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Driving Bond: CAR's role in Skyfall (2012)
25 October 2012 13:00
Let CAR take you behind the scenes of the new Bond flick 'Skyfall', as ex-Stig Ben Collins talks us through what it's really like on-set stunt driving for James Bond.
The special-effects team peels the covers off my new ride: a Land Rover Defender with a ‘Pod’ system mounted onto the roof so that I can drive it while the actors ride below. The Pod contains a seat which is bolted into a heavy duty roof-rack. All the functions of steering, changing gear, braking and accelerating are diverted upstairs so that I can operate the vehicle without being seen by the camera.
All that weight on the roof makes the Pod top heavy, so we prove the system won’t roll over by exploring its limits during rehearsals. Any lean in the suspension is quadrupled by the time it reaches me, and the hydraulic lines used to steer the wheels makes the wheel much heavier than usual. Some hard cornering and handbrake turns confirm the Pod is ready for duty.
The standard Landy is being driven by Eve, played by Naomi Harris, and we gradually turn our heroine into a speed junkie by relentlessly thrashing around an off-road course. Naomi’s new skills provide the realism when she is inside the Pod and we synchronise her actions with mine by rehearsing the sequences until the timing becomes second nature. We weight the steering wheel to make it move naturally and after a couple of weeks are working as a team.
Eve’s first set-up sees her racing through Istanbul to keep up with Bond. Those wide shots feature my regular driving partner and multiple rally champion Mark Higgins. After leaping the central reservation and bashing through oncoming traffic, Mark turns uphill towards a bridge to face more cars and a truck laden with steel. The ensuing carnage results in the truck flipping directly into the Land Rover’s path.
The brow of the hill means the key players can’t see each other until the final seconds, so their approach must be perfect. The truck and the Landy have to navigate through their respective traffic at precise speeds in order to meet just as the truck reaches the impact point. Arrive too early and the camera misses the shot. Arrive too late and… crunch. We have six Land Rovers and back-up trucks in case one of them gets destroyed, and we need a spare.
For something so time-critical everyone in the stunt team pulls together to iron out the moves. Using a stopwatch we measure the runs and set out fixed start points, accounting the timing of every swerve. I jump into one of the ND (non-descript) traffic vehicles to drive towards Mark; in this scene, it’s his turn to play in the Pod.
Mark keeps us entertained wearing his Naomi Harris wig, looking as convincing as one of Clouseau’s disguises. Lee Morrison looks more serious in the flip truck wearing a helmet, neck brace and pads. He’ll need them.
Lee must power his gutless rig up to a set speed atop the short bridge before moving across to the right-hand lane to engage with his mobile ramp. The ramp is masked inside the engine bay of a car being towed along by a small truck. Lee has to strike the car just inside its rear quarter to smash through the bodywork and get his front wheel onto the hidden ramp.
The ramp angles that spiral machinery accurately through the air are something of a black art, and the witch doctors are a pair of unsung heroes known as ‘Dick’ and ‘Lou’. Scarred by decades of welding hot, spitting metal they quietly create masterpieces that would baffle most mathematicians.
The atmosphere cogs up two gears as second unit director Alexander Witt positions his unmanned cameras to capture the scene without destroying his equipment. The long lenses dial in and the focus pullers mop their brows in anticipation. Gary sweeps up and down the hill positioning traffic.
On ‘action!’ the hill springs to life as stunt pedestrians meander up the sidewalk and the vehicles move off. Mark guns the Landy and snakes the traffic; his journey seems to take forever. The final car slices late across his bumper but Mark can’t back off. The Landy’s two-second turbo lag would cost too much time.
The thundering red cab of the truck looms over the horizon of the bridge, just as the Landy squeezes into position. Clashing metal shakes the ground as the truck rams its target and rolls, casting a shadow over the passing Landy. Mark pinches through to finish with a handbrake turn, while the truck slams into the deck and spews its cargo. Gary eyes the camera feed: ‘It doesn’t get any closer than that.’
Steam rises from the truck as its fluids trickle down the road. The instant the camera cuts the stunt crew rush in and help Lee jump from the cab, shaken but never stirred. Every piece of debris is photographed and the end positions noted. The set is cleared up, then we go again from different angles and using the Pod.
The intense sequences contrast many long hours spent waiting for the train on which Bond slogs it out with a villain called Patrice (played by Ola Rapace). Various destructive elements and special effects take forever to set up. Your backside goes numb but your brain needs to switch on the moment the radio crackles. Then it’s 70mph down a dirt road to get parallel to a camera on carriage five, loaded with crew and Daniel Craig dangling off the side by his fingers.
DC commands the Bond character with aplomb in Skyfall, increasingly at ease with the wild scenarios thrown his way. When the shades come off his cool reserve brightens with a nod and a smile, as he climbs aboard the Pod for the motoring equivalent of the Cresta Run on a vertical cobbled lane in the downtrodden district of Belat.
Eve is in hot pursuit of Patrice in his Audi A5 (3.0 V6 TDI – Quattro with the front axle disconnected to make it more, err, lively at the rear axle). There are twists and turns, stuff blowing up, cars getting in the way and to keep up with the Audi my foot is welded to the throttle stop. To help me react to their acting cues, I can hear Daniel and Naomi through my earpiece. They know this, so prior to launch he’s humming the tune to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to wind me up. Gary shouts: ‘Keep two lengths off the Audi’s bumper for this one.’ On ‘action!’ the Audi shoots off and I’m grateful for the ‘special’ modifications the SFX team made to enhance the Pod’s engine. We weave through a chicane amidst a cacophony of exploding debris to some glib dialogue from downstairs. The Audi pulls away momentarily as it powerslides between two cars and the Pod, fully laden with two cameras plus precious cargo, lurches along behind. The rough cobbles shake the hydraulic steering, affecting the wheel alignment, and I chase the wheel to compensate.
Gravity ramps up our speed and emergency manoeuvres are required. We reach the bottom for a 90 right, a big compression and a sudden stop. It’s our first hard run and there’s silence downstairs, broken by DC chuckling. You can hear the adrenaline in Naomi’s voice: ‘Oh… my… god!’ Mendes: ‘Good one! We don’t need it any faster.’
Chasing the Audi leads us into the market square outside the main bazaar in Istanbul. The vehicles pound the hell out of each other through a packed crowd, smashing through stalls until the Audi meets a spectacular end. More importantly, I make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance as a fruit vendor alongside fellow driver Martin Ivanov. Ever the dedicated merchants, we abandon ship only once the Audi spirals above our stall.
The scene reminds me of my favourite Bond golden oldie, A View to a Kill, in which the car chase developed by driving co-ordinator Remy Julienne became part of the fabric of the movie. Roger Moore hijacks a Parisian taxi and ends up getting T-boned so hard it splits the car in two. Bond merrily weaves past the traffic in the front half like nothing happened. Arguably those kind of stunts are as memorable and iconic as anything about 007, especially when you know they were – and still are – performed for real. Great to watch, even better to be part of…