Susan Bernecker, the mother of stuntman John Bernecker, who was killed last July in a high-fall accident on the Georgia set of The Walking Dead, says that over the last 10 years she heard him and his friends talking about unsafe conditions in the film and television industry “all the time.”
“I’m friends with 50 or 60 stunt people,” she told Deadline in an exclusive interview. “They’re like my adopted children, and I heard this all the time.” And when the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal broke, she says she was reminded of the stunt world’s code of silence that she’d heard about so often.
“If you take out the word ‘sex’ and put in ‘safety,’ it’s the same thing,” she said. “This is parallel in my mind. There are the same pressures and the same risks. People are afraid to speak out because they’re afraid they’ll never work again or that they’ll be looked down upon.” And stunt women get the worst of both worlds. “Stunt women have told me about being put in sexual harassment positions to get a job. I had two girls tell me about that in the last year.”
Her life’s mission now, she says, is to try to prevent that from ever happening to anyone else. And to that end she’s forming a foundation in her son’s name that “seeks to create solutions for the safety of movie and television performers.”
On Friday, OSHA fined the show’s production company Stalwart Films $12,675 for “failing to protect employees from fall hazards” – the maximum fine allowed for a “serious” violation of federal safety rules. Susan Bernecker, however, believes that a fine that puny isn’t going to force anyone to follow the rules.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I mean, they spend that much on food for the crew for two days. If this was half a million dollars, it would get their attention. But $12,000 isn’t going to get anyone’s attention.”
OSHA, she said, sent her a letter explaining that the “maximum” penalties haven’t been increased by Congress since 1991. And when an OSHA rep called, she said, “He was almost apologetic. I think he was embarrassed. He said, ‘I don’t want you to be in shock, because the fine does not equate the loss.’” Updating those fines so that they do equate the loss, she said, is something she intends to work on as part of her son’s foundation.
John Bernecker, who was 33 when he died, had nearly 100 stunt credits – including work on six projects that will be released later this year. He was also a stunt coordinator, and in that capacity walked away from jobs if he felt they were unsafe. “He walked away from two jobs,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Mom, they won’t put the money in the budget to protect my guys.’ And he walked away. He said, ‘If you can’t protect my people, I’m not going to do it.’ And that’s what kills me. He always had everybody’s back.”
“My son and I were like a team,” she said, fighting back tears throughout the interview. “I took care of everything so that he could fly. And he could fly.”
On the advice of her attorney — who is also the lawyer for the parents of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed in 2014 on the first day of filming Midnight Rider — Bernecker said she could not talk about The Walking Dead, but said that after her son was mortally injured, “It took them an hour to get him to the hospital, and that’s a big problem for me – besides what happened. There are a lot of answers I don’t have. I’m a mamma bear, and I want to know. His father left when he was 3, and we were alone. He was my only child. My friends called him the golden boy.”
As much as anything, she wants people to know that her son was not just a stuntman: he was a man; a man who loved life and cared about others. Since his death, she’s heard from a wide range of people who knew him and worked with him who all said the same thing: that he was a really extraordinary human being.
“I didn’t know it, but he paid people’s rent,” she said. “He was spreading fairy dust all over the place. He seized every day. He was never negative and never depressed. And if you were, he’d change it.” She created a website to give others the sense of his life.
After John’s death, the owner of the gym where he trained – he was a skilled gymnast and mixed martial artist – told Susan that John had anonymously paid for a little girl there to go to the regional gymnastics finals. “He paid for the flight, the fees and everything, but he said that John said ‘don’t tell them where it came from.’ He helped everyone along the way. He gave it his all every day. But he never bragged. He was humble. All these things he did for people.”
Since his death, she said, “I cry every day. I’m not a crybaby person, but I just cry every day. I asked my friend, ‘How many days can you cry?’ I didn’t eat or sleep for a couple of months. I eat now, but I still don’t sleep because it’s unresolved. But I know that this is what John would want me to do. There’s nothing worse than having your child die. You lose your future, especially if you have only one child. I’m not going to be a grandmother now. You lose your future. It’s not a natural progression of life. I go through this every day.”
“This should not have happened,” she said. “This was not the kind of stunt you should be killed on. He did this same stunt (a fall from a balcony) two months earlier in South Carolina. So I’m going to try to change things. My niece is a stunt woman, and I feel a duty to find out what happened, and to do what John would have done, to make it safer for everybody. Because the industry isn’t doing it. Somebody’s got to get the ball rolling, so I guess I was picked.”
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