An inside look at how they filmed BULLITT, the granddaddy of car pursuit movies.
BY: Susan Encinas (Muscle Car Review, March, 1987)
Where were you in 1968? You might have opened up the movie section of the newspaper and read a review about the newly released movie BULLITT. One such review, by the National Observer, said, " Whatever you have heard about the auto chase scene in BULLITT is probably true...a terrifying, deafening shocker." Life magazine wrote, "... a crime flick with a taste of genius...an action sequence that must be compared to the best in film history."
With reviews like that, and sharing double billing with the hit BONNIE AND CLYDE, BULLITT devastated audiences with incredible scenes of leaping, screaming automobiles that seemed to fly off the screen. Among all of Hollywood's road movies, BULLITT unquestionably made film history with its original car chase sequences. There may have been chase scenes before, but nothing before or since has equaled the intensity and impact of BULLITT. The scenes, which were novelty then but classic now, were brilliantly executed. Over the years, fans have asked questions about the two cars used in the movie, a 1968 Dodge Charger and a 1968 Mustang GT. Of all the muscle cars offered in the late sixties, why were these two cars chosen, and how were they modified to survive the torturous driving?
It's been 19 years since BULLITT was filmed, however the magic of this special movie has not diminished. We questioned some of the crew who participated in the filming, and asked them how the chase was coordinated and shot, who was involved in the chase scenes and what happened during the filming. Steve McQueen and director Peter Yates brought in some of the best names in the business in preparation for the filming of BULLITT's chase scenes, and we were able to track some of them down. We interviewed Carey Loftin, stunt coordinator for BULLITT and occasional driver of the BULLITT Mustang; Bud Elkins, the main stunt driver of the Mustang, aside from McQueen; and Loren Janes, who had doubled for McQueen for nearly 20 years and stunted for McQueen during the airport sequence at the end of the film. We also interviewed Max Balchowsky, the man responsible for maintaining the Mustang GT and the Charger throughout the filming. Finally, we spoke with Ron Riner, who acted as transportation coordinator for Warner Brothers on the BULLITT set.
We set out to learn what the recipe is for such a successful chase sequence. What we found out was that there is none; it was pretty much a hit and miss thing and, as Ron Riner put it, "other people have tried to put the same combination together to get the same results and haven't really done it. Before we'd shoot a scene, everyone, the location people, the police department, the stuntmen, the director and Steve, would get into discussions. We realized we didn't know what to do because no one had ever done this before." What hadn't been done before was a chase scene, done "at speed"(up to 110 miles per hour) through the city streets and not on a movie studio back lot. Bud Elkins said, "I think it was the first time they did a complete car chase at normal camera speed. What you saw is what really happened. It was real!"
McQueen was determined to have "the best car chase ever done," recalls Carey Loftin. "I told Steve I knew a lot about camera angles and speeds to make it look fast. You can undercrank the camera so you can control everything in the scene. Then when it's run, it'll look like high speed and the car will appear to be handling real well." McQueen refused to hear of it, and advised Loftin that money was no object. "Fine," Loftin replied. "Until you run out of money, you've got to stop me!"
In an interview with Motor Trend magazine, Steve McQueen related his desire to bring a high speed chase to the screen. "I always felt a motor racing sequence in the street, a chase in the street, could be very exciting because you have the reality objects to work with, like bouncing off a parked car. An audience digs sitting there watching somebody do something that I'm sure almost all of them would like to do."
BULLITT was also the first picture done with live sound (some of which was added later as needed). For example, additional sound was needed because on occasion a tire squeal was not picked up by the microphones. Bud Elkins remembers blowing the rear end of the Mustang at Willow Springs winding the gears for engine noise to be added to the soundtrack.
To prepare himself, his crew and the cars for the movie sequence, McQueen and company went to the Cotati race course near San Francisco. "Steve handled the Mustang real well," recalled Riner. "He flowed well with the car." Also on hand was the late Bill Hickman, the fantastic stunt driver who would handle the menacing Dodge Charger in BULLITT. "Bill came in with the Charger," Riner said. "And he flipped it around and he slid in backwards. He was excellent."
The BULLITT chase scenes were shot around Easter of 1968. When city officials were first approached about shooting in the streets of San Francisco, they balked at the proposed high speeds and the idea of filming part of the chase on the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually, it was agreed to keep the chase within only a few city blocks. McQueen was the prime motivator behind the chase sequence, and then director Peter Yates and Carey Loftin worked out logistics behind the scenes.
