Knockaround Guy: Al Goto

Even as a teenager, Al Goto knew he wanted to be the man on screen taking the hard knocks. Ditching his engineering major, Goto turned his attention to film studies and athletic training in pursuit of his goal. 

Al Goto’s career is, quite literally, up in smoke. As a stuntman and stunt coordinator for more than 300 films and small screen productions, Goto’s list of credentials includes work on major sets such as Thor, Super 8, Crank: High Voltage, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Mission: Impossible III. For his bodily sacrifices, Goto has earned three World Stunt Awards nominations for fire stunts in We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers and fight scenes in Charlie’s Angels.

Currently working on his fifth season as stunt coordinator for Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight, Goto’s day at the office might include getting set on fire, flipping a high-speed vehicle 360 degrees, crashing jet skis, or simply falling off the ledge of a skyscraper. The work is fun and the compensation is great, though Goto admits that his career comes at a price; he’s had the burns, concussions, torn ligaments, and hairline fractures to prove it. 

Get In Media: How did you get into doing stunts?

Al Goto: I wanted to do it since I was 13. I went to college where I was an engineering major. I switched to the film department so I could learn about filmmaking and I took everything I could in terms of training classes, mountain climbing classes, strength training, anything I could get my hands on just to learn more skills. Then I started meeting the people who were doing the stunts in Los Angeles and then it kind of escalated from there.

GIM: What kind of training did you have before you broke into the business?

AG: I trained in martial arts when I was a kid and then I trained some in high school. I have friends that are martial arts experts that I also work with and we take a little from each discipline. It also depends on what the characters are like. Are these guys cowboys in a bar? Are they martial arts ninjas, or are they street fighters? Are they boxers? Are they Special Forces guys? Everybody’s going to have to fight a different way and you have to take into account how that person or that character should take care of themselves and handle business. In terms of other stuff, I learned through other people along the way. High falls, wire work, ratchets and air ramps … these are all things you learn along the way.

GIM: From other stunt workers?

AG: They would take you on the side on a day off and they would practice with you and that’s how we learn. 

GIM: How long does it take you to learn a new stunt and start using it?

AG: It’s a tough question because it depends on what you’re doing. In terms of a stunt fight, it depends on how big the stunt fight is, how long it is, who you’re fighting with, and how complex it is. If you’re doing something where they have to be really fast, it can take quite a while. Oftentimes, they’ll take actors and train them for months before they start the project so that they look good when they’re filming. [Other fights] you might learn the day before or that day and show the actor basic punches and do the fight there. 

In terms of setting up a car stunt, it depends on how big the show is. Some shows that are really big can have a car prepped really quick because they’ve got multiple people working on it. Smaller shows may have two people working on it. In order to do a car turnover or a big car jump or something, they’re going to put a cage in there. A roll cage for the integrity of the car to make sure it doesn’t collapse on the driver. You’re going to make sure the seats are mounted properly, proper seat belts are in there, a fuel cell is in there, an ignition kill switch for the driver.

A high fall, you want someone that’s chained, that has aerial sense, that maybe knows a trampoline pretty well or that’s had the opportunity to do some high falls. Once you step off that ledge, if you’re in the wrong spot, you could lose your life. It’s very unforgiving. Once you step off a building, that’s it. At least in previous documentation, the number one killer of stunt people was high falls. 

GIM: What is the scope of your responsibilities?

AG: As a stunt coordinator, you’re basically responsible for the action sequences and to be sure that the cast and crew are safe during a particular scene. It encompasses all of that. You want to oversee it and make sure that the crew is in a safe place. If there’s going to be a big explosion or you have a car that’s going to turn over and pieces of the car may fly off, you want to make sure everybody’s well clear of those areas. 

For your stunt players, you just want to make sure that the stunt is prepped correctly and you have all the safety measures in place – whether that’s roll cages or fire retardant undergarments – you make sure that you have all your ducks in order. Because if there’s an incident, they’re going to ask the first assistant director and then they’re going to talk to you and see what happened. You better have an answer for them.

GIM: When you get hired for a specific job, what happens after?

AG: In general, if somebody calls you, [then] you meet with the producers and director and you’ll talk about the sequence and see if you guys are on the same page with everything. If you are on the same page with everything, that moves forward to prepping the show, which entails meetings, scouts of the locations to determine what we can do and how we can set it up safely. Everything from meetings with wardrobe to make sure they have clothes [the stunt players] can move in and that can hide the harnesses that we need. Getting doubles or additional clothes in case they get torn in the process as well as meeting with transportation to make sure these vehicles run properly and [can do] what you need them to do. 

GIM: How does being a stunt coordinator compare to being a stunt man?

AG: A stunt coordinator, you’re a department head, so it’s more responsibility. You have to do all the prep. It’s tougher in a lot of respects than being a stunt player. It’s great to be the player because you come in and say, “Ok, what am I doing today?” You do your job and go home. A stunt coordinator doesn’t do that. He has to prep and make sure everything is lined up and set for that day. If it’s going through a window, you want to see if it’s tempered glass. You ask questions like: Who’s going to blow the windows? What’s the ground like outside? What’s this character wearing? Do they have long sleeves where you get to wear pads or do we need to cover their body with something else? 

There are just so many things that needs to be done before an event happens. It is fun because oftentimes you’ll get to have some creativity. With certain directors and producers, you’re able to make suggestions or offer suggestions and say, “What about this? What about that?” And that’s what makes it very well rewarding.

GIM: Do you have to carry any additional insurance to do what you do?

AG: No, we’re insured by the production company when you do that. Thank God. Otherwise, it’d be a fortune, I’m sure.

GIM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to move into your profession?

AG: It’s very, very difficult. It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely going to be a challenge and if something is your forte, you need to be the best at it. That’s your best chance because you come in with something exceptional. There’s Division I gymnasts, there’s Olympians from every walk of life, there’s X-Gamers that come in here, professional motocross, professional drift car racers. You’re going to get the best of the best, so it’s really good these days to have one forte that you know you’re the best at so you can come in and say, “You know what? I was the best at this” or “I am the best at this” and that can kind of break the ice for you.

GIM: What is the number one thing you’ve learned about your industry through the years?
AG: Save for a rainy day. I’ve seen people rise to the top, be working and kind of lose sight of it all, and come down with a crash and burn because they did not save for the future. You never know what’s going to happen. One catastrophic injury and that’s the end of your stunt career. 

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