An Interview with Stunt Driver Mike Burke – By Philip Smolen

When Mike Burke was a teenager, many of his friends wondered if he would live to see his 20s. The spirited youth had a deep love of automobiles and held down a part time job at a local New Jersey garage where he learned the finer points of auto mechanics. But he also used this opportunity to hone special driving techniques. While his friends could only look on, shake their heads, and marvel, Mike also learned to excel at burnouts, doughnuts, and working the e-brake (emergency brake) to master spectacular spinouts.

Twenty five years later, all of his “training” has paid off. Presently, Mike finds himself in demand as a professional stunt driver. He has performed in such mainstream Hollywood movies as “The Bounty Hunter” (2010), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), and the upcoming “Premium Rush” (2012). To date, Mike has appeared in over 100 movies, TV shows, and commercials, and his reputation as a stunt driver who can deliver the goods is growing more prominent. Even more impressive is that he also co-runs a professional driving school (Driver’s East) in New Jersey where he passes on what he knows to a new generation of stunt fanatics. I recently sat down with Mike and he reflected on his 20 plus year “overnight” success, as well as the difference between “Doubling a Lead” and “ND Driving.”

* * *

PS: Mike, how did it all start for you?

MB: Well, I was 15 and by accident I crashed my brother’s 1970 Pontiac Lemans right through our neighbor’s yard! I drove through their fence (which had only been there for three or four months), onto their patio, and into a tree. But thinking back on it now, the whole thing felt like a scene in the movies; you know when something traumatic happens? Everything stops and then it starts in slow motion again? Well, that’s what happened here! I crashed, and I could actually hear the air. I mean I was 15, and I had no sense of real danger or of the damage or destruction; but remember, you’re fearless at that age, and you think you’re going to live forever.

But I knew that this crash was meant to happen because I didn’t get hurt (I was really lucky). After the crash, everything went in slow motion. I can still hear my brother screaming. I got out of the car and I walked back to our house and called my dad. And I said, ‘Hey Dad, it’s Mike. I just crashed Joe’s car through the neighbor’s new fence. Everybody’s fine, we’re OK, but you need to come home.’ I remember speaking very matter-of-factly about the incident. And you could say that started everything.

PS: What movies influenced you when you were young?

MB: Oh, “Smokey and the Bandit”, “The Dukes of Hazard”, “Knight Rider”, a lot of TV. I didn’t get into a lot of the older classic movies like “Hooper”, “Bullitt”, or the Dirty Harry movies until I was an older teenager. “Smokey and the Bandit” sticks in my mind because I had three of those Trans Ams. Those movies were shot great. Hal Needham (a stunt legend) directed it. He did an awesome job.

PS: What was the first job opportunity that came along?

MB: I got my first stunt job in 2001/2002. I was working at a dealership, and I met a stunt coordinator and he got me a job in the business. He brought me in, and I got to double actor David Morse on the TV show “Hack.” We were the same height and the same build. And the stunt coordinator on that show hooked me up with Roy Farfel (a stunt coordinator/stuntman with over 30 years experience). After that, things started little by little. This is not an overnight thing.

PS: I’m sure it’s not.

MB: It takes a long time. Roy has the best quote. He says, ‘I’m a 30-year overnight success!’ I’m a 20 plus year overnight success! I mean in this business there are quiet times and there are busy times.

PS: How did you wind up opening a driving school?

MB: Roy and I started Drivers East in 2003, and we started teaching soon after. We opened the school out of necessity because I had been out to multiple driving schools throughout the country. It was great, and I learned a lot, but I didn’t want to travel all over and spend thousands of dollars every time I wanted to skid a car around. So Roy and I found a place out by a New Jersey airport, started buying cars and gathering materials, and shortly afterwards we opened up. We started teaching to cover the cost of the school, so we could practice and have a driving team. Our school is in Monmouth Executive Airport on Route 34 in Wall, NJ.

PS: Do you think you have a fascination with speed?

MB: Oh, I don’t know. For me, it’s not necessarily the speed of it. I’m not really addicted to high speed. I like the 0-60 or the ¼ mile type stuff. I mean let’s make it an exciting chase. I still do a little high speed track racing and it’s fun, but the stunt stuff, the stuff you see on TV, the hits and all? They’re all done at various speeds, depending on the set up.

PS: Do you design your stunts yourself?

MB: No, the stunt coordinator does that. What happens is that either the director, producer, or writer has a vision, and they sit down with the stunt coordinator, and they figure out how to actually make it work. They do what they call a location scout or tech scout. They see what could work out, and they set it up.

Depending on the stunt, you may be asked to “double” one of the actors (be a stunt double during a driving scene), though most of the time it doesn’t really matter what you look like since you’ll be in the car. But if you’re doubling the lead or something, it’s very specific, and if the audience sees you in the car, then the effect is ruined. Look at any cool car commercial – do you ever see the driver? No, unless they want you to.

PS: What’s a typical day like?

MB: Well, let’s say I show up on the set and check my call sheet (a paper from the production that tells me what I’m doing that day). I know I’ve got three shots to do. If I’m doubling the lead, I walk in and get my hair and makeup done. Then I get wardrobe done. Don’t forget – I have to basically look like the actor.

From there I go and check out the vehicle I’ll be using. I may even get a chance to test it out. From there, I wait until I’m called, and then I go out and hit my mark.

PS: Is there a difference between regular everyday driving (obviously not including any high speed chases) and driving on the set?

MB: Sure. If they just need some ND (non-descript) driving in the background, then it’s basically heads up driving, and that means paying attention and watching what’s going on.

But if you have to flip the car over, or perform a crash, or drive through the streets at speeds and not hit anyone, that’s a different story. But you have to remember that when you’re filming someone driving in Manhattan, it’s great and it looks fun, but even if they (the film crew) block everything up, New Yorkers are still New Yorkers. Not only do you have to worry about performing your stunt, you have to worry about not running anyone over.

