboard carved out of wood under his arm. We tried to use it to surf on snow, which didn’t work out too well. One time, the board slid all the way down from the top of the mountain to the Lech River and almost hit someone in the head. So we put some leather straps on it to keep the feet on the board. A year later, he came back with the first snowboard he had built himself. It had aluminum fins and bindings for ski boots. We went snowboarding on that board again. The owner of the ski school saw us and said, “If I see you riding this contraption one more time, you’re fired.” So we continued in secret, and when he caught us again, he said, “Either you’re teaching this next year or you’ve got to go.”

You helped invent the snowboard!
Yes, that was the beginning of the snowboard. That was Jake Burton, as in Burton Snowboards. I then organized the first snowboard races in Lech, which caused quite a sensation, and after a while, companies would come to me because they wanted to use the snowboards for advertising. And that’s how I got started as a stuntman. A film crew from England showed up looking to shoot a mix of surfing and snowboarding – on 16 mm film using wooden tripods and cameras with winders, which was a good idea in the cold and the snow. The only problem were the people. Those English couldn’t ski. So I took them piggyback everywhere they had to go.

“We just finished The Matrix 4. The Ford Bronco we used is still here. It’s all banged up because Keanu Reeves shot it full of holes.”

For real?
Of course. Later, I helped a lady transport some material for a film. Her car had broken down, so I said, “Okay, I’ll just drive you to Berlin real quick, have a coffee and then I’ll drive back.” Though back then, of course, it took a whole day to get there and you had to pass through East Germany, which made the whole trip more complicated. Just coming and going wasn’t that easy. There I was, stuck in the big city, so I decided that since I was there anyway, I may as well become a stuntman.

That sounds so simple. Was it really so easy?
There were so few people in the business back then. Just a few circus performers or stagehands fumbling around with swords and doing the odd slapstick number. Schimanski came later. Gerd Grzesczak was the stunt double for the TV detective, save for when actor Götz George shooed him away with the words, “Go on, I’ll do it myself.” And when Grzesczak doubled for him, he had to make sure nobody would notice. It wasn’t like in the American movies, where there’s always a stuntman around. Here, you were hidden; you were not to be seen. The Germans never really got it. At some point, I founded the company Buff Connection. The boys and I did all kinds of films for a good ten or twelve years. Like Resident Evil with Milla Jovovich.

You’re always calm and focused when you work…
You’ve got to have a certain air of calm or coolness, even if it is affected. The cameraman and the director already have enough on their plates and don’t need another nervous or restless guy. It really pays off to appear relaxed. If that’s no longer the case, there’s a reason. It’s when I feel or see that a false sense of comfort is settling in.

Do you improvise at all?
Well, for one thing, I get instructions with regard to the angles or takes they are trying to get. For another, I know very well what my boys can do with my cars. Some cameramen and directors have no clue about these limits and try to cook up a wheel that’s just terribly angular. In situations like that, I’ve been known to lose my patience – but people have gotten used to that. And in the end, they’re glad that I changed the angular wheel to a round one or at least an oval one that will actually turn. You can always think of new options the world hasn’t seen yet. I built an interesting construction for some cameramen who wanted the camera “to circle around the car”. That’s how they described what they had seen in a film: a camera on a crane mounted on top of a Lamborghini that filmed the car in motion as it rotated around it. I have also built crane constructions that can basically scan an entire car. It’s these extras and additions, the camera angles that make my work and life interesting.

“For me, a car is a workhorse that has to do its job. I would never add a Porsche to my fleet.”

Leo Plank

Do you think of yourself as an engineer rather than a driver?
Yes, no . . . both. You have to be both because if you can’t design or picture something, you can’t sell the idea. You have to have the courage to do what can be done and sometimes also make the impossible possible. And then come up with yet another idea to make sure it works.

Do things sometimes get dangerous?
Of course, every day. And especially when you expected a take to be easy. That’s the most dangerous part. Doing your job thinking you have nothing to worry about because you do it every day. But it’s not the same every day. Even if it looks the same three times over. I’m talking about the lightness of being – that’s something we shouldn’t underestimate. It’s not the hard parts, the ones you master and which you endlessly prepare for: Will the wheels come off? Is the branch I’m clinging to too thin? I can assess these things. What I don’t assess are things like a crosswalk. I just cross the street because I feel safe.

Can you tell us of a situation where you felt it was a really close call?
That was at Oberbaum Bridge in Berlin, where I jumped from six floors up. I had built a special ramp so I could jump as far away from the wall as possible into the water. I had calculated that I would fly for six meters and land in water two meters deep. The Spree is clean there, with no discarded bicycles or motorbikes or plastic Christmas trees. That was the plan. So the cameras are rolling and I run. I land in the water, can’t breathe and find myself wondering why it is so dark. Why can’t I see anything? Why can’t I breathe? Why do my balls hurt? I was stuck in the mud up to my waist and couldn’t free myself. And the divers couldn’t find me because my plunge and my paddling about had stirred up so much mud. It’s situations like that when you think: Okay, that’s it. The next time I breathe in, I’m breathing in a lungful of water.

Who saved you?
A diver groping around in the muddy water got hold of me and pulled me up. I made it to the surface with my last ounce of strength and my lungs finally filled with air again. The first thing I heard was someone shouting down at me from Oberbaum Bridge. It was Werner Masten, the director and a fellow Austrian: “You fucking Austrian! You don’t get to kill yourself on my set. We’re doing it again.”

Have you ever had a similar experience with a car?
I did. That time the situation was this: these stupid cops in two cars are chasing some car thieves on the highway. The thieves are driving a car transporter, loading up cars as they go along. So they’re basically stealing cars while they are driving. The policemen are behind them, the thieves notice, the transporter stops, the ramp is still down and one of the cop cars drives up the ramp to end up on the roof of the other police car – the one I was driving. That’s not something you can practice in advance. We only drove next to each other a few times. And I always found myself thinking: Okay, if I skid, I need a quarter of a second more. So I have to be a bit in front, because I have to swerve and break for the other driver to be able to land on my roof. So there we are, ready to do the shot, all five, six, seven, eight cameras are rolling. And the other police car’s engine starts to stutter. Through the open window, I call over to the other driver: “No way are we stopping this; the cameras are rolling. So make sure to hit eighty; otherwise we won’t make the jump.” We start the cars, and his engine is stuttering even more though we are still only going sixty. He then went full throttle when I was next to the transporter. The ramp was about 35 meters long; we had extended it a bit. So I had to pick up speed for the last 35 meters to catch up with him. In that moment, I was only focused on being faster than the other car.

read the full interview with Leo Plan in ramp #52.

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