Interview: Loren Janes of Bullitt


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As a kid growing up in New York in the late '60s, I had a thing for the movie Bullitt starring Steve McQueen. While I didn't necessarily understand the plot, I was mesmerized by the car chase. At the local candy store, all of my friends talked obsessively about it, probably because watching the sequence felt like being on one of the amusement park rides we loved so much. The you-are-there sensation owed much to the use of cameras in the car. You felt every bump and jolt.

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to gain teenage closure. On assignment for the Wall Street Journal, I was in San Francisco to drive the original Bullitt chase scene in a new, 2011 Ford Mustang V6. In the passenger seat was Loren Janes, the fabled Hollywood stuntman and McQueen double who had driven the movie's most exciting scenes. Loren had graciously flown up from Burbank for the day to take the ride. What's more, I had a CD of the Bullitt soundtrack to set the mood. The result is in today's Wall Street Journal or here. [Photo of Loren Janes in San Francisco by Marc Myers]

Loren is a very level-headed guy who spent years doing crazy things for a living. Really crazy things. He pulled off hair-raising stunts in more than 500 movies--nearly all of them household names. He also has added excitement to more than 2,100 TV episodes. You realize that without guys like Loren, movies over the past 50 years would be rather static. When I asked Loren if anything scares him, Loren said matter-of-factly: “Not really. I'm asked that often. I'm not really afraid of anything, and I've never broken a bone. I've been a gymnast, a Marine, a diver and Olympic athlete, which was great preparation for stunt work. I was always comfortable in the air." [Pictured: Marc Myers and Loren Janes]

Today's post isn't about jazz, but it's certainly about cool. For those who share my fascination with Bullitt or have always been curious about stuntmen, especially those who began their careers in the early 1950s, here's what Loren said to me during our conversation leading up to our drive on Sunday:

“I first met Steve McQueen while working on the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive. Steve was the star. Apparently, there had been two stuntmen there Steve didn't like, and they were both fired. They called me because they had scenes to film and I lived about five minutes from the studio.

“When I showed up on the set, I walked past Steve, who was sitting around. We were both taken with how much we looked like each other. He asked me to get him a coffee. I wasn't happy that he was treating me like a gofer. I walked up to him and said, 'I'm going to make you look better than you can make yourself look. Just don't blow my close-ups.'

“As I walked away, I could hear him scream to the director or someone, 'Fire him.' Apparently they had said to him in response, 'No, no, he has to do the stunt first. We'll fire him after if you want.'

“When it was time to do the first stunt, the coordinator told me Steve wanted it done as athletic as possible--meaning realistic and seemingly impossible. The stunt called for me to go through a low window in a barn, roll off the ground, leap up, vault over two horses, land on Steve's animal and ride off.

“I spent some time walking the set to make sure the ground was clean and that there were no surprises. I moved the horses a little closer together and moved a rock that I could use to spring off to go over the horses.

“When the director yelled, “Action!," I went through the window, did my somersault, ran 15 feet to the horses, leaped over two of them, landed on Steve's horse and took off. Steve couldn't believe it. I worked out daily on parallel bars and other gymnastic equipment in my backyard, so vaulting over the horses wasn't a problem.

“On my way back, I brought him a coffee, and he laughed. From that day forward I worked with him on every movie he made, including his last, The Hunter, in 1980, where I had to hang off the Chicago elevated train traveling at 55 mph.

“When I broke into the business in the early '50s, most stuntmen were gymnasts or ex-Marines. I had been both as well as a diver. I also competed in the 1956 and 1964 Olympics in the modern pentathlon.

“One of my favorite stunts was for How the West Was Won in 1962. I was doubling for an actor who was shot. I had to leap off a train going 30 mph, hit a cactus and tumble down a rocky hill. A cactus is like a telephone pole. Hitting it dead on would have sent me back under the train. So I had to figure out the right angle to hit the thing.

“I also wanted the cactus to be flexible. I dug four feet down and cut out the tap root. Then I filled in the hole with the dirt so it would spray up when I hit. I also calculated the angle so I knew when to jump from the train. Next I took a blowtorch to the cactus needles where I had planned to hit to avoid being impaled.

“In the scene, the train sped along, I jumped, hit the cactus just right, the cactus fell over with me and I went down the hill perfectly.

“In 1968, when I got the call to work on Bullitt from Carey Loftin, who at the time was probably the greatest car man and stunt coordinator in the business, I was working on another picture. So I couldn't be on the set of Bullitt right away. Another stuntman, Bud Ekins, did some of the early driving sequences until I could get there. These scenes with Ekins included one with the Mustang and Charger tearing across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the toll plaza at 80 mph. But it was cut from the film. [Pictured: Steve McQueen and Loren Janes]

“When I showed up on the set, Carey explained what he needed me and Bill Hickman [pictured], the driver of the Charger, to do when we went down the hill on Taylor Street. That's the hill where our cars are jumping in the air at each intersection. We sat down and went over what was needed and how to execute the stunt. All of the scenes were like that. Careful preparation.

“It took the crew four weeks to shoot that 10-minute car chase. It didn't unfold the way it does in the film. The scenes were shot street by street, and in a different order from the film. Then the scenes were arranged into a deck of cards in the editing room so there was continuity. So for the stunt driver, it wasn't a car chase as much as a series of block by block enterprises all over town.

“Before doing the Taylor Street stunt, I drove the Mustang around to get used to it. I did little things like throwing it into reverse and slamming on the accelerator. Or hitting the brakes hard. You want to be sure that everything that's supposed to work does--perfectly--so you can pull off what's needed. Even the emergency brake is needed for certain things.