McQueen hadn't planned on having a stunt driver. Relates Carey Loftin:"The first thing Steve said was, he was going to do his own driving. Well, I wasn't going to argue, so I said, 'okay, fine'." McQueen's stint as a stunt driver didn't last long, however. "He overshot a turn, smoked the tires and everything. It's in the film," said Bud Elkins. "When Steve did that, it wasn't on purpose. He goofed up, and they said, 'that's it, get him out of the car'. The next morning they were spraying my hair down and cutting it. Consequently, it was Elkins who drove the car down hilly Chestnut Avenue. Also, according to the book entitled The Films of Steve McQueen by Casey St. Charnaz, the other reason for McQueen's removal from the Mustang was that McQueen's wife at the time found out that he wanted to do all his own driving and apparently SHE had some input into the decision not to have him do all the driving.
As director Peter Yates prepared to begin filming the chase scenes, there were four drivers, McQueen, Bud Elkins, Bill Hickman, and in a few scenes, Carey Loftin. Loren Janes tells up, "Carey Loftin was easily the best car man in the business. He brought in Bill Hickman to play a part and drive the other car." Loftin recalls: "I asked (the studio) what kind of guy were they looking for? And they described Bill Hickman, who was working on the LOVE BUG at the same time. Well, I said, he's sitting right here. They really described Bill Hickman."
The screenplay of the movie was written by Alan Trustman, based on the novel, Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike. But the story, according to Ron Riner was not the key element to the success of the movie. Riner says, "I think basically the story was long and confusing, so when the chase came along it was so good it gave more substance to the movie. I think it really saved the film, because most people don't remember the story, they remember the chase. You couldn't really remember the complete story, if somebody asked you, unless you read the script, because the script was much better and made more sense."
As filming of the chase progressed, Loftin wanted to see the daily work (rushes). He was told that Mr. McQueen wouldn't like that. Loftin insisted, and threatened to quit unless he could view the daily work. "It worked out really good," Loftin said with a smile. "Because as we watched the rushes, you could hear a pin drop. I was sitting 3 or 4 rows in front of him (McQueen) and when it was over, he came down, stuck out his hand, and said, 'Mr. Loftin, when you need me for a closeup you WILL let me know, won't you?"
As for the cars, Max Balchowsky tells us, "I suggested they get a 390 GT. I had suggested using a Mustang, and a Dodge Charger, or else there would be too may Fords in the picture. I thought we'd mix up the cars." The two 1968, four-speed Mustang GT fastbacks were purchased primarily because, promotionally, they were the best deal at the time. As far as Bud Elkins can recall, he feels the reason they used the Mustang was because "they wanted it to look like a cop car. This was his personal car and he wasn't a rich guy, he didn't have a real nice car. And it was Steve's idea to put the big dent in the fender, to show that it got banged up and he didn't have enough money or the time to fix it."
Warner Brothers purchased two four-speed Dodge Chargers... "at a Chrysler dealership in Glendale California," recalls Ron Riner. He also said the Dodge Chargers had to be purchased without promotional consideration, but after the success of the movie and the increase in Charger sales, Chrysler was more than willing to be generous with their vehicles to Warner Brothers for future projects. Mr. Riner posed an interesting premise: "did you realize that there wouldn't be an 01 car (the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard) if we hadn't done BULLITT and Dodge hadn't sold so many Chargers?"
Before the filming could be done, the Charger and the Mustang required preparation. One of the best wrenchmen in the movie business, Max Balchowsky, recalls the Mustang in particular needed considerable modifications so it could hold up during the relentless beatings it would take during the filming. "Carey said they were gonna do a lot of jumping with it, and he said it had to be strong. So I was a little hesitant. I didn't know if they wanted to go over 50 foot cliffs. I had no idea what they wanted to do until I got there." To beef up the Mustang, Balchowsky started with the suspension, reinforcing the shock towers, adding crossmembers and reinforcements, exchanging the springs for replacements with higher deflection rates and replacing the stock shocks with Konis. All suspension parts were magnafluxed and replaced where necessary. The engine also came in for some modifications, including milling the heads, adding an after-market high performance ignition system and reworking the the carburetor and adding headers.
