"Getting into a Jam in L.A. —
An 'Italian Job' Heist Depended on Lots of Traffic
and, Gulp, Cars in the Subway. So Cast and Crew Shifted into Overdrive"

by Jon Burlingame, Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2003

The 1969 Michael Caine film "The Italian Job" — a cult favorite in Britain but less well known here — has as its centerpiece a complex gold heist involving a massive traffic jam and three tiny cars that lead police on a merry chase across Italy.

Paramount, which released the original, has remade "The Italian Job" as a summer popcorn movie (set for May 30) with Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Edward Norton. The budget has been ratcheted up considerably (about $75 million), and so have the dramatic stakes: Gold heists bookend the new film — one in Venice, Italy, the other in Los Angeles.

The L.A. robbery, as originally scripted, stunned director F. Gary Gray. "I read about the stunts in the sequences that took place during the second heist, at Hollywood and Highland, and I asked, 'How can this be done?' I had to read it over twice," says Gray, who also directed "The Negotiator" (1998) and "A Man Apart" (2003).

What's more, producer Donald De Line says, "We wanted to do the stunts practically, i.e., not with CGI [computer-generated imagery]. And, as often as possible, have the actors do as much of it as they could."

Although the original "was very much a product of its time in terms of its sensibility," De Line says, "the idea of the traffic jam and using the Minis was fantastic."

"Minis" refers to the Mini Cooper, the small English car that can squeeze through tight spots and was seen in "The Bourne Identity" and "Austin Powers in Goldmember." BMW, which bought Rover, the Mini's original manufacturer, in 1994, reintroduced the Mini in the U.S. in March 2002.

De Line reasoned, "The new Minis were coming out. Los Angeles is a city known for traffic. You can use Europe for the beautiful exotic locales and setting up a great story, then bring it here, and you'll have a movie that hopefully will appeal around the world."

So early last year, planning began on shooting the L.A. portion of "The Italian Job" in late summer and early fall. Unlike "The Matrix Reloaded," which features chase scenes set on a specially built segment of freeway in Alameda, filming took place mainly on city streets and other public property. The Entertainment Industry Development Corp., an agency that serves as a liaison between government and the film industry, was enlisted to help obtain permissions and permits.

The biggest problem? Creating a monumental traffic jam near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. "We needed to close down Hollywood Boulevard, from Highland to Orange, for a week, shutting down all lanes of traffic in front of the Chinese Theatre, the Kodak Theatre and the entire shopping complex," Gray says.

Darryl Seif, vice president and general manager of operations for the EIDC, calls the request "one of the most challenging" of the film's many logistical issues. "We have done very few daytime shoots," he says. "Mostly, there is a lot of overnight, late-night activity, when the streets are a little quieter." But his organization helped to coordinate a daytime shoot in the heart of the Hollywood tourist district.

The company "was able to allay the fears of the merchants about lost business. In fact, I think they wound up with 100% approval from the merchants within the closure," Seif says. "And I'm sure they compensated the merchants as well."

Ultimately, "The Italian Job" got six of the seven days requested on Hollywood Boulevard, including a Saturday and Sunday. It also closed Highland to traffic from Franklin Avenue to Sunset Boulevard for two days, but because Highland is also State Route 170, it required the approval of the California Film Commission and Caltrans.

Then came the fun part: filming. The scenes required nearly 1,000 cars and frequently three helicopters. "To get one shot took an hour," Gray says, because of the time each take required "to reset the cars, reset the helicopters and clear all the pedestrians."

To coordinate car movements, assistant directors communicated with drivers via car radios, with everyone tuned to a company-controlled frequency. "So if you can imagine 500 cars backing up all at once without crashing into each other" while repositioning, "it was a long time between takes just to get simple shots," Gray says.

The traffic jam was only one element of a complicated scenario. To reach their target, three members of the team — played by Wahlberg, Theron and Jason Statham — had to pilot their Mini Coopers along sidewalks, down a stairwell, onto a Metro Rail platform and into a subway tunnel.

