The Car Chase

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine – a stuntman and a helluva driver. I asked him what he thought were some of the best driving movies. He mentioned a movie that I hadn’t seen but wanted to, that was recently available. Since he was helping with me a project I thought it might be in my best interest to watch it.

I did and was thoroughly disappointed to the point where I am writing this. I saw the credits and they showed some of Hollywood’s best drivers, so that was not the issue. Now, I am truly convinced that Hollywood has its head up its ass and I make no apologies for that.

First off, driving has been in my blood for as long as I can remember. In fact, my oldest recollection of my life is my father racing in & out of cars on the highway while chasing a train. I couldn’t have been more than two but was just tall enough to stand on the seat and see over the dash. I can still remember him shifting with, no less than a Hurst shifter. No seat belt. Yeah…The ultimate in parenting skills.

My mother had said when he came from overseas that they had a problem paying rent as he was getting speeding tickets. It’s good to know pops had his priorities straight!

All kidding aside, the truth of the matter is that my father was a very humble man and before he came over from Europe he took 1st in his division of what is now the WRC (World Rally Championships) and 3rd overall. Moreover, he came from a tropical island where there were tight roads, no laws and no safety. This was a driver with experience…

Myself, my first car was my parent’s that they bought for $3,500 in the Fall and in the following spring sold it for $150…slightly “used”. At 18…was my first police chase, 19…reverse 180’s, 21…putting cars up on three wheels, 22…driving in conflict zones and it gets kind of interesting after that.

If you want to find out more about that:

Realistically, there were only a couple of things I learned from my father:

1) To shimmy the tires to create traction, which is not really used anymore due to the quality and technology of tires and;

2) To check the body roll, and suspension while in and out of the car.

This is where I begin…

And it sort of starts with the movie: Bullitt. Despite, it’s continuity issues; it still remains “the” original car chase. As a kid, it was the cars – the 68’ Dodge Charger and the Legendary 67’ Mustang Fastback that fascinated me. In my late teens/early 20’s it was “inspiration”…to speed, frankly. Now, as a film maker I just saw pure film making and captured something that is part of Hollywood history.

I was lucky enough to have a great chat with Loren Janes, Steve McQueen’s stunt double, and I must admit…my head couldn’t fit through the door afterwards.

What stands out for me, as a filmmaker, is that it’s basic but very well executed.

For example, when Steve McQueen misses the turn, reverses and the wheel hop occurs…from the beginning of that particular part of the sequence it was nicely done. The camera operator nailed McQueen as he came in…and if you look closely, it was done one take, as there are no other tire marks.

If you look at Ken Block’s videos and not that Ken is a bad driver…there’s something about nailing it the first time. Film vs. Digital mentality? Editing versus the actual footage?

The 2nd part was the cars themselves. They were slightly modified but the cars back then weren’t polished as they are now. Translation, he had to keep the rev’s (RPM’s) up so that he could keep it in the power band and not to mention those boat steering wheels they had back then was a chore, at best. To elaborate more or if you don’t know what that means… is that you’re maximizing your power in the car at its most optimum state from the standpoint of power.

Maximizing it from the suspension and steering are two other different things. And because of this very “little” thing…McQueen doesn’t have to act…he just drives. If you fast-forward now to certain movies…they show their heads being tilted/pushed back or they can barely hold on to the steering wheel to convey the illusion of power – acting. And I’m not talking Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman kind of acting…

In fact, J.J. Abrams did a mini remake of the Bullitt chase for the show Alcatraz. Some great burnouts, but that was it. The actors “had” to act, which detracted from the action performance of the cars and they didn’t have to work the power band because the engine was powerful enough. Get it?

Let’s move forward to the next in the series of car chase classics – The Seven Ups with Roy Schneider; same driver from Bullitt – Bill Hickman, the bad guy. This chase had more elements, more traffic, screaming kids…and different angles of the cars. Continuity also was remedied. Again with Bill Hickman as the driver for the epic car chase scene in the French Connection. Notice a pattern?

Here’s a link/write up I did on Bill Hickman:

And if you know anything about Friedkin, the director…this is one of the crazy times that was put to good use. Now, here you have an element of “interaction with the people” with Hickman hitting a passerby with a shopping cart and you better believe that’s a mistake that you are going to put in the movie!

This was around a time that cars by way of the Canam, LeMans and Formula One series were starting an era of motorsports that has been long gone, in my eyes, unfortunately to branding/marketing & technology.

These cars were just off-the-hook…Canam had unlimited horsepower, Le Mans was at it’s most popular time when McQueen had starred in the movie “ Le Mans” and Formula One was the most amazing motorsport on the planet. Drivers were also getting killed…

That technology was being trickled down, first, with the GT40, with perfect weight distribution and a couple of years later with the Datsun 240. And later with the perennial BMW.

Jackie Stewart was the top guy and was promoting safety with seatbelts. Incidentally, my seatbelt was my dad putting his arm across my chest! Did you know they were an option at the factory back then? And if you were really old school, well, when you bought a car, you just cut them out!

Move forward and we are just around the corner with autonomous cars. We are losing and or have lost the right to drive cars by using technology and safety. And if it’s not that, it’s hybrids and electrics; and they don’t have the same feeling as a combustion engine…hybrids feel much more linear. And in my opinion…very, very odd.

You see, these guys were the greatest drivers of all time. There really wasn’t any technology or safety back then. In fact, tires just blew…but they blew so often that drivers knew what they had to do, to control the vehicle. Technology has obfuscated the ability of the driver and he or she has been bypassed…as a driver.

