Open on an aerial shot of some famous skyline as an orchestral score sets the tone. Intercut dramatic slider shot of the grille and headlights as we hear the rumble of an old Chevy big block. Jump to a dark close-up of eyes as they gaze intensely, ever so slightly off the camera’s center. Engine revs as we see an insert of hands gripping a steering wheel tightly. The orchestra builds to a crescendo, jump cut; gear engaged, foot planted, tires squeal… and it begins.
The movie car chase is an anomaly, really. Taking into account the weeks of prep time setting it up, the street closures on the day of, and the elaborate amount of choreography, it’s arguably one of the most complicated things to commit to film.
It’s also a budget hog. There are countless permits that need to be pulled, street closures that have to happen, and a number of cars rented, bought, and in most cases, destroyed. All this, and with the exception of Bullitt or HB Halicki’s Gone In 60 Seconds, it comes and goes rather quickly on screen.
Why is it then that no action film or TV show seems complete without one? In short—because they’re badass.
Imagine The Italian Job without a slew of Mini Coopers driving down stairs and jumping off random things, or Bad Boys without that runway drag race between the drug dealer in the fake fiberglass Cobra and Martin Lawrence in the oh-so-gorgeous 911 Turbo 3.6.
Speaking of runways, what would the Fast & Furious franchise be without the 26-mile runway scene in Furious 6? (On second thought, maybe they should’ve stopped after The Rock drove a Terradyne Grukha F5 through a bank vault wall in Fast Five.)
Regardless, all car chase scenes have one thing in common: The on screen stars get all the cred for every drift, wall smash, and car flip, when in reality, their involvement on shoot day is typically limited.
As a part time race car driver and former Bondurant instructor who currently makes his living as an actor, I have something of a unique perspective on this.
To me, the ability to hold my own behind the wheel of a car and remain in character throughout a scene should be an asset. Imagine the time we would save knocking out a scene in half the time. Not to mention the fact that production could set aside some budget for better catering because we wouldn’t have to hire a stunt driver.
Even better, I could personally lay claim to all of the cool shit you see in the finished product. It’s a win all the way around as I see it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
There are a handful of very good reasons for this. From a business perspective, it would be ill advised to put your actors in harm’s way. In the event something was to go sideways—unintentionally sideways, that is—stunt performers can be replaced relatively easy.
Stars, not so much. It sounds harsh, but audiences (and insurance companies) typically frown upon replacing their favorite characters with a different actor mid-shoot. Also, as the old saying goes; actors act, and stunt performers stunt… or something like that.
The men and women that make the stars we love look good are not only amazing athletes, they are hardcore, trained professionals. No matter how good a plastic surgeon looks, you probably wouldn’t want them operating on your ruptured appendix, would you?
As with anything, there are exceptions to the rule. When you’re a car guy and your name is Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, you can have your people call the producers’ people and have their people sign off on doing your own stunts.
Rumor has it that while filming Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tom actually had the production fire their insurance company and replace it with one that would allow him to do things like hang on to the roof of a BMW in a sand storm and rappel off the side of the Burj Khalifa.
Sadly, my last name is not Cruise and I do not have his people. Therefore, I typically find myself sitting behind a monitor with the director, producers, and writers, while a stunt guy does a simple 180 in a stake bed truck, on a closed, four-lane street in season 2, episode 5 of Graceland… not that I’m bitter about it.
Now I have had my fair share of wheel time on screen. I once drove an H2 Hummer about 30 yards on a lakefront and came to a complete stop. I also got to rev the engine of a 2005 Mustang GT, automatic no less, loudly, while the cameras rolled. Then there was the whole “Flail around like an idiot in a stationary Range Rover to simulate a roll over while the camera guys worked their magic” deal.
But the stake bed truck in that one episode of Graceland; that was the one that got away.
Having read the script a week in advance, I knew of the stunt early on and had a chat with my director, Sandy Bookstaver, and stunt coordinator, Chick Bernhard, about how we were going to shoot it.
The scene was a simple one: My character, Carlito Solano (drug lord, human trafficker, and all-around classy guy), would be scooping up Johnny Tuturro (Undercover FBI agent played by my buddy Manny Montana) to head to a little pick up of some product. We’d be driving along in said stake bed truck full of oil drums used to hide the goods.
Suddenly, Carlito gets a call, shit goes south, and the truck flips a bitch to head back in the opposite direction just in time to avoid a hole bunch of stuff getting blown up. Boom. End scene.
It was a beautiful spring night somewhere outside of Ft. Lauderdale. In typical South Florida fashion, a rain shower came and went providing just enough moisture to get the optimum grip/slip ratio for some serious 180 action. I was stoked. Although pretty straightforward, there’s something super cool about pulling 180’s in a big ass truck. Especially one rigged with a rally style, hydraulic e-brake.
We shot the first part of the scene: Carlito pulling into frame at about 5 mph and coming to a stop. Nailed it.
For the next portion, the truck was hooked up to a process trailer, which is basically a super low flatbed with all sorts of mounts to rig cameras and lights and other equipment. It allows the vehicle being filmed to be dragged around without actually being driven while the director, DP, and camera guys hang on for dear life. Then the big moment… the 180.
Aside from a handful of onlookers and their camera phones, the four-lane street was closed in both directions for about a half-mile. The plan was to get the truck up to 30 mph or so, apply a little Scandanvian flick, pull the e-brake, and continue in the opposite direction. Something pretty much every one of us did as a teenager. Or last Saturday.
Alas, my time behind the wheel had ended. A stunt double was called in to carry out the task as it was deemed “too dangerous.” Sad face.
To pour salt onto the wound, Graceland would then be cancelled a season later. Carlito will never know the rush of pulling the perfect 180.
Frustrating as it may be, I understand the rationale behind it all. I also realize that regardless of the career path one chooses, it takes time to get to the top and I’ll have my day in the sun.
In fact, I’m already seeing progress. I play a Marine in my upcoming blockbuster (and by blockbuster I mean straight to DVD and on demand) film, Jarhead: The Siege. In it I get to drive a ratty old Tata pickup truck with a .50 cal machine gun mounted in the bed around the former North Korean Embassy in Bulgaria.
Albeit not while the other actor was manning the gun. They used a stunt double for that.
I’m coming for you, Tom Cruise.
Erik Valdez is a native Texan living in Los Angeles who pops up on TV occasionally and races cars in between. He once wrote a two sentence bio about himself in the third person.