The Unknown Stuntman - Gary Powell Q&A

The Casino Royale stunt chief tells TF how he took Bond back to basics

There’s a twenty year-old lyric, mumbled by TV show God Lee Majors during the theme to The Fall Guy. “I might jump an open drawbridge, or Tarzan from a vine. ‘Cos I’m the unknown stuntman, who made Eastwood look so fine.”

When TF first claps eyes on Gary Powell, he doesn’t look much like Majors’ crime-stopping stuntman Colt Severs but then he doesn’t look much like Pierce Brosnan either. Yet he did enough of the Irishman’s stunts to earn himself a promotion to Stunt Coordinator for 007’s latest mission.

Having first met Powell in the sun-drenched splendour of the Bahamas, TF is now seeing the sharp-end of filmmaking. We’re at Dunsfold Airport in Surrey, where the finishing touches to a massive stunt sequence are being put in place. It’s cold, it’s 2 a.m. and the ever-amiable Powell is overseeing a stunt that will see an oil tanker smash through the middle of an airport bendy-bus. Tonight is the second attempt. Last night didn’t quite go to plan…

Can you start off by telling us what section of the story you’re filming?
Basically, this is Bond chasing a terrorist named Carlos, whose aim is to blow up this new futuristic plane that’s being launched. Carlos plans to steal a tanker, put a detonator inside and drive up to the plane, get out, walk away and blow it up. The idea is that the people with shares in the company will lose millions and the terrorists have invested elsewhere so they will earn millions from it. Bond is chasing him, trying to stop him at the airport, then they get onto the runway, Bond then gets thrown off the tanker, then gets back on. The tanker crashes through a baggage train, we did the bendy-bus crash last night, then it’s going to crash through an aeroplane and have a near miss with a 747, which will be a touch-and-go.

We heard it went wrong last night?
It didn’t go completely to plan last night but that’s why we have safety measures in place. Driving through the bendy-bus, a lot of people would have stayed upright in the drivers seat when the charge went off. But having done a lot of this stuff before, my advice to the driver was ‘line yourself up, once you know you’re committed, lay down.’ That way, you’ve got a great deal of protection in front of you, the engine block, the dash, everything. If you’re sitting upright, you can put a toughened screen in there which is bullet proof but it’s not 6-ton bus proof. So we planned it, padded the area out and put a lap belt on him and another belt in there so he could pull himself right down. When the bus hit, it went straight into the windscreen, so if he wouldn’t have been laying down it would have been quite messy for him.

Sounds like it was a pretty close call?
That’s why we plan so meticulously. It didn’t go wrong as such, we just didn’t get the shot we wanted.

We suppose it’s a bit of an occupational hazard when you’re doing this kind of stuff for real…
Well, we try to make sure there aren’t any hazards but yeah, this is us. This is where the stunt team get to do what we do and as we’re doing everything for real in this movie it takes a lot of planning. We’re not doing the 747 touch-and-go for real, even though it was offered up to do it for real – we didn’t really want the responsibility of a 747 splattered all over Surrey! So that’s going to be enhanced with CGI. But even on the big bendy-bus explosion last night, we had people in the front section, my missus was in there in fact, so they can’t say I won’t put people in the firing line! So yeah, it’s nice because we’re doing stuff for real and that’s what you want in this profession.

When we spoke to you last, you were about to head off to shoot the stairwell scene. There has been massive buzz surrounding it. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s brilliant, have you seen it yet? That was a complicated piece because it takes place over three floors and x-amount of stairs. Because it’s such close quarters, Martin and I prefer the actors to do a lot of it themselves, so Daniel got quite a few bruises that day. Generally you normally walk away from the big stunts without a scratch. Last night for instance, everyone walked away without a mark. It’s the little ones, like a fight where you know he’s got to fall down some stairs, or he’s thrown into a wall. Your actor is constantly getting hit on the knee or smashed in the shoulder and after a while, it really starts to hurt because your body can only take so much. That’s one of the reasons I went from being in front of the camera to being behind it, my body was getting to the point where I couldn’t take it, so I decided to hang my pads up a few years ago.

