Originally airing as a two-hour pilot in February, the new NBC series “Knight Rider” is a modern take on the iconic ’80s series about a guy named Michael (Justin Bruening, filling the shoes of David Hasselhoff) who fights crime with the help of a sentient car called KITT, in this case a souped-up black Ford Mustang with the voice of Val Kilmer.
On the eve of the series premiere, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the man behind the show’s adrenalin infused car chases, stunt coordinator Dan Wynands, who shares some of the tricks of the trade, discusses the dangers of what he does, and tells us just who he thinks the best director of car action in Hollywood is
ComingSoon.net: How much pressure is there not to damage the cars? Are you given only a certain number?
Dan Wynands: We have a certain number of cars we’ve gotten from Ford, and yes we are under pressure not to damage them. We like to do things with a little speed and close proximity to other vehicles, so it’s a bit of a challenge.
CS: How many KITT cars are there?
Wynands: On the current series, we have six right now. We also have the KITT car that transforms. If you go into attack mode, which is another variety, it transforms into an F-150 four-wheel-drive truck. It has a bit of a “Transformers” taste to it.
CS: Doug Liman, who pretty much redefined the modern car chase with “Bourne Identity” is one of the executive producers. What was his involvement with “Knight Rider”?
Wynands: You know what? I can’t really speak on that. I know Doug Liman, and I worked with him a lot on the big car chases in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. As an executive producer, I have honestly never seen him on the set to date. He may be there just because that may be financially helpful, and Doug obviously has his vision of that. A lot of those car chases were put together by another stunt crew and second unit director that’s pretty knowledgeable in that world. There’s a lot of collaborating in making those situations and chase scenes happen.
CS: You’ve done a great deal of work in film as far as cars go, including “The Fast and the Furious” and “Gone in 60 Seconds”.
Wynands: I did. I just finished doing the new “Fast and Furious” and that’ll be coming out next summer with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker again from the first ones. A lot of big muscle cars in that again, as well as some sporty little imports.
CS: So what are the major differences between stunts on big budget films versus low budget TV series?
Wynands: I think its more a matter of time and preparation. On feature films, we tend to have a lot more time to prepare for these sequences. Two to three months of lead-time on a fairly big size film, so you can start getting your vehicles lined up correct if you’re gonna do, say, pipe ramps or turnovers. We do a lot of cannon rolls that require a lot of structural integrity to be put into the cars. We storyboard a lot more of our chases. On a TV show, we work at a faster schedule. Financially, we are a little restricted at times but not as much as you would think. They’re not too tight on the purse strings when it comes to doin’ the action, which an action series obviously needs. Basically, it’s a matter of time. We don’t have the opportunity to work in and set up bigger chase sequences that involve more wrecks and stronger and bigger stunts.
CS: And of course the dangers of stunt driving were driven home last year when Conway Wickliffe was killed in England during a practice run for a stunt on “The Dark Knight”.
Wynands: Yes, I heard that. That was a special effects man I hear. I worked a day or so on that film in Chicago, but yeah, they are dangerous. We may not always be going as fast as you’d think, but the close proximity and timing and trust you put into other stunt performers and other departments. There’s a lot that goes into making a chase work.
CS: Are there specific safety concerns in terms of the people actually shooting the chases? I know there was some CG in “Knight Rider”, but it looked like a lot of it was done practically with actual people manning the camera cars.
Wynands: Yeah, absolutely, but we use different equipment now. I actually own different chase vehicles myself. I own a small fleet of different camera motorcycles. I do work with remote camera systems that are wirelessly operated. They’re on a roadracing-style motorcycle that we can operate from another chase vehicle at a safer distance and not in harms way. Through the years the stunt world has developed better chase vehicles. We have a high-end Escalade with a high-speed camera crane arm on it that’s very nimble. We keep the operators protected with raised-seating, roll cages. We’ve gone out of our way to make it safer for the operators, but there’s a lot of opportunity to get hurt if things go badly in there. A lot of it’s based on what we do.
CS: Of all the big directors you’ve worked with, who would you say is the best “stuntman’s director”?
Wynands: Rob Cohen’s been good. I did the first “Fast and Furious” with him as well as “xXx”. He’s good. What you call “stunt man director” is really our second-unit directors, the smaller unit on a film that tend to go out and shoot all the action. A lot of those guys that direct that for the main-unit director are stunt men that have graduated into the world of directing. We know how to shoot that. Guys I’ve worked for, Mick Rogers, Vic Armstrong, Simon Crane, that have done all the Terminators, Mission: Impossibles, James Bond series. All that action is choreographed and directed by one-time stunt men. Probably THE BEST all-around director for shooting chase work that was a good dramatic director as well was John Frankenheimer, who did “Ronin”, “Grand Prix.” You go back to the ’60s and look at “Grand Prix”, the work he did with the actors in those cars was phenomenal.
CS: Yes, the stuff he did in “Grand Prix” with James Garner, that was all practical. There weren’t any hokey rear-screen projections in that.
Wynands: None. All right in and out there. The one thing we do in “Knight Rider” we do have a lot of green screen for when we put our principle actors in the car. I’m trying to tie them more into the real work we do. I’ve actually got some business to do this Friday with Justin Bruening who’s our Michael Knight Rider guy, and I’m gonna tie him onto the hood of our Knight Rider car. I’m trying to bring some of the feature film world tricks to help sell our actors in there. It is a challenge.
“Knight Rider” has its series premiere on NBC tonight, September 24, at 8pm, or if you can’t wait that long, you can watch the series premiere online right now at NBC.com.
Special thanks to NBC for arranging this exclusive interview.