There are actions so precise that a matter of seconds, or centimetres, can mean the difference between life and death.Master stunt-driver Russell Allan came to learn that over the course of his 35-year career as a precision driver for film and television.
words katie cincotta photos warren reed
Some of the best car chases we’ve ever seen on the big screen have featured Russell behind the wheel, steering head-first into danger. The lanky bloke from the red dirt hills of Monbulk got his big break in 1979 on Australia’s cult classic Mad Max.
Long before the production team began filming the post- apocalyptic hit (which went on to gross a record-breaking US$100 million at the box office), Russell was road-testing Fords up on two wheels in the deserted back streets of Dandenong. Fourteen vehicles were destroyed in that first Mad Max film, and with a budget of only $400,000, each of the crash scenes had to be taken in one shot – no second takes, no room for error. That’s a lot of pressure for the elite few called upon to get it right first go. Russell says his reputation for precision wasn’t accidental. It took visual planning, focus and a strict ‘no alcohol’ rule when he was on a job.
While the reading disorder dyslexia held him back from learning at school, forcing him into factory work at the age of 15, it may have helped Russell as a stuntman. Here was a driver who had tremendous visual acuity and timing, his brain finely tuned for problem-solving. Albert Einstein, Richard Branson and Muhammad Ali were similar dyslexic success stories. But without support for dyslexic children in the 60s, Russell’s self-esteem took a beating. “I was really depressed and shy until I was about 30 years old.”
Roaring around the family farm on a T-model Ford and motorbike and spinning forklifts in the factory into tight corners changed the course of his life. He knew he had a gift. He began racing a Torana, then rally-cars, and ultimately found his calling in the daredevil stunt world – crashing through fences, hurtling over bridges, rocketing through quarries, slewing semi-trailers sideways on dusty dirt roads … wherever the storyline would take him. “It’s all about hitting the mark. You can’t miss it.”
Especially when you’re handling a vehicle with 500 horsepower, or the weight of a 5-tonne army truck. And it’s more dangerous still when there are actors in the shot that you need to navigate with absolute precision.
On the film Rabbit Proof Fence, the director asked Russell to drive at high speed into three Aboriginal children being stolen from their families. He refused. Too dangerous, he reckoned. If one of the child actors moved the wrong way, he wouldn’t be able to stop in time. His intuition was right. In the frantic scene where a government official drags the indigenous children into the car, one girl ran the wrong way and had he not swerved to the side, Russell would have hit and killed her. “I told him I couldn’t chase three young girls flying over a hill. There are no front brakes in those old cars. Phillip Noyce was a bit annoyed with me, but the girl could have died.”
There have been other close calls: the scars tell the story. A lacerated face when his Kawasaki ZZR careened into barbed wire. Broken ribs, blood, bruises. But he remembers all the stunts – even the rare times where things went wrong – with a sense of pride for the care and planning that went into every feat. “I was always nervous,” he admits. The tension kept him focused. He rarely misfired. When he did, the crew took the opportunity to taunt the legend. “Once on a commercial I hit a fencepost and they were all laughing. They said, ‘Look at that: Russell Allan can actually get it wrong’.”
To get a car up on two wheels, you usually need a ramp. Russell could do it without one, and held several world records for driving both cars and trucks on two wheels for the longest distance. He’s probably the only driver in the world who can stop a car mid-air on two wheels, and then take off again. So, how the heck does he do it? “Balance, throttle control and lots of concentration,” he reckons.
The father of six and grandfather of 15 has starred in TV commercials for almost every make and model of car you can think of. One of the most memorable was a Nissan Micra ad that required him to drive blind, squashed in under the steering wheel to create the illusion that the car was driving on its own. When the producers of TV show Hey Hey It’s Saturday asked him to perform the stunt live in the studio, it took him three days to master the maneuvering required in that tight space with only a voice in
his earpiece to guide him. “I had to drive from memory. All I could see was the roof.”
Russell drove for those TAC ads that ripped out our hearts with shocking, slow-motion vision of people being flung to their death as a result of speed, alcohol or fatigue. While he doesn’t consider himself a daredevil, he does admit that as a young man the police once refused to give chase, knowing they couldn’t catch him, choosing instead to wait for him in his driveway to slap a speeding ticket on him.
You’d think not much could rattle a man who has spent most of his adult life as a stunt driver. But at the age of 52, the warrior on wheels was dealt a terrible blow. While out watering the garden, he noticed one of his fingers moving involuntarily. Thinking it comical, he pointed it out to his wife Marina. The twitching continued through the night. The eventual diagnosis was Parkinson’s Disease, the neurological disorder that takes away the body’s ability to control movement.
Fifteen years on, Russell lives in a nursing home. His speech is low and slurred, his gait slow, as if he’s pushing his toes through snow. When we watch the DVD show-reel of some of his best stunt work, I can see the vibrant larrikin he was in his 30s and 40s throwing out the odd wisecrack, a cheeky glint in his eye. But his damaged neurons have trapped him in a body he can’t control. It’s as if he’s stuck behind glass. It’s a heartbreaking twist in a thrilling real-life adventure that elevated Russell to ‘guru’ status among the stunt fraternity.
But the ride isn’t over yet. In 2012, Russell flew to Namibia for the eight-week filming of the long-awaited Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in May 2015 at Cannes, 30 years after Russell was the lead driver on the third film in the series, Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome. Filming was relocated to Africa after rains turned the land around Broken Hill into lush, green fields, the wrong look for the film’s post-apocalyptic wasteland setting. Despite hand tremors, Russell was confident he could drive on the latest Mad Max film, joining a team of 40 stunt drivers on Fury Road. His peers had no doubts he was still world-class. “When I first got to the location, I walked through the door …”
He begins to get teary, his hands lifting up to express the magnitude of the moment. “It’s emotional. Everyone in the whole place stood up. The best from all over the world
On the last day of shooting, stunt coordinator Guy Norris put Russell in the position to lead the car pack down the mountain – a grand show of respect for the stunt veteran serving on the film where it all began. “I had to bounce the car between a rock and another car without hitting them,” he says. “It was very tight. At the end of the day in the change room, Norris yelled out, ‘Russell Allan, I’d just like to tell you that you stopped four times on the same mark – which takes some doing.”
Life in a retirement home, reflecting on his photo-wall of movie credits, alongside Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Marlon Brando, is an ending nobody saw coming for the well-loved adrenalin junkie.
“After so many years as a driver … “ He pauses. Swallows. Twitches one eyebrow, trying to find the words to express what seems like an indescribable sadness. He proudly wears the Mad Max: Fury Road crew-cap which may be the last vestige of his career as a stuntman. “It’s hard. It hurts.”
The people at Banfields love and revere him. The staff tell me that on just his third night there they caught him zipping down the corridors in a wheelchair up on its back wheels. He confesses it’s true, and laughs. You can’t keep a good stuntman down.
Mel Gibson as Mad Max Rockatansky may have stolen all
the glory as the hero of the highway, but in real life when people are counting on you to smash, crash, race or roll a car on cue, without killing yourself or anyone else – Russell Allan
is the true Road Warrior.
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