Bond special: behind the scenes at SPECTRE's big Rome car chase | Top Gear
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Behind the Scenes

Bond special: behind the scenes at SPECTRE's big Rome car chase

Charlie Turner was on set to witness the DB10 and C-X75 duking it out

  • It’s 9pm on 5 March, and as most Romans are settling down to their secondi, we’re heading out in a nondescript van with B24 displayed in the window. As we round the corner on the Lungotevere Arnaldo da Brescia with the Tiber flowing angrily to our left, we are met by myriad security guards, high-vis jackets and movie lights.

    In 100 yards we’ve gone from a sleepy Rome winding down for the evening to a nocturnal community that’s been working through the night for two weeks in pursuit of the most dramatic and ambitious car chase in movie history.

    This feature was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine

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  • Tonight the pressure is on: last night’s filming had to be abandoned due to rain, so this evening is the last window that the 400-man crew have to nail this particular sequence before the permits and budget require them to move to the next location. The rain has spent 24 hours leaching through Rome’s veins and has swollen the Tiber, which is waiting black and spectral (sorry) at the bottom of the Scalo de Pinedo and the 10m flight of steps the chase scene will be firing down.

    And no, you haven’t misread that: tonight the Aston DB10 and Jaguar C-X75 will be jumping down the steps without a pixel of CGI for company. For most, part of the attraction of the recent Bond films has been a move towards authenticity, and, as I stand at the top of the steps, the authenticity is frankly terrifying.

  • After spending some time in the Edge tracking vehicle as it barrels along Via degli Scialoja filming the DB10 and C-X75 pursuing each other down the road, it’s time to cut from the chase and reset for the main event. Hundreds of crew relocate to the underground bunker in the basement of an industrial unit – tonight’s mobile canteen.

    I take the chance to talk to Mark Higgins: TopGear hero, all-round good bloke, Bond’s driving stunt double and someone whose car control is beyond that of a mere mortal (as Chris has already found out – see p86). I ask about the way this type of high-performance driving differs from his other day job of hooning rally cars in various race series around the world.

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  • “It’s all very different because you’re working not just with the road, but you’re working with cameras and working out where everything is. So what potentially I think looks fantastic is not what the camera is seeing,” Higgins explains.

    “The other big thing is your vision, because you’ve got cameras all over the place. You’ve done a rehearsal [the crew had spent three weeks rehearsing every move at a disused airfield on the outskirts of Rome before heading into the city], and you can see the point where you’re turning in, but it’s completely different when you’ve got all the cameras around.”

  • As the crew continue to reset, cameras are hastily positioned, a huge 12m2 lighting rig is lifted above the scene by crane and an army of junction marshals relocated to every doorway, road junction and alley along the route to ensure nothing mistakenly gets into the path of the filming. The divers climb into their frog suits and position themselves in the freezing Tiber.

    Mark and I head to the steps to walk the route. As we stand at the top, I struggle to grasp the mindset it takes to fire a supercar down an incredibly steep set of steps with a river at the bottom… and do it repeatedly until the director is happy.

  • “Every time we drive, it’s different. We’ll have rigs on the car, so you’ve got all the weight on the front. You’ve seen the pods on the top as well when we’ve got them on,” Higgins says with a grimace. “That’s a very different thing to drive.”

    We walk down the initial descent of 28 curved steps which, while narrow and dramatic, has been softened by some clever shaping of the edges. The route then levels for a few brief feet before pitching down the second set of 16 curved steps. Having safely negotiated that, the cars then need to accelerate and jump down a further three flights of eight steps, all with a 5ft drop in-between. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s the lack of speed that is causing Higgins the greatest worry.

  • “You can’t really rehearse these steps without damaging everything. We’ll have one go down to find out roughly what happens and then we’re going to probably get faster and faster and try to make it more exciting,” he says.

    So how many goes can he cram in tonight? “We’ll see how long the cars last. And our backs, because it’s a proper slump down on your back over the last three. If we were going faster the speed actually dissipates the drop, but on these it’s going to be pretty violent,” he says.

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  • Walking back up to the top of the steps, we’re joined by Bond stunt co-ordinator Gary Powell. In the filming world, Gary has been there, done that and for SPECTRE regularly jumped into the driving seat during the practice sessions the second unit held at the airfield. As the guy who used to be in the driving seat, I ask if there is more pressure now he doesn’t have that distraction?

    “There’s a lot of pressure there. There’s pressure that you want to make sure the stuff is good. Pressure that you want to make sure it’s safe. Then the other night, we were racing towards the Vatican at 110mph and drifting through St Peter’s Square, so there’s pressure there not to hit anything,” Powell says without a flicker of irony.

