The making of Gymkhana 8

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The National, April 2016

It’s one of Dubai’s busiest highways. But for once, the thundering traffic of Sheikh Zayed Road is nowhere to be seen. Instead, lined up at the traffic lights are five cars, their high-performance engines gurgling impatiently. There’s a Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari F12, a Lexus LFA, Lamborghini Aventador and… a Ford Fiesta, the kind of car more synonymous with ferrying youngsters safely to school.

But it’s not any old Ford Fiesta. It’s the professional rally driver Ken Block’s 650bhp, AWD Ford Fiesta RX3, ready to do battle with the big guns. At the time of writing, a staggering 15 million people – the total YouTube views to date – know what happened when the lights turned green.

The drag race is one of the most memorable sections of ­Gymkhana, the series of viral videos showing off Ken Block’s incredible driving skills that saw its latest instalment shot in ­Dubai recently. It’s also one of the Gymkhana director Ben Conrad’s favourite moments.

“Ken’s Fiesta is a race-spec car, and a pretty powerful vehicle,” he points out. “But yes, even though we shot it twice, the ­Fiesta won both times. It actually happened, although the Bugatti gave it a good run for its money. It’s a good contrast, though, isn’t it? It feels down to earth.”

In a heartbeat, Conrad gets to the nub of why Ken Block’s Gymkhana series is so popular. For all the supercars in the latest film – including plenty in Dubai Police livery – it’s the fact that Block pulls off his stunts in cars and places everyone can relate to that makes the film so ­interesting.

“It’s wish fulfilment, in a way,” agrees Conrad. “I’ve been involved with the series since Gymkhana 4, and the spectacle is important – as is Ken’s driving – but the films have something tangible in them, too. So in ­Gymkhana 5, he had Bay Bridge in San Francisco to himself. In this one, he was driving through a deserted Dubai – things that you dream of, but can never actually do.”

Not unless you can get the busiest, most famous highway in Dubai – Sheikh Zayed Road – temporarily closed down. But this is what Conrad managed for his favourite Gymkhana 8 stunt, where an enormous Ford F-150 Raptor pick-up truck not only teeters down the centre of the highway on two wheels, but is then buzzed by Block’s ­Fiesta doing multiple burnouts, including some which seem to take place underneath the body of the pick-up.

“That truck is not made to go on two wheels,” laughs Conrad. But he says it was the logistics of getting the road shut down which were almost the greater feat, crediting the “enormous” help of Dubai Films and XDubai to provide the playground for Block to strut his stuff. Well, a playground with a time limit.

“We only had three hours to shoot that scene, and for whatever reason, whenever we schedule a film, the hardest, most difficult trick for Ken always seems to be the first thing we do. We are dealing with machines, so things can go wrong, and while you’re worrying about that, the traffic has been shut down, the clock is ticking, and we need to get the shot.”

If it sounds stressful, it helps that Block is an incredible driver. “Ken nailed that scene right out of the gate, so we got everything we needed,” Conrad explains. “He pushes us because he’s a pro and he loves doing these films. The more he’s driving, the better it is. It’s the same as working with an actor really – you want to keep them going, keep them in the moment.”

One of those moments in the film is when Block is careering his Fiesta around a moving Boeing 747 taxiing down Fujairah International Airport’s runway. Visually, it’s stunning – you half expect Tom Cruise to be hanging off the side of the Jumbo Jet. And while the preparation that goes into a stunt like this might appear huge, Conrad reveals that Block prefers spontaneity.

“Actually, that scene only came off at the 11th hour – we were still looking for a plane. Then an airstrip is a secure area, so getting the whole crew in there is difficult,” he explains. “The thing is, Ken has no time to practise the scenes. He’s doing them on the day, but I think that resonates. The audience can see that it’s dangerous and wild and not overly rehearsed or scripted. It feels more real – because the driving has such energy to it.”

In the past, Conrad has matched the gritty nature of high-octane driving with the feel of the film. But Gymkhana 8 feels like a step change. Immensely cinematic, there’s a neat storyline as Block blasts through sand dunes into the city, while the helicopter and super slo-mo shots lend the film depth and spectacle.

“To us, Dubai is a very exotic place – and also a place where you’d have to say the car is really celebrated,” he explains. “So the nature of Dubai led us to a more cinematic style, yes. Beginning in the desert, and going into the city, meant we could also play with all the different textures the region provides and really embrace them. Dubai is beautiful and futuristic, so the film needed to reflect that.”

Yet for all the popping exhausts echoing off glittering skyscrapers and salubrious addresses newly adorned with freshly burnt rubber, one of the most memorable stunts involves a completely stationary car. Right at the start, a cheetah jumps out of the front seat of Block’s Fiesta, and lollops into the desert. Is Block really that much of an animal lover?

“Ken was fine with it – I was more nervous,” laughs Conrad. “We had proper safety techniques and animal trainers, and he was only in the car for a very short amount of time … but yes, it’s a real cheetah, and it was really in the car with Ken.”

It’s the kind of stunt – along with Block’s closing gambit of jumping into the sea from a helicopter – which might entice non-petrolheads to enjoy ­Gymkhana 8. If not, the super slo-mo edits in front of the Dubai Fountain will certainly turn heads.

“You sometimes want to slow things down to convey the precision of Ken’s driving,” agrees Conrad. “What we always try to do is translate what it feels like to witness what he does in person. And in a lot of ways, it’s operatic.”

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