On the Mustang, Mr. Balchowsky recalls, "everybody suggested I put a Holley on the Mustang, it was better than the Ford carburetor. I've always had good luck with Fords, and didn't want to spend money if I didn't have to putting a Holley on. It ran good, needed just a few little adjustments. I changed the distributor and all, but basically never had the engine apart on the Ford." Ron Rinnai remembers "the stock Mustang had undercarriage modifications, not only for the movie, but for Steve McQueen. Steve liked the sound of the car and he wanted mages. We hopped it up because Steve wanted the car hopped up. He was still a kid."
Balchowsky remembers "I hardly had to anything to the Dodge's engine, but what I was worried about was the strength of the front end." To shore up the front, Balchowsky revised the torsion bars, beefed up the control arms and added heavy duty shocks. As with the Mustang, all parts were 'fluxed. For the rear end, Balchowsky told us, "I got some special rear springs, what you call a high spring rate, a flat without any arch in it, and using that spring the car would stay low. It's similar to the same springs they use in police cars, which makes a good combination. When the police specify a package, they have more spring here, a little bigger brake there, a little bit more happening in the shocks, and it makes a good car. But the director of BULLITT wanted a brand new car instead of an ex-police car, so I got the springs from a friend at Chrysler. We had to weld reinforcements under the arms and stuff on the Dodge. We did lose a lot of hubcaps on the Charger. We'd put the hubcaps back on, but I suppose it probably would have been better if we had lest them off."
"I'll tell you this," said Max Balchowsky, "I was really impressed with the Mustang after I got done with it. I didn't think it'd make that much difference beefing it up. Later, we took both cars out and went playing around with them over by Griffith Park (near Los Angeles). The Dodge, which was practically stock, just left the Mustang like you wouldn't believe." Ron Rinnai has similar recollections. "The Charger ran rings around the Mustang. We trimmed the tires down (on the Charger), we practically made them down to bicycle tires to try and handicap Hickman, and Bill just run them." Carey Lofting also recalls," we test ran the car at Griffith Park near the Observatory, up a long hill. and if you can run a car real hard up and down that hill it's working pretty good."
"The day before the chase scenes were to be filmed, we went up to Santa Rosa and rented the track,"said Balchowsky. "Steve wanted to test the car. A production manager would have cut your throat if you wanted to do something like that. An accident would have ruined the cars, and we were slated for Monday morning, 6:00 a.m. to start shooting. Hickman and Steve were buzzing around the tracks, and it was pretty even. McQueen and Hickman were both tickled with the cars. So, fortunately everything worked out."
Generally everyone seemed to agree that the chase went smoothly, although filming went a "little bit slow," Bud Welkins recalls. "Yates and Steve were particular. You would rehearse it once- it's got to be choreographed- then you would rehearse it again, and if it looked good, they shot it. You rehearsed at about 1/4 speed or 1/2 speed, then you went in to film it at full speed."
For the in-car scenes, two cameras were mounted in the cars and painted black. The jarring landings after the cars were airborne are the result of the cameras being tightly secured and not cushion mounted. The effect was more than McQueen had bargained for. "It's a funny thing," he told Motor Trend. "That was what shocked me and I didn't expect it, because we were using a 185 frame which is a very small frame. We weren't even using a big super Panavision or anything. Even on the 185, they (the audience) jumped out of their seats. I didn't do the shots going down the hill, they pulled me out of the car. Bud Welkins did that."
In the Motor Trend interview, McQueen recalled there were some close calls and incidents that looked good on film but weren't exactly planned to happen, some of which occurred in the memorable downhill sequences. "Remember that banging going down? That was about 100 mph. I was bangin' into Bill. My car was disintegrating. Like, the door handles came off, both the shocks in the front broke, the steering armature on the right front side broke and my slack was about a foot and a half. The Mustang was really just starting to fall apart."
There was an incident which alerted the crew to take extra precautions while doing the car chase. "A child," Riner told us, "maybe five years old, came out of a building and stepped out on to the street. We stopped and brought in more stunt people and more cars and I think the theory was if anybody had a problem, they'd make a barricade out of the vehicles. The problem never came up again, or I never saw a problem." Incredible, considering there were only two policemen on the scene as compared to the 40 policemen utilized for the chase in MAD MAD WORLD. Carey Loftin says, "the extras were a big help. If there was an alley or any place that wasn't covered, they'd come and tell me. They were real good."
