By the time I make it down to the Tiber that first night in Rome—after an overnight flight, after Customs, after clearing the complicated Italian on-set security—it’s nearly midnight and I’ve just missed the shot.
A giant crane is planted at the top of the stairs that lead down to the river. Its outriggers spans most of the blocked-off roadway, its ten-story boom extends over the water, its winding drum is whirring. At the end of its line, emerging from the water tail-first, like a giant hooked tarpon, is the impossibly gorgeous, smoky silver, Aston Martin DB10 sports coupe, purpose built as a one-off (well, ten-off) by Aston design chief Marek Reichman in collaboration with director Sam Mendes, just for “Spectre,” the 24th James Bond film, and the 12th featuring the venerable British sporting luxury brand.
Water pours out of its baleen grille, and I wonder if this is an intentional or accidental byproduct of the movie’s central chase scene, a sequence that also includes, among other double-dares, tearing through a Vatican Piazza at 100 m.p.h. and launching down four flights of stairs.
At least three other DB10s line the damp cobbled path next to the river. A “stunt gadget” car—a drivable version loaded up with all the hardware and Q-installed goodies—is being moved back into position upriver. A “pod” car with a giant metal armature mounted on top—including steering wheel, mirrors, and gas and brake pedals, allowing it to be operated independent of the “driver” who can then focus on acting—sits backed against the high wall. A “hero” car, pristine and used for rolling and staid beauty shots, is parked alongside it, its custom wheels shimmering in the wake-refracted moonlight.
Also present are various versions of the baddie’s car. Aligned with the brand’s villainous marketing messages, this is a Jaguar. Maintaining the focus on bespoke vehicles, it’s also not a production vehicle, but a radical concept—2010’s handsome hybrid, electric, gas turbine C-X75—albeit revised and resuscitated.
“They’ve got V-8 engines in them, from the F-Type,” stunt coordinator Gary Powell tells me. “The originals, the real ones, are actually a lot heavier because they’ve got batteries and electric motors and all that. They’d probably get exploded if we went down the stairs. So they built us these from the ground up.” (“Nobody really wants the hybrids close to water,” action vehicles technology coordinator Neil Layton adds, later.)
Uncertain of the accuracy of these statements, but not willing to take any chances, I retreat to a high perch on the opposite bank as the crew resets the shot. The plot point here, so far as I can discern, is that one of the bad guy’s henchmen, the mountainous Mr. Jinx played by pro wrestler David Bautista, is chasing Bond through the city. They end up running top speed on this riverside promenade, and, approaching a stone barricade, Bond faces a difficult choice.
Diminishing the dramatic excitement somewhat, the chase is not being filmed in sequence. Tonight, we’ll see just Jinx’s initial antagonistic approach, and Bond’s ultimate response. As the stunt-Aston is winched onto a ramp hidden behind the ersatz wall, and the Jag is rolled back upriver, out of sight, I examine the spectacle—one of the year’s biggest movies being filmed in the heart of Rome—and note the absence of paparazzi.
When I ask about this, I’m told that there are over 600 people working on this production, half of who are dedicated to keeping people from approaching the shoot. With nine cameras and their concomitant operators, a dozen emergency technicians idling in the drink on Skidoos, two-dozen handlers dedicated to moving the picture cars around, and this immense security apparatus, it is not surprising that productions like this cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, it is kind of shocking that they don’t cost more.
I hear the Jag’s vengeful crackle before I see it, but when it finally appears, it is on fire. No one is running toward it, so I assume this to be intentional. It races upriver and as it approaches the wall, an explosion goes off under the waiting Aston, a lift engages, and the DB10 is launched into the air. I won’t spoil the surprise of what happens next. But in the aftermath of all this wizardry and mayhem, the priceless Jaguar sits, still burning. About thirty seconds later, someone drags over an extinguisher and puts it out.
When creating the latest installment of one of the world’s longest running and most profitable movie franchises, car chases and crash-ups do not happen in an ad hoc way.
“I see a script very early on,” says stunt coordinator Gary Powell, a veteran of six prior Bond films. “And then we start planning things. With these movies, it’s always, no one’s really done anything of this scale here before. So one of the biggest questions is, are they going to let us do it?”
In the case of Spectre, Powell worked very closely with director Sam Mendes to explore ideas and bring them to life. “Let’s say there’s a car chase in the original script. Sam sort of gives us his vision of what the chase needs to be, and it sort of progresses from there. We come up with ideas, what we’d like to see the cars doing. Then come over to look at locations that would be nice to use.”
In order to guarantee that his ideas remain fresh, Powell has to stay current on his action movie viewing. (We ask if he’s ever seen a film stunt and wondered, how did they do that? His answer, “No.”) He also has to stay on top, if not ahead, of contemporary audience trends.
These days, that means limiting the use of computer generated imagery (CGI). “Bond has always been big, spectacular, and a little bit different. So we keep that in mind, but we try to keep it as real as possible, gritty, because that’s what the new audience likes.”
