“You’ll never get what you never ask for”
The Chimaera Project gets the opportunity to interview Professional Stuntwoman, Stunt Coordinator, and Director Heidi Germaine Schnappauf
Hey Heidi! Thank you so much for your time! Where are you from?
I CLAIM ALL OF PENNSYLVANIA!!!
And I bet they are very honored!! You are a superhero, please tell us your origin story!
My story. I can tell you what ignited my passion from an early age…and how my flame had been put out and re-ignited time after time over the years. I can tell you about how I started out struggling to find the matches, then found a lighter, then finally got one of those huge 100 gallon propane tanks that I knew how to light up again when the pilot light went out. Let’s try and get through this briefly. When I was a kid, I would (pretend) fight the boys in my neighborhood. I took karate from the time I was 5 years old into adulthood, and my father taught me how to box. He was a champion boxer in the Army, as was his father. He would sit in the living room with a gallon of water and watch me practice karate for God knows how long every day – I honestly had no concept of time. I would practice everything I knew just about every day. I realized when I practiced, that made other things easier – the first spark.
Then I would go out to play with my friends, make up a whole story and fight and wrestle, and pretend the world was watching through an imaginary camera. I would interview myself, and would say “when I was a young child, I would practice interviewing myself so I would be ready for this day…” – I guess you could say it was very “meta” before BEING “meta” was a thing. Spark number two or three on my ignition list.
My uncle had one of the first video cameras – the kind with the full size VHS tapes inside. He would bring it over at Thanksgiving and when he put it down, I would snag it and make my own movie from my little nine year old perspective. Sparks 4 through 6. I would crawl around on the ground and follow my dog, give her a voice, narrate, and always tell a full epic story. It would inevitably be over in about 10-20 minutes, at which time I would get in trouble for using the camera without permission and promptly punished. The thing was, I was never allowed to when I DID ask for permission, so I thought I would snag the opportunity while I could and deal with apologizing after the fact. Funny enough, my uncle never taped over the parts I filmed. This was before you could just delete things digitally. I’d like to think it was because secretly, he didn’t really mind so much as my mom didn’t want to be held responsible if I dropped and broke it.
We didn’t have money. I didn’t know this at the time, but looking back, I can see it. We did have enough, though. That’s something I’ll always thank my parents for – never making me feel like we were poor. They got around it somehow – and I learned a lot without even realizing it. Which brings me to my next spark. Using what I had to get what I wanted.
When I was about 15, I realized there weren’t many opportunities for kids in theatre in my area. I definitely didn’t have the money to do anything about it, but I just took what I learned from my parents and made due with what I had. Friendliness and kindness have always been and continue to be qualities I hold near and dear, and have helped me establish relationships with those like-minded people. As a young teenager, I befriended quite a few “adults” who offered their help to aid me in starting my own theatre troupe, the Misfit Players. Our first production was the full stage version of Rogers and Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress, featuring over 25 cast members, 20 orchestra members, and at least 15 crew members and designers and builders – all under the age of 21 – MOST under the age of 18. I directed the musical, and last minute found myself learning the part of the Wizard when one of the cast members joined the Army, and had to leave weeks earlier than he had planned.
Long story… not as long… I managed to start and keep a FREE (no cost to join or be a part of the group) teen theatre company going through my college years, and have it still running to this day under some of its original members as mentors for the group, and make appearances as often as possible. Every performance had a suggested donation fee, and the net proceeds (after paying the rights to a show or some money to the theater that let us use their space) would ALWAYS go to benefit a local non-profit organization. We have donated to the Domestic Violence Service Center, Red Cross, and various children’s organizations over the years. Most recently, in 2019 I came back to direct, produce and design a production of Misfit Players alumni in Next to Normal, to benefit the Children’s Service Center of Wilkes-Barre, PA, as well as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
These examples of hard work from a young age, in addition to having side jobs such as waiting tables, babysitting, delivering newspapers, and folding pizza boxes, are what catapulted me into a world of possibilities in the future. Seeing the big picture has always been a passion of mine, even if I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at the time.
