What do The Dark Knight Rises, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Fast & Furious 6, and every James Bond film since Quantum of Solace have in common? All of them featured car chases driven in part by Ben Collins. Collins may be better known as The Stig, the “tame racing driver” from Top Gear.
Collins played the second Stig—the one in the white helmet and nomex—before parting ways with the show over an autobiography. As that list of movies suggests, he’s been busy using his skill behind the wheel in service of Hollywood blockbusters since then, with some time away from the cameras racing professionally as well.
Collins has a new video (which Lionsgate is releasing today through some digital HD channels and then other networks like iTunes on November 3rd), which gave Ars the opportunity to talk to one of the most experienced wheelmen in show business. Stunt Driver showcases Collins’ talent in front of the camera and behind the wheel of some rather interesting four-wheeled machinery. He’s tasked by a demanding film producer with finding the perfect car for a Bond-esque chase sequence, and the next 75 minutes see Collins test various vehicles before finding something suitable.
Since we’re a technology site, we were curious about how the onslaught of car technology had changed stunt driving. In fact, Collins told us, “we have to deactivate a lot of stuff on cars for stunts. Safety systems like stability control have numbed the brains of drivers, and driving, and drivers pay less attention the more systems there.”
Precision stunt driving requires a more analogue relationship with the vehicle, it seems.
Collins pointed to an experience filming Stunt Driver as a perfect example, “We didn’t have the luxury of prepping the cars for Stunt Driver,” he said, before telling us about a sequence with an Aston Martin. The car was supposed to slide around a tank, but there wasn’t time to deactivate the antilock brakes, which as Collins pointed out don’t actually decrease stopping distances.
Instead of everything going to plan, “the ABS triggered and we almost hit the tank instead,” he said. Collins described trying to push the brake pedal through the floor of the car before it eventually stopped just short of an expensive meeting of carbon fiber and metal. “I was very glad we didn’t have a camera inside the car for that one,” he said.
It’s not just a case of getting in a car and driving as fast as possible. “I’m playing a character in a car,” Collins told us. Different characters require different driving styles, and not all of them will be the best drivers. Ultimately, though, it’s about what looks good on camera.
Each of the films Collins worked on has brought its own challenges. “For Fast & Furious 6, I had to dress as a chair” for a scene with an actor on the roof, he said. “I had the headrest on my head with little eye holes cut out of it.” By contrast, piloting Batman’s Tumbler was apparently like driving a submarine at high speed, with no peripheral vision and a tortuous driving position.
It’s evident that his work with the Bond franchise holds a special place in his heart. The car chase from Quantum of Solace was his immediate answer when we asked if he has a favorite scene or stunt. Not only was it at high speed, “it was my first Bond. It was a boyhood dream come true,” he told us.
The obvious question
You can’t interview the Stig without asking a Top Gear question, and there can’t be many people with as much experience as Collins has with so many different cars on the same track. Did he drive anything that kept him awake the night before? “I’ve never been worried about driving,” he told us, although “the Koenigsegg was very raw. It was a real fight driving it.
“Some of the car choices in Stunt Driver were similarly exciting—the Noble M600 for example. It’s chalk and cheese compared to the McLaren 650S,” Collins told us. The latter is a car we’ve recently got to know a lot better—expect a full review and video soon—so we were curious about the contrast between the two lightweight 600+ horsepower supercars.
Collins is as big a fan of the 650S as we are, but he said the car’s complexity also brings a fragility that’s no good for stunt work. With the Noble, “you could imagine smashing into a villain in a car chase. It’s a viking. The McLaren is a lot more delicate,” he said.
Finally, talk turned to Collins’ racing. He had a good 2014 in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), racing a Ferrari 458. “WEC was great being the fastest in the car. I was with a different team at Le Mans and got the fastest 458 lap.” A trip to Bathurst in Australia for the 12-hour GT3 race followed, but a teammate wrote the car off in the first practice session.
Rallycross might well feature in his future racing plans. Were the cars are fun to drive, we wondered? “Yes, they’re pretty unrivaled. You’re allowed to be a bit messy in them,” he said, before adding that “racing them will require some precision.”