    So did the Pope come out to watch? “No, I’m sure the Pope was inside watching, though. We might have converted him to supercars. You never know,” says Powell.

  • Joking aside, damage is part and parcel of the process. “Tonight, when we go down these steps, we’re expecting damage,” Powell admits. “We’re expecting the car to break. In fact, we’re expecting at least two or three cars to break because it’s just an unnatural thing for these cars to do.”

    The wind has begun to rattle the city, and the lighting rig has now been transformed into an expensive sail. As the team try to wrestle it to the ground, I decide I’m only getting in the way and head for the underground bunker where they keep the toys. Rome’s equivalent of Q Branch, but with fewer nerds.

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  • We enter an utterly nondescript underground lock-up, which houses eight DB10s and seven C-X75s. It’s here that Neil Layton (Bond’s technical director) and his team from Action Vehicles prepare, maintain and rebuild the stars of the show on a nightly basis.

    What quickly becomes clear when talking to Neil, whose background was in motorsport, is that keeping the Bond cars on the road is similar to having to run a WRC, Baja and GT3 team simultaneously.

    “It’s not just the maintenance side of it, it’s the re-rigging and the re-prep work between different stunts,” a weary Layton tell us. “At the moment, we’ve got just under 20 guys, so we do two shifts to cover 24 hours, but we’ve got guys back in the workshop.

  • “They’re always fabricating. We’ve got one scene that’s coming up where the Jag comes up behind the Aston, and then we hit it with a firebomb. It’s in the back of that car, it’s all rigged ready and we’ve got flamethrowers in there and the guns.”

    The scale of the operation is mind-blowing, and the logistics for the spare parts would leave most race teams’ heads spinning. Layton lists them off: “We’ve got 20 sets of hero wheels and 40 sets of stunt wheels just for the DB10; for the Jag, we have 30 sets of wheels, and then we have sets of tyres to go with each set of wheels. For the Jag, we have 10 clamshells... the list goes on.”

  • It’s not glamorous – it’s hard, cold work, but Neil and his team exude an infectious pride in their jobs that even weeks of living and working in an underground bunker can’t diminish.

    “I’ve had some pretty cool jobs in the years that I’ve been involved with cars, but I don’t think anything will top Bond and the Bond cars,” he says with a grin.

    Back on set, the cars are in position at the top of the Via degli Scialoja, pointing at the Scalo de Pinedo and its tortuous 68 steps. I’m positioned at the bottom with the second unit director, Alexander Witt (Skyfall and Gladiator), as they call action. The unmistakable guttural roar of the DB10 accelerating hard is quickly joined by the NASCAR bawl of the C-X75 as it sets off.

  • Seconds later, the top of the Scalo de Pinedo is strafed by cold white lights as Higgins fires down the first flight of 28 steps, closely followed by Martin Ivanov in the C-X75. As the DB hits the level surface between the two sections it smashes into the ground and is kicked hard down the second set at a hideous angle, the noise is utterly brutal as both cars bottom out.

    Higgins flies through the air at 45 degrees, and as the front wheel touches midway down the steps he puts the tiniest fraction of left lock on to balance the car and prevent it from rolling, it’s instinctive and perfectly judged. As the DB slumps at the bottom of the steps, he buries the throttle to build speed towards the shorter and more violent final three jumps.

  • The C-X75 has crunched its way, sparks flying, down the initial descent as Ivanov tries to catch up. The pair jump the third flight and land with a violent shudder and crack that makes me wince, Higgins is off in the DB taking the final three flights at pace, and as the C-X75 heads towards the final section it squirms under its brutal power, snaps sideways over the final jump and lands stranded sideways across the last set of steps with the rear paddling in the overflowing Tiber.

    As the dust settles, literally, I try to process the last 30 seconds, which seem to have unfolded in macabre slow motion.

  • The C-X75 is attached to a forklift and raised unceremoniously back to a recovery position where it’s handed over to Neil’s team for repairs, and another is scrambled into its start position. The playback confirms the violence, precision and bravery of what these guys are creating on a nightly basis and would leave most crews calling it a wrap. But that’s not the way Bond works.

    Witt wants more, wants the cars closer and ideally doesn’t want the C-X75 ending up in the drink… so they go again and again. As the night progresses and the temperature drops towards freezing, the crew continue to shoot, running the steps three more times until the permits and road closures are close to expiring. The sun begins to peek over the horizon, and it’s time for SPECTRE to vanish into the shadows...

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