Inside the life of a stunt driver

By Guest Writer
Mar 17, 2024 | Stunt Driver | Posted in Features | From the May 2020 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Lionsgate

Story by Jeremy Fry

It is as near to an actual, literal switch as you can get. I make a conscious decision to flip this switch and stop thinking about all of the things that could go wrong–of the reasons not to crash this car–and to only think about what exactly I need to do to accomplish the job at hand. And the job at hand today is crashing this car.

Not every day is like this. In fact, as a professional stunt driver in features, television and commercials, I only get to crash cars a handful of times a year. But while every job is different, most days on set follow a similar routine. They often start with a call time around 6 a.m. Some start later and sometimes we work all night, but last night I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.

If you’re early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late, so I plan to arrive at least 30 minutes early to allow for any unforeseen delay. Early call times mean I should beat the traffic that makes Los Angeles so famous.

Our location today is north of the city, a road that is often used because of its remote location and scenic surroundings. Being easy to “lock up” and secure means the police can make it safe–safer than we could do in town.

I also like arriving early so that I can grab a bite to eat from catering before I officially begin. Rumors are true: The food on set is fantastic. Catered breakfasts and lunches, along with a fully stocked craft service snack table and/or truck, are par for the course.

After grabbing a bagel and lox (a breakfast burrito is my other go-to), I like to get eyes on what I’ll be driving that day. I want to make sure that I’m familiar with any quirks or nuances the car may have, and that everything I’ll be relying on is in place and working properly–like the brakes and steering. No loose items inside the car, either.

Picture vehicles are usually either rentals from companies that supply cars to shows or are recent used car purchases. Either way, there’s plenty of room for surprises–and as my mentor, Rick Seaman, said, there are no good surprises in stunt driving.

Often there are several cars I need to inspect. Any crash car needs to have proper belts and padding installed, but the hero vehicle that I’ll be using for most of the stunt driving must also be in good shape.

Of particular concern is the e-brake. It is vital to executing a large portion of our stunts, so it must work well and consistently. No matter how clear I make my request in advance, I always cross my fingers when I test it.

Fortunately, we previously tested the crash car and it’s already belted up with my five-points. I verify that nothing has changed, and everything is ready to go.

I locate the hero car and peek inside. It looks almost identical to the crash car on the outside, but unlike the fully caged and gutted car that has only hours to live, this one has a full interior and a shiny, brand-new hydraulic e-brake.

At call time, I usually change into my wardrobe and go through the “works.” That means having hair and makeup guys and gals transform me into an actor’s double. Or maybe they’ll just do me up as a non-descript–an ND, as we call them.

From there, I meet with the stunt coordinator and the rest of the team to discuss the plan for the day: What will we be doing, how will we do it, and in what order?

These conversations happen with everyone involved, including any camera vehicle personnel. The drivers of these specialized vehicles–and the operators of the crane and camera hanging off them–have a job that’s often just as difficult as ours. Maybe even more.

While technology has brought us ways of using graphics and cartoons to illustrate the action that we will shoot, usually the easiest and quickest way to visualize the sequence is simple: Pull out the toy cars and draw a quick diagram with some chalk, right there on the ground.

If a series is particularly complex, we walk through it by literally walking through it. Even a great-sounding plan can have flaws, and walking through the motions can quickly and safely reveal these issues early on.

Next, we do a half-speed rehearsal in the cars to make sure everything can work as we expect. Oftentimes, finding room for the camera car to get its shot but still remain out of the way requires a plan revision.

Once everyone is happy, we move to a full-speed rehearsal. If it hasn’t already happened by now, usually cameras start to roll. You never know what little pieces can be usable, even when the speeds are slower or the action looks a little sloppy.

Photograph Courtesy Lionsgate

Prep for the Big Crash

Today’s work is broken into two parts: the leadups that we’ll do before lunch and the big crash that happens afterward. Today’s sequence features just me and one other stunt driver dicing it up on a two-lane road with a few ND cars in the area to liven the shot a bit.

Working with skilled and experienced drivers in the cars and camera vehicles typically allows us to move through the shot list quickly, and that happens today. In a rarity, we have some extra time and get in a few bonus shots before lunch.