When I decided to follow the passions I had for making art through acting, singing and directing, I did not even think about the fact that it would be a struggle. I just thought -that’s what people did to get what they wanted out of life. I suppose if it’s something you love, the payoff is well worth any struggle. Much to my father’s dismay, I decided to NOT join the military to become a doctor (although I did become a personal trainer and study biomechanics and kinesiology in college), and went to NYU to the Tisch School of the Arts to study drama. I was only able to attend because of some sassy broad who is always asking me for money named Sallie Mae…
Fast forward many many years, many theatre productions, side jobs, apartments, girlfriends, films, friends, a little bit of pot – I was reintroduced to one of my first loves – cinema. I found the film kids in New York through ripped pieces of papers with phone numbers to join film crews or act in student films and found more of “my people”. I discovered how this medium could be manipulated in different ways to tell a story and I knew I wanted to tell stories this way.
After discovering my love of martial arts and film could be combined to form a career – I sold everything I had to find a stunt school and took a blind leap into the world of stunts, one hundred percent all in. Another spark had been lit – and this time it was a big BOOM. Quickly, all of the things I enjoyed and was good at started to fall in place, and I was learning at warp speed the ins and outs of film and television. This isn’t to say I was successful from the beginning, as it took MANY years of carrying mats, helping out, hustling sets and training before I even got my first big shot. It was not without falling on my face – literally and figuratively – hundreds of thousands of times, that I found my successes. I still worked as a personal trainer and coach, helping people as often as I could, until my stunt career completely took over and I could no longer find the time.
After about 12 years of stunts, I found myself back in the leadership position I was in so many years ago, directing and producing – only this time, it was on film. I ended up where I am today because of every single decision I made along the way – the good, the bad, and the questionable. Stunts had prepared me to relate to and communicate with those on the front and the back of the callsheet – the faces and the crew. My quiet yet friendly childhood / adulthood social awkwardness combined with my lifelong stunt training afforded me a place on set where I could learn and watch and befriend some of the most talented crew members in the world – from directors to sound engineers, directors of photography, camera operators, wardrobe and make-up to the unit production managers and show runners. It was less about doing what it took to get to the “top”, and more about making relationships to have a fulfilled career with good people doing what they love to do.
Two years ago, I had the brilliant idea to make a little movie to show how much I have learned to give myself an opportunity to get into a directing workshop. That turned into writing, directing, and producing a feature film in my hometown in Pennsylvania – shooting it in three weekends while shooting a television show in New York City full time doing stunts during the week AND shadowing a director. I’m glad I didn’t think about it too much at the time and just did it. I knew more than I thought I knew, made some new lifelong friends, and got help from nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with in some way or another in making it.
Now nearly 30 years after my very first “film making” debut, 15 years into the business of professional film and television through stunts, and a little over two years from my first feature film making career, I can say the road to where I am today was not paved – but boy am I enjoying the challenging ride. (
Wow, that was such a beautiful story! The things have you done and the people you have impacted is truly amazing! You touched on some obstacles above. What have you learned from those challenges? What perspective have you gained?
I have starved. I have lived out of my car for short periods. I have survived on scraps from a happy hour, and the kindness of strangers at restaurants. I’ve always tried to work in places that make food so that I could at least go home with some stale bread at the end of the night with some peanut butter so my stomach wouldn’t be in pain all night and I could sleep. I’ve been abused, been #metoo’d, taken advantage of and humiliated. I have a story for nearly every day of a dark period in my life when the harsh reality of this world set in – but for every dark story, there is a story of light and of kindness. There IS good in this world if you look for it and are open to it. That’s what I’ve learned – and those are the things I’ve overcome along my journey. It is also these things that allowed me to be an observer when appropriate, and when needed, asking for help. You’ll never get what you never ask for…
“You’ll never get what you never ask for” I want a shirt or a tattoo that says that. Brilliant. What you do, isn’t always who you are. What you want isn’t always what you are doing. So, let me ask, what lights you up? What makes you stand out? And how will that get you were you want to go?