Because some of the stunts were so well orchestrated, they did not look like stunts at all. Recalls Carey Loftin: "Several years after BULLITT, an extra (on another set) was talking about BULLITT, and he was saying how it was amazing how accidents get into films and he said that the best one he ever saw was the scene where Bud Elkins did the spill off the motorcycle. I let him go ahead and tell it. He said 'the cops were watching the action and weren't watching the traffic and this motorcycle guy slipped through, and got into the scene and ended up in the picture.' I said, 'you really think that's what happened?' The extra said, ' I know, I saw it, I was there.' And I said that's the way it's supposed to look, because it wasn't supposed to look like a stunt." Ron Riner comments on the scene, "I didn't know about the stunt and I was supposed to get the information!"
There were THREE cars racing wildly through the streets of San Francisco, making car chase history, although only two are seen in the movie. The third vehicle, a camera car, was driven by Pat Houstis, while cinematographer Bill Fraker manned the camera. Said Ron Riner, "Pat Houstis was excellent and he was in his prime at the time." Carey Loftin has nothing but praise for Mr. Houstis and an amusing recollection. "Pat Houstis, a terrific driver, had just built the camera car, and he showed it to me. He did a real good job on it. It was a Corvette chassis, and he had stripped all the stuff off and built a good suspension, good engine and everything. But it looked like hell."
His confidence in Mr. Houstis is evident as he relates another incident. " We had one scene where Pat was following Steve on Guadalupe Canyon Highway, a beautiful road. We wanted some shots of the Mustang really burning the corners. We did it several times. The operator of the first camera said, 'Steve's not getting his foot into it, he's a better driver than that.' I went to Steve and said, 'you know Pat Houstis is a terrific driver.' Steve said 'yeah, yeah he is.' I said, 'he knows responsibility too. You know what that man would do if I was driving the car in front of him and anything would happen? He'd run into a parked car or hit a tree just to miss me. Now think what he'd do for the star? Now get into that car and get your foot into it!' We got the shot on the next take."
One particular scene that impressed Max Balchowsky was the gunman in the Dodge firing a shotgun blast at the pursuing Mustang that shatters the right front of the windshield. "The guy who did special effects devised the chain balls that bust the Mustang windshield. I thought it was terrific when the guy whips the shotgun out and the way the special effects fellow devised how those pebbles cracked the windshield and it made it so realistic like he really shot the windshield. It sure made Ford glass look good."
The gentleman in the car, playing Bill Hickman's partner in crime, was actor Paul Genge. According to Ron Riner, Mr. Genge, who played a very realistic tough guy, "seemed like he had hardly ever seen a gun before. They scared the hell out of him. In the scenes in the Charger with Hickman, he was scared to death. After two or three time we almost had to bodily put tranquilizers in him, and put him in the car. Mr. Hickman was one of the coolest drivers I've ever met." Max Balchowsky tells us, "there was a scene where the Charger passed a truck, and they only wanted to leave so much room on one side, and Hickman did it perfectly when he came by and took the bumper off the truck. That was a super shot. Throughout the chase sequences, some of them were accidents but, they looked fantastic- Hickman was terrific."
To achieve the stunning conclusion to the chase in which the Charger loses control, leaps an Armco fence and plows into a gasoline station, Loftin rigged up a tow and release set up hidden from the camera's view between the Mustang and the Charger. Dressed to double McQueen, Loftin laterally towed the Charger at 90 mph with its two dummy passengers and at the right moment released the Charger into the nitro-loaded gas station. Unfortunately, the Charger missed the station, but the charges were set off and the explosion, thanks to some deft film editing, had the desired effect and was added to the movie.
There seemed to be a general atmosphere of professionalism and mutual admiration on the set. Loren Janes tells us, " I loved to see a lot of the little things in Steve's films. The best teeny things came up in it, the best stuff was Steve's ideas. Like when they're (Hickman and Genge) going up the hill and they're after Steve and all of a sudden he disappears and they can't see him and the guy (Hickman) looks up and Steve appears in his rear view mirror. In other words, he changed it, now he's chasing them. Well that was a great turn of events. It was fantastic. It was WILD reckless driving, but it was planned and coordinated. There was class to the BULLITT chase, there was a reason for it, and that's one of the key things people forget: the greatest stunt in the world is worthless if there isn't a reason or story to it and BULLITT had a story point all the way through and a reason.
The enduring scenes of the foreboding Charger and the powerful Mustang have etched themselves in film making history. The sequences were the brain child of Steve McQueen; He knew what he wanted and how he wanted it to appear on film. No one has duplicated the electricity or the savage ferocity that manifested itself in BULLITT chase scenes, and it's doubtful any one ever will.