With today's technology, it's possible to put anything on the big screen. But there's a sizeable difference between putting something on the big screen and actually pulling it off. Sure, with CGI enhancements anything can be done, but computers -- 'Jeopardy!' champions though they may be -- still can't trump the awe of seeing a flesh-and-blood human partake in a larger-than-life stunt. That's where people like Johnny Martin come in.
Martin, a stuntman, stunt coordinator and second unit director for over 20 years now, recently sat down with Cinematical to talk about his latest attempt to make the impossible possible: 'Drive Angry 3D,' the Patrick Lussier–directed, Nicolas Cage–starring car movie about a man who breaks out of hell to kick the you-know-what of the man who killed his daughter. We spoke about the challenges faced when making the world's first 3D car movie, the film's craziest stunt and if there even is such a thing as a stunt that's too dangerous to perform.
Cinematical: Have you seen the movie yet?
Johnny Martin: I have. I'm very, very pleased with it. We were able to see it with a crowd and I'll tell ya', man, it scored very, very high numbers. People are really responding to it, and considering it's the first 3D car movie ever done, it really turned out special. I've been around car movies my whole life. I got into the business because of old hot rods, so it's funny that it's all come around to be on hot rods again.
How exactly did you get into the business?
The funny story is that I'd hang around car washes to watch the cars and H.B. Halicki, who did 'Gone in 60 Seconds,' he was someone I met at a car wash. He told me about him being a stuntman and I told him someday I wanted to be a stuntman, too. When I got to L.A., he's the one who gave me a job. And I just kept working and then one day I was doing the other 'Gone in Sixty Seconds,' the Jerry Bruckheimer one, so that was pretty cool.
So is this your first 3D movie as a stunt coordinator?
It is my first 3D movie, but it's also the first 3D car movie ever done. And the reason is because the cameras are really not for traveling. So we had to figure out a way to mount these cameras on a hot rod. If we were doing today's cars, it would be easy, because they're smoother. But a hot rod is all about rumbling and movement and when you've got two cameras that need to be staring at the same thing at the same time that makes it pretty difficult.
How'd you guys approach new obstacles like that?
Well, a true Charger, for example, has 440 [horsepower] in there, and that engine was just a little too powerful with a little too much movement. Another problem with the Charger is that it has such a long wheelbase and a light rear end that it didn't allow the car to be steady at the same time. So what I did was I brought down the exhaust and then I got a smaller block engine in the cars we had to mount [cameras] on. We had three cars. One was for going balls out as fast as we can to make the rear end swing out, then we lowered the engine on one so that it could handle the capacity of the cameras. By lowering the exhaust on the rear end, it really helped when the gears switched. We basically tried to make a yesterday car into a today car.
How'd you guys decide on the cars? How did you track them down?
That was the funnest part. We got together six months prior to the movie, and me and Patrick [Lussier] and Todd [Farmer] basically went through all of the AutoTraders, all the magazines, hell, all over the world to find the perfect car. I got people who were selling cars here in L.A. and we set up meetings every week with people with Chevelles, Cameros, GTOs and everything else. We lined up the cars and then basically looked at what had the right lines -- what would be the most visually interesting in 3D. We had two major hot rods to have to pick for, so we couldn't just go with like a GTO and a Charger, because then they were too similar in lines and everything else and we were trying to do the opposite. That's when the Charger and the Chevelle came. The Chevelle has a more rounded look, whereas the Charger has a longer, more lined look.
The audience is going nuts for the Charger, which is a car people still remember from the 'Dukes of Hazzard' days and all that. That was the hard part. We had to make sure sure no one thought of this car as being from the 'Dukes of Hazzard.' We almost turned it down because everything we pulled up on the Internet had the General Lee in it. So we had to change it.
What Patrick suggested, which was genius, was that we did a few little tweaks to change the way the Charger was. A true car person who knows about the Charger knows they have a wing window on each side of the car. We took the wing window out and made it one solid window, which gave us just enough of a different look when looking at the side of the car. We also changed the height of the car where it wasn't the same as the General Lee. I pumped it up a bit higher in the back to give us more of a wedge look, whereas the General Lee was more less a level car all the way across.
The other thing we had to do was combat the General Lee's bright colors. So what Patrick did was pick this flat blue color -- and it fits really well with today's look, because a lot of people are painting their cars a dull color. It had nothing to do with catching glare off of the car and onto the cameras, it was all about the specific look. We wanted it to look almost like a primer; a rougher, tougher, straight-from-hell look. It couldn't be a pristine car.
How exactly do you tailor the stunts to match the breaking-out-of-hell tone of the movie?
It was easy. It's sort of like what Nic said to me. The reason he chose 'Drive Angry' was because he was able to create a character that could have been over the top and the audience would accept it, because who knows what a guy from hell looks like? That goes the same way with our action. We were able to cheat the believability. But the key thing is, you don't want to push the believability of what a car can do. You just want to be on the verge of saying, "Can that car really do that?" It needs to be just enough. We tested everything to the point where the audience would believe it and still think it was cool but not be distracted. That's the one thing in car movies that you cannot do. You cannot distract the audience away from the story with a piece of action where you just say, "OK, that was too unbelievable."
When it comes to the actual stunts, how specifically scripted are those in the beginning? Or does the script just say, "the car crashes" and then you're left to interpret how that happens?