The cars are then designed and constructed to meet the needs of the stunts. They’re equipped with more compliant and longer-travel suspension to allow for off-brand use like drifting downstairs or across Roman cobbles. They’re fitted with roll cages for stiffness and driver safety. They’re given quick-change brackets to allow the rapid swap of dented body panels. They’re even, like the Jag, given entirely new drive trains.
But the real reason people go to see a James Bond movie is for the gadgets, so the most compelling modifications are those added by Neil Layton. His rather ponderous official title is Action Vehicles Technologies Coordinator. But, in honor of the gizmo chief at Mi6, I refer to him as Real Q.
Bond’s DB10 is outfitted with all the latest technology. Inside the cabin, there’s a beautiful squared off racing wheel with a keyless fingerprint recognition starter, like on an iPhone. There’s a set of precise Swiss watch-like analog gauges. There’s the requisite ejector seat button affixed to the top of the gearshift. (“What do you use to test that,” I ask. “Cheeky journalists, mostly,” Layton says.)
But it’s the row of unpolished, Frankensteined switchgear on the center console I’m most interested in. “In the film, the car is a prototype—Bond takes it out before it’s complete,” Layton says. “I’ve had to visually emphasize the fact that these switches are not production ready, so they look pretty crude.”
These buttons control the Aston’s weaponry, including rear-mounted flamethrowers and pneumatic double barrel machine guns. Layton takes us around back, opens the trunk, and shows us how everything is plumbed to be discrete, functional, and integrated. “As you can see, it’s not just a case of chucking in a couple of tubes, putting pipes out the back, and saying, this is your flamethrower and your gun.”
Everything is proper. For example, since the machine gun barrels exit from behind a centrally mounted Aston trunk badge, Layton and his team needed to move the boot latch to the side. But they didn’t just insert a basic replacement. “It still has the capacity to power closed.” He demonstrates. “So we’ve kept the refinements of the Aston brand.”
Layton informs us that Daniel Craig is quite experienced at high speed driving. “Any excuse for him to go out in a fast sports car and have a couple fun days,” he says. But while Craig might have the chops to appear more confident behind the wheel than Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, when you see Bond driving, or believe that you see him driving, chances are, he’s not actually driving. Mark Higgins is.
The three-time British Rally champion has worked on a number of previous Bond films, and though he doesn’t exactly share Daniel Craig’s build (who does?), when he’s dressed in a black Tom Ford suit and Omega Seamaster watch, as he is when he sits down with us on set, he—or, at least, his hands and arms—can work as a decent facsimile.
Higgins sees a number of key differences between racing and technical driving. “You’re not quite on the limit in film. You’re trying to be consistent—you’re working to the cameras and what’s around you. And safety is paramount, with seventy people about. With rallying and racing,” he says, “you’re pushing, maybe, a little bit more.”
Still, he’s proud to be able to take his children to see the finished movies. I suggest that it must be fun to show off during these family outings, to point at the screen and whisper to the kids, That’s me, that’s your dad. But this can apparently come with its own set of complications. “I didn’t do that in the last one [Skyfall],” he says, “because I was Naomie Harris for most of it.” [the actress who played Moneypenny]
After a day of wandering around Rome, I return to the shoot the following night. The temperature has dropped, and drinking cool Moretti and lukewarm pizza doesn’t help. Neither does the involuntary shudder I suffer every time someone hoists a bottle or a slice and says, “When in Rome.” Or the helicopter, which is racing down the river in practice runs, churning up wind. A giant lit camera rig is attached to its nose, and every time it passes overhead, it makes me feel like the subject of police surveillance.
Adding to this sensation is the kerfuffle directly behind me. A local Italian news crew is attempting to shoot the stunt from the sidewalk, and seemingly all 300 of the on-set bouncers are clustered around them, using their bodies to block their access. Somehow, someone asks me to join this endeavor.
I knit my brow. It seems impossibly ironic that, in a world where most civilians have video cameras in their pockets, and governments routinely monitor the movements and activities of their citizens, secrecy can be maintained only by a film about a world-famous super spy, backed by a massive publicity budget. “I’m kind of on the side of a free press,” I say.
The chopper shot finally happens. Nine times. In the non-linear fashion of film production, it’s the missing middle section of the previous night’s action: the Jag chasing the Aston at speed.
When performing their run, the cars are just ten feet apart. I imagine Mark Higgins inside the DB10, wearing his Bond costume, holding the car steady, checking for the position of the C-X75 behind him as he carefully reaches out to flick the jerry-built switch that operates the flamethrowers.
Fire shoots from the rear of the Aston in elegant but potent threads. The chopper sweeps past the cars, head on. Its rotors fan the flames, as do the winds off the river, and the velocity of the cars themselves—millions of dollars in priceless supercars, at risk, at speed, and on fire. They leave fleeting tracers in the Roman night. Magic.