It’s the middle of a bitterly cold March night in Rome and Yahoo Movies is stood overlooking the river Tiber waiting for James Bond.
Well, not the actual James Bond - Ian Fleming’s fictional super spy - or even Daniel Craig. He’s off with the ‘Spectre’ first unit shooting interiors for the 24th 007 film at Pinewood. No, we’re waiting for 3-times British Rally Champ Mark Higgins, Bond’s driving double for the last 3 Bond films, and primary stunt driver on ‘Spectre’.
We can hear him before we see him as the engine under the hood of his custom built Aston Martin DB10 growls to life on the riverside path somewhere in the distance, but amazingly another sound quickly drowns out the Aston.
A guttural roar that makes the DB10 sound like a pussy cat explodes into life from beneath the bonnet of a bright orange Jaguar C-X75, which sits idling alongside Bond’s sleek grey motor. This is Hinx’s car, a monster of a car for a monster of a henchman, played by former WWE star and professional man mountain Dave Bautista.
This car, dubbed “The Beast” by ‘Spectre’ stunt coordinator Gary Powell and custom built for the movie, features a huge Range Rover Sport engine that allows it to go “really flipping fast” (Powell’s words, not ours), something that we’re about to see for ourselves.
There’s some brief radio chatter and then we’re waiting for Bond no more. The cars accelerate off perilously close to the river (both stunt cars are fitted with oxygen tanks and masks, should anything go wrong) careening towards us at breakneck speed.
The Jag tails closely behind the Aston zooming along at around 80mph, but out of nowhere, there’s a problem. There’s debris on the path, blocking the way. Bond yanks the wheel to the right, mounting the wall at an impossible angle narrowly avoiding a collision, but Hinx reacts just as quickly matching Bond’s driving line inch for inch.
It’s a thrilling moment that’ll take all night to shoot from every angle, but it’s a moment that’s been years in the planning as Gregg Wilson, associate producer on ‘Spectre’ explains.
“I think we first scouted this location a year ago. It’s definitely a hard one for the locations department; they’ve had their hands full.
“You have to get permission [to shoot in Rome] and all of that, but also just making sure that we have enough people to adequately lock off the locations. On some days, we have as many as 250 blockers whose job it is to just make sure that no-one comes out of any doorways when we’re racing these cars through.”
The final sequence, some of which has already been glimpsed in trailer (above), will take up just five minutes of screen time. Bond is being chased by Hinx after he gatecrashes a secret meeting attended by Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser, the mysterious villain at the centre of ‘Spectre’ who may or may not turn out to be Blofeld, Bond’s long time nemesis.
The chase will see the two bespoke cars hurtling through the streets of the Italian capital, down stairs, along the river, even venturing into the hallowed grounds of the Vatican City, a moment that sees the cars reach an incredible 110mph.
Permits for shooting in a built up city like this can take months to process, and second unit director Alex DeWitt says they were even denied access to certain streets for fear of them causing permanent damage to priceless statues.
“The good thing we have shooting here on the river,” adds DeWitt, “Is that we have no restrictions time wise apart from the light, the sun coming up. Here there’s no obstructions or anything, we can go as fast as we want.”
Director Sam Mendes and the stunt team insist on shooting all of the film’s stunts practically, hence the reason planning them takes years, but the locations wouldn’t be anything without the real stars of the stunts – the cars.
Being custom built and not available for sale to the common man, the Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75 present their own problems for the production team, but recent reports that the film destroyed £24m worth of vehicles making ‘Spectre’ should be taken with liberal pinch of salt.
The production has around 8-10 different versions of both cars, each specifically tricked out for a specific filming purpose. There are two “Hero model” DB10s, for example, that are fully appointed inside and out that look fit for a showroom, for when the cameras are in close on the actors are inside the car.
As we’ve seen in the trailer, Bond’s car comes equipped with gadgets, and when we get the opportunity to climb into the passenger seat of the stunt DB10, we spy a red button on the handbrake, crossing out fingers that it’s not a functioning ejector seat.
There are versions with lighting and camera rigs fitted to the car to allow them to shoot the actors driving the cars from the outside, and there’s the distinctive “Pod cars” which positions the stunt driver atop the car in a custom built cage that allows them to film the actors inside the main car with cameras pointed in their faces.
Both cars have been built in collaboration with the manufacturers and the filmmakers specifically for ‘Spectre’, so to put a price on them is very difficult. One member of the production crew guessed each car was worth a $1m each, but Gregg Wilson says product placement deals means they don’t cost the production a penny.
“They’re expensive,” says the son of Bond producer Michael G Wilson of the DB10s, “but Aston Martin has been extremely generous and they are providing these free of charge.”
The team knows how much the cars mean to the fans of the franchise, pointing to the cheers they heard when the classic ‘Goldfinger’ DB5 appeared on screen in ‘Skyfall’ as a reason to make the best car chases they can.
But despite the success of ‘Skyfall’, the most successful Bond film of all time and the first in the series to gross over $1bn, the crew is keen to stress that the stunts in ‘Spectre’ aren’t trying to do anything different than the Bond franchise has ever done, which is deliver world class action, practically, but always in service of the story.
“There isn’t any pressure from Sam to up the ante from ‘Skyfall’,” says Gary Powell.
“It’s just a given that we always want to try and better ourselves, but most importantly it’s the story that’s going to dictate that. We don’t just want to come up with a massive stunt that means absolutely nothing to the story, that can easily be done, but then it’s like ‘what was the point of that?’
“Everything we try and do has a story point behind it and it generally adds to the overall action scene and the film.”
The crew resets the stunt once again, with the drivers taking the two supercars back to their starting positions at a much more leisurely pace than before.
But once they hit their markers and the engines roar to life once more we’re reminded: we’re not just in Rome - we’re in James Bond’s Rome now and it’s bloody noisy.
‘SPECTRE’ is set for release in the UK on 26 October, 2015.
See more from behind the scenes of ‘Spectre’ in the production vlog below.
Image credits: Sony Pictures