As a photographer and a Speedhunter, there are some special moments that have defined my career thus far.
Along with shooting the Gymkhana series of short films, travelling down to Cuba to be on the set of Recoil 4 will be long remembered as a high point.
It’s tough, because if there is nothing cool happening in front of me, then it’s pretty hard to do my job. Being able to travel and shoot the greatest car culture events as they unfold is something that I appreciate each and every day.
Over the years, many productions have gone through the tiny little Caribbean island of Cuba, but nothing like this. As you may or may not know, not too long ago, then President Obama opened the floodgates by letting Americans travel to Cuba after it had been banned for 50 years.
We made history. Even before I snapped a single frame or a single shot was in the bank, we were told that the shoot could be shut down at any moment. We were told that Cuba may look and feel like any other Latin country, but it was closer to shooting something in North Korea. We had to tread as lightly as possible, but also produce something amazing.
I think we did just that – check out the finished video above.
The direct flight I took from Los Angeles had only existed for a few short weeks. Previously, you had to charter a flight from Miami to Havana, but the chances of actually getting in were not good. It would have been all but impossible to bring along an entire film crew, a million-dollar trophy truck, and the necessary support gear to shoot one of these short films. Yes, there were logistical challenges along the way, and I’ll touch on some of those as I take you behind the scenes of Recoil 4.
We were on the ground for eight days, but we only had four main shooting days; the rest of the time was spent scouting for locations and shooting B-roll. At the same time, it was great for me and the rest of the crew to experience Cuba for what it really is: a beautiful country with amazing people.
Some of you are probably wondering how BJ Baldwin went from desert racer to car culture personality. Well, it all started with him wanting to showcase the capabilities of these trucks on film.
Bryan Moore from Tempt Media was one of the few people that worked on the first Recoil in Las Vegas, and is the only production person who has been on set for all the videos in the series. While it’s great to make new friends, it’s always nice to work with familiar faces.
Our call time for our first day of filming was 3:00am in the hotel lobby. It really hit me that I was in Cuba as I watched BJ walk up the stairs to La Guarida, one of the most famous restaurants in Havana.
Why were we shooting the intro sequence scene so early? Well truth be told, BJ’s Toyota trophy truck was still stuck in customs, although word had it that it’d be released later in the day. With our time on the island bleeding away, the opportunity to capture a main storyline shot could not be wasted.
BJ gave me that ‘what did we get ourselves into’ look as he sat around a rickety table with a bunch of Cuban actors posing as gangsters. At this point it was about 4:30am; we still didn’t have a race truck, but we were having a grand old time.
The production company, Sweatpants Media, wanted a more cinematic look for this short film, and I think they achieved it right off the bat.
It felt more like I was shooting on the set of a crime thriller than the set of Recoil. No complaints, though.
The top dog on set and brainchild of the operation was Andy Bell of Nitro Circus fame. He provided the comic relief when we needed it, but I still don’t know how he did not pass out from all the stress associated with such a crazy task.
With the opening scene wrapped up but still no trophy truck in sight, it was time to head back to the hotel to regroup.
A few hours later we were back out on the streets with our super high-tech camera car, this Hyundai crossover SUV being the very best vehicle able to be rented in Cuba. No joke. With a generator attached to the back where the bumper normally goes and a Shotover G1 gimbal fitted, it was good to go.
There was some good news too: the truck was allowed to leave the port. However, there was also some bad news: the trailer with all the tires, parts and tools had to stay. That meant there was no spare motor, transmission, major components or body panels. BJ would basically have to drive perfectly and land jumps without damaging the truck. No pressure then.
Here’s BJ measuring the distance of a natural street jump. We had two stunt coordinators on set with us at all times; one was tasked with building artificial jumps and analyzing the natural obstacles, and the other ensured that everyone was kept as safe as possible.
This flatbed was pretty much the best thing that the guys could find to transport the trophy truck. Not only did BJ’s Toyota barely fit, but the tow rig was overloaded and would overheat at the sight of any incline.
With all the cars on the residential street moved out of the way, it was time for BJ to attempt the very first jump. And let me tell you – it was a big one.
Not even 30 minutes before this was shot, the truck was still stuck at the port in Havana. No time was wasted getting the show on the road.
It was absolutely amazing to see BJ hit the initial lip – the crowd that assembled had never seen anything like this before. Cable TV is still illegal in Cuba and the internet costs US$5 per hour when the normal wage is only around US$15 per month. So you can bet that most Cuban people don’t use social media like we’re able to.
