Robert Nagle was still racing cars professionally when he saw Ronin for the first time. The Euro-set chases in the 1998 Robert De Niro thriller were a massive undertaking that involved over 300 stunt professionals and would go on to become lionized as the best of all time. Like most, Bullitt was a favorite from his childhood, but Nagle was awed by what the Ronin team accomplished with a few Peugeots and the tunnels of Paris. “It’s the most realistic. They really sold the speed, had some really great drivers doing those pieces, and just the way they shot it, it came out spectacular. I walked away going, ‘How did they do that?’. I needed to figure out how they did some of those pieces because they were done so well.”
Many of us had the same connection ‐ a sense of wonder at the raw ability of the sequences to pummel adrenal glands marked by that natural, amateur illusionist curiosity of how the filmmakers pulled it off. Soon after Ronin’s release, Nagle would transition into the industry himself with Michael Mann’s The Insider, officially becoming a part of the machine that made him simultaneously pump his fist and scratch his head.
In a little over a decade, Nagle has amassed an impressive amount of movies under his seat belt, and throughout his stunt driving career, he’s worked with a large magician’s wand called The Biscuit Rig. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize its work, because for many action movies made this century, it’s been the answer to, “How did they do that?”.
Developed by Allan Padelford Camera Cars, the rig was originally modified for Seabiscuit (hence its name) in order to capture shots of the jockeys mid-race without compromising the speed. As Nagle explains, “They mounted mechanical horses on the bed of this thing so that the actors could be on the horses, and then we could run real horses alongside of them. As your framed up on the actor’s face, you see a piece of the mechanical horse moving through frame, you’ve got the real horses in the background, and it makes you feel as if you’re there on the track with the actors. It provided a really big platform to work off of camera-wise, with sound and in being able to run it around the track at a fair amount of speed.”
In a way, the concept behind the rig is devilishly simple: it’s an automobile that you can put other automobiles on. Or fake horses. Or airplanes. Or anything else. It’s a fancy trailer that doesn’t trail.
After a brushfire destroyed The Biscuit during production on The Aviator, Padelford and Nagle got together to streamline the design to make it smaller and more versatile. “We took the driver’s pod and made it so that it could be mounted anywhere on the platform, meaning it could be mounted on the front with the cameras looking back or we could mount it toward the rear or off to the side so cameras could look forward.” Thus, The Biscuit Rig, Jr. was born.
Now, filmmakers were free to film the natural intensity of a car chase from any angle, and while that technical limit was breeched, the rig also solved a problem for the people behind the wheel.
“I’ve trained a lot of actors to drive, and I’ve found that they can either drive well or they can act well, when we start merging the two together, it becomes problematic,” said Nagle. “There’s a lot of focus required to do either, and if you’re asking them to drive through traffic, and to do it safely, it becomes tough.”
That, as it turns out, is one of Nagle’s favorite things about the Biscuit. “We really get the actor in the middle of the action. One of the best examples is from the film Drive. Most of the chase scenes we did, even the low-speed chase scenes, with Ryan Gosling, we did off that rig. There’s a sequence where he’s being chased, and the guy chasing him hits his car and does what’s called a pit maneuver where you hit the back of the car and it spins the car out. We did an exterior shot of that with two stunt drivers, and then we did it with Ryan in the car on the Biscuit Rig where I matched all the moves we did with the stunt drivers. We did that 180 degree spin with him on there and the other car coming up on us, so that when it spun around, he’s right there in frame. You see it. It never takes you out of it, and the physics are correct. I talked to Ryan on the radio as we were going through, and he mimics everything that I’m doing beautifully.”
That chase is Nagle’s current favorite that he’s helped capture, and it’s easy to see why. The combination of photography, stunt work, acting and editing come together to create a powerful sequence where the illusion of Gosling pulling off those advanced maneuvers is mesmerizing. You might never guess that it was actually Nagle pulling those pit maneuvers.
Unsurprisingly, his latest work can be seen this weekend when Fast & Furious 6 comes out this weekend (although he came to the project after a bulk of the shooting had been done). “We did some really spectacular stuff. I don’t want too give much away, but there are some chase scenes that will be really great. Spiro [Razatos], the second unit director, comes up with some great ideas and really great action. If you look back at Fast 5, that whole chase scene with the safe just came together so well where the safe was almost like another character. I think there are elements in Fast 6 that will be the same thing. There will be some cars that are almost more like characters.”
So did Nagle ever learn how they pulled off the chases in Ronin?
“I figured out some of it. At the time I had some friends in the film industry as stunt drivers, and in talking to them, they gave me the backstory on how they got some of those pieces. Some of those shots were done ‐ similar to what we do now ‐ in that the controls were on the right-hand side of the car, but it looked like the actor on the left side of the car was driving when he wasn’t. They had a steering wheel down low where you couldn’t see it.”
Now with the Biscuit, the person driving the car isn’t even inside of it. A very cool tool for a new generation of practical movie magic, it’s dropping the jaws of fans (perhaps a few future stunt drivers), and making them puzzle out how every high-speed stunt was done.