Most of this was actually accomplished by the actors. They took special driving instruction at the Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond (near Lancaster) in August. "They were all quick learners, but Charlize was the star," reports stunt coordinator Steve Kelso, the professional race car driver who trained them. "She was doing 180s and 360s; she was really amazing." But, he adds, "she liked driving barefoot. She was always taking off her shoes. It made me nuts."

Says Theron, who usually tools around in a Mercedes 400 and can't remember a time when she didn't know how to drive a car, "Both my parents were mechanics. They ran a road construction company, so I grew up among spanners and sparkplugs. My dad loved building cars."

Theron says she had fun with the stunts. "I only crashed twice and broke one camera," she adds. "It was really late, and I was tired. The camera was mounted in the car and I misjudged this little space that I had to drive through. I hit the side of the wall and it went flying through the window."

Her scariest moments involved precision driving that required her to negotiate a skid and end up very close to the camera. "It was really just that fear of knowing that there's a half-million-dollar camera right in front of you. And sometimes an operator."

"Each actor actually drove their car down the stairs" as well, affirms producer De Line, although the EIDC's Seif recalls that initially, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority "was like, are you kidding me?" Ultimately, the sequence was shot at four locations: down the actual stairs to the station at Hollywood and Highland; on the Metro Rail platforms downtown at Flower and 12th streets and at 7th and Figueroa; and on a specially built set — where the cars jump in front of a moving Metro Rail train — at a former Boeing facility in Downey.

Special measures

Veteran second-unit director Alexander Witt ("Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down") coordinated the action shots. He says a second set of stairs was built to cover the actual stairs so they wouldn't be damaged.

BMW supplied 32 cars, at no cost to the production. About two-thirds were the standard Mini Cooper; the rest were the supercharged Mini Cooper S. (Nobody in the production got to keep even one, De Line says.) Mini spokesman Andrew Cutler reports that BMW agreed to supply the cars, valued at nearly $600,000, because "it made a lot of sense from the standpoint of promoting the product."

The company customized many of them. "Some were made with special suspension for jumps; some were camera cars, designed for camera mounts; others were specifically 'picture cars,' " De Line says. Those designed for stunts, the ones not driven by the actors, had roll cages inside, Kelso adds.

Most significantly, the MTA barred gasoline-powered cars from its underground locations, so three electric-powered Minis were built — the only ones in the world, according to De Line — to operate on Metro Rail property some 60 to 70 feet below ground.

The chase continues through the subway tunnels (actually 400 feet of 14-foot-diameter steel industrial drainage pipe in Rancho Cucamonga) and into the Los Angeles River (specifically the Dominguez Channel in Torrance), eventually onto a golf course near the Hansen Dam and through downtown en route to Union Station. The actors piloted the Mini Coopers much of the time. "There were some scenes in the wash where they were going, easily, 80 or 90 miles an hour," Kelso says.

The most serious mishap, he adds, did not involve the actors. One stunt driver miscalculated a jump and overturned a Mini during shooting at the Sepulveda Basin; he was briefly hospitalized for a concussion.

The downtown shooting was accomplished on weekends, including scenes on Wilshire Boulevard, Grand Avenue, and Figueroa, Hope, Flower, 6th and 7th streets. Perhaps the most intense sequences were set downtown as Wahlberg's Cooper faces off against Norton's helicopter. "We were filming with a helicopter flying very low between the high buildings," Witt says, "so logistically it was more difficult than just a regular car chase."

In the movie, the characters are after $27 million. It probably cost that, or more, to shoot here. Says Gray: "There was a lot of negotiating... but I think the city and the state embraced us. They appreciated the fact that we didn't take it somewhere else."

No one will talk on the record about costs. "We spent a couple of million," quips Gray. "It was a bit more than 'Friday,' " he said, referring to his low-budget first film.

Turning serious, he adds that trying to accomplish the same shots with computer-generated effects "would have cost more and wouldn't have been as satisfying."

©2003 The Los Angeles Times

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