Car chases are one of the most fun parts of going to the movies or watching at home. So, where did they begin?
Ever since I was a kid, one of my favorite tropes of the action genre is the car chase. Chase scenes are a blast. They involve lots of planning, some CGI at times, and incredible explosions. They’re described as “high octane” on websites and their clips get shared on Twitter.
But the modern car chase owes a lot of its success to Steve McQueen and the classic film Bullitt.
Today, I want to look into how they are connected and where the car chase is going.
Check out this video from Creative Principles and let’s talk after the jump.
Love Hollywood Car Chases? Then Thank Steve McQueen and Bullitt
It’s hard to imagine a world without high-speed chases, but the 60s were a different time. Sure, there were the intimations of car chases that used green screens, rear projection, or were shot wide and far away, like in Bonnie and Clyde.
But when it came time to tell the story of a man on a mission, Steve McQueen wanted to do something different. He wanted to really shoot a car chase. Not just set one up and do a bunch of takes, he wanted to practice, stunt drive, not cut, and complete the greatest car chase in cinema history.
And he wanted to do it all real.
Steve McQueen is an icon, but in terms of acting, there were a lot of times it kind of felt like he was playing himself. An insane guy hellbent on pushing himself to the limits. But that didn’t really matter at the time.
McQueen was the star of his era.
Much like Paul Newman or Humphrey Bogart, he was a presence on the screen. McQueen was a myth come to life.
Bullitt was his pet project. He spent months practicing his driving and urging the cast and crew to push themselves to their limits. He plays a cop in San Francisco who’s assigned to bodyguard a syndicate witness. There’s a murder and our hero must hide the body until he can figure out what’s going on.
The character was based on real-life Inspector David Toschi, who Clint Eastwood modeled in Dirty Harry and the subject of Mark Ruffalo’s character in Zodiac.
Everything in the movie comes to a head when McQueen chases the bad guy as they tear up the streets of San Francisco. In the 10-minute 53 second chase, drivers Bill Hickman and Steve McQueen started out somewhat slow in an effort to build tension. But, once they got going, the rest was history…
Check out the Bullitt car chase.
So how did we get from there to cars driving across an iceberg shooting missiles at a nuclear submarine?
Well, the fact is modern audiences want to go faster.
Bullitt is a slow burn of a movie that culminates in an insane scene, but we just don’t have the attention span for that nowadays. They want set pieces every few pages. After all, going to the movies is expensive and we want the most for our money.
You see, like it or not, the chase scene in Bullitt gave Hollywood an idea: What if you had Bullitt-like chase scenes every few minutes? And as much as you want to blame modern cinema, Steve McQueen embraces this idea, too. It’s why he signed up to make Le Mans just a few years after Bullitt.
Even reserved car chase movies like Drive, which heavily homages Bullitt, have a ton of chase scenes in them to not only build out the excitement but to earn the lulls in between them. To build tension toward each and every explosion of engines.
Movies are an evolution of genre. We like to see them subvert tropes, throw in twists, and to be entertainingly unexpected. So, we have entire movies built around singular car chases now, like Mad Max: Fury Road.
The important thing is that when you sit to write, direct, and produce, you have a knowledge of film history. You know why the genres have changed today and where they came from. Because who knows when things will go back to a more reserved version of what they are today?
Or maybe you’re going to work on an indie that can only afford one time around the track.
No matter what happens, always know where you came from, that way, you can help dictate where we are going.
What are some of your favorite car chases? Let us know in the comments.
Up Next: Learn how to write a chase scene!
Learning how to write a chase scene in a screenplay is imperative to keep the action moving, and the reader invested. So what are some tips?
Keep reading to get some guidance.