Inside the World of Stunt Drivers. By Frankie Wallace.
Stunt drivers are a bit of an enigma, or at least that’s what writers and directors would have us believe. Some on-screen stunt drivers even have a sadistic side, like Death Proof’s Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell. Others are complex and troubled, including Ryan Gosling’s “The Driver,” who works as a stuntman by day and assists fast-moving criminals by night.
But what of the stunt performers who actually pulled off the moves in films such as Death Proof and Drive? Gosling and Russell get all the credit, but their roles wouldn’t be possible or believable without talented stunt drivers to do the proverbial dirty work.
Although stunt drivers rarely grace magazine covers or sit for interviews, they are crucial to the industry and work in a very impressive capacity behind the scenes. Let’s take a look into the lives and careers of Hollywood stunt drivers, some of whom are responsible for the best cinematic car chases of all time.
Famous Stunt Drivers Throughout History
There are a few household names in the world of stunt driving, of course, such as the daredevil Evel Knievel and stunt driver Bill Hickman. For his part, Hickman is considered one of the most accomplished drivers in the film industry, with 1971’s The French Connection standing out as one of his most notable roles. The film’s famous chase scene was actually performed in real traffic conditions on 86th Street in Brooklyn.
But for every stunt driving star like Hickman, there’s a group of talented drivers poised to break into the big time. One of those drivers worked as a stunt driver Death Proof, in fact. Director Quentin Tarantino was looking for the world’s “most adventurous and unhinged stuntmen and women” when he tapped Buddy Joe Hooker to drive in the film’s most devastating scene, a head-on collision between a 1970 Chevy Nova and a Honda Civic.
No CGI was used in the Death Proof crash scene, which helped to solidify Hooker’s place in stunt driving history. (Although some would argue that Hooker’s notoriety was sealed in 1978, with the release of Hooper.) Starring Burt Reynolds, Hooper paid tribute to the stunt performance industry, undervalued at the time, and featured spectacular driving stunts performed by Hooker.
The Hazards of Stunt Driving
For stunt drivers, safety risks come with the territory. While stunt drivers must undergo plenty of training and certification, driving is a risky profession. For instance, Hickman actually hit another vehicle in an unscripted accident during the filming of The French Connection. And any number of things could have gone wrong when Hooker was getting ready to crash a Nova into a Honda at high speeds on a dark country road.
Even when filmmakers correctly follow all safety guidelines during the execution of a stunt, accidents can sometimes happen. In 2017, for example, motorcycle stunt driver Joi Harris was killed while performing on the set of Deadpool 2. Death is rare in the industry, however. In fact, Harris’ death in 2017 was Hollywood’s first stunt-related fatality since 2002.
Minor injuries, though, are common among stunt drivers, including whiplash, which is a neck injury that can be severe. Whiplash is caused by a series of movements and contractions of the neck that can occur in the event of a sudden collision. Symptoms of whiplash can be further compounded with the onset of chronic headaches, often requiring prescription medication to effectively manage.
Pursuing a Stunt Driving Career
Despite its inherent dangers, stunt driving remains a lucrative and desirable profession. Some of the industry’s top names have made millions and received industry-wide acclaim. It’s easy to see why those with an adventurous spirit may be drawn to a career in stunt driving. But pro stunt drivers like Hooker and Hickman had to put in years of work before realizing their dreams.
Those who want to follow in the footsteps of stunt driving greats should also expect to put in long hours of training and practice before getting on set. Driving fast on the highway is no substitute for professional training and certification. Across the U.S., there are numerous performance driving schools that focus on providing a sort of “race-car experience,” which is a great place to start on the path towards a stunt-driving career.
Finally, keep in mind that stunt driving on film may end up looking much more exciting than the reality. Thanks to modern technology and the preference of CGI over practical effects, some stunt drivers don’t even have to get behind the wheel. For example, driver Jeremy Fry spent most of his time harnessed to the roof while filming 2017’s Baby Driver. Fry’s job was more akin to manipulating a remote control car, albeit a life-size one.
But that doesn’t mean that Fry’s effects weren’t as spectacular as those created via analog channels. Sitting in a cage atop the movie’s modified vehicle, Fry was tasked with maintaining a steady course while principal actors sat inside the vehicle and filmed a scene.
In today’s modern, digital-based film industry, stunt driving has become increasingly complex and nuanced. But no matter the methodology, the exciting results of professional stunt driving still include death-defying jumps, high-speed chases, and precision movement.
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