Just south of the Arctic Circle in Iceland is the Kárahnjúkar Spillway. The overflow channel of Europe’s biggest dam and one of the most unforgiving environments possible to imagine driving a car up at speed. Which is why Jaguar Land Rover’s agency Spark44 chose it as the location to show off the new Range Rover Sport in its latest stunt film.
Every two years, the Range Rover Sport undertakes an impossible challenge in an inhospitable place like this. And every time, Spark44 and their production partners have to somehow find something more extreme to beat the challenge that went before.
The Spillway challenge pushes things to a terrifying level. In front of the vehicle, 750 tonnes of water per minute gushing down. Behind it, the ever-present threat of a 90-metre drop into the canyon. Stunt driver Jess Hawkins really was defying death.
It was also a major test of the vehicle itself. The team travelled to Iceland with only one Range Rover Sport, overcame every obstacle and brought it back intact.
To hear about exactly how they overcame so many obstacles, LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to the filmmakers who made it happen.
From production company Bang TV, he spoke to Tom Whitehead (producer), Lino Russell (director), Rory Mckellar (2nd unit director), Jeremy McWilliams (executive producer) and Stefan von Borbely (director of photography). And from Big Picture Company he spoke to Colin Sumsion (editor) and Kristy May Currie (post supervisor/executive producer).
LBB> Where did this project begin and how did that form into the idea of this stunt?
Tom (producer)> The project began for Bang TV on my birthday, in April 2021. I honestly thought Corin Kiddy [producer at Spark44] had phoned me up to say ‘Happy Birthday’. But when he told me what he wanted us to do, it put me right off my cake. Whilst I was really excited about the project, I did spend a lot of time thinking “How the hell do we make sure nobody dies, and nobody goes to prison?” Corin and the rest of the agency team had been researching the project for a lot longer – pretty much since the Dragon Challenge film
was launched to such great accolades. Jaguar Land Rover had tasked Spark44 with going one better. Where on earth could the car find a drive that would be tougher?
LBB> How did that turn into a solid plan of what you were going to try and attempt?
Tom> Neither of us had ever seen a project before where such a high level of risk was written into the script, so once Jeremy and I got over the initial shock, phoned our lawyers and checked the small print on the insurance, we started to try to get our heads around the practicalities of the safety considerations.
Spark44 had worked with us and [director] Lino Russell several times before and he leapt at the chance to get stuck into this one. The main creative conundrum was how we could do everything we could think of to avoid death and disaster, without nullifying the stomach-churning excitement of the action. Corin had shot with [executive producer] Steinarr Nesheim and [producer] Kidda Rokk at Polarama in Iceland before. Once he put us in touch with them, it was possible to start breaking the project into slightly less terrifying chunks.
Lino (director)> These were some of the most inhospitable locations I've ever worked in. Breathtaking views but one wrong step and you're gone. We put a roll cage in the vehicle for safety. But how much good is that going to do you if you fall 100 metres down a waterfall?
LBB> You were at the mercy of the elements and weather. What were the biggest considerations there?
Lino> You think you can organise and control the shoot but soon find out that you are completely at the mercy of the weather and nature. Very often, the plan for each day was obsolete by the time we arrived on location in the morning.
Tom (producer)> The whole idea of this challenge depended upon the water level at the dam. Too low meant no flow, too high meant ‘bye-bye’. There were heaps of data that enabled us to identify an ideal shoot window in mid-August when the water level would be ‘just right’. But the water level rise spiked massively in late July. Instead of rising by 40cm a day as predicted, it leapt to nearly a metre. For two days in a row. At that rate, the Spillway would have become totally inaccessible during our shoot window. We had to pull the shoot forward twice, which totally demolished our prep schedule – and our summer holidays. Suddenly, after months of prep, it was a case of ‘We are shooting this Wednesday!’
Rory (2nd unit director> Iceland seems to be impervious to nature’s harshest weather, but as we saw the glaciers melting and the water rising at ever-increasing rates, you understand how finely balanced our world and our ecosystems actually are.
Jeremy (executive producer)> We only had one car and one driver. And all the shots were pushing the car to its limits. Nobody would have been surprised if the car got totalled on any set-up. So there was a lot of discussion about which shots were the most dangerous to push them to the end and there was no agreement about which scene was the riskiest. Even Jim Dowdall [the stunt coordinator] couldn’t decide. By rights, we shouldn’t have been able to keep the car intact. We got very very lucky. But I kept remembering what Gary Player said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
LBB> What was the single most challenging aspect of the production and how did you overcome that?
Tom (producer)> The sheer scale of the Spillway location was a logistical nightmare. Losing a week and a half of the pre-production meant that we had to seriously curtail the kind of behind-the-camera planning you need to do after the director’s recce and tech scout. Where does all the transportation go? How do we schedule the unit move down that single access tunnel to the bottom of the dam? Which areas will be camera-safe on the day? We had a huge unit, several enormous unit moves and effectively one day to plan the logistics. Luckily, we managed to bring 1st assistant director Matt Lawson along for the ride and he was brilliant at thinking three steps ahead and keeping everything moving. When he asked me on the first morning if I’d seen ‘Lost in La Mancha’
, I knew we had the right man. The team worked like demons but everything just took so much time.
Lino (director)> And all of that meant that it was impossible to get hold of a decent cup of coffee. Everything else was cool.
