A Bond Unbroken: Spectre Stunt Coordinator Gary Powell Carries Family Legacy
Working on a Bond film isn’t anything new to Gary Powell, the stunt coordinator of Spectre. His family has been working on the series since the Sean Connery days.
“It was follow around in the family tradition or get kicked out,” Powell told The Credits about his choice to get into the movie stunt business, delivering the deadpan line with a British accent. Both his father and uncle were stuntmen on the early Bond movies with Sean Connery. Powell’s brother did some of the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton bond movies. (Read our interview with his brother Greg about his work on Hercules here).
Powell started out doing stunts on the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, and he’s spending his fourth time in the role of stunt coordinator for Sony’s Spectre. Of the 100 people he oversaw as part of the production, one of them was his niece, an up-and-coming stunt performer who’s following in the family tradition.
Despite Powell’s experience, the challenge of choreographing, setting up and executing stunts never gets easier.
“The audience is so much more aware of what’s going on,” Powell said, from watching behind-the-scenes DVDs and understanding how films are made.
While CGI has been great for the safety of stunt performers, because it makes it easier to erase safety cables or hide pads used to cushion falls, Powell is very aware of how hard it is to make a skeptical audience member get caught in the illusion of film. The Bond films’ response to that challenge is to make everything as real as possible.
The opening sequence of Spectre features a helicopter that loops upside down—a stunning, slick moment that Bond films are known for.
It’s the kind of stunt that makes audiences wonder if there was CGI involved, but Powell affirmed that the sequence was real, performed by the Red Bull freestyle helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron.
“Everyone’s seen a fight on a helicopter before, where the person jumps on the skids before takeoff and the pilot tries to throw them off,” Powell said. “We wanted to avoid those stereotypical moments when we got this pilot.”
Besides Aaron, Powell recruited two World Rally champions, races conducted on real roads, to drive cars for Spectre. Marc Higgins, a British rally champion, took the driver’s seat in the Aston Martin. Martin Ivaonv, a Russian, drove the Jaguar in the film.
“The way these guys handle the cars is really special,” Powell said, aided by their expertise racing in real-life environments and not racing tracks.
Many of the driving scenes in Bond films are conducted with “pods,” or what looks like a go-cart, strapped to the top of the car. The driver does all the handling of the car in the pod so the actors inside the car can concentrate on their lines. The technique has been around for a decade or so, and for a Bond film it’s a huge improvement over the previous method, “low loading.”
Via that method, cars would be placed on flatbed trucks, which drove the car around. But “it never moved true to form with how a car would move,” Powell said, and still required the use of green screens to hide the truck.
Although the pods seem like they should make the cars a bit more top-heavy and likely to tip, Powell said they still handle they way luxury cars should.
“The Aston and the Jag went around the corners really fast,” he said.
Some of those vehicles were destined to be destroyed in the production, moments which gave Powell a bit of old-fashioned glee. “There was £1 million car that ended up in the water. I had a grin on my face for that one.”
His favorite stunt in Spectre involved two £1 million cars going 110 miles per hour in Vatican Square at night, which was shut down for the production. “That was something that never had been done before,” Powell said. “There were a few people sweating.”
As much as Powell likes to create a good stunt, he’s always looking for a way to serve the story –like Bond’s famous cufflink-straightening after a huge jump in Skyfall.
“That’s what gets the cheers from the audience,” Powell said. “The most important thing we try to do with a stunt in the film is to make sure it’s enhancing the story. During that helicopter scene, there’s a story being told that keeps the stunt grounded to the story.”
Featured image: James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) battle it out as Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) looks on in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.