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Chasing Bullitt: Part One

McQueen’s Mustang Going 90 MPH Takes Flight in the 1968 Movie Bullitt (Don’t Try This at Home)


Some Trivia About A Famous Chase Scene

Fifty years ago, a San Francisco detective named Frank Bullitt was given the task of protecting a witness in a mob trial. When a pair of mob hitmen enter the scene, Bullitt follows their trail through a maze of complications and double-crosses. Part of this trail involves a high speed chase over San Francisco hills. The chase in the 1968 movie Bullitt (starring Steve McQueen at Lt. Frank Bullitt) is perhaps the most famous movie chase scene of all time.

For the May 2018 meeting of the Columbus chapter of the IPMS (International Plastic Modelers’ Society), the modeling theme was “On TV or in a movie.” I decided to model a particular shot I remembered from the legendary chase scene of Bullitt. Not only is the film one of my favorite movies but I lived in San Francisco for many years and recognized many places in the movie.

Most movie critics acknowledge the ten-minute chase scene in the 1968 film Bullitt is the most famous chase scene in all of film. There is a lot of interesting trivia associated with the scene. Below are a few of the choicer pieces of trivia from the part of the IMBD website on movie trivia.

According to Director Peter Yates, McQueen made a point to keep his head near the open car window during the famous chase scene so that audiences would be reassured that it was he, not a stunt man, who was driving. Yates called for speeds of about seventy-five to eighty miles per hour, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over one hundred ten miles per hour. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in nine minutes and forty-two seconds of footage.

At the time, San Francisco was not a big filmmaking mecca, and then Mayor Joseph Alioto Mayor was very keen to promote it as such. Consequently, this movie enjoyed a freedom of movement around the city that would be hard to come by today, including giving up an entire hospital wing for filming, closing down multiple streets for three weeks for a car chase scene, and taking over San Francisco International Airport at night. While the film rare freedom of movement around San Francisco, the filmmakers were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The film’s famous chase scene wasn’t originally in the script. In the first draft of this movie, adapted from Robert Fish’s novel Mute Witness, Detective Frank Bullitt was a Boston policeman who ate a lot of ice cream and never solved a case. The book had originally been bought with Spencer Tracy in mind; but with Tracy’s death, the property fell into the hands of McQueen and Producer Philip D’Antoni. It was D’Antoni who added the chase, and changed the location to San Francisco. Initially, the car chase was supposed to be scored, but Lalo Schifrin suggested that no music be added to that sequence, pointing out that the soundtrack was powerful enough as it was.

Traditionally, car chases are filmed by second units, but Director Yates insisted on doing it himself. This was partly because he knew that McQueen would be performing a lot of the stunts himself.

Finding The Location

I was intent on modeling s shot from the ten-minute chase scene. It is the shot where the green 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback of SFPD Lt. Frank Bullitt (played by Steve McQueen) is caught in mid-air as it chases the black 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum of the bad guys in the film. The shot appears on screen for no more than a second.

The first step in modeling the scene was finding its location. This was not an easy task. I located the ten-minute San Francisco part of the chase scene on YouTube and went through it until I found the shot with McQueen’s Mustang jumping a few feet as it speeds down one of San Francisco’s steep streets. It was not a very clear scene of YouTube but I could make out the basic features of a building behind the Mustang.

I again searched the Internet and found that locating the places in the Bullitt chase scene has become somewhat of a cottage industry. One of the best sites is a site created by Ray Smith that compares chase scene locations of the 1968 film with scenes from a drive-around San Francisco in 2002. The site listed many of the chase scene sites but I didn’t see the shot I was looking for in them.

I continued searching chase scene locations on Google and finally found the shot I was looking for on Bullitt page the of the site Movie Tourist Blogspot. The photo on the site matches the scene I want to model. It is at the corner of Taylor and Union Street. Armed with this information I keyed this information into Google Maps and came up with the location of the scene.

I then zoomed in on the Google map for a closer look at the scene from above. In order to get a street level view I needed an address and noticed that the Che Kan Kok Temple was right next to the corner building in the scene so I plugged the Temple name into Google search and came up with an address of 1890 Union Street. Using this street address I was able to come up with a Google Streetview allowing me to scroll around it and explore the intersection in the scene from Bullitt. One of the positions from Google streetview is on Union Street looking west with Taylor Street coming downhill from the left in the photo, crossing Union Street and then disappearing downhill again.

The Che Kan Kok Temple is diretly to the left in the photo as we come to the intersection of Union and Taylor. The position of the camera in the Bullitt scene is to the right, close to the bottom of the stop sign pole. The camera angle of the shot is at street level so that the bottom level of the flat on the SE corner of Union and Taylor (behind the green Volkwagen in the above shot) appears to have three levels in the movie scene rather than its real four levels.

Engineering the Scene

Now that I had a visual image of the scene, I began to plan how I would construct the scene. I searched for McQueen’s Mustang on the Internet and found one in 1/64 scale and one in 1/160 scale N scale. As modelers know, 1/64 is that in-between scale between the more popular O gauge 1/48 scale, HO 1/87 scale and N 1/160 scale. As an in-between scale, pieces and materials for 1/64 would be difficult to find and more than likely would have to scratch-built. I decided to model it in N scale.

