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The $3.5-Million James Bond Aston Martin DB5 Gets Wild on the Set of “No Time to Die”

We take you behind the wild scenes of the 25th 007 caper

MATERA, Italy—For better or worse, movie franchises dominate today's cineplexes, bringing us Marvel's Audi-driving Tony Stark, and Jason Bourne and Dominic Toretto performing feats of high-speed mayhem. But only one franchise is grizzled enough to put its hero behind the wheel of a 56-year-old Aston Martin, and leave modern audiences cheering in recognition: Bond. And on April 10—the upcoming release date for "No Time to Die"the Aston Martin DB5 will once again be in the thick of 007's ubiquitous yet always explosive stunt-coordinated chaos.

Indeed, that gadget-laden DB5, which Sean Connery first drove in 1964's "Goldfinger," returns for a lead role in "No Time to Die." Automotive cameos include an additional triplet of British ingenues: A new V8 Vantage, DBS Superleggera, and Valhalla.

Automobile received rare on-set access in Matera, in southern Italy. From a front-row seat above a picturesque town square, we watch some of the world's top action professionals film the signature opening sequence, for this remarkable 25th installment of the series. Those pros include the redoubtable Mark Higgins, the Manxman and British rally champion who's served as Daniel Craig's stunt double and lead driver on the past four Bond films.

At this moment, another stunt double, standing in for a bad guy known as "Primo," guns for our favorite British superspy, at a location the movie crew has dubbed "Doughnut Square." The swarthy Primo— straight from the Bond school of Eurotrash henchmen, with his black faux-hawk, gold necklace, and purple camo jacket—emerges from his bashed-up Range Rover Classic that has just T-boned the Aston and sent it spinning through the square. This Snow Shadow Grey DB5 is one of eight stunt-tuned DB5 replicas Aston whipped up at its secret skunkworks in Wellesbourne, U.K. The sacrificial lambs are joined by a pair of authentic, vintage DB5s, used for lingering shots or close-up details where sharp-eyed moviegoers might otherwise spot the counterfeit versions.

Primo and his men spray the DB5 with machine-gun fire. Outside the camera frame, crew members simultaneously fire so-called "squib guns," whose "zirk balls"—basically paintballs filled with incendiary material—mimic real bullets, striking the Aston's body and glass with flashes of hot white.

Primo strides with menace toward 007's apparently disabled Aston and prepares to dispose of Bond, like so many disposable baddies before him. "Aaand, cut!" a set manager yells in a booming British accent.

Dozens of crew members spring into action, reloading an arsenal of decommissioned military armaments with blanks; repositioning the voluminous gear, including top-shelf 65mm IMAX cameras; and spiffing up the vehicles driven by Primo's gang. That well-curated, local-thug assortment includes an '80s-era Maserati Quattroporte, a hideous Lancia Thesis, a Jaguar XJ, and a Triumph Tiger 1200 sport bike.

From this real-life perspective, the tropes of an international thriller can seem silly: The sidewalk cafe, its tables neatly set for diners, or the equally vulnerable-looking, vintage Italian three-wheel pickup loaded with giant watermelons. You know something bad is going to happen to those melons.

The wider perspective is that Matera is a cinematic dream, a 9,000-year-old city whose jumbled streets and prehistoric cave districts, the Sassi, make Rome look like a new condo development. Mel Gibson shot "The Passion of the Christ" here, and Italy's neorealist Pasolini directed "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." Once among the most poverty-stricken cities in Europe—with some families sharing disease-ridden caves with livestock until the government-forced evacuation of the Sassi in the 1950s—Matera is suddenly in a dual spotlight: It's been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2019. And its ancient lanes, including perilously slick surfaces and 200-foot cliff drops, are now the ultra-challenging backdrop for Bond's latest international intrigue, following previous shoots in Norway, Jamaica, Scotland, and England.