LBB> What moments will stick with you the most from the shoot?
Lino> In the middle of an extremely tense ‘discussion’ about whether we needed a cargo helicopter to transport the car to the riverbed location, Phil Jones from JLR just got behind the wheel and drove it right in! His confidence in the vehicle was total.
Tom (producer)> The moment that Jess Hawkins got the car to the top of Spillway is hard to beat! She was amazing, so calm and nerveless. Creatives Lee [Aldridge] and Jamie [Woodington] from Spark44 were jumping around with delight hugging people. I felt like I breathed out fully for the first time in ages. It was such a massive release after months of worry and sleepless nights. And it looked awesome too!
Also, I’ll treasure all of Jim Dowdall’s anecdotes from various Bond films to Tenet. The man is comedy gold as well as a fantastic stunt coordinator.
LBB> It looks utterly stunning - in terms of lighting and grading, what were the key decisions for showing the location and car off to the maximum?
Tom (producer)> Brian Fraser (global CCO at Spark44) was adamant that the final film should be dark, otherworldly and seriously moody. The car is pretty much the only point of colour in that landscape, and it just leaps out at you in every shot. Stefan von Borbely, our DOP, is an absolute legend. Totally unflappable, with impeccable taste and able to adapt on the spot without ever compromising the shot. He even got his wetsuit on at one point! He’s also got a great sense of humour, which was handy on this job! Normally when the DOP says that we can’t shoot before three in the afternoon it makes me want to be sick, but on this occasion with the long daylight hours, it worked beautifully. And we did get a little luck here and there with the overhead conditions. Lots of flat, even light at key moments, and some great patches of sunshine to add drama. It gave Seamus [O’Kane, colourist] at Youngster plenty to work with, but he’s another legend so we knew it would look incredible.
Stefan (director of photography)> Honestly, in spite of the craziness the shoot was a huge amount of fun. There was so much to manage every day with scheduling and logistics in a stunning wilderness. The whole team were incredible. We had a very young, very good camera team servicing and operating three Alexas and four Sony A7S IIIs, but our schedule meant there was no intent for me to supervise every single moment of the photography. This job was too big for that, and instead it was all about communication between Lino, the creatives Jamie and Lee, to Matt Lawson the 1st AD, with the grips, ACs, gaffer, production and crew. It’s no secret that Icelandic crews know how to make films at all levels and it was my job as DOP to rely on their experience and encourage their ideas by simply discussing what’s best for the job. The key grip (Sigurgeir Thordason) was operating ‘D’ Camera whenever possible and it looked amazing. The drone/FPV team was stunning, as well as our 2nd unit director/DOP/operator Rory McKellar. It was such a huge collective effort, and all that effort is right there in the edit.
LBB> With all the footage you had, was it difficult to know what to focus on in post?
Colin (editor)> Lino and the creative team knew that we needed to build to a crescendo on the Spillway for this film to really shine. We received over 12TB of footage so that was an immense amount to take in. The difficult thing was that the other parts of the drive were spectacular too. The riverbed, canyon, tunnel, and rock climb are all before the Spillway and the trick was to make every part build from the last. The creative team really helped to get the balance right for each section and to keep the focus on Jess and her journey.
Kristy May (post supervisor/executive producer)> Our visual effects team worked tirelessly to make every part of the course run seamlessly from one challenge to the next. There was a huge amount of post work which you can’t see at all and we’re very proud of that. Isn’t that the point of great VFX work? The creatives saw this film as a moving artwork and scrutinised every frame to make this an intensely visual journey with the VFX team enhancing every frame.
LBB> It's unfortunately still quite rare to see a female stunt driver – did you find it a challenge to tell her story correctly?
Colin (editor)> We wanted to make sure that Jess came across as the incredible driver she is and the fact that she is female shouldn’t matter. It was very important for us to get across to the audience how real the peril was for Jess and to show her journey not only through the inhospitable landscape and wide dark vistas but also through close-ups in the cockpit, tight shots of her face and expressions etc. Lino set up fantastic gimbal shots looking through the windscreen in the tunnel which would have been completely at home in Star Wars, it really told the story of how claustrophobic it was in the tunnel! Capturing the intense concentration on Jess’s face before she took off up the Spillway made her more human and less like a stunt driver.
LBB> The media is really unique. This isn't even just an ad break. It was shown as a whole programme in the TV guide. How did that come about?
Jeremy (executive producer)> It is and always will be an ad but it’s also part docco and part entertainment. When we first heard that the whole film was going to run on Sky Sports in one ad break we could hardly believe it. It was only when we saw that the ad slot could be recorded on its own that I thought, ‘Bloody hell, it’s for real’. I’m told it was the longest ad break ever in the UK which is quite something.
LBB> Anything else you think people should know about this film that might not be obvious to the average viewer?
Jeremy> There were a lot of safety measures in place, we had tethered safety divers standing by and the entire crew were extremely cautious in every stunt we did. But ultimately people can get hurt or even die so of course I gave up sleeping for the entire shoot.
Tom (producer)> Unbelievably, considering the myriad life-threatening risks to Jess and all the crew every day we were on location, the only person who got hurt was me! I slipped on my arse in the unit base. Luckily only about 57 people noticed and my brand new phone broke my fall.