Ben Collins, once Top Gear’s test driver and now Skyfall’s action man, describes life on a 007 set.
Skyfall: it’s dark and cold. We are working nights somewhere in East London under stark moonlight, which does little to take the edge off. I’m with the James Bond stunt crew, probably the best team of daredevils in the world, with the rare privilege of taking on the ballistic driving sequences for which Daniel Craig is literally uninsurable. Over the next five months we will circle the globe from the highways of Shanghai to the Scottish Highlands and the gritty streets of Istanbul.
The 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 grey 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 I get the brief: a sharp pullaway, speed down the alley then a hard right underneath the railway crossing.
I loosen Bond’s custom-made pinstripe suit and ease into the leather aboard the very expensive DB5 from Goldfinger. Gadgets abound, notably the red button located inside the gear knob, which I’m not brave enough to press – is it the ejector seat or machines guns?
Gary Powell, the stunt coordinator, inspects the camera positions before crouching out of shot. Sam grasps the radio: “Action!”. It feels like sacrilege, but I rev the nuts off the ageing six-cylinder engine and dump the clutch. Tyres squeal in protest and we rocket into the alley. The brick wall fills the windscreen until I swing the boat-like wooden wheel to the right and the suspension gracefully leans to make the turn.
For the next shot it’s pitch black and the Aston’s lights throw only a hazy glow on the road. Naturally I’d prefer not to reshape the DB5 in front of the director, but it’s a Bond movie, so you go large or go home.
I make it to third gear, the brakes sing, I snatch second and we skid into the black abyss of the archway. The wheelspin echoes around the walls as the DB5 leaps the speed humps and we exit frame. I love this car.
Next stop is Adana, Turkey. For three months this will be home and we sink into a six-day working week.
On set the special-effects team peels the covers off a Land Rover Defender with a pod system mounted on to the roof so that I can drive it while the actors ride below. 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.
Eve, played by Naomie Harris, is the character driving the Land Rover. Her first scene involves her racing through Istanbul to keep up with Bond. The ensuing carnage results in a truck flipping directly into her path. The truck and the Defender have to navigate through traffic at precise speeds in order to meet at their impact point. Arrive too early and the camera misses the shot. Arrive too late and… crunch. We have about six Land Rovers and backup trucks spare.
Using a stopwatch we measure the runs and set out fixed start points. On “Action!” the hill springs to life as stunt pedestrians meander up the pavement and the vehicles gun their engines. The Defender snakes through the traffic. Moments later, the red cab of the truck looms over the bridge just as our vehicle squeezes into position alongside.
The truck rams its target and rolls, casting a shadow over the passing Defender. 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.”
Daniel 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 as he climbs aboard the Defender for the motoring equivalent of the Cresta Run: a vertical cobbled lane in the downtrodden district of Belat. Here Eve is in hot pursuit of Patrice (Ola Rapace) in his Audi A5. 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 Daniel’s humming the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tune to wind me up.
On action the Audi shoots off and I’m grateful for the modifications made to enhance the Land Rover’s engine. The rough cobbles shake the hydraulic steering, affecting the wheel alignment. I chase the wheel to compensate.
We quickly reach the bottom for a sharp corner, a big compression and a sudden stop. It’s our first hard run and there’s silence downstairs, broken by some chuckling from Daniel. You can hear the adrenalin in Naomi’s voice: “Ohe_SLps mye_SLps God.” Sam simply says, “Good one, we don’t need it any faster.”
Bond has certainly changed since my favourite, A View to a Kill, but arguably the stunts are as memorable and iconic as ever. Especially when you know they are performed for real. Combining them with uber-performances from Daniel and the star-studded cast should make Skyfall a classic.
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