Craig is back for his final tuxedoed appearance, reunited with the DB5 he memorably requisitioned on the lam in "Skyfall." (Here's hoping "No Time to Die" matches the action and dramatic sizzle of that film, or "Casino Royale," and helps us forget the stinker that was "Spectre. ") Cary Fukunaga, of TV's "True Detective," directs, having stepped in after Danny Boyle ditched the production over creative differences. Rami Malek, fresh from his Oscar-winning strut in "Bohemian Rhapsody," gets an eagerly anticipated shot at Bond villainy. Is Malek a new "Dr. No?" Our on-set sources won't say. But the DB5 is definitely a reboot, one so nostalgically popular that Aston couldn't resist a Hollywood tie-in of its own. These aren't your Avengers Happy Meals; the company is building 25 factory replicas of the Q-equipped DB5 from "Goldfinger," down to their Browning machine guns, revolving license plates, and working dispensers for smoke, oil, and nails. Each model is pre-sold for a cool $3.5 million.

On the set of this big-budget actioner (industry watchers suggest $250 million), noted stunt coordinator Lee Morrison—a retired, oft-injured British stuntman who's personally doubled for 007, Indiana Jones, and even Lara Croft—tunes, runs, and maintains enough vehicles to start an Uber fleet.

"We've prepped more than 140 vehicles for stunt work and spares, from Astons and supercars to motorcycles and mopeds," Morrison says. "Those cars have to be authentic and durable, but still capable of being taken apart and rebuilt quickly."

Several are crammed into a small courtyard. They include four of the phony DB5s, with right-hand-drive, easy-switch carbon-fiber body panels, and straight-six engines that produce about 360 horsepower. These DBs are roll-caged, rigged for camera mounts, and outfitted with huge handbrakes, low-capacity fuel tanks, and fire-suppression systems. ABS and stability systems are disabled, naturally. Rallycross dampers are a trusty bit of hardware; you never know when 007 might need to negotiate staircases or other obstacles. Maintaining a relatively equal ride height between the various cars is critical for visual consistency, even though the production uses different cars for different jobs.

Wire wheels feature Avon tires, providing a heritage look but with modern rubber compounds. In one new touch, the bumper-mounted Brownings of the Goldfinger-era DB5 are replaced by mini-guns. Morrison points out a special safety film over the window glass, sourced from London's Metropolitan Police, that avoids fragmentation during crash scenes. "You can hit that window square on with a brick at 100 mph, and it won't break," he says.

Higgins arrives fresh from another piazza, where his stunt team is rehearsing a technical, fountain-spanning motorcycle jump for 007.  He's wearing a racing top and athletic shorts, but will don Craig's ever-stylish ensembles for double work when the leading man arrives in Italy in about a week for his own Matera scenes. The former rally champion's face is dotted with motion-capture markers, allowing Craig's features to be digitally superimposed for certain shots. Morrison and Higgins agree that Matera is proving the most challenging driving city they've ever worked in, with its devilish mix of surfaces—limestone, marble, granite, flint—polished over eons to become as slippery as ice. "We were skeptical, thinking we'd have some really slow chases," Higgins says. "Rear grip isn't the issue. It's the front grip."

The first solution involved a trick that's not only low-tech, but also carbonated: roughly $75,000 worth of Coca-Cola, sprayed over streets to make them tacky enough for Higgins and Co. to generate believable four-wheeled suspense. "The difference in grip is at least 50 or 60 percent," Higgins says. "And getting real speed is still important for many scenes."

As for high-tech, there's The Pod: an ingenious, steel-caged, by-wire simulation rig that's usually bolted atop the DB5's roof. Higgins sits astride the roof, doing the actual driving as cameras get a tight shot on Craig, which frees the actor to concentrate on his lines, or simply looking suave. A clutch allows the steering to be decoupled, so Craig "can crank the wheel, but he's not throwing me around on top," Higgins says.

The whole thing sounds perilous, but Higgins assures me The Pod is safe, even in its newest iteration: For certain scenes, Higgins can now control 007's Aston entirely remotely, sitting in The Pod at up to 500 meters away. "It's a little disorienting at first, but it works," he says, adding that Craig has learned enough about high-performance driving to "flick the cars around a bit to make things real. You see a lot of Daniel driving, but there are things he can't do, the big handbrake moves or high-speed pursuits."

