Phil Brock (15 August 1950-) was one of four brothers brought up in semi-rural Victoria – Hurstbridge outer Melbourne. His father was a bush mechanic and “a good one”. He didn’t have enough money to race as it was in the days before sponsorship…
“Dad took us to various motor sports events reasonably often. Mum and dad loved it,” says Phil who along with his champion racer brother Peter Brock realised their parents’ dream. Phil also had a great career as a stunt driver.
Phil’s first car was a 1957 FE Holden, an “archaic” car that he modified and raced. He said getting his license was easy, although he’d already been on the road, as the local rural police sergeant said: “I’ve seen you driving about, you’re doing alright – you can have a license.”
“Peter was a pretty reckless sort of kid,” said Phil about his brother who pinched his father’s brand new cars that were up for sale and take them out for the night. “I was much quieter. I got sillier as I got older.”
As for how he got into stunt driving… “ I was doing a bit of motor racing and sharing a flat with a guy who was a mechanic for a guy who raced a Porsche and was at the television show Homicide.”
Phil got a job on the Crawford Production – the company was also popular with shows like Division 4 and Matlock Police – and worked delivering scripts as well as actors to the sets. Homicide, incidentally ran from 1964 to 1977 and was one of Australia’s longest running shows. Phil made his way up in the ranks in the early 1970s.
“I thought some of the driving stuff was bloody awful and I told them. I kept saying: ‘They’re crap. I can do better than that!’ So they let me do more stunts and for 15 or 20 years or more I was considered the best stunt driver in Australia.”
“I specialised in fast and accurate driving, doing scenes where you weren’t necessarily crashing the car but you were going bloody fast.”
“I did heaps of tv ads for all the car manufacturers, stuff where you had to do multiple car action, all choreographed in a way… that has also died out… you don’t need it these days… the computer does it!”
Cinemagoers today need only look at the trailer for the new Fast and Furious movie to see how computer generated images have created stunts that really are too far-fetched. Phil’s work was the real deal.
As for how he acquired the skill, he knew when he was teaching other drivers that he had an edge: “I just learnt… I don’t know… I learnt pretty early: I found I could look at a series of corners and know exactly where I needed to go. It’s a God-given talent. Whether that be on the racetrack or the road. I had a natural ability. Peter was very similar. So therefore we had that knack…”
Earning enough money through the “art” of stunt work plus selling cars and spare parts, Phil moved on from television and applied for the job of co-ordinating stunts on the classic Mad Max (1979) movie. Unfortunately he didn’t get the job. That went to stunt legend Grant Page who gave him the role of Mel Gibson/Mad Max’s car stunt double.
“I’ve only watched it twice,” said Phil, who when asked if he knew they were making something special, said: “Not really.”
“People have a funny idea about movies. Whether you’re an actor or a stunt driver or whatever, you do as good as you can – that doesn’t mean anything about how the final movie will be.”
The film, which was made on a reported budget of $360,000, was typical of how little money, filmmakers and stuntmen both in the movies and television had to work with in Australia in those days.
Phil said the inspiration for his stunt driving in the movie came from the truck in Steven Spielberg movie Duel (1971).
“The big thing about that… they had it running quite rich, so the exhaust which was straight up in the air was going back on an angle… so you knew that guy was fair dinkum going fast… It was prevalent to alter the speed of the camera (to make the vehicle appear to go faster) but it was shit, it never worked… the idea was to do every shot at 90 miles per hour… shit, why not, it’s all country roads!”
“Most of the crew were from Crawford, so I knew them. We did some darn good stuff there (at Crawford). We did some maniacal stuff around the suburbs… When I say maniacal, I mean you knew what you were doing…. But you were pushing the envelope all the time.”
Every major shot we did (in Mad Max) was 90 miles per hour – if you could do it – that was the basic premise. The cars were very good… and that was very important.
He said director George Miller would come up to the stunt drivers and tell them what he wanted and it was up to them to figure out how to work the stunt.
“We had to improvise on the spot, “ he said.
Phil learnt early at Crawford to look through the camera lens and see what would be in shot and that was one of the most important lessons of all.
And back in those days the cars they used were rentals!
“We couldn’t afford to crash a car. You had to know what you were doing.”
Phil remembers when he was working for Crawford using one vehicle and sideswiped a pole. “I went to the bottom of the pile after that,” he said and he didn’t work for a few months.
Phil got the only injury of his career on the Mad Max set when a tyre blew and the steering wheel flicked quickly and clipped his thumb, spraining it: “It bloody hurt,” he said about his aversion to pain.
Shortly after Mad Max was made there was an accident where a camera operator was killed and this ended up with the industry being regulated with safety officers. That film was Midnite Spares (1983). A focus puller was killed filming a motor race scene at Granville when a sprint car swerved off the track and struck him driving his body between two fences. There was criticism of lack of proper stunt co-ordination at the scene and allowing non-stunt drivers to drive at race speed. The industry changed slightly, perhaps in adventurousness, as a result, with the safety regulation.
Phil said there are limits to the job as when he was working as a stunt co-ordinator on the Mission Impossible series (1988-90) reboot in Queensland in the late 1980s.
“There was one director, I can’t remember his name… he was an absolute prick! He would push far too much! He would say: ‘Can you do it harder and harder?!’ And he would go: ‘So the guy you’ve got is weak as piss!’… But there’s a limit to everything… Stunt co-ordinating is really difficult, because you’re supposed to be an expert with every type of stunt, but you can’t be.”
Phil certainly was happier behind the wheel. Is there an adrenaline rush?