As smooth and efficient as today is, most days are rarely so. A lot of downtime while electricians adjust lights, actors act, and set designers make changes means there is often ample time for storytelling, pranks and grazing at craft service.

My wife has learned not to ask when I might be home because I never truly know until I’ve actually pulled out of the parking lot. And even then, I’ve found myself turning around when someone realized I’m still needed. Usually, though, we spend around 12 hours a day on set. Often more, and occasionally less.

After lunch, the pace grinds to a crawl. Not because people get lazy, but because setting up a big crash that we only have one shot at means that everything has to be just right.

Hours later, I suit up to start the rehearsal runs. We need to work out speeds, distances and shots for me and the camera vehicle that will lead me in. If he goes too fast, he’ll lose me, and the crash will be too far away. Too slow, I’ll be forced to check up, and the crash won’t be as big as it could be.

Photograph Courtesy Sony Pictures

After a few lead-ups, the other driver and I feel ready to do it. It’s not uncommon for shows to provide multiple crash vehicles so they have an option to do the crash a few times. But not this show. We have a small budget: one car and one take.

I pull to my number one (the start mark), where one of the safety guys double-checks my belts, pads and mouthpiece. He tells me to have a good ride, slams the door, and heads to the camera closest to the crash site to help safety the operator. (Earlier today he told us a story involving grabbing the keys out of the ignition and tossing them to the group before jogging away while laughing hysterically, and fortunately that doesn’t happen here.)

Up until this point, everything seems somewhat normal. My breathing is calm and my heart rate, while feeling a bit elevated, is steady.

But when the walkie-talkie that my buddy taped to the roll cage within arm’s reach starts barking for everyone to find their places because we’re about to go, I feel everything inside of me start to protest.

It is precisely at this point, like every time, that I begin to wonder why I didn’t follow my mother’s advice about becoming an accountant. And then I start questioning the wisdom of driving this vehicle in precisely the manner all of the disconnected safety systems were designed to prevent.

I remind myself every day: People with fewer safeties in place find themselves in larger wrecks and emerge fine, albeit probably scared.

And I flip the switch.

Stunt Car Prep

What about preparing the vehicle itself? Another crash stunt, another car primed for destruction.

It’s been about 15 minutes since we exchanged money and keys, and the picture car coordinator expects me back at the shop soon. But my new friend is detailing the list of modifications made to the car, and we’re only at the rare JDM side marker lights that took three weeks to ship in from Japan.

I smile and nod at the appropriate times, in genuine appreciation of the love–and money and time–he’s poured into this 1990 Toyota Celica All-Trac. But I could never tell him that his now-former car has only days to live. In one week, it will slide off the road and roll down the hill. And a few days later, it will be dumped in the import section of the closest pick-n-pull.

Stunt drivers usually have nothing to do with the purchasing of cars, other than specifying what they need and want. But when my career was young, I had a plan: I (incorrectly) hoped that by taking the time to find and buy the car, I would be chosen by the commercial producer to drive it. In this world where the supply of stunt drivers vastly outnumbers the demand, you take chances that don’t always pan out.

Productions don’t always buy cars. If they need a car for a long time or plan on crashing it, buying makes sense. But often they will rent a car if it’s cheaper or easier. Specialized companies that rent out picture cars have or will procure what is needed for a shoot. Sometimes production companies simply rent them from the same companies you’d find at an airport.

Wherever the car comes from, it has to work. The level of prep that a car gets depends on what the script calls for and what the driver will need to accomplish it.

The most common request is that working e-brake. Most slides begin with the rear wheels locked up. On newer or unabused cars, the stock e-brake often suffices.

Photography Credit: Jeremy Fry

Older, worn-out or electronic e-brakes can pose issues of performance and longevity, so we might have a hydraulic e-brake installed. Passthrough e-brakes are generally easier installs, but a dedicated system comprising of a master cylinder, lines and separate calipers is the most desirable.

Some car prep guys have dedicated e-brake systems that can be quickly installed in cars and operate via a switch. Some of these are air over hydraulic and others are electric over hydraulic, but they’re usually all designed to allow the car to be easily returned to stock.