I think the thing that sets me apart from others would be my blend of specializations. I am a high level stunt performer – in which I specialize in fighting and realism with consistent and precise basic stunt principles, as well as being hyper aware of the construction and execution of stunts and fighting on camera to sell to the specific genre or mood. Using the medium of film to sell a stunt or a move or tell a story is, contrary to popular belief, not a common trait among most stunt performers and some coordinators. It is also what is serving me well as I transition to more directing and producing projects.
I am most proud of my drive to never stop learning, and admit when I don’t know something. Which is often. It seems to be the hardest thing for people to do these days – yet it is exactly how we grow and learn the most as artists and contractors. Deciding I’m going to do something and then actually setting the balls in motion to do it is also something that sets me apart from others. I choose kindness over status, and helping others over my own wants. I’d rather be poor and kind than a successful asshole.
It seems to me that if you always put kindness first followed by hard work, any moment will be your proudest! But can you narrow it down to a couple so far?
The proudest moment of my career keeps changing – as I keep having more fulfilling experiences as time passes.
I will say that one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my career and one that I am certainly abundantly proud of was working on the season 4 premiere of Blindspot in Japan. I got to train with the Japanese fight team in Japan for weeks before the rest of the crew showed up and had the most rewarding experience doing two sword fights, fighting 5 bad guys on a roof top in Tokyo at night in a leather jacket. Bad. Ass.
The reason this stands out especially so for me is what happened along with my dream fight sequence. I was given the opportunity to have my voice be heard. It might not have seemed like much at the time, but the director of that episode just happened to be the show’s creator, Martin Gero. Here is what happened.
Our American stunt coordinator, Chris Place was out and about getting 2nd unit footage throughout the city, and I was on the rooftop with the primarily Japanese speaking crew, and the few American crew members that came over from the New York team. The fight coordinator did not speak very good english, and my Japanese was even worse – HOWEVER – I was graced with the few weeks prior to at least get the gist of what they were saying, even if I wasn’t exactly certain of what they were saying… This helped me identify a few quirks that the Japanese team had. One thing I caught onto was their agreeability when they didn’t really know what they were agreeing to. Which is fine in most scenarios – but not so much when there is a discussion of whether or not we would be using the REAL swords or the FAKE swords in which takes.
Normally I stay in my lane, but when I saw there might be an issue with safety, (and the person in charge of our safety didn’t speak English) I stepped in and gently mentioned to Martin that they indeed were using the real swords in the take with the actor, and maybe they should switch them out. This led to him seating me next to him at the director’s monitor to watch and plan out some shots, do a little stunt translating to the Japanese team, and encouragement for me to pursue more behind the camera in the future.
This was the very day I decided to take steps toward directing, and I began planning my strategy to move forward. Between Martin Gero and Ryan Johnson (a writing producer on the show), I had been given just that extra bit of confidence that I had the experience and demeanor to go after my goals and dreams.
Staying to your mantra of hard work and kindness, took you to the next step and that is incredible. You are such an example to many! Anything other advice you’d like to share?
I have to say that the most important bit of advice I would give anyone with the drive to keep doing better or with a need to find purpose, is to not only work hard to follow your dreams, but allow those dreams to change along the way as you do. By limiting yourself to the path someone else has taken, you rob yourself of making your own. Work hard. Enjoy the ups, because they will need to balance the downs and propel you forward. The fuel that will keep you going will only stay lit if you tend to it and allow it to grow in whichever direction it takes. Don’t be afraid to take away the limitations and blinders others have set in place and follow the path you make for YOU.
Now that everyone has read your story, it’ll be clear to them why Chimaera Project is so impressed with you and were thrilled to come on as your fiscal sponsor. Why do you think programs like the Chimaera Project are important?
I think the industry is moving in a direction of inclusivity, but there is a long road ahead. Deciding to make my own movies and recruit the people I know and love to work with proves it can be done – and I think as long as we keep making art and taking the steps to include people in our own projects along the way, the future looks promising. The future of this business is really in our hands and although it will be tough, we have to start becoming the decision makers in order to have the hard decisions being made. Chimaera has really grabbed onto this idea and through empowerment and leadership, you are building the steps on this ladder to a more inclusive industry with all of us.
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