From the moment the plane settles on the tarmac at Fiumicino, you sense something is going on. Rome is excited, on edge, disrupted by the huge volume of visitors, vans, cameras, helicopters, cars and noise. Everyone knows. James Bond is in town.
Rome has made Bond welcome. We hear few complaints about the 4km stretch of the River Tiber that is closed, guarded by 250 security staff, while a 350-person crew get on with the job of making it all happen, closing dozens of streets as they do so. The city is chaotic as I close in on the set to see some of those responsible for the upheaval.
Neil Layton works for Effects Warehouse, which, as the name suggests, ensures that modern movies are as spectacular as audiences demand. He has arrived in Rome straight from the set of the latest Star Wars film to get stuck into Spectre.
Layton is used to prepping stunt cars, but with vehicles as special as the Aston Martin DB10 and the Jaguar C-X75, there are unique problems. “The hardest thing about this is that both the Jag and Aston are bespoke,” he says. “Everything is bespoke. The cars aren’t difficult – more the timescales and getting hold of them in the first place.”
Ahead of filming, Layton had little to work with. “The DB10s were still being built,” he explains. “So Aston gave us a mule car to practise with in the meantime. It was a widened, lengthened V8 Vantage, which we had on track, so we had an idea of what they were going to drive like.” This allowed Layton’s team to feed back into the production process.
“We had four and a half months’ talking to Aston Martin to get the cars ready for the shoot,” says Layton. “Some of the modifications are done during production and some are done post. So all the cars have full roll cages and fire extinguisher systems when they arrive, but there are loads of bits we do when we get the cars.”
Once the cars arrive, they are put into batches, depending on what they are needed to do. The cars used for the close-up work, for instance, have relatively little done to them, but some get very serious modification to satisfy the requirements of filming, as well as those of the driver. “The cars always get changes made,” says Layton. “We set them up so they drive like we need them to.”
Piloting the Aston for Spectre is triple British Rally Championship winner Mark Higgins, and his feedback is vital for fine-tuning the cars so that they are ready for Rome. He admits there are few similarities between his new job and his old one, but he enjoys the challenge nonetheless.
“With rallying, you have the different surfaces. You’ve tarmac and gravel,” Higgins explains. “Here, we’ve got cobbles, changing weather and so on, but it’s not that similar at all. Here, you do the same things again and again to get them right. In rallying, you do something once and hopefully you do it well.”
Because there is little time to practise on set, planning is paramount. The evidence of this exactitude is evident everywhere. Despite shooting at night, with no camera in the car, Higgins is in a full Bond tuxedo. He’s even wearing the correct Omega Seamaster watch with a Nato strap. “They’ll want this back,” he says, smiling.
He explains that such detail pervades everything that is done on set. “We work really closely with our stunt co-ordinator to plan everything,” he says. “He’ll have ideas. We’ll have run-throughs with the cars so you know what it is going to feel like when you are on those actual cobbles, but you don’t get much actual rehearsal. Once the road is closed off, you get maybe a couple of runs up and down to see what it is like, but that’s it, really. I mean, you can practise on the cobbles at Millbrook [proving ground], but it’s not the same. The first time you know what it is like is when you get here.”