The 80’s – The Go Big or Go Home era. Explosions, pile ups and total carnage. Think Blues Brothers, Cannonball Run, Live and Die in L.A. etc. This is where Hollywood started to get their grubby hands on these movies by bringing in people from outside instead of coming up the ranks. Now, you’ll find most execs in Hollywood have MBA degrees, which have no relation to creative movie magic other than the mathematics of putting the budget together, despite what their recruiter or human resources said.

The 90s’ came along and technology, special/visual effects started to rear its ugly head, especially when it wasn’t really ready for it. However, every so often would come along…a filmmaker. Ronin came along and stole the show, a refined performance. And ending off the decade with Gone in 60 Seconds, with an epic but fun car chase.

2000’s there was a little Action series that came out and is somewhat the point of this article, The Bourne series.

Two things…the cars don’t mean shit! And it’s not about the speed…it’s the illusion of it!

The Bourne series with 2nd unit Director: Dan Bradley at the helm and Gary Powell, the stunt coordinator.

Can you recall anywhere in the films that they used beautiful, exciting, exotic, fast cars? Not really, other than when Damon reverses an Audi off the side of a parking structure, which I’m not sure you could consider “driving”.

Mini, Lada, Mercedes SUV, VW Touareg, Kia, Suzuki SUV, Malibu (Chevy)…not exactly the cream of the crop eh? Did you really care when about the car when those cars were in the chase?

If you weren’t on the edge of your seat…you may want to check for a pulse!

Fancy cars are good for product placement, but even with fancy looks, fast cars can TAKE AWAY from the excitement. Yes, they do.

Have I enjoyed the Bond series? Absolutely. There’s a right time for these types of cars especially when it enhances the story or character, but they still need to be driven AND captured a certain way to create that excitement.

This was evident when Ron Howard, proclaimed that he was not a car guy, as well as his DP, Anthony Dod Mantle which is Danny Boyle’s regular DP. They were smart enough to hire shooters from the popular British show, Top Gear, where they eat, and sleep cars and it’s culture.

There are several things that if you were to remove from this process would greatly improve the shoots dramatically.

Further, on these cars that go well over 180 mph. It’s just flailing your dick around because there is nothing that can catch it when filming. Helicopter…maybe 120-140mph. Drones…not even close. Ultimate/Russian Arm 120 mph…and that’s unofficially folk’s. It’ll be 70-90 mph for insurance companies, producers, and worrisome wives.

Hollywood is heavily influenced by NASA due to the extreme aspects of tolerances and stunts. Every top stunt coordinator has dealt with them in some capacity, but we’re just not there. But just like film industry, NASA, ten years ago went through a transition. The old farts had retired but what was lost was the culture and advancements of technology that they had gone through. They started off with vacuum tubes, transistors then to computer chips. Sure, computer chips are the future but there is something to be had with knowing previous technologies so as to have a trail to work off. Same thing with music – analog versus digital, etc.

Since the “incentive era” we have seen an alteration in the car chase. Now done out in the back woods, country. Look at the movies of that last few years and you will rarely see a chase in the city. Why? …Insurance, speed, safety, maybe incompetence etc. Yup, back roads, trees and cornfields. Lame.

Background is a big thing as it helps with the illusion of speed…streetlights, buildings- create a sense of speed. If you see trees and corn…can you really see the speed? It’ll be “shown” on the speedometer or certain camera angles and edited to circumvent it.

Conversely, you can be very clever by using tension like what was done in the opening of Drive. It held my attention very well and when they did let it go…it didn’t fail me. It was in a controlled environment, that had an industrial setting and for the most part they were in a straightaway, which reduces the risk; and as a result cost.

I like how the Europeans shoot their driving sequences, particularly the French. It’s a passion of theirs. The Europeans bring refinement to the process, just like their cars. The Americans, Asians, and the Aussies bring other things to the table so it’s up to you what sort of Action Design you want or what floats your boat.

The early on movies of 70’s brought a raw, unrefined, fuck the man attitude, which has been somewhat lost. And the generation now will miss that, unfortunately.

Movies like Vanishing Point, Crazy Mary Dirty Larry, Rendezvous, and the original Gone in Sixty Seconds, Smokey and the Bandit, Gumball Rally etc.

Though from 1960’s and what I think is a filmic masterpiece in terms of the driving sequences is Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. It’s the only movie I know of that in each race they changed the theme/style of it. Pure filmmaking.

Moreover, the 1970’s as far as I’m concerned are the new classics of where we should be looking. The craftsmen were on top of their game and technology was at a minimum.

This is the way I see it…There are Action/Stunt people, craftsmen (D.P.s, Editors, etc.) and the Filmmaker. Each one of those people will look at it differently, but the filmmaker has to encompass it all. Which one are you?

In closing, the first time I met Gary Powell we were talking mini’s, rally driving back in Europe and he was telling me about a Youtube video that he was intrigued by with a Ford Cortina and a Chevy Camaro. This not only was exciting, it is racing. The smaller, nimble car versus the big engine for the straight-aways. Gary has access to all the makings of creating something awesome…but it’s all about the basics, as I pointed out. Once he told me this, I realized he is one of the guys that gets it. Clearly.

Gary has been known for doubling Pierce Brosnan in Bond movies for driving, anything, and has been the stunt coordinator for the Bond series since Casino Royale. His grandfather doubled for the original Bond, Mr. Connery himself. His father for Roger Moore, and his brother Gregg Powell coordinated the Harry Potter series.

Gary knows what driving and a car chase is.

Can you imagine what those conversations over dinner were like?

There is a difference between a journalist, a stunt driver, street racer, performance driver and a driver who has operated a vehicle under fire; and most of the drivers have put their neck on the line, but if it’s not shot right or even edited properly…it can all go amiss.