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Casino Royale stunt co-ordinator Gary Powell talks to The Times

05-Nov-2006 • Casino Royale

It’s a rum life being 007. One minute, you’re mooching around Miami airport of an evening, wondering if you remembered to remove the nail clippers from your hand luggage; next thing, you’re clinging to the back of a petrol tanker as it tears around the runway, trying to prevent a baddie named Carlos, servant of Smersh, from making an explosive rendezvous with a brand-new prototype airliner. The tanker slaloms across the tarmac, trying to shake Bond off. But, uh-oh, it’s on a collision course with a tug, a low-slung vehicle used for towing planes. The tanker skids, burns rubber and screeches to a halt. Bond, bless him, swings violently but maintains a heroic one-handed grip on the rear ladder - reports The Times.

It isn’t really Daniel Craig, of course, but a stuntman. Nor is it Miami; rather, Dunsfold Aerodrome (where they also shoot Top Gear), near Godalming, Surrey, on an unseasonably parky spring night. Such is life with the second unit, a standard feature of the action spectacular, whose unsung heroes handle the rough stuff while the principals are off being pampered.

Amid a crackle of walkie-talkies, the second-unit director, Alexander Witt, who made his name with the bus chase in Speed, orders the trucks to be reversed up and prepped for retakes that will go on until first light. While Craig lies tucked up in bed somewhere, his double, the passable lookie-likie Kai Martin, flaps about on his safety wire like a freshly reeled-in flounder. The stunt co-ordinator, Gary Powell, finds it all highly amusing. It is he who “volunteered” Martin: “He didn’t step back fast enough.” Shaven-headed and Gore-Texed up like a Michelin man, Powell is a delightfully geezerish 43-year-old. He recently moved behind the camera (“I didn’t bounce as good as I used to”), but he remains something of a legend in the stunt world, numbering feats in Titanic, The Mummy and the Harry Potters among his many exploits.

It is Bond, though, with which he is most associated. It’s like one of those old-fashioned circus families: Powell doubled for Pierce Brosnan, as his elder brother, Greg, did for Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton; before that, his father, Fred “Nosher” Powell, and his Uncle Dinny helped to create the illusion that was Sean Connery, as well as popping up in assorted athletic bit parts. “My dad was one of the first down the ropes into the volcano in You Only Live Twice,” Powell says, making rather light of his father’s pioneering achievements. His own include pieces of stunt history, too, such as leading the tank chase through St Petersburg in GoldenEye and, most notable, performing a 360-degree barrel roll in a powerboat during the Thames chase in The World Is Not Enough. “That’s probably the most dangerous. If it had gone wrong...” he muses. The 60mph boat did flip over in rehearsals, and he was carted off to hospital. “But it was nothing,” he shrugs. “Just a bit of a whack.” Powell has fond memories of Pinewood in the 1970s. “The Spy Who Loved Me — the submarine set was fantastic,” he enthuses. He was initially more interested in special effects. Then, with stunts, he just sort of fell into it ... landing, naturally, on a pile of cardboard boxes.

It was in 1910 that a cinematograph captured an unnamed man jumping from a burning balloon into the Hudson River, in New York, founding a branch of employment whose risks are as great as any 00-ranked spy’s. “I’ve had a couple of good friends lost to it,” Powell intones sombrely. He himself has never suffered more than a broken wrist.

The Bond franchise has made stunts integral to the package; it’s a sort of grandad of the modern action movie. Traditionally, before the opening credits turn, a stand-alone action sequence, apropos of nothing else in the movie, is showcased — think of Connery blasting off in a jet pack in Thunderball, the Union-flag parachute/ski jump in The Spy Who Loved Me or the free-fall cliff-to-stricken-plane dive in GoldenEye. The makers of Casino Royale are professing to be ushering in a “new” and “gritty” 007 (hey, he drives a Mondeo), and the opening is untypically film-noirish. But early footage of Bond leaping between towering cranes in the Bahamas suggests there is as much in the movie to rival pièces de résistance such as the 70ft speedboat jump in Live and Let Die (a world record at the time), the broken-bridge car leap of The Man with the Golden Gun and the still unbeaten 722ft bungee drop over the Verzasca dam (GoldenEye again).

“This is one of the most physical Bonds we’ve had, and Daniel does do a lot of his own stuff,” Powell insists. “He wants to do all his own stuff. I have to stop him at certain levels because of the risk factor. He’s got no ego at all, which is fantastic for me. The problem comes when you get an actor who wants to do all his own stunts, but can’t.”

Ever wondered why car chases are done in the wet? It’s so the water covers the tyre marks from previous efforts. At Dunsfold, between takes, they’ve been spraying the runway furiously, but because of a hot afternoon followed by a chilly night, the heat-retaining tarmac begins to emit a ghostly mist: very Miami-like, but it plays hell with the continuity. While they wait for it to clear, the faux Bond hangs patiently.

I don’t suppose audiences will think it’s really Craig dangling up there, but after post-production, it will all fit seamlessly into the equation. And at least it’s done for real. After an acknowledged slide with the past couple of films, the Bond stunts are 100% organic again. “Nowadays, the audience are so clever. They know when it’s visual effects, they know when it’s real, and CGI has got boring,” Powell huffs. “When you go back to Buster Keaton, doing all those car chases, or Harold Lloyd, they were literally just missing each other. That’s when people go, ‘Did you see that?’ That’s what I sort of want to get back to.” The only digital airbrushing on this Bond, he says, is to take out cables.

Eventually, the trucks start whizzing again. But what was riveting an hour ago has become mundane — people casually milling behind the camera as vehicles hurtle toward them, or sloping past to the catering bus. Health and safety would have a field day. “They sort of leave us alone, really,” Powell grins, “because everything we do goes against every rule they have — setting yourself on fire, jumping off a building, not having your seat belt on.” Despite what you see, he says, vehicles constitute a controlled environment. “One of the most dangerous things we have to work with is horses.”

As Martin hurtles past again, I wonder why they do it, stuntmen. “People always think stuntmen are fearless,” Powell says. “But I’m scared of a lot of the stuff I do, and if I come across a stuntman who says he’s fearless, I actually won’t work with him, because he’s got no sense of danger.” He thinks about it for a moment. “For us, it’s beating the fear,” he says. “You get frightened of something, you go in there and you beat it. It’s a nice feeling.” I bet his life insurance is huge. He laughs. “Pretty bad, actually.”

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