We are working nights somewhere in East London under stark moonlight, which does little to take the edge off. I'm back with the James Bond stuntmen crew, arguably the best team of daredevils in the world, with the rare privilege of taking on the ballistic driving sequences for Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise.
Over the next five months we will circle the globe, from the neon-lit highways of Shanghai to the Scottish highlands and the gritty streets of Istanbul. It's a bumpy ride from start to finish, but it's the kind of stuff for which Daniel Craig is quite literally uninsurable. That's why they call me.
This first shot is a pickup of Bond spiriting M away in... his 1964 Aston Martin DB5. I swallow hard as my eyes absorb the metallic gray torpedo sitting in Bond's oil-stained lockup. Director Sam Mendes and Daniel lean against the garage wall in deep discussion while staring longingly at the machine.
After introductions with the screen legends I get the brief: a sharp pull-away, speed down the alley, then a hard right underneath the railway crossing. I walk the rain-soaked route with stunt biker Lee Morrison, who is dressed like a World War II bomber pilot in sheepskin leathers. I'm saying nothing. My last remark about him resembling Inspector Gadget earned me a face-slap from his flip-flop.
I loosen Bond's custom-made pinstripe suit and ease into the $5M DB5 from Goldfinger. Gadgets abound, notably the red button located inside the gear knob. I'm not brave enough to press it — was it the ejector seat or machine guns?
Gary Powell, the stunt coordinator, inspects the camera positions before crouching out of shot. I make sure that M's double, Penny, has a firm grip of the door handle before we launch. Mendes grasps the radio: "Action."
Beating on a Classic
It feels like sacrilege, but I rev the nuts off the aging six-cylinder engine and dump the clutch. Tires squeal in protest and we rocket out the door into the alley. The brick wall fills the windscreen until I swing the boatlike wooden wheel to the right and the suspension gracefully leans to make the turn.
For the next shot, the camera crew moves to the curbside where the alley meets the narrow road. It's pitch black and the Aston's lights only throw a hazy glow at the patch of road directly ahead, making the corner blind. Naturally I'd prefer not to reshape the DB5 on the bridge right in front of the director, but it's a Bond movie, so you go large or go home.
I make it to 3rd gear in the DB5, which by now knows it preferred being in a museum. The brakes sing, I snatch 2nd and we skid into the black abyss of the archway. The wheelspin echoes around the walls as the DB5 leaps the speed bumps and we exit frame. I love this car.
Next Stop: Adana, Turkey
For the next three months this is home, and we sink into the routine of a six-day working week. Five a.m. wake-up, breakfast, travel, rehearse or shoot, back to the hotel, then hit the gym.
The Hollywood glamour is absent from the dust-blown patch of concrete where we spend weeks rehearsing for the opening sequence, but this is where the campaign is won or lost. The streets of Istanbul are painstakingly measured and re-created on this blank canvas so that we can perfect the sequences and hit the ground running when the camera rolls. We also drill 50 local drivers for the oncoming traffic in the car chase.
The airport taxi ride confirms the Turks are born stuntmen. Thankfully certain English expressions are universally understood for avoiding a head-on collision.
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 that 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 make the wheel much heavier than usual. Some hard cornering and handbrake turns confirm the Pod is ready for duty.
Time for Action
The standard Land Rover is being driven by Eve, played by Naomie Harris, and we gradually turn our heroine into a speed junkie by relentlessly thrashing around the off-road course. Naomie's new skills provide the realism when she is inside the Pod, and we synchronize 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 setup 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 median and bashing through oncoming traffic, Mark turns uphill toward 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 Rover 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 around six Land Rovers and backup trucks in case one of them gets twatted and we need to call in a spare.
For something so time-critical, everyone in the stunt team pulls together to iron out all 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 (nondescript) traffic vehicles to drive toward Mark until we switch places for the Pod to play.
Mark keeps us entertained wearing his Naomie 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.
All in the Timing
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 ram.
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 called Dick and Lou. Scarred by decades of welding hot spitting metal, the dynamic duo quietly set about creating 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 through traffic, his journey seeming to take forever. The final car slices late across his bumper but Mark can't back off. The Landy's 2-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 and comments, "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 one relentless and fearless 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 requesting your presence. Then it's 70 mph down a dirt road to get parallel to a camera lens on Carriage 5, loaded with a sunburned crew and Daniel Craig dangling off the side by his fingernails.
Not a Bad Bond
Daniel Craig 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... er... 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 Naomie 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: "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 maneuvers are required. We quickly 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 some chuckling from Craig.
You can hear the adrenaline in Naomie'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 favorite Bond Golden Oldie A View to a Kill , where the car chase developed by Driving Coordinator 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 into two. Bond merrily weaves past the traffic in the front half as if nothing happened. Arguably those kinds of stunts are as memorable and iconic as anything about 007, especially when you know they were, and still are, performed for real.
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