A unique, priceless Aston Martin clatters at terrifying speed down a 40-foot flight of steps in historic Rome. It slides around narrow cobbled streets and through epic piazzas, then tears along the banks of the Tiber at well above 100mph. All the while it’s chased at close quarters by a Jaguar C-X75 supercar.
Taking place over 17 nights, this is filming for the new James Bond movie SPECTRE. And the stunts definitely aren’t faked.
Aston Martin actually made 10 examples of the “unique” DB10: a pair for itself, plus eight for the film. There are two “hero cars”, to look good in close-up shots; two stunt cars fitted with race seats and roll cages; two “stunt gadget cars”, with a complex pneumatic mechanism in the boot for deploying the hidden guns; and the final pair are bizarre-looking “pod cars”, with a steel cage on the roof, from which a stunt man can do the actual driving, while Daniel Craig is filmed at the wheel.
“I sat down with Aston Martin and came out with a menu of what I wanted and why, says the film’s action vehicle technical coordinator, Neil Layton. “They did cough a bit when I asked for eight cars and 20 nose cones.”
It wasn’t just Aston Martin who needed persuading. Gary Powell, stunt co-ordinator, says: “No-one had used Rome on this scale before. We had a meeting with the mayor to tell him our plans and had to pick him up off the floor.”
It’s all because the stunts have to be real: no CGI, no jump cuts, explains Layton. “Gary is a strong believer, along with Sam [Mendes, the movie’s director], in doing it for real. That way, the movements are right – even the way an actor’s shirt collar flaps.”
Powell himself says, “We came into this to be stunt men. We keep it more gritty than with the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, which went CGI-heavy and the audience didn’t take to it.”
The Rome chase is filmed late at night, representing a pre-dawn hour when the city is largely free of traffic. Powell continues: “Sam’s vision was a pure sense of speed.” One that the stunt crew and drivers amply deliver. “One night we even had to slow the stunt cars down because they outran the camera helicopter. Nothing’s speeded up on film.”
A veteran of seven Bond movies, Powell works with director and scriptwriters to dream up stunts and find their locations. “Sam gives us his vision, but the original script is just two fast cars going fast. We added the stunts, but what we do matches the story.”
Dressed in an immaculate Tom Ford suit, but with fireproof race overalls underneath and a pair of race boots, stunt driver Mark Higgins subs for Craig’s Bond. A three-times British Rally champion, he knows how to finely control a car at spectacular angles of slide.
“We rally drivers are used to different surfaces,” he says. “But the cobbles in Rome are uniquely slippery when it’s damp. Still, it’s amazing to lock off the Vatican and drive through [St Peter’s] Square at 100mph.”
His job gets trickier when the car is carrying extra filming equipment. “If you head off on cold tyres with 70kg of camera mounted on the nose, it gets a bit lively.” Driving from the roof pod is tougher still. “There’s play in the steering. It’s harder to be smooth.”
Like Powell and Layton, Higgins is full of praise for the toughness of the stunt cars. “We’ve had a fantastic run of reliability. Driving down those steps, we did seven takes with no damage.” But then, these are very far from showroom sports cars.
The Aston Martin DB10 will never go on sale. Instead, it was specially commissioned by Mendes, who briefed Aston Martin design director Marek Reichman on the visual character he wanted. And while the car is based on the mechanicals of the V8 Vantage, it’s a lot wider, so has a unique chassis.
The Jaguar C-X75, meanwhile, started out as a concept car, before Jaguar built five prototypes in 2012 with a view to selling it as a 200mph hypercar with an advanced hybrid drivetrain. That project was shelved, but when Bond came along, six more were built.
Each of the film cars has its suspension setup specifically for the scene in hand and the amount of weight it’s carrying. The pod is 400kg, drastically raising the centre of gravity. An on-location workshop is equipped for adjustments and repairs all the way up to a gearbox swap or major panel replacement. But as the Rome shoot nears its end, they’ve escaped catastrophic damage. Just as well, too; if the filming were delayed by a broken car, the cost would have been a reputed $1m an hour.
This is just the second unit, but the crew averages 350 people – plus a further 250 “blockers” who lock off the streets, to (not aways successfully) prevent the public drifting close to the shoot and getting phonecam images on to social media. A three-mile section of river, including five bridges, is closed off tonight.
At about 10pm, we hear the helicopter somewhere overhead. The Aston’s headlamps pop into view from under a bridge, then the Jaguar’s. As they career along the embankment, the Jag closes the gap to about a car’s length.
At that moment the helicopter flies along the water in the opposite direction, so low it’s level with surrounding rooftops, before swooping even closer to the cars, its nose-mounted camera swivelling to follow the action.
After several takes, the shot gets a critical extra dimension. At the moment of closest approach, a sheet of flame trails back from the Aston Martin, all but engulfing the Jaguar. As the Aston opens the gap again, flames continue to lick up from the Jag’s front end.
And cut. The cars stop, do a three-pointer and rumble back up the embankment for another take.
An hour later we’re looking at another DB10, suspended above the river on a vast crane. It’s been gutted of its engine, gearbox, interior trim and glass. Villainous Mr Hinx (played by Dave Bautista) stands by his Jaguar as technicians waft smoke and flame around it. A jet-ski swirls near the Aston to make waves. Action. The Aston slowly sinks, until its only trace is the eerie underwater glow of its lights.
Of course, this won’t be the end of the Bond car. It will be craned out, dried off and refitted. But is it the end of Bond? We’ll have to wait until October 26 to find out.
This article originally appeared on The Telegraph.