The enthusiasm of the staff for hot car-chase scenes in movies continues unabated, as evidenced by our five — count ’em, five — page opener to this issue of Automobile Magazine. It makes me weep with joy to see the unbridled love of fast-car fun enjoyed by the heart and soul of our team, that is, the Young Boys, who, led by road test editor Chris Nelson, tracked down The Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker for an interview (and then rightly ranked him lower than Paul Newman on the car-cred scale); argued (as all of us and every one of you have done) over the best car movies (and I would argue that they should be about cars); and then filmed their own car-chase scene.
What can I add to this? Only my memory of a very special time, a dozen years ago almost to the day, when I had the rare opportunity to sit in the living room of the greatest car-film director of all time, John Frankenheimer, about a year before he died. Evidence of his singular greatness? He was the director of Grand Prix (1966) and Ronin (1998), two groundbreaking movies that allowed him to develop the on-car camera mount and the right-hand-drive stunt car, which revolutionized car photography.
The occasion of my rare access was Frankenheimer’s work — he was one of eight great directors who participated — in the original series of short BMW Internet films called The Hire, starring Clive Owen at the wheel of various BMWs. Frankenheimer’s film, Ambush, was just under eight minutes long — eight minutes of classic edge-of-your-seat action. For those of you who missed it, here is a bit of our conversation:
JJ: We call Ronin three great car-chase scenes with some dialogue surrounding them. The scene with Natascha McElhone driving is wonderful. How she unravels as the scene wears on . . .
JF: She was really into it. So I designed a lot of shots that showed that. With her in the rearview mirror. With her here and there. We just did a lot of shots because she was so good. I don’t need to tell you that she didn’t do the driving. You knew that, but the point is she really gave you the impression that she did. We had a right-hand-drive car, which I pioneered.
In the case of Grand Prix, we did, like, a month’s testing just to figure out where to put the camera, how to get the feeling of speed, all that kind of thing, because it had never been done.
JJ: I heard that you couldn’t get Antonio Sabato to go fast enough in Grand Prix, so Phil Hill towed the car at 120 mph.
JF: More than that, we cut the car in half and just had the cockpit. Richie Ginther had a trailer hitch made out of a pole. We made a platform of it and rigged it to the back of the Ford GT40, and Phil Hill pulled it around pretty quick.
JJ: Is it true that a lot of the scenes were unusable because of the look on Sabato’s face?
JF: Actually, yes. Not to be graphic, but he got out of the car after the first tow in his white suit, and it was all stained at the bottom. But after that, he went a lot faster in the real race car, I can tell you.
By the way, I asked Frankenheimer for his favorite car-chase scene of all time. “Well, it’s either Peter Yates in Bullitt or Billy Friedkin in The French Connection. I just love both of those. And Billy again in To Live and Die in L.A. Both of those guys are so talented. But I would have to say, because Steve McQueen is driving the car, it has to be Bullitt for me.”
The entire interview can be found in the July 2001 issue of Automobile or in this month’s tablet edition.
For more Jean, go to JeanKnowsCars.com.