Once the e-brake is properly working, the next obstacle with most cars is overriding the ABS, traction control and stability control to allow the rear wheels to lock up and slide without affecting the front wheels. Sometimes these systems can be turned off via the factory switches, while others might need fuses, sensors or electrical connections unplugged.

In some cases, we have reached out to the manufacturer for assistance. Even if they are willing to help, sometimes their engineers cannot make the car work as desired.

Occasionally we pinch off the front brake hoses with Vise-Grips, allowing the main brake pedal to operate only the rear brakes. But the dramatic loss in braking capability makes this a last resort.

Beyond that, it’s common to throw in a set of lap or five-point belts if the car will or could come into light or moderate contact with something else. We’ll drill or punch holes through the floor and use bolt-in eyes with large washers on the bottom. Unless the seat bottom has a full metal pan, we’ll cut a hole through the fabric and padding to run the anti-sub belt. Experienced drivers usually carry at least one set of belts along with chain, webbing, shackles and quick-links to allow for installation in a variety of configurations. While perhaps not SCCA- or NHRA-legal, these installs are adequate for the smaller gags.

Larger crashes find us having cages of varying complexities installed. They run the gamut from a full double-hoop, multiple-diagonal cage that extends through the firewall down (for a high-speed rollover) to simple reinforcements, such as a set of door bars to protect the driver in the event another vehicle might contact that side of the car.

A driver’s personal prep usually mirrors the car’s. Minor impacts might find drivers wearing small pads on their elbows and knees. Large crashes often have them wearing full fire suits, gloves, pads, mouthguards, helmets and head-and-neck-restraints.

What catches most car enthusiasts off guard is how quickly–and ruthlessly–cars are prepped. Guys will unceremoniously cut out large sections of carpet to make room to install the handbrake mount. Interior panels are torn from their mounts, leaving behind broken clips and fasteners.

Form doesn’t just follow function in this world–it has been lapped. Some guys, understandably, just can’t bring themselves to embrace it. If you’re one of those guys, be very wary of who you sell your next car to. If you’re not careful, you might just see it die on the big screen.

Photograph Courtesy Sony Pictures

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AngryCorvair (Forum Supporter)
AngryCorvair (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/20/20 10:20 a.m.

i regret that i have but one thumbs-up to give

R56fanatic (Forum Supporter)
R56fanatic (Forum Supporter) New Reader
5/20/20 10:34 a.m.

jfryjfry -  can you provide more details about the  structure strapped on top of the car?  Is that a remote control setup so you can drive while the pretty faces act?



SVreX (Forum Supporter)
SVreX (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
5/20/20 10:34 a.m.

Thats a great article!

Justjim75 Dork
5/20/20 10:46 a.m.

Wait, that looks like John Wick and Baby Driver, did you drive for thoses movies?

Can my 14 yr old son have an autographed piece of a car from a big time movie....PLEEEZ?

SVreX (Forum Supporter)
SVreX (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
5/20/20 10:50 a.m.

In reply to Justjim75 :

Yes he did. wink

Baby Driver thread

Justjim75 Dork
5/20/20 11:09 a.m.

Just told my son about this as we just rewatched Baby Driver last week (killing time during lock down) and sent him the link.  He is very hopeful about my request 

pilotbraden UltraDork
5/20/20 11:19 a.m.

I really enjoyed reading the article and I too want to know is that Flying Bridge unit Truly a Flying Bridge to control  the car?

friedgreencorrado UltimaDork
5/20/20 11:40 a.m.

Well done! I recall an ancient issue of Car and Driver where Pat Bedard was talking about stunt drivers in his column.

"The Harlem Globetrotters never won an NBA Championship, but you don't hear a lot of people saying they can't play basketball."

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/20/20 4:31 p.m.

I know that I need to remain impartial (actually, do I?), but I totally loved this piece. 

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
5/20/20 5:46 p.m.

Super fun article to read.  If you are ever in a small movie and invited to Cinetopia, come- I'll buy you a drink.  Rarely to stunt people come to film festivals.  

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