A motorcycle pursues a robbery getaway driver through a Boston highway tunnel, dogging the wheelman's BMW. But this isn’t a traditional cops and robbers chase – the vehicles move cautiously, haltingly, the bike almost like an animal stalking prey. Finally, both open the throttle and then the chase is on for real, and it will end with a nasty collision.
This is Wheelman, with Frank Grillo as the title character, caught in a life-threatening trap after a robbery goes sideways. The motorcyclist on Grillo’s tail works for a crime boss the wheelman knows only as a disembodied voice coming from his phone. Grillo is the film's unnamed hero, a father and ex-con who can’t step away from the dangerous driving days of his youth, now caught in the trap of some puppet master whose intentions put his whole family in danger.
The movie is the first feature from writer/director Jeremy Rush. Audiences will get to see Wheelman on Netflix beginning on Friday October 20, but we had an early look, and talked to Rush and Grillo about putting together the film’s signature chase scene.
“Our job is to give people something they haven’t seen before,” Rush told me in a wide-ranging discussion about the lean movie. We get the Locke comparison out of the way early – Wheelman stays almost entirely in the confines of Grillo’s car, which immediately draws a line to Steven Knight’s thriller featuring Tom Hardy as a contractor dealing with multiple problems as he makes an overnight drive. But the two films are ultimately very different.
“I didn’t want to tread on ground that’s already been tread so many times before,” Rush explains, “so the device of staying in or attached to the car for the entire POV of the film came to me. It was one of those struck by lightning occurrences.”
As a project, Wheelman was as fast off the starting line as Grillo’s character. The script’s perspective, and Rush’s taught, contained story, attracted producer Joe Carnahan to the project. Carnahan proposed Grillo for the lead. “We sent it to Frank,” Rush recalls, “and 24 hours later we were talking with CAA about how to put the film together. It came together very quickly, maybe a month after Frank came on we were ready to sell it.”
Then Netflix was on board, and locations were chosen in Boston, which Rush describes as “a perfect marriage as far as the style of the location we wanted, and logistics and crew and quality of life.”
I tell Frank Grillo this seems to have come together with astonishing speed. He agrees. "I've never seen something come together this fast. Even when I've had movies with established directors it doesn't happen like this. Before we knew it we were in Boston, and it was like "how did we do this? It's crazy!"
“We shot almost the entire film practically,” Rush says, “and shooting a driving film like that is a logistical nightmare. Boston was super cool; they allowed us to shut down quarter mile stretches of road, we could set up a course through the city on a loop of streets, and they’d shut it down for us.”
Rush & Co. set out to turn any potential production limitation into a strength. So the crew kept other cars on the road to a minimum. Grillo’s character “knows what streets to use where he’s not going to run into bystanders or law enforcement,” says Rush, and keeping things sparse “makes the movie feel more lonely, more claustrophobic. Not having other people and cars means the driver can’t just steal another car. That all helps create the style of the film.”
But then there’s the motorcyclist, who is monitoring Grillo’s progress after the robbery goes down, and clearly doesn’t have his best interests in mind.
Rush notes that the motorcycle chase was written to be about twice its current length, but “I knew part of the chase would probably be cut.” Then, however, came a moment of serendipity.
“We went though that tunnel while traveling from one location to another. I loved it, and our location manager mentioned we could shoot in the HOV portion of the tunnel. I realized I could set the motorcycle chase in there.”
Rush chopped the first bit of the chase, originally envisioned as “a cat and mouse thing through the streets of Boston.” With the tunnel location in mind, it mutated into “this slow start and stop thing as they look at each other. It turned into something that, for lack of a better term, is more like a horror movie. It’s like the bike’s headlight is a monster hanging back, watching.”
As Grillo watches the motorcycle, testing to see whether it really is following him, another unrelated driver in an SUV begins a confrontation with the wheelman, which ends quickly after Grillo brandishes a rifle. Rush notes “the stunt with the SUV was a device to put the biker in a position where he had to either stop or pull around and risk revealing himself. So the tunnel was a perfect inadvertent trap for the motorcyclist.”
