RSA Films director James Bryce talks LBB’s Alex Reeves through the most ambitious car stunt he’s ever undertaken for Top Gear
About two weeks ago, British car show and something of a national institution, Top Gear returned for its 28th series.
Known for their increasingly bombastic stunts, the Top Gear team and RSA Films director James Bryce opened the series with one of their most ambitious set pieces yet – a bungee jump in a Rover Metro.
Rising to the challenge of hitting 60mph in two seconds, former cricket star and Top Gear host Freddie Flintoff strapped in and both presenter and Metro dropped from the side of the 160m high Luzzone Dam.
Even after stripping 250kg from the car, the stunt still required five specially commissioned 30 metre bungee ropes to withstand a g-force of around 7G – somewhere between a F1 car braking and the Apollo 16 re-entry.
The build-up to the stunt throughout the episode saw an audience increase of 600,000, with a peak of 3.35million, making it BBC TWO’s best performing and most acclaimed show of 2020 so far.
Longstanding Top Gear director James is known for his high-octane work on the show and for clients like Audi, Ford, Nissan, Chevrolet and Jaguar. He was second unit director on the Sweeney's climactic car chase and is currently directing TV drama as well as Top Gear, including Casualty and Holby City. Most recently, he worked as second unit director on the beach battle scene that opens the new series of The Last Kingdom. Basically, he’s very well versed in action and suspense.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with James to hear about this groundbreaking stunt.
LBB> Where did your relationship with Top Gear begin? What was the first thing you directed for the show?
James> I started as an editor on Series 2 back in 2003, and moved into directing a year or so later (I still cut all my own films). The first film I had was a car test with James May in Wales- they wanted me on a short leash! I remember I delivered the film to the Exec Andy Wilman and went to the pub, because it was a Friday night. He called me and said: 'You can come and direct for me any day.' I was relieved I'd passed the test!
LBB> What have been some of the most memorable experiences directing for Top Gear over the years?
James> Filming a bobsleigh racing a rally car in Norway, or a Red Devil skydiver racing a Porsche in Cyprus, amongst many others. The Botswana Special was in the most beautiful location, but the ones that are really seared on my memory were the America Special and the Patagonia Special, both of which involved us being chased by rock-throwing locals- the fear and adrenaline seem to make those memories the most vivid!
LBB> Where did the inspiration come from to dangle Fred off a dam in a Metro?
James>The guys in the office sit around and come up with these preposterous ideas. This one had the thin justification that Chris Harris thought he could go faster than an Ariel Atom (0-60 in 2.8 seconds) without having to spend so much money. So to test the theory, he bought a cheap Rover Metro and chucked it off a dam.
LBB> What was the scale of this stunt and what were defining challenges?
James> The main challenge was to not kill Fred! This was a massive stunt, it was the most expensive shoot of the season. A huge amount of thought and planning went into it and the BBC takes health and safety very seriously. The car had to be made safe- it was stripped of its internal components and had reinforced steel added - all the welding had to be very carefully inspected. Then the bungee team had to get the weight right so the bungee cords would stop the car just before it hit the ground. There was no room for error and they essentially tested it for two days before the shoot, increasing the weight each time, until the balance was right.
I decided early on that I wouldn't let the presenters see anything until they arrived at the dam and I wouldn't give them any information about the jump beforehand; that way their reactions would be genuine and this approach really worked a treat, especially with Fred- his reaction when the bungee cage tilted, for example, was priceless!
In terms of shooting the stunt, the challenge was to bring out the tension and drama of each stage of the process as clearly as possible, and to make sure each stage escalated the tension until it was almost unbearable. Then just when you think it's going to go, there's a false start which teases the audience to breaking point.
I planned and storyboarded all the shots in advance and I was lucky enough to have 6 Amiras, a drone and around 25 different mini cameras, because I knew I'd only have one shot at it. I cut the film myself, and had a lot of fun with pacing and sound effects, really ramping the tension throughout. The film was shown at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square for the Top Gear premiere and judging by the audience's gasps and cheers, it seems to have worked! But it's Fred's performance, and ultimately his bravery, that hooks you and takes you along for the ride.
LBB> There are heaps of good facts and figures about the stunt. Do you have any favourites that you like to tell people?
James> The dam is 540 feet high and when Fred and the car reached the nadir of the bungee drop they calculated there would be seven tonnes of force going through the car frame. If it had been a normal Metro, without reinforcement, it would have crumpled like a coke can.
LBB> What was the most memorable part of the whole process?
James> There were many moments but the highlight had to be Fred's actual jump, when everything came together, all the cameras were in position, months of work culminated in this one pinch point- and the whole thing was over in less than a minute! The next most memorable moment was watching the film on the cinema screen and feeling the tension and emotion of the film with hundreds of other people- it was electric!
LBB> How will you / the show top this stunt?
James> I'm not sure actually, but I do know they have plans for something next season that may not be technically even possible! I can't say any more...
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