Aston Martin 2020

culture

Aston Martin: No Time To Die

We go on set with James Bond's rather special Aston Martin DB5

I'm in Italy but Daniel Craig isn't. The British actor is somewhere else in the huge global logistics effort that is No Time To Die, the 25th officially sanctioned James Bond film, most likely delivering lines on a soundstage with the rugged understatement that has made him one of the better regarded 007s. He'll be here next week, in the spectacular city of Matera, much of which has pretty much been carved from solid rock - meaning that the second unit have a huge amount to get through before he arrives.

On many big movies, the second unit doesn't really do much of importance, gathering incidental shots and drop-ins and hard-to-choreograph set pieces. But on a James Bond film its role is vital, the reason clear in the fact many of its members prefer to be referred to as the stunt unit.

On the day I visit Matera, the end of a big sequence involving Bond in an Aston Martin DB5 is being shot. After a long chase the car has been T-boned by a Range Rover and has come to rest in a beautiful piazza surrounded by bad guys. Having piled out of the cars they have used for the chase - including an early 'noughties Lancia Thesis - they open fire on the DB5, discover that its bulletproof, and then discover that both Aston and secret agent have a substantial trick up their sleeves.

In total this part of the chase will be less than a minute of finished film, but this is the second day of shooting it - with at least one more to go. Life on set is more about waiting than action, stuntmen flexing muscles as they prepare to do the same sequences again, serious-looking armourers loading guns for another fusillade of replica fire.

The DB5 has been positioned in the centre of the square. It is one of the eight stunt cars Aston has built and supplied for the film, with carbon bodywork, a 1000kg weight and rallycross derived suspension. But there's no need for it to move for most of the day's sequences, so lead stunt driver Mark Higgins - the former British rally champion who has become one of the go-to talents for this kind of precision work - is free to talk to visiting hacks.

Although we weren't allowed to take pictures, the first surprise is Higgins' appearance, with his face covered by evenly spaced black spots. This, it turns out, is for face replacement - in case it is necessary to digitally graft Craig's more bankable features into a driving sequence.

"We used to wear masks in previous films, which was horrible and they never looked right," Higgins explains, "so they'd end up doing CGI to correct it."

The demands of accuracy are such that, when shooting, Higgins will be wearing full costume and will even be wearing the appropriate watch with the correct time showing.

No Time To Die is Higgins' fourth Bond film, but also an entirely new challenge thanks to the use of the specially created replica DB5s, but also the conditions the team found when they arrived in Matera. The narrow lanes, tight walls and fact the city is a UNESCO world heritage site were all issues - but the bigger problem was a near-total lack of grip on the limestone surfaces.

"When we did the recce we discovered you can hardly walk on some of the roads, they're so slippery," Higgins remembers, "so we were very sceptical we could make it work."

The answer? Cola - the full sugar version. Several thousand litres was bought and then sprayed onto the surfaces that would be used for driving stunts, something Higgins reckoned increased adhesion by at least 50 per cent.

"The rear grip isn't an issue, because you want it to look exciting and we don't mind going sideways," he explains, "but front grip is what matters - if you haven't got the speed you can't do anything with it."

Higgins has learned that repeatability is more important than trying to make a stunt too spectacular.

“You’ve got 200 people out there and if you do make a mess they’re looking at you,” he says, “I’m happy doing my little handbrake turn or whatever it is, but if there’s a somebody doing a big launch with a cannon or a ramp behind and I mess it up then the whole thing can go down the drain. That's tens of thousands of pounds."

It's also important not to make anything look too slick; the idea is that Bond is driving for his life, on the absolute ragged edge.

"What the director is looking for and what I think is cool can be totally different," Higgins admits, "you can have a lovely drift scene and it can feel great but it doesn't look real, you have to make it look scrappy, not fluid - not rehearsed in other words, even though it obviously has been."

Next there's a chance for a briefer word with Chris Corbould, No Time To Die's special effects boss and a man who has now worked on 15 Bond films - his first was The Spy Who Loved Me. He has also won an Oscar, for visual effects on Inception in 2011. Yet despite his title, he's a huge believer in doing stunts for real rather than through computing power.

"I’m not putting down Fast & Furious, it’s been hugely successful,” he said, “but Bond is based in reality.” Pause: “Well, a sort-of reality; but one where we do things properly.”

The DB5's return to a starring role came after one had a cameo in Skyfall. When Cary Joji Fukunaga became Die Another Day's director, replacing Danny Boyle, Corbould found the new boss equally enthusiastic.

"He really wanted a DB5," he remembers, "then we talked about the other cars and Cary asked for my opinion - and as far as I can see the more Astons in the film the better."

Hence briefer roles for a 1980s V8 saloon and current DBS Superleggera, and even a glimpse of the forthcoming Valhalla in Q's workshop.

But the question was how to make the DB5 better than before, with Corbould saying the weaponry has been given "a little bit of an upgrade, let's say."

I have to drop a spoiler alert at this point, because even though it has featured in the trailers you might want to remain unaware of just how much more lethal Craig's DB5 is when compared to Sean Connery's. In Goldfinger the Aston had twin Browning machine-guns that deployed from behind its front indicators. In No Time To Die it has multi-barrelled miniguns that come out of the headlights, Bond then blasting the surrounding posse of villains through the simple but spectacular expedient of a tyre-smoking donut.

The hope was to watch this sequence getting filmed, but shooting is delayed by two heavy rainstorms, then the prop minigun malfunctions and disgorges hundreds of spent cartridges without spinning its barrels. There's not enough light left for another go, so I will have to go and see it at the cinema like everyone else.

Bond has always been pretty loose with his automotive affections, it's fair to say: from an AMC Hornet to a Ford Mondeo via a submersible Lotus Esprit and even a four-cylinder BMW Z3. But he never looks more at home than when he's in an Aston Martin, especially a gadget-packed DB5.

- shares