Sounds rough. So Daniel has been well up to the task?
He’s been fantastic to work with. He’s super-fit and he also makes life easier for me because sometimes you get actors or directors and they do a sequence and something is not quite right, so you ask for another take and they’re like ‘Oh do I have to?’ Whereas Daniel will watch the monitor with me and ask me, ‘Was that alright?’ and if I say, ‘Well…’, he’ll say ‘Let’s go again.’ He wants this to be 110% right. For me, that’s great because I haven’t got to keep tapping him on the shoulder and saying, ‘Do you mind doing one more?’ He knows.

Which must be nice for you and your team?
It’s great because everything we see on screen will hopefully be that much better because he wants to nail it and get it right. The energy on set always stems from the top and Martin always brings good energy, Daniel comes on set and he’s got a fantastic personality – he’s a super-nice person and it just makes everyone else enjoy what their doing and want to do a good job.

He gives it an edge we haven’t seen in a long time, doesn’t he?
Definitely. There are other films about now to compete with and Daniel’s perfect for it. But we’re no different, when a new guy comes in, everyone’s always thinking: ‘How’s he going to play it, what’s he going to be like?’ Now we’ve done some work with him, they’ve cut it together and not only does the action look great but he carries the story side of things so well.

So when does the stuntman step down and Daniel take over on this oil tanker scene?
As soon as we’ve got this explosion, Daniel will be doing the interiors, all the fighting. We’ve designed a special cab for the fight scenes in there. Then he’ll be on the side of the tanker, up on top, a few charges going off with a few of us throwing suitcases at him to re-create the scene!

From your point of view, a fight in a cab must be a nightmare to map out?
It’s certainly a complicated one. It’s very tight in there so it’s not like you’re in a room, throw a punch, get thrown on the deck. You’re in a small space and you’ve got nowhere to go. So you’ve got to keep the fight interesting but you can’t have it going on too long because then it becomes unreal, so you introduce a few holds, some grappling and it makes it look real, more dangerous, more desperate.

So how do you and Martin Campbell work as a dynamic? He tells you what he wants and you come up with it?
That’s pretty much it, yeah. Basically what I do is I have different people throughout my team who specialise in areas, Martin will then tell me what he wants to see. I then gather the team, give them the ideas I want to incorporate and then we put it together. Then we sit with Martin, pick it apart again, take out the fat, play with it, add some more and that builds up and up until we’re 100% happy with it.

You’ve been around Bond films since you were 15 years old [Gary’s father, ‘Nosher’ Powell was a highly respected stuntman during the Connery/Moore era]. To be coordinating your first Bond flick must be a thrill…
Well, to shoot a sequence in a Bond film is what you dream of as a performer but to coordinate one is the top of the ladder. Even if I only ever do one, I’ve done it.

Which is better – performing or coordinating?
Well it’s funny because when I was a performer, all I wanted to do was perform stunts, nothing else interested me at all. Then obviously you go to a film and watch it and think: ‘yeah, that was me doing that!’ It was fantastic. It got to the point, when I’d been performing for ten years and I’d taken a lot of knocks. So I started coordinating and I must admit, for the first couple of years I hated it because I was asking people to do things I really wanted to do, like smash cars up, get set on fire and fall out of buildings. Now, I get maybe even more satisfaction out of setting up the stunts, pulling everything together and then getting my guys in to perform it. Then when I see it, when something comes off, I really get a buzz. If everyone walked home at the end of the day in one piece, that’s the most satisfying thing.

Yeah… but it must’ve been pretty cool sitting in a cinema watching one of your stunts?
Actually, I’ve got to tell you something that’s really funny. I went to a public viewing of GoldenEye with some friends and we were sitting there and the tank chase is going on. There’s this one point where I come flying into the town square and do a complete 360 and there was a guy sitting behind me who said ‘that’s impossible, that’s got to be a model or CGI.’ You just chuckle to yourself, you know? You’d love to turn around and say, ‘Actually…’ You know they’d never believe you but it makes you laugh.