“But keep in mind, those weren't ordinary cars. Many people who have watched the film think that any fast muscle car can do what we did. No way. Both the Mustang and Charger in Bullitt were heavily worked on. They needed to be faster than street cars but also be able to take an enormous beating. That required heavy-duty parts and additions like race-car shocks, skid bars to protect the underside and special overinflated tires.

“Most people think Steve McQueen did his own stunts in films. Steve was a hell of a driver, but he was only behind the wheel for about 10% of what you see on screen. He drove in scenes that required closeups--but not in the ones that could kill him. Steve always asked me first whether a stunt was too dangerous for him to take on. If I said 'no,' he listened. He had to. No Steve, no movie, and no studio in its right mind would put its star at that much risk. I always had the final say, for his sake.

“Driving down Taylor was tough business. As good as Steve was, only stunt pros were qualified to handle the harder scenes. In one scene that they left in, you can see that Steve was unable to make one of the turns and has to back up. The smoke coming off the wheels looked like burning rubber but it was actually a smoke prop placed in the rear wheel wells.

“Every car you see on the streets during the chase--including that green VW that pops up a few times on Taylor Street--was driven by stuntmen. Everyone knew exactly what they had to do and how slow to drive so the Mustang and Charger could fly by. We had people stationed at every corner to keep pedestrians from wandering onto the set and prevent someone from suddenly coming out of a garage during filming. Even the cable cars crossing Filbert Street were there on purpose and were operated by stunt guys.

“Bud Ekins was the guy who falls off a motorcycle on the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway scene, which called for me to veer into a sandy shoulder. I hit that thing at a high speed. I have no idea how fast, since a stuntman never looks at his speedometer. You need to focus on what has to be done. Your body is doing the driving and your eyes are looking for places where your body has to react. How fast is of little concern. It just has to be very fast. When I hit that sand, I had to fishtail just right to catch the sand and slow down. Otherwise the car would have flipped.

“We had three identical green 1968 Ford Mustang fastbacks and three black Dodge Chargers in the movie. Many writers have said two, but there were three of each. We needed the extra cars in case one was damaged. The movie's shooting schedule can't be slowed for dents and things like that. Fortunately we only had to use a second Mustang once when the first Mustang had to go in to be fixed up.

“Most of the scenes you see from inside the car were shot by a cameraman or a camera tied back into the car. That was director Peter Yates' genius on the film. He put the movie-goer in the car, and it all felt real and exciting.

“The guy driving the Charger--the bad guy who at one point fastens his seat belt? That was Bill Hickman, one of the finest car stuntmen in the business at the time. It was great that Peter kept him in the movie. It was probably just easier and more cost effective that way. Peter knew exactly what he was doing and he cared about the stuntmen on the set. He'd always ask me after each stunt, 'Are you OK? Are you ready to move on?' Most directors didn't do that. They only interacted with the stunt coordinators.

“My scenes in Bullitt were more rigorous than the driving I had done in earlier films. Everything about my scenes pushed the envelope beyond what had been done before, especially with muscle cars, which were relatively new. Everything had to be spot on. The same goes for Bill Hickman in the Charger. In one scene, the Charger he's driving comes down a hill and has to hit a car on the corner. He had to just kiss it with the front of his car, which added to the realism. You can do that only if you're very familiar with your car and you're fully conscious of what part of the vehicle you want touch the other one. He was great.

“The most difficult part of the Taylor Street chase sequence was when I had to jump a hill and then turn the corner at Filbert Street. With that kind of momentum--I was probably going around 60-mph--a car wants to go straight rather than turn. So when I'm coming down the hill, I had to know when to turn because the car is going to skid. That's physics. You have to turn early and let the car slide into the turn. Otherwise it would have gone down the street too far and you'd miss.

“My scenes were challenging, but I was never afraid. If you experience fear, you can't do the stunt. It's not a macho thing. We just look at it like a job. Fear leads to injury. You erase fear by having experience and by lowering risks through examination and careful planning. The trick is preparation without compromising realism. So you plan, work the set and then throw yourself into whatever has to be done.

“I never really had fear while working on all those movies. Many people ask me that. I suspect it's because I had always been physical and had been a gymnast and a diver. I was always in the air and was used to it and conscious of what I had to do when I landed. After all these years, I've never broken a bone.

“But I'd never do that Taylor Street scene today. I'm not afraid. It's just that my reflexes just aren't what they used to be and I probably wouldn't react as fast as I would need to."

JazzWax notes: The new 2011 Mustang V6 was a loaner from the Ford Motor Co. A big thanks to Ford's Angie Kozleski in Detroit and Jason Camp in Irvine, CA. The car had enormous zero-to-60 acceleration, a strong passing gear that kicked in smoothly, and tight U-turn capability. The interior dashboard and steering wheel were retro, harking back to the model's original mid-60s heritage. [Photos of the 2011 Ford Mustang V6 by Marc Myers]

Having driven a '65 Ford Mustang as well as a '67 Pontiac GTO, '71 AMC Javelin, '69 Chevrolet Chevelle SS and '72 Pontiac Malibu in my youth, the new Mustang had a familiar, crouched muscular feel. Its clean design turned quite a few heads in San Francisco.

JazzWax tracks: The soundtrack to Bullitt is terrific. Lalo Schifrin composed and arranged the music, and the feel is largely jazz, despite the fact that the film takes place in San Francisco in 1968. You'll find the remastered recording with bonus material at iTunes or here.

JazzWax clips: Here's the original Bullitt chase scene. Note that the Taylor Street hill is used twice and that a green VW bug turns up multiple times:


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