As for Higgins driving the wheels off of the Aston with his heroic, rally-style countersteers, "My biggest problem is the big wooden steering wheel; there's just very little elbow room."

Higgins is one of 17 drivers here in Italy, from specialized aces like former American open-wheel racer Paul Edwards to top stuntmen "who can drive, ride, fight, fall" or perform martial arts with the best of them. Higgins says that while movie work involves a lot of standing around, there's still adrenaline to be had. "You've got 10 guys coming at you with machine guns," he points out. "You know they're just blanks, but they're bashing off the windshield, and it's surreal."

And with money and time at a premium, heaven forbid a stunt driver screw up an artfully arranged shot. "It's a different form of pressure than racing," Higgins says. "You've got 200 eyes on you, and repeatability is everything. You want drivers with the ability to be extremely precise. You can have the fastest, most technical driver in the world, but if they don't know how to tell the story in four-seconds flat and to know what the camera is seeing, it won't work."

Chris Courbould knows exactly what that camera sees. The production's special effects supervisor, Courbould has worked on every Bond movie since 1985's "A View to a Kill," along with all three Christopher Nolan Batman films—and has a firm philosophy on what goes into the best action scenes.

"I fight endlessly to do things real," Courbold says. "I'd rather do something that's expensive but real and gritty than CGI that looks spectacular but is actually cheap. We may do a few bullet hits in CG if we run out of time."

As he walks us through the upcoming action scene, Courbold says, "Half the battle is having that iconic car in it. Bond will do a doughnut, lay down huge gunfire into the square here, do a little Goldfinger smokescreen," and then hightail it out of town with villains in pursuit.

What the crew has dubbed Doughnut Square is massively rigged with wired charges to simulate bullet strikes and explosions, to be detonated when the Aston peppers the walls with gunfire. It's finally time to blow up those watermelons, and eyes keep drifting to that silly truck loaded with fruit.

"I want to see this whole bloody square go up," Courbold says—an enticing prospect from the man who holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest movie explosion, a bit in "Spectre" that required 2,224 gallons of fuel and 73 pounds of explosives.

"We're losing light, we've gotta go!" the crew leader shouts. Everyone hushes, the pricey cameras roll—including two rigged to the DB5—and crew members begin to manually rotate the Aston on wheeled dollies to simulate Bond's drift-master counter attack; it's the big-budget Hollywood moment we've been waiting for. And then it happens: Instead of the Aston's mini-guns firing, a weak stream of bullet casings eject from its sides, like a sad beater spilling its fluids. It's a premature assassination, an agonizing anti-climax that elicits groans all around, as crew members scamper to pick up dozens of unspent rounds. And that, ladies and gentleman, is it: There's not enough light to reshoot the scene. The whole thing must be restaged and shot tomorrow. Moments before the take, an operator for one of the production's massive drones—capable of hoisting a 75-pound, 35mm movie camera aloft—whispers, "Remember this part when you see it in the movie; you'll get a little giggle."

Indeed, though now not for the reason he meant. But that's show business and Bond business, and it gives us just one more reason to buy our own tickets to the "No Time to Die" premiere.

"NO TIME TO DIE" BY THE NUMBERS 

  • 10: Of April, the release date
  • 25: The number of Bond films made, including this one
  • 5: Million, the cost of each already-sold Aston Martin DB5 factory replica
  • 25: DB5s built for "No Time to Die"
  • 3: Additional Aston Martin models that make a cameo appearance
  • 9,000: Years old—the city of Matera, that is
  • 5: Number of times Daniel Craig has now portrayed James Bond
  • 140: Vehicles used in the production of "No Time to Die"
  • 1962: The year the first bond movie, "Dr. No," premiered
  • 75,000: Dollars worth of Coca-Cola used to make streets grippy
  • 250: Million, the alleged budget for "No Time to Die," making it the most expensive Bond film to date