We basically got the general idea of what the storyline should go with. The thing is, you can't just write a stunt and then go do it. You've got to find the location first and now just sit there and stare at it and go, "OK, let's design something really cool with this scene." We went there a month earlier than we normally do, we found the spots we wanted to use and just setup with our toy cars out there. We were constantly going back and forth about what was believable. It's a process they do normally entrust to me, but when a director -- especially a guy like Patrick, who knew everything about 3D when I was still learning it –- can help come up with an idea, it's great.
I know there's a ton of 3D movies out there, but what we're doing is more to enhance the look than it is to have things pop out at you. It's not about having this car coming into your lap, it's about showing the beauty of the car outside of the flat, 2D aspect. When a car slides around with the slight bit of a counter-move of the car, that's where the 3D aspect comes. And to give them the bang we had to figure how the car would move around here and where our cameras would go, and we had to take it step by step to get to where we'd end. When we would flip a car and do all that, it was about gearing up from the beginning and get the energy going, going, going. Instead of a straight speed run, it had to have a lot of movement and it had to pick it up every step of the way until we got to the big bang.
Even when we wrote the action, it's funny, we ended up changing it throughout the movie constantly. When we started testing the cars and all that we would make tweaks to the cameras even more.
Even though you didn't want to cheat believability too much, what's the most ridiculous stunt in the movie? The one that was more complicated to pull off than anyone in the audience will realize just watching it?
We ended up doing a propane truck that William Fichtner drives. It bashes through these police cars and then he starts sliding with the propane truck, which we left up so it rolls over two cars while Nic drives under it. And then the propane truck explodes behind them and we see all of the cars in front of it as Nic drives off. It's probably the biggest, most unbelievable gag in the movie, but it needed that. It's the one point where we really cheat the line and it happens at the perfect point in the movie where it's about doing something that crazy before getting back to being serious.
The second half of the movie is more intense, where the first part has more fun with getting to know the character. And the part I'm talking about is the introduction of our William Fichtner from hell. He can do anything. He has the power to make anything happen, so when he crashes the car, he gets out of it as it's drifting and steps onto the hood of another car right before it rolls up and over the car. It's a crazy scene, but it totally works at the point in the movie because the Devil can make anything happen.
Is there a general rule of what's considered too dangerous of a stunt?
You know what? No. No, anything can be done in a certain way. There's no way that someone can create something that cannot be done. Especially with today's technology and the capabilities of cables and ratchets and all the machinery. In the old days of 'Bullitt' and all that it was about what the car did, but now we're at a point where we're able to take these cars and ... like in 'Drive Angry,' there's a point where we flip a cop car off of a bridge. We decided we didn't want it to do a spin-and-a-half, we wanted it to do a spin-and-a-quarter. It's so technical, but that's what we can do. We did test after test after test on the spin of the car until we got the motion of the 3D down just right.
That's why in today's world we can make anything happen. We've got remote controlled cars, so if we want a guy to go head-on into a break wall, we can do it. So, no, anything can be done. It's really opened the door for us to get really creative and do whatever we want.
Since you've been in the industry for over two decades now, do you have a favorite untold stunt story?
There's a lot that people don't hear about. Especially nowadays with Tom Cruise and Will Smith and actors who do everything. It's so important to put the actors face in the camera, so they're each trying to one-up each other with what they'll do. Tom Cruise won't ever leave the set. He wants to be able to join the stuntmen on everything, which is genius. And so does Will and that's resulted in a lot of interesting stuff. I remember on 'Enemy of the State,' Will was doing his own stunts and we had a crazy thing happen during an underground tunnel chase. I had a car crash right as he was jumping up and he fell right underneath my car and it spit him out pretty, pretty hard. Stuff like that can happen when you have all these actors doing that kind of stuff.
But we're in a world now where the audience is bored. They really want to not be taken away from a scene by seeing a double, so today we're training actors.
Is that something that excites you? Obviously you want what will look best for the movie, but is there a point where you step in and say, "No, Tom, you can't do that. One of us needs to."
No, and you know why? I would rather lessen the stunt a little bit to get the actor in there. Like with Nic on 'Gone in Sixty Seconds.' Me, him and Angelina [Jolie] went out and I trained them how to slide the car and everything else. The thing is you want the audience to assume there's a double in there and then all of a sudden crank that car around and reveal that it's Nic in the car. It's really important because the audience thinks they've seen everything, especially in car movies. I always sit in the back row of a movie theater to see if the audience ever lifts off of the back of their chair. And once they do, I know that I got 'em. But when they sit back in the chair and there's no movement off of a big action scene ...
That's the problem with a lot of these movies like 'G.I. Joe.' There's so much action, but they're not detailing the story and when they don't do that it just becomes a blur of movement and you can't do that. When you see an actor actually in a car -- I'm sorry, but the audience is never going to want to turn away from that. And when Nic Cage is in 'Drive Angry,' he plays it so flat that when he does these subtle movements of his mouth it shows up so big. He's playing a guy who doesn't smile, so when there's a crack of a smile, it's just golden. It shows how big that gag really was.
So what are you working on now? I hear you've joined 'X-Men: First Class'?
Yeah, me and a group of guys who basically know when there's good shows, we put ourselves in there. I've been a coordinator and a director for 20 years, but I'm still a stuntman, so when a good film comes up, I've got to get in there and get hit a few times. Even though I'm pushing 50, I've still got to prove to myself that I'm still a stuntman. I still like to get hit around.
We're setting up to do a movie called 'Kane and Lynch' pretty soon, so that'll be a huge job.