HAINES CITY — High falls, fight scenes and men on fire…oh, my.
The John Zimmerman Stunt Camp, 200 Cumbie Drive, gave media members a glimpse of some of the work it will be doing when the camp officially opens Jan. 6. Zimmerman, 67, the founder and owner of the camp, has appeared as a stuntman in more than 130 movies and television shows.
“They were doing a lot of film work in Florida in the 1980s and 1990s and that’s how I got into it,” he said. “If you can somehow get onto a movie set and get to know people, you can make it in this business.”
Some of Zimmerman’s more notable appearances include ''Edward Scissorhands,'' ''12 Years a Slave,'' ''Iron Man 3'' and television shows ''Burn Notice'' and ''Miami Vice.'' Zimmerman got his start as a trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers before getting into stunts and, after retirement, decided to share his knowledge.
“I was always a good coach,” Zimmerman said. “My career before this was as a trapeze artist and I had an aptitude for teaching. That carried over into stunts.”
The camp won’t only teach how to perform the stunts, but other important aspects of being in the business. They include learning how to find out where films are being made, etiquette on the set, relationship building and resume’ building.
“I know it has the potential to give the basic fundamentals of this business,” stuntman Mike Ortiz said of the camp. “This is a place where people can learn important aspects of film making and get to work with some equipment you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
Ortiz, 46, has been in the business for about 15 years. Ortiz was set on fire for a demonstration Thursday and has appeared in films such as ''The Magnificent Seven.'' Ortiz said it is a tough business.
“I enjoy making new friends and how every day brings something new,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the younger people succeed. I live to see people grow and improve. If you can survive 10 or 20 years in the business, you can be successful and that’s rewarding.”
Michele Waitman, a former gymnast at East Tennessee State University, said she fell into the business 23 years ago after she auditioned for the Indiana Jones stunt show at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios. Waitman has gone on to be a stunt double for Jennifer Anniston, Sarah Michelle Gellar on the series ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' in addition to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.
“It has been a great experience,” Waitman said. “I fell into what I love and what I think I was supposed to do.”
Zimmerman said his classes will last seven days. Five will be spent in a gymnasium in Longwood and two will be at the stunt ranch in Haines City. To begin, Zimmerman said, he’ll hold at least one class per month, but he expects that to increase over time. The website lists the cost is $1,750.
“All of my instructors are currently working professionally in the stunt business,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a tight-knit community. They’re getting insight and connections into the business.”
Like Waitman, Tom Akos, 53, said he fell into the business. Akos has been in the business for 32 years after starting out as one of the original stuntmen at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom for a gunfight show.
“I had two older brothers and I was basically a crash test dummy growing up,” Akos said. “I’m pretty much an all-around stunt man. The one thing I’ve never done is a full body burn.”
His first notable television series was ''Superboy.'' He went on to serve as a stunt double for Hulk Hogan. He also did test stunts for roles played by John Cena and Dwayne Johnson, but never doubled for either one.
“It’s all a calculated risk,” Akos said. “We’re a bunch of kids who never really have to grow up. It’s playing army and it’s playing cops and robbers all over again.”
Zimmerman said instructors will have extensive knowledge of the field. Zimmerman expects to have one instructor for every four students and each of them will have at least 50 International Movie Database credits to their name.
“The sky is the limit for this camp,” Waitman said. “We’re bringing in people who want to learn and they’re learning from the best in the business.”
Although it wasn’t a camp previously, Zimmerman’s property was used as a place to train and practice stunts. Akos sees the camp as not just a place for those serious about getting into the industry, but for “weekend warriors” who have always wanted to try it. The camp website is www.stuntcamp.us.
“It gives the average guy a fantasy camp and it gives those genuinely interested insight into the industry,” Akos said. “This property has been producing stuntmen for 30 years. This backyard right here has produced some of the best in the business.”
Mike Ferguson can be reached at Mike.Ferguson@directgates.com or 863-401-6981. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.