PS: Usually how much of a set is blocked off during a car stunt?

MB: All of it! But people still do what they want. They go through and don’t listen. And it happens all the time! Things happen and it’s your responsibility to make the right call.

PS: Have you done stunts that involve movie pedestrians?

MB: Plenty – I’ve hit about nine or ten people (stunt people) with a car, and it’s always scarier for me than for the guy I’m hitting. That’s because he’s usually a younger guy, and he’s ready to go. He’s gung ho and I want to make sure that I don’t hurt or maim anyone or end anyone’s career. You want to skid your car up to the mark, and sometimes that means that you hit him, or you skid right up to him.

On a recent job I had the director sitting in the passenger seat during my stunt. He wanted a shot of some teenagers running in front of my character who then has to skid to a stop. He wound up using his own teenagers! So now not only do I have a director in the front seat with me and a cameraman with a hand held looking up, but now I’m supposed to skid right up next to his kids! That’s pressure. Believe me, you don’t want to blow that one.

PS: Before you get in the car, is there a checklist you go over?

MB: Yes. If it’s a big major stunt, the cars are checked out– the fuel cells, roll cages, and the battery. But even if you’re just doing ND driving, you want to check your car for safety. Sometimes these cars sit in a lot for a while, and then they bring them to the set. You make it your responsibility to check the car out because you don’t want something to go wrong. Don’t ever think that’s it’s all going to be green lights and sunshine. You check, you go through basic stuff – is the battery tied down? Is there anything under my seat that going to slide out? Are there any loose parts in the car or under the hood? You sure don’t want to find out if the brakes don’t work on the set.

PS: Do you check the car before the stunt so you know that the car will do what it’s expected to do?

MB: Usually you get one test. The stunt coordinator will tell you what’s involved with the stunt. He’ll show you your mark. So you check your brakes and the e-brake (emergency brake). If everything is good, you go for it.

A while ago I was in Philadelphia and they wanted to do a “Godfather” type bridge maneuver (you know where Michael made a u-turn across traffic on a bridge to make sure that no one was following him). I was going to do something just like that. But when I get there I start to check out the car. Now I know I’m going to need an e-brake for this stunt. Well guess what? The e-brake cable is hanging on the ground! That’s not something you can fix right away. Of course, the stunt coordinator went through the roof! He wasn’t mad at me, he’s mad at whoever supplied the cars. But we made it work with what we had.

There are a lot of things we check to make sure the car can do what it’s supposed to do. But sometimes you just can’t do it. I mean one time I was on a commercial where the car had a fully hydraulic e-brake and when you pulled the handle, it locked all four wheels with hydraulic pressure (rather than a cable). So guess what? That stunt never happened. When you’re on set, you make adjustments and do the best that you can.

PS: What was the most fun you’ve had on a set?

MB: I don’t really have one that stands out. I have fun every day. I feel really lucky to be doing this for a career. On the set, everyone really appreciates a good job. There’s not a lot of wasted time, and you have to get the shot in the time allotted.

I’ve worked a lot on of episodic television and that’s great. You do it once, twice – you get it, you move on.

A big job has big everything. One time Roy and I were doing a job where we were performing a stunt on the FDR. Roy was in a cab driving in front of me, and I’m staggered over one lane. It was in the rain and a stunt guy has to fall out the back door of a car, and I have to slide up to him and avoid hitting him. Well, we did it one time, 5 times, 8 times 12 times. So finally (I think it was) Roy got out of the car, slammed the door and said, ‘Do you want us to run him over? We’ve done it 12-13 times. Don’t you have it by now?’ At some point somebody has to pull the plug or someone could get hurt.

Look. We’re the guys making it safe. Let’s say the lockup’s not good, or the camera’s not rolling, or the car’s broken. It’ll be on us. So it’s up to us to make it happen or make the call.

PS: Any advice for anyone who wants to get into the business?

MB: Far be it from me to tell someone not to follow their dream – I would never discourage anyone, but I would tell them that it’s not easy. It’s not going to happen overnight. Only a person who really wants to do this knows the kind of pain, sacrifice, and drama that they’re in for.

PS: What are some of the sacrifices?

MB: I’ve got a family and sometimes you miss some special times with them because of the business. But if you take that job, that can lead to more work down the road.

I mean there is free time, but you can almost bet that once you make plans, book a vacation, or plan to do something with your family, you’ll be getting a call for work.

PS: Well thanks a lot for the interview Mike. Good luck to you.

MB: Thanks a lot, Phil.

* * *

For more information on stunt driving, please visit the Drivers East website at: http://driverseast.com

Some Basic Stunt Terminology

1. ND Driving – Non descript background driving.
2. Call Sheet – Paper that’s handed out on set that tells you what time your call is, what you’re doing, and what set shots will be completed that day.
3. Skid Turn – Stunt when a car comes around the corner and the driver hangs the back end of the car way past a normal turn.
4. Reverse 180 – When a car is driving in reverse, and the driver spins it around 180 degrees and keeps going with the forward momentum.
5. Forward 180 –Just the opposite – when a car comes forward to its mark, and it spins around the other way.
6. Box 90 – When a driver slides his car into a space between two parked cars.
7. Skidding up to a Mark – Putting the car exactly where it needs to be for the shot.


Selected Film Credits for Mike Burke

1. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
2. World Trade Center (2006)
3. Spider Man 3 (2007)
4. College Road Trip (2008)
5. I Am Legend (2008)
6. Precious (2009)
7. The Bounty Hunter (2010)
8. Knight and Day (2010)
9. My Soul to Take (2010)
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
11. Men in Black III (2012)
12. Premium Rush (2012)