Student at the wheel. Click image to enlarge
Stunt driving school
Story and photos by Laurance Yap
If you’re at all like me, there’s a certain kind of movie that you love but most (probably all) of your friends don’t quite understand. They’re the movies filled with crazy car-chases, stupid stunts, and moments where you can’t help but ask yourself, “How did they do that?” The more of those moments in a movie, the better, especially if you’re looking for entertainment on lazy summer evenings.
There’s part of me, of course, that’s always wanted to be a movie stunt driver, but a lack of connections in the industry, and a general sort of self-preservation instinct after having listened to one too many DVD commentaries, have meant that those dreams have gone unfulfilled – probably a good thing. Well, no more: here I am in the middle of a parking lot in suburban Toronto learning how to slide, screech, and spin my way to movie glory alongside a couple of the industry’s real icons.
The three instructors of Campbellville-based IFPDI (it stands for International Film & Precision Drivers and Instructors) have between them decades of motion-picture experience, are active stunt professionals, and have performed literally thousands of stunts in hundreds of motion pictures. Shane Cardwell, Gil Combs, and Dwayne McLean have been the real stars of some of my favourite pictures: they've been behind the wheels of crashing, burning, sliding, flipping and otherwise acrobatic automobiles in movies like Mission Impossible II, Bad Boys II, Independence Day, Speed, T2: Judgment Day, Road Rage, X-Men, and the Die Hard movies. These guys are the real deal.
If you're at all familiar with their accomplishments on screen, it's hard, initially, to reconcile the spectacular images you see at the movies with the low-key scene I'm confronted with: four front-wheel-drive domestic sedans, a bunch of pylons, and a hose in a parking lot. But as Combs tells us in a pre-course pep talk, these fundamentals are the building blocks of everything you see on screen. Through the first day of the course, we learn the basics: how to screech to a halt in a straight line; how to slide broadside into a parking space (which would really impress your friends), plus 180-degree spins, and various methods of sliding to a stop in a prescribed space at a prescribed angle.
Gil Combs (left) and Shane Cardwell
All of the exercises are fairly simple once you break them down into their constituent parts, something that's drilled into us over and over again by the instructors as we get back in for another go. They all involve various amounts of steering and brake application, and most importantly, use of the parking brake, which locks up the rear wheels, creating movie-friendly tire screeching and making the car much easier to pitch around turns in a very tight space. For an authentic movie-style screeching halt, you apply the parking brake and then use the "real" brakes to modulate the car to a stop in the "box" defined for you; to do a broadside, you do the same but add a bit of steering to "twitch" the car in the chosen direction before braking to stop the car; 180-degree turns require just the e-brake and a grab at the steering wheel, and 45-degree turns require barely any steering effort at all.
The real skill - where guys like Cardwell, Combs, and McLean, as well as the three female and one male students that did the course with me last week make their money - comes from being able to do such stunts cleanly, consistently, and safely. Multiple takes are often required, and movie and TV sets are filled with crew members, cameras, and other equipment that could be very expensive to replace if a stunt driver doesn't hit their marks correctly. So the course emphasizes practice time, the instructors giving us numerous opportunities to hone our technique, before moving on to more complicated moves that string many actions together, such as a 180-degree spin followed by a broadside into a parking spot. (If all this sounds like too much fun, rest assured that it is.)
Because the course's students, at least for now, are primarily film and television professionals, a fair amount of time is spent in a classroom setting not discussing the various driving manoeuvres - which like anything, become easier with experience, with confidence, and with practice - but on becoming a better stunt person. Huddled in the classroom after lunch, we talk about how the profession has evolved, whose technique the students ought to study and know, what sort of sacrifices were made by the pioneers like Hal Needham, in order that we all could be here today.
Combs and Cardwell regale us with stories of shoots gone wrong, and show us some stuff that never made it onto the screen; they provide instruction to the students on how to deal with penny-pinching stunt coordinators and directors; they remind us that they're always available by phone to help with technique and negotiation. Because the stunt community in Toronto is fairly small (about 100 practitioners, 40 of which legitimately earn their living at it), everybody knows everybody else, and it's clear that the bonds forged here between the students and their instructors is going to be just the beginning of their professional relationships.
But IFPDI is expanding its scope to far beyond the stunt community (though that does remain its focus; just a few weeks ago, a group of Jackie Chan's stunt drivers went through the program). The company now offers a novelty course for car enthusiasts that teaches entry-level stunts and car control. It puts on programs for law enforcement officers in pursuit, vehicle control, and strategy. For pros, it offers the two-day course that I took, as well as a 3-day pro stunt course which teaches additional techniques like setting up vehicles for slides, crashes, pipe rolls, and jumps. The pro course also covers the very important points of car setup, roll cage design, and blind driving; it's only available to students that have achieved a certain level of proficiency in the two-day course.
As the final exam - a complicated sequence of slides and stops - rolls around, we're all feeling pretty confident as our efforts have improved immeasurably since we started. But it's clear after knocking over a few cones and mis-timing some of my control inputs that I still have a long way to go before I reach movie glory. Un-learning years of instruction on how to keep a car FROM sliding, how to go as fast as possible without screeching any tires or leaving any skid marks, is going to take a lot more time than I thought. Nevertheless, I've had a taste of what it's like to be a stunt driver. And for now, that's more than enough.
Visit IFPDI on the web.