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Motor TrendAfter 30 Years,
the Real Truth Behind
The "Bullitt" Chase

By Mike Magda/Motortrend December 1998

 

(www.motortrend.com)

 

 

 

 

If there were only one movie in which we could participate, it would be "Bullitt". It's the ultimate car-guy's flick with a cool lead character, lots of attitude, magnificent location, and, of course, hot musclecars in the most realistic, high-speed, fender-banging, gravity-defying chase ever filmed. Even after 30 years, it's the car chase most remembered, admired, and copied. Other movies have had more flips, crashes, explosions, and all-around destruction, but "Bullitt" was a milestone, serving notice to Hollywood that reality was a quality audiences would enjoy. "Bullitt' did more than excite audiences. It changed the way Hollywood looked at cops at a time when policemen were being called pigs. It paved the way for more movies to be shot entirely on location and outside of the Hollywood mentality. It was a cutting-edge film that premiered in a turbulent year that shaped a socially conscious generation's values, music, and lifestyles.

 

The Mustang escapes even off the hellThe car chase in "Bullitt" worked so well because there was little in the film to draw attention away from it. There was only one profane word and no nudity. The plot was confusing to the point of being incomprehensible, but that mystery kept the audience guessing until the click of Bill Hickmann's seatbelt. With its innovative use of small remote cameras mounted inside the cars during the chase,"Bullitt" was the forerunner of the concept of virtual reality. The audience was seated behind Frank Bullitt as his Mustang pursued the bad guys down the hills of San Franciscos North Beach. The "Bullitt" saga started with movie agent John Flaxman who had the rights to a Robert Pike novel called "Mute Witness". Flaxman asked Alan Trustman, who wrote "The Thomas Crown Affair," to develop a screenplay from the book with Steve McQueen in mind as the lead. "Mute Witness" originally followed a 65-year-old New York cop, but Trustman reshaped the protagonist into Frank Bullitt, a youthful, renegade, but honest detective. "The book lacked visual, dramatic tension, so I built in three chases, each with its own danger, uncertainty, and surprise," says Trustman. He also fashioned a strong female companion, who was so tangled in the plot that she was killed in the final scene.

 

In addition to foot chases at a hospital and the airport, Trustman says he developed a car chase, a claim disputed to this day. "Much of it was specified in the first draft, "adds Trustman, "like placing the camera low on the front bumper of the following car, the car smashing into the building, the hub caps coming off."

 

Flaxman sold the rights to independent producer Phil d'Antoni, who in turn pitched the screenplay to Solar Productions, a company formed by McQueen and Robert Releya. "Bullitt" was to be the first movie in a lucrative six-picture deal between Solar and Warner Bros. Solar hired British director Peter Yates, whose earlier film 'Robbery," opened with a thrilling chase scene involving police cars to direct BULLITT.

 

Yates and Trustman did not get along. "The first script was quite terrible," remembers Yates. 'Peter was not comfortable with strong women," counters Trustman. "He kept asking for rewrites to weaken the female character." Trustman was fired before production started and replaced with Harry Kleiner.

 

Before leaving, however, Trustman learned that Solar was going to film the movie entirely on location in San Francisco. "I told them that, if you drive a light car like a Ford Mustang downhill fast," he says. "it will take off at the intersections and fly through the air." Trustman says he tried the stunt himself during a 1954 summer break from Harvard law school, launching a new Ford Fairlane off the streets.

 

copyright Motortrend 12/98   (Left) Speeds approaching 120 mph were needed to capture the reality of the chase scene. Note that cameracar driver Pat Hustis is wearing a helmet. He raced sprint cars before working in the movies.
copyright Motortrend 12/98  

 

 

McQueen chats with director Peter Yates by the highspeed camera car. Hustis built the car starting with a '66 Corvette, stripping the body, and fabricating the fenders, body panels, and seats front and rear for the camera operators. To keep pace with the star cars, he modified the engine with a Duntov cam and headers.

