A Zoom With A View: Road Rage Choreography With Co-Producer James Portolese
By Madeleine Finlay-Hudson
Derrick Borte’s Unhinged marks the return of the ‘blockbuster’ to the big screen. There’s something unmatched about the cinema experience. It’s something that can never quite be replicated, no matter how good your mates home cinema setup might be. After all, the cinematic experience is built on the small things that ultimately make a big impact. Be it the shared experience of the unknown, the freshly popped corn, or the comforting glow of the screen as you’re shrouded in darkness. We’ve certainly missed it and we’re sure you have too. But you’re in luck as from today you can witness Academy Award winner Russell Crowe in all new road rage, revenge thriller from the comfort of your local cinema. Yes, the cinema — you can officially give the sofa a night off.
And to mark the release of the film, we spoke to co-producer James Portolese all about the making of the film, how they choreographed the explosive stunts we see on screen, and just how Russell Crowe ended up driving that truck down the highway.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us James, congratulations on the film — it’s certainly going to make an entrance on the big screen this weekend. So, let’s begin by talking about your involvement with Unhinged. How did you get involved in the production?
JP: The script for Unhinged came to Solstice Studios on my first day of work in early March 2019. There was a great deal of excitement about the project and it was on the fast track. The initial plan was to scout for a week, come back to Los Angeles to prep for two more weeks and then return to New Orleans — but that quickly changed to simply staying in New Orleans and prepping the film right away for a mid-July start, since we only had a short window of Russell’s availability.
Speaking of Russell Crowe, how did he come to be involved in the film?
JP: Russell Crowe was given the script and he agreed to meet with Derrick Borte, our director. I drove Derrick to the meeting and when we pulled up in front of the hotel I smiled and said ‘no pressure.’ He laughed and then went to the meeting. A few hours later we received the call that Russell was on board and it was an exciting day. I know that Russell and Derrick hit it off immediately. They had a great relationship throughout the entire process and their partnership on-set ensured that they were both on the same page each step of the way.
It’s always great when a plan comes together. ‘No pressure’ there at all haha. You shot the film in New Orleans — how was that?
JP: The conditions we were under while filming in New Orleans were challenging. We were there from May until September, 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), 90% humidity, 104 heat index, 100% chance of rain, and it was hurricane season. Unhinged deals with road rage, so we were on the streets every day in these conditions. Hurricane Barry struck land on what was supposed to be our first day of shooting, so we had to push back the start by four days, and each day we had to have a nearby building where we could take shelter from the lightning and driving rain. We used those rain covers every day!
Why did you pick New Orleans?
JP: The city itself was perfect for shooting Unhinged because it has such an amazing interstate system traveling above and around the city, which offered so many creative places to film. There is an incredible chase that takes place underneath the confluence of several highways and it feels like the walls of the city are closing in on Rachel as Russell Crowe’s character terrorizes her through the urban sprawl.
Sounds perfect, especially given the amount of time we spend out on the road throughout the film. When you were filming, what was your best day on set?
JP: It’s got to be the day we filmed seven stunts in one day — yes really. The great thing about this day was that we had the entire area locked down so we didn’t have to worry about outside traffic — it was the safest way to perform all of the highly skilled stunts. When the sunset there was a huge sense of accomplishment; what we achieved that day would normally take 3–4 days. Filming can be very dangerous and difficult and this day was no different — but the thing that made it stand out was how much fun we had while working. There was fantastic energy on the set that day!
The stunts are incredible. What’s your stand-out memory from the set?
JP: A stand-out memory from the set was the day we destroyed a police car with a cement truck. It was a sequence that took weeks of preparation, planning, storyboarding, safety meetings, rigging the vehicles, and the surroundings plus we had to buy a cement truck. We rehearsed it several times for camera and safety and when we did the smash, it was even better than we expected and it is a truly exhilarating moment in the film. Our SPFX team managed to reassemble the car and we were able to get one more take which is unheard of with this type of stunt and when the day was over, the crew was very proud of the moment we created.
Speaking of stunts, how was your stunt team assembled?
JP: Mike Smith, whose previous credits include stunts on Fast and the Furious, Terminator 3, and Legend of Zorro and stunt coordinator credits on Nightcrawler and Need for Speed, was our Stunt Coordinator and 2nd Unit, Director. He did an amazing job designing all of the stunts. The great thing he did was also hire 4 additional stuntmen, who are all big-time stunt coordinators in their own right, plus we had the best female precision drivers in the country. We also had Jeremy Frye (Ford v Ferrari, Baby Driver) and Brycen Counts (The Old Guard, Black Panther, and Spiderman: Homecoming) who added an incredible amount of excitement and skill.
