When the first few frames of a film reveal the ten-spoke front alloy of a Subaru Impreza WRX rolling to a halt across the street from a bank, you know what’s in store. But wait: there’s a kid at the wheel, his fresh face partly obscured by sunglasses, and he’s dialling up Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on his iPod. Surely not the prelude to serious car action?
It is, though. And in the pantheon of car-chase heroes, the eponymous star of the 2017 film Baby Driver ranks high. Baby, played by 21-year-old Ansel Elgort, was orphaned as a child after his parents were killed in an horrific car crash that left him with tinnitus, leading to an obsession with the noise-cancelling rock and blues he continually listens to through his EarPods. He becomes a getaway driver as payment to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime baron from whom he unwittingly steals a car packed with hooky goods. But he hates the violence doled out by his ‘clients’ and is on the cusp of paying off his debt to Doc: “One more job and I’m done.”
Back to the Subaru, and as Baby’s three masked passengers – Buddy, Griff and Darling – run from the Bank of Atlanta, alarms blaring, he’s ready. Bellbottoms is all he can hear, and as Griff points forward, the all-wheel-drive WRX bolts backwards, sliding through a ‘Rockford’ 270-degree turn, then immediately into a tightly choreographed drift that can only have been possible in a rear-drive car.
“One was converted to rear-wheel-drive, one was modified for more power and with limited slip diffs in the front and rear, and one was a stock car, but converted to an STi-spec drivetrain,” revealed Jeremy Fry, Baby Driver’s lead stunt driver when I spoke to him recently. The production company also used two special camera cars, says Fry: “One was earmarked as the pod car, a driving car with separate driver’s pod on top, (and) one was built for the biscuit rig, virtually a high-performance driving trailer that makes it look like the actors are driving.”
Which partly explains why Elgort as Baby looks so slick behind the wheel in what are clearly not process shots (or green-screening), although, says Fry, “Ansel did a good amount of driving… and did a great job. He (was) quick to learn and really enjoyed it. We spent a lot of time driving, including several stunts such as 180s, 90s and drifts. He was proficient enough to do some of these things on film.”
But perhaps not in one of the highlights of the Impreza chase, where police are closing in and the WRX jinks sharp right down an alley to evade them, pirouetting between some loading trucks: “We did the alley shot five times,” said Fry. “I mapped it out and recreated the alley…in a parking lot with cones and boxes. It let us place the trucks in places that would make it tight, but still achievable.”
Towards the end of the sequence, a helicopter joins the chase as the Subaru joins the freeway and catches up with two identically-coloured Chevrolet Cruzes, switching lanes with them through a tunnel to confuse the police. “We had to shut down the whole freeway (in Atlanta) to do that part of the chase,” says Fry. “(The police) did a ‘rolling barricade’… so each take was a huge effort.”
Elgort’s Baby is the antithesis of the brutal villains who ride with him. Caring (his loyalty towards his deaf foster father, played by C J Jones is heart-warming) and loving (his relationship with waitress Debora, played by Lily James, blossoms through the story), Baby is always at best an object of ridicule to them, or at worst viewed with deep suspicion.
And never more so than before his final job, when Bats (played by Jamie Foxx) is drafted in, providing extra venom towards the hapless Baby. Bats and two other thugs rob a bank, but it turns nasty and a security guard is killed. This time, Baby’s ride is a 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche pick-up, and as he attempts to escape from the bank’s car park, he collides heavily with a gun-toting have-a-go hero in a Dodge Ram who pursues them, with Baby driving along the side of a wall to get away.
“We had a small ramp built to make the transition onto the wall a little easier. We also had the rear end (differential) welded, but it proved unnecessary as that truck ended up having an issue halfway through the day and I finished up in the backup Avalanche that was stock.
“One of the tougher gags (stunts) was doing a reverse 180 in the Avalanche through a section of breakaway guardrail to go down the hill. The window of breakaway guardrail in between the real stuff was pretty small, and I wanted to hit it pretty fast, which made my target smaller still. But one of the coolest shots in the movie was from a C-camera (secondary camera) on a long lens that got this shot of the Avalanche as it slides off the grass and onto the road.”
This was never going to be Baby’s last job, though, and after a threat from Doc (‘…I can break your legs and kill everyone you know’) he returns for a fatality-filled finale, notable for its memorable soundtrack (Focus’s Hocus Pocus) in synch with the machine gun popping from Buddy and Darling’s ammo, leading to the film’s bitter-sweet ending.
“I wanted you to watch the movie and really feel the car chases like they’re living vicariously through Ansel’s character,” said Baby Driver’s British writer/director, Edgar Wright, shortly after the film was released. And thanks to the driving talents of Jeremy Fry and his team, combined with neat editing (for which the film won an Academy Award) and innovative production techniques, Baby Driver certainly hits the mark.
The Driver was a chase-filled thriller with ’70s swagger
Our classics: 1996 Subaru Impreza Turbo
Wheeling and dealing in the fastlane: ‘You couldn’t sell a Ferrari 250 GTO because it was too slow to win races’