 

McQueen and Yates have different versions of the chase's inception. In numerous interviews at the time, including talks with Motor Trend, McQueen stressed that the chase was his idea and he instructed the writer to include it in the script. Writing for TV Guide in 1973, Yates said, "The chase didn't exist in the script," and noted that, after numerous rewrites, d'Antoni suggested "there had to be a car chase somewhere in "Bullitt" because of McQueen's driving ability. Even today, Yates maintains that the car chase was never in any Trustman script, but Flaxman confirms that the chase was in the first draft he read.

 

Regardless of who conceived the idea, there's little question that a car chase plan was put into action well before the crew went to San Francisco in February 1968. William Fraker was hired as the cinematographer, and he remembers an early meeting with Yates to discuss the scene. "We decided at that point there would be no camera tricks," says Fraker.

 

Indeed, reality and gritty authenticity were the keys that made "Bullitt" stand out from other police dramas that usually had the look and feel of sanitized TV series. Pat Hustis, the builder and driver of the high-speed camera car, said McQueen told him, "I want the audience to know what it's like to do this."

 

McQueen and his company convinced San Francisco's mayor to open up the city, allowing them use of the police station, hospital, airport, and of course, the streets. In exchange, Solar hired extras from poverty areas at full union scale. Warner Bros. didn't appreciate the effort and ordered Solar back home during the first month of production, suggesting that the rest of the movie, including the car chase, could be duplicated on a Burbank back lot. McQueen refused, and the six-picture deal suddenly became a one picture deal.

 

The choice of cars had more to do with corporate marketing than dramatic inspiration. Ford and Warner Bros. cooperated on movies, so a Mustang and Fairlane were selected. Both were taken to Max Balchowski to be modified, but he said the Fairlane would not survive any serious stunt work. He suggested a Dodge Charger. Balchowski prepared both vehicles and their backups. All the suspension parts were Magnafluxed to check for weakness, and Balchowski reinforced all the lower control arms. For the Charger, he twisted the front torsion bars up for a little extra ground clearance, added Koni shocks and swapped in NASCAR-stiff rear springs. 'The Mustang had its shock towers reinforced and bridged. Heavy-duty front coils were installed, along with a thicker anti-roll bar and Koni shocks. The Mustangs 390-cubic-inch/325-horse engine received milled heads and ignition and carburetor upgrades, but could never really keep pace with the stock 440-cubic-inch / 375-horsepower Dodge. All the cars were reshod with Firestone tires, and the Mustang received American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels.

 

There was not just one "Bullitt" Mustang; two were ordered for use by the film crew for close-up and action scenes. However, the two Mustangs were not identical when first purchased. Only one had the GT equipment group, so both car's badging and grilles were removed to achieve a similar appearance between the two. Sharp eyes can notice the GT rear valance with its exhaust cutouts on one of the Mustangs in some scenes.

 

Stunt legend Carey Lofton - who had worked on "Redline 7000," the road race in 'Viva Las Vegas," "Grand Prix", and the great fiery crash in "On the Beach" - was hired to stage the chase. Lofton also designed the legendary car chase in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

 

"All the stunt men thought we were crazy," remembers Yates. "They wanted ramps for flips, crashes, and explosions. One stuntman asked me, 'What can you do with hills?' "Steve and I both had a great respect for cars," adds Yates, who club raced in England and was team manager for Stirling Moss. "I admired the skills needed for driving. I didn't want a crash derby."

 

Lofton scouted the locations and came up with a plan, while Yates, McQueen and Fraker continued to develop other ideas as the film was shot. One plan took the chase over the Golden Gate Bridge, a trip the city denied. "Without the Golden Gate Bridge, it made us take advantage of the hills," says Fraker.

 

copyright Motortrend 12/98  

 

(Left) Ekins' most famous shot came when he laid down a motorcycle at speed while the Charger and Mustang drove around him.

  (Left, missing) Hickman drove the Charger throughout the film. Here he hits the guardrail, setting off a special effects charge, with the Mustang in pursuit. Note the camera behind the signpost.