Till this day, I have still not seen a single leaked picture or video from our entire time in Cuba. That’s pretty amazing given how many people turned out for each urban shot.
BJ’s longest jump from the natural feature at this location was a whopping 191-feet. Over the course of the entire shoot, he spent about half a mile in the air.
This one jump was completed no less than six times. At first we were afraid that BJ might launch right into the low-slung power and telephone lines.
In a communist country with no billboards or advertising, this was basically capitalism on wheels soaring through the streets. It was an amazing sight to see.
With Havana in the background and the rumble of the high-revving V8 engine reverberating off the surrounding buildings, it was definitely one of those ‘pinch me I must be dreaming’ moments.
Could you imagine this scene randomly happening on your street? I’m sure many of these people didn’t even know a vehicle like this existed, let alone were prepared to seeing it fly almost 200-feet over residential roadways.
It was only a few short minutes of action, but in that time the crowd really swelled in size.
When BJ climbed out of his rig, everyone cheered and applauded – it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. This definitely did not happen in Mexico when we filmed Recoil 2.
The spectators were so hyped that the Cuban crew had to form a human chain just so the crowd would not damage the truck.
As I shot pictures of the locals, they shot pictures of me.
You know you’re popular when someone hands you a baby for a photo-op. BJ could not move an inch before he got mobbed.
He was like the Pied Piper of Trophy Trucks. Kids were following him everywhere he went.
The locals were so amazed by everything we did, our camera equipment and the tools we had. But that’s to be expected in such a repressive country; there are no chain stores of any kind on the island, and no McDonald’s or Starbucks outlets. Out of all the countries I’ve ever been to, I never felt further away from home than I did in Cuba, even though we were physically only 90-miles from Florida.
The next morning we headed out to the only private location of the entire shoot – a farm far out of the city. It was still government owned of course.
The only section of public road that BJ drove on was leading into the farm itself. Just look how hard he is braking coming into that corner; there’s even sparks coming out from the brakes.
At this point the trailer with most of the spares was still stuck at the port, so the crew guys had to rent two passenger vans to carry what extra parts and tires they did manage to get hold of.
Quite a few Vietnam war movies have been shot in this area, the lush landscape lending itself to that fact. Here’s director Steve Haughelstine looking like a marine with all of his weapons.
Steve is not afraid to put himself close to the action to get the good shots. It’s a fine line between epic visuals and shattered lens glass, but he walks it for the cause.
It made me so happy to see genuine joy on the faces of kids when the truck blasted by at full noise.
It’s always fun to shoot BJ’s Toyota in an unnatural setting. We had done urban and forest settings previously, but nothing tropical like this.
Watching BJ fly-by hard on the brakes and transitioning from tarmac to dirt never gets old.
This old farm truck not only hauled our gear around the shoot locations, it took us from the airport to the hotel and everywhere in between. We are talking close to a million US dollars worth of film equipment in a farm vehicle. Amazing.
It was hard to tell what the farm workers thought of our antics, but it was great to meet them all the same.
We even stopped by a kitchen that provides food for all the farm workers. I am never going to complain about film set catering ever again.
The nice thing about shooting on a farm was the sheer number of natural features, plus to the freedom to create whatever jumps were required.
BJ would just go buck wild on what he thought would look cool, without putting the truck in too much danger.
Although, there was one drop off that he was a little concerned about.
It was something he has done many times before, but due to the minimal traction on the lip of the drop off, BJ ended up doing pretty good nose dive into the ground.
It slightly damaged the front end, but it was nothing the mechanics could not fix.
The next location was seriously out of this world – an old tank bunker.
I swear it felt like we were lost in the middle of a jungle.
BJ blasted through the tunnel, and of course I just jumped out of the way before getting run over.
Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, another crowd of spectators magically appeared.
The next feature was one of my favorites of the entire shoot. It was just a bunch of palm tree logs laid out on a straight-away to showcase the truck’s suspension travel.
Of course, BJ stepped things up by puffing away on a cigar while flying through the obstacle at 80mph (128km/h).
With the light fading away, there were just a few more shots left before day two was a wrap.
But not without a few jump drifts.
I can honestly say, I never thought I’d shoot a race vehicle in action with chickens as the foreground. But there you go.
The next morning, we headed down to Old Havana for our first shot, arriving just in time for me to catch the sunrise as the locals just went about their business.
The light was beautiful.
Although it was only our third day of shooting, it felt like an eternity due to a lack of sleep and the long hours.
A spectacular scene to tie a bit of the story together was planned, but we were about to get taste of the Cuban government’s changing demeanor.
Everything was in place; the 850hp truck was fired up and BJ was strapped in and ready to go when the local police shut us down.