“I don’t think so. I’ve had a couple of times over the years in racing and stunts where something will happen where, when you look back, you think: ‘Shit!’ – to calmly react to that situation and get out of it… that’s where the adrenaline is important to you so there’s no panic. When the adrenaline‘s there, it’s not slow motion but it’s all pretty calm and cool, but if something happens you’ve got to be ready to make a fast decision. Adrenaline allows you to think clearly… but have I ever noticed an actual adrenaline rush? No.”
Phil said that those who exist for such a rush in racing in particular are dangerous and he would steer clear of them.
And racing… “I love driving cars! Racing and stunt work were special – they’re just different disciplines.”
Phil was one of the first generation of filmmakers to work at the Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast. After his stint in Queensland on Mission: Impossible and credits for The Adventures Skippy (1992) – and after over a couple of dozen movies – thirty in all. It was time to give it away.
“I loved it. But towards the end… I left Queensland in 1994 and went to Darwin… the industry was changing… I refused to drink with the right people…”
There was a comeback of sorts in Melbourne around 2011 when he had a couple of jobs. But it was a new generation of filmmakers, who weren’t interested in what and old pro had to offer.
“They were like: ‘This old man doesn’t have a clue’… and I ended up shaking my head thinking: ‘We’d have that shot in the can an hour ago!”
“Let the car do the work,” said Phil about the shenanigans of some modern filmmakers. “It’s just common sense.”
He said the filmmakers he worked for in the end had no sense of history or basic knowledge about the art of stunt driving.
“Like in Thunderdome (the third in the Mad Max trilogy), they set up for two or three hours for a five second grab in the movie,” he said, almost incredulous.
They had a “shit load” of money to make that film and Phil was on location in Coober Pedy for a few weeks. He can be spotted as Tina Turner’s driver in a couple of scenes. He said films today just came up with “ways to spend more money” when films on a lower budget were just as good.
You need only look at the original Mad Mas as proof of that!
“The hard thing with stunt work when you do a shot… you haven’t got 20 laps of practice to get it right. I worked very hard, where you can do it on the first take. … There’s an art to it. So I was highly sought after.”
Phil did one job that was mainly acting and the reason I sought him out in the first place. He was the murderous ghost John Hatcher in 1980s Ozploitation horror Frenchman’s Farm (1986) and his countenance has scared many a late night viewer on video cassette.
“They must like the look of my ugly head,” said Phil. He said when he asked director Ron Way how to act, Way said: ‘Just think of the worst fucking thing that’s ever been done to you and how you felt’. And that’s what I did quite a few times. It worked quite well I think.
He said he got told a few times by people who saw Frenchman’s Farm: ‘I know you, you’re in that movie and you scared the shit out of me!’
“It was good make-up,” said Phil.
But it was only the one acting role and he had no dialogue. Phil definitely prefers cars to acting.
As for Australia’s top stunt man… “Grant Page is one of the best…”
Page (1939-) is known for The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and may be remembered as the killer in Quentin Tarantino’s favourite Roadgames (1981).
“He set the standard for stuntmen in Australia. Particularly the era he was in where there was just no safety and there was fuck all money as well… I’d say he is.”
But it is probably Phil who is the best stunt driver of the era in Australia as Page “as a driver wasn’t much good… “ Page wore glasses and was “half blind”.
When Grant Page did a “knockdown”, or where a pedestrian is apparently hit by a car and rolls off the windscreen, on the variety series The Don Lane Show he was knocked unconscious after having gone through the windscreen. So when Lane asked Page to do it again for the last Don Lane Show, Page said he would as long as Phil Brock was the driver. Phil said of his take: “It was a pretty fucking spectacular knockdown. I was doing about 65 or 70 k/p/h – Grant did one and a half backflips in the air!” Page got up unharmed this time.
Things he wouldn’t do? … “A lot of crashes I wouldn’t.” He tried it once with a Land Cruiser as the money was too good to ignore – a cool $3000. The old style Land Cruiser was supposed to roll and spiral after using a ramp into a dry creek bed. The stunt didn’t go as planned and it ended up on its bonnet.
“Once you got on the ramp, you may as well go out and watch. Nothing you do from there will change what happens… I didn’t like that. If I do my fast driving I’m in total control.”
As for favourite movies…”Some of the movies I loved were Bullitt (1968) for the era that was in, that was ours (era), with Steve McQueen… The French Connection (1971) was great, and Duel, I loved it.”
As for his brother, racing legend Peter Brock… Phil says Peter was great at racing but was “hopeless at stunt work.” He tried to make the switch but: “He wanted to move the camera. I said: ‘Pete, they know what they want to see. Don’t fucking reinvent the whole movie industry…It won’t work!’.”
They raced together, however, but Phil didn’t feel Peter respected him as he really didn’t say much. That was until Phil saw a grab of Peter on tv when he said, at a race: “Don’t worry about Phil, he knows what he’s doing.”
“I was always very subservient to Peter when it came to racing,” said Phil, who will forever be in the shadow of his older brother’s racing achievements.
Peter of course died suddenly in a race outside Perth when his car crashed at speed into a tree in 2006 aged 61. Forever a legend at Mount Panorama, he was “King of the Mountain” or “Brocky” to race lovers and Australians alike.
“I miss him… shit yeah. He was becoming a great statesman, or ambassador… he loved to give messages to kids in particular to be the best you can. I saw an interview with him, it was a chat for fifteen minutes, it was off the cuff… it was the greatest motivational thing for kids – you can do things in your life, find yourself, learning what you’re good at and learning your attributes and treating people how you want them to treat you… The same was with Steve Irwin.”
An inspirational end to the interview! It is probably only fitting that one of Phil’s cars is a 2006 VE Commodore Holden in the Brock team colours of Bathurst 76. But he loves his turbo diesels – “They’re fantastic.”
We salute you Phil Brock, racing and stunt car legend.