 

Bill Hickman, perhaps Hollywood's finest stunt driver, was chosen to drive the Charger. Hickman was a close friend of James Dean and pulled Dean out of his twisted Porsche the afternoon he died in the infamous head-on crash. Hickman and McQueen tested their cars at Cotati Raceway north of San Francisco a few days before shooting the chase scenes began. Action from Cotati can be found on the promotion short that accompanies "Bullitt" on the anniversary home video and the DVD, and you can see McQueen attempting smoking-tire, 180degree spins. One of the scenes in the final script called for the Charger to spin around and come back toward the Mustang The two cars just miss and the Mustang has to flip a U-tum to catch up again. Apparently a suitable location could never be found since there was no evidence in the Warner Bros. photo archives that such a scene was ever filmed.

 

The 12-minute chase took two weeks to film--one sixth of the entire shooting schedule. McQueen definitely wanted to handle all the Mustang sturrt driving. Some accounts say it was pressure from his family and the studio that got him out of the car for the most difficult scenes. Eventually, it was McQueen's inability to pull off the stunts that forced Lofton to replace him with Bud Ekins, McQueens longtime friend who performed the famous motorcycle jump in "The Great Escape."

 

McQueen was overly sensitive about stunt doubles, especially when it involved motorcycles and cars. The Hollywood publicity machine and McQueen stressed that he did all of his own stunt work in the chase and during the dangerous airport runway scene. In reality, three drives - McQueen, Ekins, and Lofton drove the Mustang in the chase scene and Loren Janes, McQueen's longtime stunt double, was undemeath those airliner wheels an the runway.

 

"The success of the car chase still had a lot to do with Steve even though he didn't do the dangerous stuff," says first assistant director Tim Zinneman.

 

Indeed, McQueen's enormous contributions to the movie should have been enough to satisfy his ego without fabricating more stories about his involvement. He suggested Bullitt's turtleneck-and-open-jacket look He never overplayed the role, making sure Bullitt had the same expression whether he was driving 100 mph or romancing Jacqueline Bisset. Even when he arrived early in San Francisco to research his role, McQueen was thinking about the chase.

 

One evening, he went motorcycle riding with Don Gordon, who played his partner Delgedi. "Steve took a jump off one of the hills," remembers Gordon. "When he came back, he said this would be a great spot to see cars flying off the hill."

 

"Steve was very dear," adds his former production partner, Robert Releya. "He always said that this movie was a westem in which he would strap on a car like a gun belt." The cat-and-mouse game between the cars after leaving the car wash was the first priority and help set up the rivalry. Again, no tricks were used. The wonderful shot of the Mustang appearing in the Charger's rearview mirror was Fraker's idea and it took a number of attempts to get timing and focus down. A pressure building jazz score from Lalo Schiffrin (he also composed the driving 'Mission Impossible" and "Mannix" themes) accompanied the cars on the prowl. But music isn't needed after Hickman crosses traffic and boils the tires up up a hill. In fact, virtually none of the traditional Hollywood tricks was used to emphasize the speed, danger, or intensity of the chase -no fake shots of a 100-mph speedometer, screaming passengers, or crashes through garbage cans: nothing to take the audience away from the cars.

 

The early scenes of the chase show the cars building speed through the hills and taking turns at tire-screeching velocities. It took numerous attempts to get the right action at some locations as the crew worked with McQueen. Automotive journalist Nina Padgett, who conducted many interviews with Lofton, says McQueen knew he was having problems after watching the rushes (raw footage of the previous day's fihning) each morning. Finally, McQueen blew a turn once too often, and, according to Ekins, Lofton yelled, "Get him out of the car. Ekins, go to makeup and get your hair bleached." None of the crew members recalls the moment so dramatically, but Bud Ekins was eventually called on to handle the trick assignments. It's easy to tell when Ekins is in the Mustang. The watch is different on Ekins' right arm from McQueen's. Also, the rearview mirror is turned away when Ekins drives, otherwise it reflects McQueen's face. Ironically, mistakes, such as McQueen locking the tires and backing up in tirehopping anger (one of the only "speeded-up" scenes), play an important part in the reality of the chase. "That's what happens when you drive a car fast," explains Yates. "It was part of spirit of the chase. The near misses are what make it great."

