I recently had the unique experience of working with the crazy circus that came through town to film Need for Speed. The movie is described as “a fast-paced, high-octane film rooted in the tradition of the great car culture films of the 70s while being extremely faithful to the spirit of the videogame franchise.” There are undoubtedly scores of young adults around here intimately familiar with the franchise who will gladly plunk their ten dollar bill down when the movie is released in March 2014.
Under normal circumstances I would not consume this genre of media willingly, however, after my own intimate experience with Need for Speed, I just can’t wait. I was one of several “Additional Production Assistants” hired locally and temporarily for the Mendocino Location. My chain of command looked something like this; Director, Assistant Director, Second AD, SECOND Second AD (my boss), then a team of five permanent Production Assistants (PAs) that I also reported to. Turns out the bottom of the totem pole had a great view. Some days I would be posted in a driveway with a walkie-talkie to make sure one of our own, perhaps headed to Lemons on a cigarette run, wouldn’t pull in front of a six pack of super cars dodging and weaving at 100mph. During these twelve hour shifts I was overseeing between zero and one cigarette runs.
Far from being bored, it afforded me the rare opportunity to sink into the here and now. A valuable retreat in today’s busy world. This, of course, punctuated by the occasional roar of speeding Lamborghinis being “pushed,” or “pulled,” by speeding camera cars.
On my third day I was posted at that tight little creek bed turn at mile 35 just north of Elk. From deep in my driveway I watched repeated takes of five hero cars blasting out of the notch pursued by the stunt CHP copter, pursued, again, by the camera copter. At lunch that day (breakfasts and lunches were resplendent)
I asked the stunt pilot if he was having as much fun as I imagined or was this just another day on the job. He said flying like that is illegal under any other circumstances and he was having as much fun as I imagined. An average production budget for a racecar feature is $50-$100 million. That calculates down to $1,000-$2,000 a minute on the set. This creates a pressurized environment for everyone.
Sometimes it seemed like everyone’s kind of an asshole but when you look deeper of course it’s not really the case. There is just no time for discussing feelings, no time for please and thank you. Radio communications become a tightrope act. Although things were often chaotic, especially during the first shot or two of the day, every circus member was hyper focused and adamant about moving the movie forward.
It was stimulating and enchanting to be part of such a powerful human hive. 300 of us, 150 walkie-talkies, tool-belts bulging with tools I’ve never seen, clipboards and binders describing the setup of every shot, piece of equipment and person involved. Grip trucks lumbering with every clip, rod, box, and tool. Supercars, their trailers and mechanics, 100 spare tires. Every evening all of us would drive to a bed, sleep, and drive back to the location.
After about ten days it began to sink in. Arriving at the seven am breakfast buzz I looked around and thought to myself, “These people are out of their minds.” On my eleventh and day we did a stunt, a “gag” in hollywood parlance, at Highway 128 and Flynn Creek. The mood was electric.
A stunt driver, a “stuntie,” was going to drive a car up the back of a tow truck ramp at 55mph, crush the vehicle already loaded, and spin through the air in flames before coming to rest in the middle of Highway 128. Special Effects had spent all day engineering, welding and fabricating things that will never be visible, to make sure the cars go just so, to make sure that everything explodes on contact, and to make sure the safety of the driver. The whole unit gathered with the stunt coordinator for a safety meeting. The kind where you actually discuss safety. The pressure of the environment doubled.
Ambulance and Fire were standing by, cameras were spooling up, repeated rehearsals ran through, “back to one and run it again.” When it was time to execute, “on the day” as they say, everyone but the players needed were pushed back out of view of the gag for safety. From my position guarding a driveway 100 yards east I could see perfectly. Just the luck, I was about to witness my first stunt.
My heartbeat thrummed in my ears and other cliches occurred on cue. From around the corner zoomed the car straight towards my position in the bushes. It suddenly veered off the road, up the ramp, and with a horrible bang crushed the loaded vehicle like a beer can, burst beautifully into flames, helicoptered through the air, and crunched to a landing in the middle of the highway.
Almost instantaneously I heard the directors voice over the radio, “Thumbs up!” referring, of course, to the stuntie himself. I stayed quiet and attentive at my post, exhaled deeply and enjoyed a cigarette. As we locals lunched together that day I described the scene and finished with, “That was so fun. What a great waste of resources and energy!”
Everyone laughed but in a way I meant it; we’ve got perpetual war on one hand, and a perpetual circus on the other. I, myself, am for the circus, even when it blows up cars in the middle of the redwood forest.