Next to the Batmobile, the most famous TV vehicle is arguably the fiery orange 1969 Dodge Charger from the The Dukes of Hazzard. With the Confederate flag emblazoned on its roof, the indestructible muscle car was affectionately dubbed “General Lee” by good ol’ boys Bo and Luke Duke.
For the new feature-film adaptation of the series, director Jay Chandrasekhar understood that General Lee’s escapades would be the heart and soul of his take on that 1980s ode to speed, sex and Southern rebellion, and he knew what he needed to put his project over the top. “I wanted it to feel like when you got in the car with the Dukes, you were getting in the car with that guy in high school who floored it and was just out of control,” he remarks. “You got in that car once and never got in it again.” But even in this age of high-tech wizardry, many car chases fall flat, which is why Chandrasekhar was keen to hire the best car-stunt mavens in the business to create the Dukes’ maniacal driving style.
Enter second-unit director Dan Bradley and stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott, who, along with second-unit cinematographer Mitchell Admundsen, formed the team behind the high-octane car chases of The Bourne Supremacy. It was on Bourne that they first engineered new solutions for capturing speed on the road in real time, utilizing external drivers for picture vehicles and a picture-vehicle shooting rig called the GO Mobile. “Bourne was our breakout car show,” Prescott says. “We knew [that film] needed a new approach, a new way to look at things, and it needed people who were willing to go a different way with it. That translated to Dukes of Hazzard too.”
For Bradley, Prescott and Admundsen, the challenges on Dukes were slightly different, however. “In Bourne’s car chases, the main character is in extreme peril, running for his life, whereas everybody knows Bo and Luke Duke aren’t going die,” says Prescott. “To bring a sense of high energy to a comedy was a new challenge.”
Taking a page from the playbook of John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, Ronin), Bradley and Prescott tried to keep the actors prominent in the stunt sequences and avoid “doing stunts for stunts’ sake,” says Prescott. “When you come off the actor and see the car do this ridiculous flipover 25 times, [the sequence] loses a lot of energy. That’s why we try to put our actors in the spots as much as is safely possible. We sent Matt Damon to driving school on Bourne, and Seann William Scott went to extensive driver training for Dukes. Both guys did a lot of their own driving.”
When the going got too rough for the actors, Bradley and Prescott employed a pair of rigs that have revolutionized car stunts, wresting them from the old-guard stuntmen and transporting them to the 21st century. “We have something called an RDV, a remote drive vehicle,” explains Prescott. “It’s a picture vehicle with a dragster pod on the roof. The stuntman drives it from a pod, a dragster-style metal cockpit, while the actors sitting in the car appear to be driving. The stunt driver in the pod has complete control of the vehicle; he can do 180s or reverse 180s with the actors and the cameraman inside, and it works great. The cool thing is [that when we mount it on the GO Mobile] we can move the pod and the stuntman anywhere on the vehicle. He can drive it from the front, from behind, or from either side, so we can shoot from the inside looking out or from the outside looking in, and the pod won’t obstruct the camera. “
Then there are those extraordinary stunts, like when the Dukes are being chased by a posse of cop cars toward the broad side of a barn. “They have to fit through a really small hole in the barn wall,” says Prescott, “so they ski the General up on two wheels.” A typical approach to this stunt would be to have a stuntman drive the car, hit a ramp and ski the car up on two wheels; Bradley and Prescott did that, but they wanted more. “We wanted to [shoot] the actors actually skiing the car and going through the barn, rather than make it a greenscreen sequence you know how that looks!” says Prescott.
So they put the General on a pneumatic ramp and mounted it on the GO Mobile, a 28'-long, 500-horsepower, front-wheel-drive platform that employed an external driver in an RDV pod to control the Charger while the Dukes appeared to be driving it. The General was cut at the firewall, its hood still covering the empty space where its engine once roared. Though the General’s front wheels were removed, its rear wheels were the GO Mobile’s rear wheels. “When the General drives along with Johnny Knoxville and Seann inside, we have a full camera crew onboard and a 15-foot Technocrane, and we got shots that have never been done before. Then, on ‘3-2-1-go!’ we hit a button that pushed the rig almost vertical. We had cameras on the hood looking at the two actors doing their dialogue, the car’s tilted sideways on two wheels, and you can see that the barn doors behind are too narrow to have driven through normally. They’re skiing the car.”
Because the GO Mobile’s 7 1/2'-wide chassis remained firmly planted on terra firma as its ram lifted the General onto its side, part of the barn doors were removed and digitally added back in, just in time to prevent the cops from entering. So what stops the cops from driving around the barn and chasing the General when it comes out the other side? “Poetic license!” says Prescott.
The GO Mobile also enabled Bradley and Prescott to design some amazing shots with a Technocrane swinging around the General as it’s driving down dirt roads at 60 mph with the actors inside. “Whenever Dan’s shooting, he likes the camera to move a lot, and a little bit of bounce adds energy, but we put a Libra head on the Technocrane to smooth that out a bit, because otherwise it would be just radical,” says Prescott.
In fact, thanks to the GO Mobile and other stunt innovations, audiences might get whiplash from watching The Dukes of Hazzard, which is just what director Chandrasekhar ordered. “Dan and Darrin,” he says, “are making me look very good.”