 

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Stunt driver Bill Hickman was not in the Charger for the final scene. A dummy was behind the wheel and the Dodge was hooked up to the Mustang for the tow-and-release stunt. Note the shotgun blasts on the Mustang windshield. Those with a quick thumb on the VCR pause button can spot the bumper attachment on the Mustang after the Dodge is released.

 

Hickman had his share of problems, too. He lost control of a four-wheel drift around a hard right comer and crashed into a '56 Ford, knocking out a remote camera mounted in front. You can tell it wasn't exactly planned, but footage from that camera was used in the movie. 'They told him to do it," proclaims Ekins.

 

'We may have told Bill to hit the car," recalls Yates, "but we didn't tell him to take out the camera." The actual crash in all its glass-breaking, metal-crunching glory can be seen in the production short that accomparries the anniversary video and DVD edition. Ekins was in the Mustang when it made its aerial charge at the Dodge. The action was filmed from within both cars, giving the audience a pit-of-the-stomach roller-coaster ride unseen before m any movie theater.

 

Pressure to finish the shooting schedule with a dramatic car chase was intense. McQueen had a horrid reputation for challenging directors, but he worked extremely well with Yates and the crew. This teamwork was never more apparent than when McQueen had an idea for Ekins. "He decides in the middle of the day to have me lie down on a motorcycle while the two cars come at me," says the stuntman. "I called a friend who had a motorcycle shop and asked him to send over a BSA 750 and a set of leathers."

Despite the impulsive nature of scene, the continuity was magnificent. From the in-car shots of McQueen spinning brodies in the dirt to Hickman's smirk reaction as he sees the dust clouds in his mirror, the scene flows effortlessly.

 

While the motorcycle scene was nearly flawless, other parts of the chase did have continuity problems in the final screen version. By one count, the Charger lost eight hubcaps. And, of course, that feisty VW kept showing up as film editor Frank Keller took full advantage of the great action and eight camera angles from the one take of the downhill scene. While these minor flaws generated criticism, they didn't keep Keller from winning an Academy Award for editing the film.

 

The chase continued on the outskirts of the city toward the airport. Speeds well over 100 mph required a special camera car built by Pat Hustis. McQueen handled much of the Mustangs high speed driving, but Ekins worked the bumping scenes with the Charger. Stunt driver Hustis got close enough at speed for Cinematographer William Fraker to record some dramatic shots, including the shotgun blast that was just inches away from the camera lens. For the final crash and explosion, a dummy gas station was constructed. Lofton set up a tow-and-release stunt in which the Charger was hitched to the Mustang. Balchowski dialed in as much front suspension caster as possible to keep the Charger in line as Lofton drove the Mustang, towing the Charger alongside. When the time was right, Lofton pulled a cable release and the Charger was sent into the station while explosives were set off. The Charger went behind the gas pumps but the special effects team ignited the charges anyway. Keller's editing saved the scene, and hardly anyone notices the tow bar sticking out of the Mustang's side (unless you're quick with the VCR's pause button). Lofton finished up with a few spins through the dirt, including a perfect spindle-breaking stop in a ditch just inches away from Fraker's camera.

 

After Keller and Yates finished editing the chase, John Kean went to work recording and mixing in the sound of the revving engines and squealing tires. Kean and Bud Ekins took the cars to Willow Springs Raceway near Los Angeles for the recording. Some critics complain that the Mustang upshifts so many times it sounds as if it has a six-speed transmission, but most of the sounds fit the scenes perfectly, including the tires barking during gear changes and the rpm shifts during speed changes. Kean was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film. "Bullitt" opened at New Yorks Radio City Music Hall Oct. 17, 1968, then was released nationwide in December, just days before Apollo VIII first circled the moon. It was a huge hit for Warner Bros. and solidified McQueen as a major Hollywood star.

 

"Looking back 30 years, "Bullitt" is a very important piece of film," says Assistant Director Walter Hill, who later directed action hits "Hard Times," "The Warriors," and "48 Hours." "It showed what could be done and how the possibilities of action cinema were greater than ever perceived. We were all part of a film that set the standards much higher."

 

(© MT)