Licence to thrill: life as James Bond’s stunt driver

Licence to thrill: life as James Bond’s stunt driver
Licence to thrill: life as James Bond’s stunt driver

For many petrolheads the on-screen antics of James Bond have had an indelible impact on their love of cars.

Watching an AMC Hornet perform a mid-air corkscrew over a river, a Lotus Esprit screaming around the coastal roads of Sardinia before diving into the sea or an Aston Martin DB10 flying through the streets and down the riverside steps of Rome, car fans thrill and dream of being able to perform such daring deeds.

Of course, it’s just a childish dream. We can’t pull on a tux, slip behind the wheel of some exotic car and scream off in pursuit of a global supervillian.

But Mark Higgins can. As part of the stunt driving team for the James Bond franchise he’s been responsible for some of the most spectacular on-screen action of the last decade.

Spectre’s Rome chase sequence took 28 days to shoot. Credit: EON

“It’s amazing,” he says when asked what it’s like to have the dream job of so many car and movie fans.

“Bond, Fast and Furious, Star Wars – to have thought as a kid that I’d be involved in anything like this is mind-blowing.”

Read more: Danny Boyle is a ‘great fit’ to direct Daniel Craig’s final James Bond film, fans say

Of course, you don’t land a job like that without hard work and Mark found himself pulling on Bond’s tuxedo thanks to his credentials as motorsport star. A three-time British Rally Champion, Isle of Man lap record holder, world rally competitor and test driver for a long list of manufacturers, he was already in demand as a driver for TV shows such as Top Gear and Fifth Gear, helping make the cars (and stars) look good.

Mark has won three British Rally Championship titles and continues to compete in rallies around the world

“Almost exactly 10 years ago a friend of mine, Ben Collins – who was the Stig at that point – mentioned he was going to be in a Bond film and they needed a rally driver for a quarry scene,” Mark explains.  

“It was just a chat at dinner so I took it with a pinch of salt but a little while later I got a call asking if I was free for the next three months.

“I’d never done a film before and so to realise that my first film was going to be a Bond film, well, it’s the one you want.”

From that first scene, controlling the henchmen’s Alfa 159 as it pursues Daniel Craig’s DBS through a quarry, Mark has worked on every Bond film. He stood in for Naomie Harris when Moneypenny’s Land Rover came under attack in the opening of Skyfall and stepped into Daniel Craig’s shoes for Spectre’s driving scenes.

Mark with Vin Diesel on the set of Fast & Furious 6

His talents at the wheel have also seen him in demand for the likes of The Grand Tour, the stunt-heavy Fast and Furious franchise, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Mummy and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But for sheer old-fashioned thrills the scene in Spectre where Bond’s DB10 is chased through the twisting alleys of Rome by a Jaguar C-X75 is hard to beat.

Read more: How to be a stunt driver

Slipping and sliding across cobbled piazzas, through narrow back streets (and an unfortunate Alfa) and then down a 40-foot set of riverside steps took all of Mark’s skill and judgement as well as a plenty of patience.

The five-minute sequence took a month to shoot, closing off city streets every night to allow Mark and the rest of the stunt team to set up and execute every carefully choreographed move.

“There were hundreds of people every night involved in shooting that sequence. Each night cost something like a million euros,” he recalls.

Yet it’s not necessarily the big, showy numbers that are the hardest to execute.

“There are so many different factors in every scene that can make even simple-looking ones very complicated.

“You look at it on a piece of paper and think ‘all I’m doing is sliding round a corner, I do that all the time in rallying’ but then you have a car coming towards you carrying a camera, you’ve got other cars, scenery and you’ve got to think about the timing, shot angles, all that.”

Credit: EON

While the on-screen results set the pulse racing the reality of shooting them isn’t always as thrilling.

First off is the preparation: “You start off months and months before filming. You start off preparing the car for the particular stunt – my motorsport background really helps with that. Then we’ll work out the moves, practice them, think about timings, positions and so on.”

Then there’s the hanging about, waiting to shoot. Mark says: “For big stunts, where you’re flipping heavy vehicles for example, you’ll have multiple takes and each time it takes time to reset everything. You can spend a full night on a single stunt and you’re working 10-12 hour days, waiting for the call on the radio to say it’s time to move again.

“You can spend a lot of time sitting about but then when you’re doing a scene and you’re in the middle of it and you hear ‘action’ and you’ve got the pyrotechnics and all the people around you it’s a massive adrenalin buzz.”

And for all that time and effort the on-screen result can be over in the blink of an eye. “Kingsman is a good example,” says Mark. “I drive the taxi in that and on screen it looks like a few skids, a spin and a couple of other bits but we worked on that for about 10 weeks.”

Although he’s in big demand in Hollywood, Mark is still as committed to his motorsport roots as ever. He’s still involved in the Prestone MSA British Rally Championship, which this year is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Although he’s not driving in the championship that helped make his name he is coaching one of this year’s competitors – Alex Laffey – who will soon be heading to Belgium with the rest of the BRC circus for the Renties Ypres Rally.

Mark is also getting stuck into the action, competing in a full season of British Rallycross at the wheel of a 600bhp Peugeot 208.

“It’s my first year of doing rallycross,” he explains. “My first round was in March and it’s been a steep learning curve but we’re top of the table now and just have to work at staying there.

“It’s intense. These things are faster to 60mph than an F1 car.

“My ultimate goal would be to do a full world rallycross season but the budgets are ridiculous – more per mile than F1 – so we’’l have to wait and see.”

Mark in action in his Albatec Racing Peugeot 208 rallycross car

In the meantime, Mark took a guest slot in May’s Silverstone round of the World Rallycross, winning two races before being forced to retire with car damage. And, despite all the glamorous cars he’s had access to through his film and TV work it’s the pure-bred sporting machines that really get Mark’s blood pumping.

“Every car’s built for a different purpose,” he says. “The DB10 was special because there were so few of them. The DB5, too, it’s such an iconic car so it was great to get to driver that.

“My favourite, though, was my Isle of Man Impreza. It was tuned by Prodrive and just awesome in terms of feedback and driving. It’s so much better than any road car. It’s out and out tuned for my driving and for that one purpose.

Mark says his Isle of Man lap record-setting Subaru Impreza is the best car he’s driven

“The rallycross car I’m driving this year is phenomenal as well. It’s 600bhp, driving on on mud and tarmac.”

Of course, despite that, Mark would never say never to Bond and with Danny Boyle and Daniel Craig already confirmed for the 25th installment of the franchise it’s surely only a matter of time before Higgins, Mark Higgins, gets the call to suit up and get behind the wheel again.

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