Sounds like an incredibly talented team, it must have been amazing to work with such a wide variety of people to be able to create such a high caliber of stunts for the film. How did the team choreograph the stunts?
JP: All of the stunts in the film were pre-visualized and story-boarded. After that, the stunt team would bring out Matchbox cars on a diagram of the roads and would carefully walk through each beat of the action with all of the drivers and the coordinator for the director’s approval. Once the basics of the stunts have been agreed upon, we would go out to the parking lot (our production office was in an abandoned department store and we were able to use the mall parking lot to safely practice all of the driving stunts). We would rehearse until everyone was comfortable with how the stunt would play out and then on the day of shooting, we would bring out the Matchbox cars for a quick refresher, review the storyboards and safety protocols, and then we would get to work. Our producer, Lisa Ellzey, did a fantastic job of keeping this film on point. Her energy is contagious and she was a driving force to make things happen.
When shooting a stunt, how many chances do you get to film it? Is it difficult to coordinate such large scale stunts?
JP: For most stunts in the film, you usually only get one shot. Because of that, making sure that you are being extremely safe and have the stunt covered from the best angles possible is of paramount importance. During one crash sequence, we spent the entire morning prepping for the collision, walking through every step, making sure the driver was ready and safe, placing all of the rescue and fire vehicles. We broke for lunch, did one last walkthrough, and then safely performed the stunt. It was weeks of planning, 8 hours of on-set preparation for a sequence which is less than 10 seconds long but it was well worth it!
100% — the results are amazing. As Russell did a lot of his own stunt work, did he have to undergo a lot of training to carry out the stunts?
JP: Russell was very involved in the stunt process from the very beginning. We had floorplans of the sets marked off at our production office, with props and set decoration in place so that he could see the layout of what he would be doing. He would then participate in hands-on fight training as well as driving. He didn’t need the driving training as he handles the truck like a seasoned stunt driver. He was very involved in the diner sequence as well as a few surprise sequences in the film. Russell respects the hard work the stunt performers put in and he works even harder.
He truly led by example on the set. I remember the first time he drove the truck down the streets of New Orleans and I watched the playback and I was blown away.
And we’ve got to ask — was it hard to insure Russell Crowe to partake in the stunts?
JP: We did have to get permission for Russell to drive and the speed limits for which he had to adhere to were carefully negotiated. People won’t believe that he is doing the driving himself.
Now, if you had to pick a favourite scene from the film, what would it be?
JP: The diner scene is near perfect and plays like a taut short film. However, the sequence I am most proud of begins at the gas station with Russell stirring up trouble for patrons there, and following him as he chases Rachel into the crowded underpass and onto the streets with several near misses (Rachel almost colliding with a bus, turning the wrong way down a one-way street, etc) before she can finally take a breath.
The sequence of events took place over the course of several days in 5 different locations and the stunt coordination is so seamless that it feels like the same stretch of road. This was another section of the film which took weeks of planning to coordinate and after seeing the finished product, it was well worth all of the hard work.
It’s very satisfying when you plan and design a sequence and then see it cut together and it surpasses your original vision.
As Unhinged is a road rage thriller — when you’re out and about in your car, what are your biggest driving pet hates?
JP: After working on this film I no longer honk, ever. You never know who is in front of you. I dislike when I let someone cut in front of me and they don’t give me the ‘wave’ to say thank you. People looking at their phones while driving…to be honest rude drivers in general. And lastly, one that Russell Crowe addresses in the film, I dislike people applying their makeup while driving. Although I probably wouldn’t address it in quite the same manner.
Unhinged is jam-packed with high-intensity stunts, action, and car chases. If you had to pick your top three car chases in movie history, what would they be and why?
JP: Firstly, To Live and Die in LA — This film has a car chase which does not stop. It is relentless and dangerous and exhausting and the viewer feels like you are in the car with the cops (who are being chased by the bad guys) but our heroes have no idea who is chasing them. It is a tour de force of action.
In close second place, Ronin. This film has a chase sequence in the South of France which is a true heart-stopping achievement. It is a film school on how to make a car chase propel the movie forward and amaze the crowd.
And last but by no means least — the entirety of Mad Max Fury Road. The whole film is one incredible chase (with lots of road rage) and it set the bar for every car chase in the future. Every shot is a piece of art.
Unhinged is in UK and Irish cinemas NOW. To find out more or check your closest venue head to unhinged.film — and remember always be careful when you’re out on the road — you never know who could be driving next to you…