It's just a stunt - Amelia Ritchie
If you’ve sat down to watch an action movie lately with a vehicle in it or even a new-car ad, chances are there is someone like Stunt Coordinator, Mark Harris, involved. The action scenes may look effortless on screen, but usually you’ve only got one chance to get it right. Surprisingly, stunt work was a job that found him.
Harris previously owned both a mechanical workshop and a panel and paint shop while rallying took up his spare time. A friend put him forward to work on
the film Shaker Run, which he described as a great “three months of skidding a car around New Zealand”. From there, the jobs kept coming, and he found
himself in full time stunt work by 1993, working on Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess, choreographing fight scenes. “That’s basically our bread and
butter work – you run in, someone hits you, and you fall over”.
Utilising his mechanical and technical expertise, Harris now regularly undertakes and oversees not only the stunts themselves, but all the intense preparation that goes into making cars ready to be flipped, driven at speed or blown up.
Mechanical upgrades to these moving props include the fitting of fuel cells to prevent leaks, race harnesses and race seats, as well as cunningly constructing roll cages to ensure they keep the driver safe but allow for the adequate crushing of a car in particular places, all while not being seen by the audience. In a lot of these scenes, the main car in the shot is actually being controlled by the stunt driver in something called a ‘pod car’.
This, Harris says, looks like a little midget racing car but without an engine, and this contraption attaches to the main car in some way, usually on the roof, out of the shot. A range of modifications allows the stunt driver in the pod to actually drive the car in the scene. “You control the car completely by hydraulics. So the actor’s in there, holding onto the steering wheel, which doesn’t work. The brakes don’t work, the accelerator doesn’t work – nothing works for them – it’s all controlled by the pod driver.”
Two of these pods were used in the latest Goodbye Pork Pie movie, attached to Minis which had upgraded suspension and braking systems that made handbrake manoeuvres simpler. The team spent close to three months getting the cars ready, and working on the new Minis came with its own set of challenges thanks to the complexity of the electrical systems and the lack of physical space in the cars.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Harris used a pod attached to the Toyota Hilux for the scene where Julian Dennison and Sam Neil were evading police. “The Hilux was a manual, and we didn’t have time to get the gear shift working properly in the pod, but we had the clutch operating on it, so we had Sam Neil in the passenger seat changing the gears for us.” In 2019, Harris has an impressive list of films, TV series and commercials he’s working on, and it’s clear to see why he’s hailed as one of New Zealand’s top stunt coordinators.
These days he mainly works with high speed winches and rigging – used to quickly (but safely) throw or drop people (and the cameras filming them) without letting them hit the ground. But as a long-time petrolhead, it’s the stunt car and driving work that remains dear to his heart – which I’m sure many of you will understand.