The fact that we had the correct permits to shoot in this location did not matter in the slightest. Now it was a waiting game.
We quickly learned that the authorities were onto us; they never expected this sort of production to cause such a commotion. There was no choice but to pack up and move onto our next location, which was back out of the city.
The beach town we were headed to would allow for much more freedom in terms of where we could shoot.
The first feature was another natural jump on a residential street. But this time, instead of downtown Havana as the distant backdrop, it was the ocean.
The stunt here is something I will never forget. There was a road leading down to the beach that allowed BJ to go wheels-up at 100mph (161km/h).
A little dip in the road forced the front end to pop-up and at that precise time BJ would floor it, resulting in this.
Luckily, the local police were mostly on our side and allowed us to film without restriction.
Even though I’ve seen it in action so many times, it still amazes me how agile this 5000lb trophy truck is. It drifts, it does 360 spins, and most of all it jumps.
The beach jump over a river was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen BJ do. Even though it wasn’t a natural feature, it was made more difficult by a landing onto flat ground.
Here’s BJ getting one last tear out before the high-risk jump.
I loved the great lengths these guys went to, to get their shots.
After a warm-up consisting of drifting around the sand for a bit, BJ put pedal to the metal.
Here’s one of the sequences I captured, which shows the whole jump from beginning to end. The landing was perfect.
Can you say slammed?
BJ proceeded to do victory donuts in the sand, which in turn sandblasted Bryan Moore and myself. No photo and video capturing devices were harmed in the making of Recoil 4; expect this Red camera.
A 4:00am call time signified our last full day of filming in Cuba, but with the word now out about what we were doing, we would have to tread lightly. There were just a few more key shots to capture before we wrapped it all up.
No one had been hurt and no major incidents had occurred, so it was only smart for the crew to shoot what they needed and not to push their luck.
The first task of the day was to wake up a quiet neighborhood in Havana with some super smoky burnouts.
Even with earplugs in it was still almost too much to bear. The V8 in this rig has some serious grunt.
After destroying a set of tires, the sky practically turned orange from all the smoke.
This stair jump was the last major stunt that BJ had to complete, and it was arguably the most dangerous.
Not for BJ, but for that dilapidated house right in the landing and braking zone.
This 95-year-old lady lives in that house, and it was literally falling apart after a major fire not too long ago. She even came out and asked if she could get a ride in the trophy truck, because her birthday was coming up.
This really tugged at our heart strings; the last thing BJ wanted to do was to knock down her house, given the state of disrepair it was already in. The outside wall was being held up by three sticks, so you can probably understand why he was so nervous.
The stunt coordinator calculated that BJ would have to go off the lip of the stairs at exactly 25mph (40km/h). Any faster and he’d end up in the living room; any slower and he would likely destroy the front of the truck and probably still hit the house.
The film crew and stunt coordinator took extra precautions and used ropes to reinforce the wall held up by sticks. But BJ was still pretty nervous, making many runs to the lip to get a feel for the required speed.
Of course, he did not flinch when it came time to actually jump the stairs. Hard on the brakes and all four tires were fighting for grip.
From BJ’s face you can tell that he did not end up in that sweet old lady’s living room, but he didn’t come out totally unscathed either. It was so slippery due to an abundance of weeds sprouting from the cobbled road that he actually took out all three support beams on the house. It’s a good thing the ropes were there to keep the wall up, and the film crew rebuilt the support beams even better than it was before.
Only in Cuba. I swear…
Celebration donuts were in order after such a crazy stunt.
The closing scene was filmed on the famous Malecon sea wall that stretches 8km along the city of Havana, as well as inside an old castle that’s been transformed into a nightclub.
It was a time to reflect on what was accomplished. All the shots necessary to make a legendary film were in the bag, which was a feat in itself; at any moment the entire production could have been shut down. It was very lucky that BJ’s rig didn’t suffer any major damage either, because the race trailer with all the spares was still stuck at the port.
The next day, after filming some B-roll footage with a drone – again, with the proper permits – we were escorted to the police station. Nothing ended up coming of it, but I’ll still touch on it in an upcoming post about Cuban car culture.
While I love following BJ when he is racing, being on the set of a Recoil shoot really is a dream come true. I’m not exactly sure how he is going to top this, but I say that every time.
I want to thank Andy Bell and the rest of the Sweatpants Media team for treating me as one of their own, as well as Monster Energy for bringing me out to document this production with still photography. Shooting in Cuba is something I’d always wanted to do, and I’m so glad I got to do it with this amazing crew.