Wheelman was shot in 19 days, meaning there was no time to linger on extra details. "We went so fast, it was crazy," Grillo says. Two half-nights got the tunnel material in the can, then two more half nights captured the back half of the chase, after the SUV encounter provokes the cyclist into an undisguised chase.
That chase ends with the motorcyclist crashing into the back of a small car. Bob Anderson, a veteran of Boston-area shoots, organized cars for the film, and he proposed a detail to Jeremy Rush.
“Bob comes into my office one day,” Rush remembers with a laugh, “and says ‘for the motorcycle accident, how do you feel about crashing the bike into a Prius?’” Rush loved the idea. “Bob closes his giant binder full of picture car info and says, deadpan, “excellent. I would love to destroy a Prius.”
Rush calls the crash itself, however, “a harrowing experience.” Experienced motorcycle stuntman Joe Dryden drove the bike for the shot, and planned to hit the Prius just as a piston drove the car slightly into the air. But force from the piston also opened “the car’s trunk lid, which is hinged up high like a hatchback, by about four inches, closing off Joe’s window to hit the roof properly.” So it caught him “right in the middle of his abdomen and stopped him dead,” and with a crunch audible to everyone “he went down hard.”
“Frank’s reaction in the movie,” Rush admits, “is his actual reaction to the stunt." Grillo agrees. "I thought he was dead. The take where I turn around and my mouth is agape, is my reaction to thinking we just killed a stuntman."
After a beat, Grillo continues. "Meanwhile, he got up and brushed himself off." Rush still feels a beat of fear remembering the moment. "For about 30 seconds we thought Joe might be badly hurt,” but soon he was checked out by medics, given a thumbs-up, and was back on his feet.
Even setting aside the dangers of stunt work, shooting a movie entirely in and around cars is a massive challenge. “I don’t think most people understand the logistical and technical hurdles of shooting an entire driving film practically,” Rush reflects. Preparation was the key, and Rush created “a rough 80-page visual reference guide, with screenshots from films that I wanted to use as reference for Wheelman,” and then spent weeks storyboarding the film.
In collaboration with cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz, who has shot “a couple hundred car commercials” according to Rush, a whole visual syntax was devised to capture the car action in a guided manner. Rush recalls that they ended up with a couple dozen consistent shot types, each with a memorable nickname.
Rush lists off a few. “We had the Daniel Craig, which was the passenger side hostess tray shooting through to the driver’s side, seeing some of the windshield, it’s inspired by one of the Craig Bond films. It’s a little bit short-sided, so the lead room is behind his head instead of in front of it. The Lancia Stratos was a rear-mounted shot that looks through the back window, you can see through the front windshield but you can see some of the roof of the car. We had the 50/50, a hood-mount shot looking back towards the windshield and you’re seeing half windshield and half down the driver’s side of the car.”
All of that preparation was to make the crew ready work around Grillo’s performance. “He’s one of those assassin character actors” enthuses the director, and “choosing those angles, and especially choosing when to move the camera, was about emphasizing what Frank was doing. Everything you do is in support of the performance. That’s the single most direct conduit between your story and the audience. Everything else you do, the costumes, locations, lens choice, camera framing, lighting, is all in support of the performance.”
Making things more difficult, Grillo was rarely performing to another actor; instead he was faking phone calls with people just reading, rather than acting, the other lines. "I was always working twice as hard," he remembers, "so I didn't get into the rhythm of the person who was reading rote lines on the other end of the phone. So I had to know where I was psychologically and emotionally and all that actor stuff at all times. When you have to work that hard you just kinda keep doing it, you don't think about it."
This movie, Grillo says, "is a testament to doing your homework and being prepared. I was so afraid of failing that I over-prepared. I knew where I was in that script at any given moment, in every single way. Being afraid to fail is what got me through it."
Wheelman streams on Netflix beginning October 20.