Cast and crew of Death Race would not leave the production without their fair share of bumps and bruises. The cars, however, would barely exit the track on all four wheels after the punishment they received at the hands of the stunt team and second unit.
Producer Jeremy Bolt discusses how three units were used to film Death Race: “We had a splinter unit, first unit and second unit. The second unit, running parallel to the first unit, was directed by SPIRO RAZATOS. He executed the action very specifically, carrying out Paul’s storyboards. Paul directed all the drama and actors, and we had a splinter unit hovering in all the inserts—feet on accelerators, rev counters, steering wheels…all of those small pieces that really make up a movie.”
With multiple autos racing at top speed, there were many challenges during filming. Some spectacular stunts could only be done once, so Anderson’s team shot as much footage as possible. Up to eight cameras shot from multiple points of view—both in the air and on the ground. Cameras were rigged in crash boxes to protect them from impact, fire, heat and debris, and mounted on the cars so they’d be in the middle of the action. Often, the second unit was just outside the windows of cars zooming by.
For the writer/director, shooting Death Race offered a nod to another era of filmmaking. “In the 1970s and ’80s, there was a limit to how close you could get the camera to some of these crashes,” Anderson says, “a limit to how much you could move the camera. We’ve built a load of unique rigs that have never been seen before in movies—built specifically for this film. We were able to get the camera so close to these real crashes, these real explosions—cars on fire, cars spinning 20 feet in the air—all done practically and all done safely.”
In order to implement his vision of a deadly place and time, Anderson worked with a seasoned film and stunt crew. Second-unit stunt coordinator ANDY GILL notes: “Luckily, everything we could do in the physical world, Paul wanted to do. For a lot of big wrecks, we had some effects wirework that helped with the stunt work, but we tried to keep it as real as we could. We stayed away from the special and visual effects for flipping cars through the air…unless it was physically impossible.”
To keep stunts organized, Gill created diagrams of all the races, which he color coded to indicate details such as which cars would explode and how many bullet holes they had in them each lap. Matchbox cars were used to block out the action in miniature.
When the team needed to make actual cars blow up, it built some that didn’t need human drivers. “We got with special effects to build these rigs: remote-control cars,” explains Gill. “When we needed to shoot at high speed and have a very violent wreck with the cars ripping themselves apart… we didn’t put stunt people in.”
The other Gill on the set, Andy’s brother Jack, was the lead stunt driver. He drove the 600-horsepower, “new muscle car” Mustang and worked with the other stunt drivers (and actors when at the wheel) to secure all moves were done safely. It was mandatory, as, for instance, the Ram had very limited visibility and the size of the window in the chop top is approximately 3 inches tall.
Jack Gill says they employed all kinds of special driving tricks and stunts to make the races look spectacular. “The reverse-drive rig is something we’ve been using for about five years. It’s an ingenious little thing where you hook up a steering wheel and a set of pedals and a brake in the back of the car so that another driver can sit in back and look out the back window.” The reverse-drive rig allowed the stunt crew to create spectacular driving action as, essentially, two guys drove for one stunt.
To keep the story in sync, it was crucial to get shots of the actors in the cars driving. Statham did a lot of his own wheelwork, but often he and the actors needed help. Jack Gill had the perfect solution: the pod car. He describes the invention as “convenient when you want to get actors’ reactions—ones you can’t get on green screen—in real traffic and in actual cars banging together. The pod sits on top of the race car and is attached to the car with a steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedal. I drove up there while the actors sat inside with cameras pointing at them.”
This many fast, exploding cars posed plenty of danger, and, because of the amount of fire and explosions, the stunt team wore three-layer fire suits at all times. Empty shell casings from the firepower also offered hazards such as punctured tires.
To keep things moving, a mobile pit stop was set up off camera, and a crew of mechanics worked throughout the night to prepare the cars for the next day. “Every day we’d start off in the morning by getting all the cars prepped,” explains Louis. “Going through each car, making sure they’re all safe. Then, at the end of the day, we actually brought the cars back to a night crew. Those guys worked all night long to repair all the damage we inflicted.”
While exploding cars were left to the stuntmen, actors did a good amount of their own driving and fighting. The fight scenes needed to be as violent and real as car scenes, and Anderson called for a level of subtlety and basic physicality from the actors. “I’m used to doing very stylistic fight scenes,” explains Statham. “I didn’t think that was suitable for the Jensen Ames character. He’s a race driver, not a martial-arts expert, and he’s not someone with Special Forces tactical training.”
Though the actors’ environment was broken-down, the roles in Death Race required them to bulk up to portray the hardened men of Terminal Island. To physically realize the character of Jensen Ames, Statham trained for months with LOGAN HOOD, an ex-Navy SEAL. Hood, one of the key trainers on 300, knew a thing or two about getting men into fighting condition.
The first time we see the level of Ames’ skills (and the months of Statham’s training) is in the penitentiary’s mess hall. To inform his role, Statham visited Corcoran State Prison in California—the current residence of Charles Manson—during preproduction. As Statham discovered during his trip: “You walk into the mess hall and see this sign: ‘No Warning Shots.’ There are guards with guns walking around. If any skullduggery takes place, they are the first people to quell that kind of nonsense.”
Fight coordinator PHIL CULOTTA, Statham’s stunt double on Transporter 2, filled in the moves to create that explosive fight—a process that took about two weeks before the final version of the scene was locked. Culotta says that he relied on the basics to make it look like a dogfight. “To keep it down and dirty, we tried to make each hit be a ‘done hit.’ You get hit in the face at full steam by Jason Statham—just a gigantic rip—then, you’re done. We end up trying to grab everything, including the kitchen sink, and just hit people.”
The fight in the auto shop—where Ames is jumped by the neo-Nazis, slammed in the head with a pipe and choked with a chain—also required that Culotta choreograph substance and raw style. “For the prison auto-shop fight scene, we wanted to make it realistic and incorporate some of the things that you would use in the auto shops,” Statham explains. “Some props we got our fingers on were great: fire extinguishers, big pipe wrenches…there’s even chains you were getting choked with.”