From the perspective of zooming down in the Google Map shot above and using cars parked on the street, I was able to estimate the width of the two streets and the sidewalks and translate this width into N scale sale. Via the Goolle streetview (like photos below) I was able to estimate the width of the streets and sidewalks. In N scale, Union Street would be approximately 48 feet (3 inches) wide while Taylor a little narrower at 2 1/2 inches wide.

I cut out two strips of paper from file cardstock and put them together to form a t-shaped intersection with Taylor running horizontally across the top and Union running vertically upward from the bottom.

I then allowed for a one-and-a-half car width for the sidewalks on both sides of Union and folded and taped the card stock at these places. The card stock on the left would descend and level out across Union and then descend again at the other tape area on the right.

Next, I marked the names on the streets and placed a mock-up 1/220 size car descending down Taylor at approximately the location of the Mustang in Bullitt. I placed a blue ball at the approximate location of where the camera had to be positioned to create the scene.

Using the Pages program on my Mac, I put in the sidewalks in gray and the two buildings that would appear in the scene in yellow. I decided that the diorama scene would cut off above Taylor street and to the right of the sidewalk on the right side of Union.

The next step was to create a paper mock-up of the scene. I created a mock-up on a 6” x 7” box and cut pieces of colored notecards to represent the various parts of the scene.

I created more colors in my mock-up by using pink yellow note card stock for the steets, pink for the sidewalks and green for the corner flat. I pasted an N-scale car into the scene descending down Taylor to represent McQueen’s Mustang.

Finally, I had a rough mock-up of the scene in approximately 1/220 N scale.

Other Considerations

But there were other things to consider. There were overhead cables for the electric busline going down Union and modeling these presented a challenge. And, there was the question of how the streets should be created. Because of the hills and earthquakes and lots of stuff buried below ground in San Francisco, the streets of the city are not the smooth asphalt of steets in other cities but rather a mish-mash of materials from constantly being patched together over the years. Asphalt combines with concrete in somewhat haphazard ways. In many places, there is a concrete section next to the curb that changes to asphalt in the center of streets.

Apart from the question of modeling the content of the streets there was also the challenge of modeling a scene with level and unlevel areas. This was one of the more difficult aspects of the diorama as I needed to deal with three incline areas in the diorama: Taylor downhill to Union, Taylor downhill from Union and Union downhill from Taylor. The only flat area in the diorama was the square intersection itself. There was the question of the desgree of grade of Taylor as it descended to and from Union Street. I searched degrees for streets in San Francisco and discovered a list:

1. Filbert between Leavenworth and Hyde (31.5% grade)
2. 22nd between Church and Vicksburg (31.5% grade)
3. Jones between Union and Filbert (29% grade)
4. Duboce between Buena Vista and Alpine (27.9% grade)
5. Jones between Green and Union (26% grade)
6. Webster between Vallejo and Broadway (26% grade)
7. Duboce between Alpine and Divisadero (25% grade)
8. Jones between Pine and California (24.8 grade)
9. Fillmore between Vallejo and Broadway (24% grade)

Living in San Francisco for a number of years, I had been on many of the above streets and they seemed steeper than the above percentages. I particularly recalled Jones Street (almost at the top of Nob Hill) where my good friends Mike and Elizabeth live. Their part of Jones represents the 8th steepest street in San Francisco – Jones between California and Pine. I can certainly attest to how steep it is at a 24.8% grade. Modeling Taylor Street for the diorama on the side of the flat at one of the above steep grades would not be true to the grade shown in the photos of the intersection of Taylor and Union. Studying the streetview photos of the side of the building, I estimated that the grade of Taylor Street before it intersects with Union was around 20%.

However, Taylor Street below Union (where McQueen’s Mustang takes flight) has no structures to deal with in my planned diorama. So, using a little creative license for dramatic effect, I decided to model this grade close to the 31.5% grade of San Francisco’s steepest street of Filbert between Leavenworth and Hyde. To make the scene even more dramatic, I planned on sticking a straight pin into the bottom of the Mustang, raising it half an inch (8 scale feet) off Taylor Street.

One of the more difficult challenges in the diorama is modeling the elaborate flat on the corner of Taylor and Union. Like a lot of San Francisco flats, it has elaborate bay windows with lots of fancy gingerbread on it. I ordered some N-scale bricks for the bottom section of the flat and bought some scored N-scale Balsa Wood to represent the wood exterior of the flat. But the windows would not be an eay task.

Besides the difficulty of creating the flat, Union Street descendes in front of it as it moves East towards downtown San Francisco. So, there would be another slope to deal with. And, too, there was the question of the color of the flat in the movie Bullitt. More than likely it was not painted the color of the current flat in the Google streetview. But I liked the color in the photos and decided to go with the mint green/cream color.

One Second In A Movie 50 Years Ago

So, the attempt here to create a scene from a 50-year-old movie. It was a only onscreen for a second and was at the intersection of Union and Taylor. In the scene, a green Mustang races through the intersection at 90 MPH chasing two bad guys in a supercharged black Charger. In the background, one can see the hazy slice of a building.

At first, it seemed to be a fairly easy diorama to create. But appearances are often deceiving.

I fooled around with the pieces of the street and the cardstock building mock-up I created trying to figure out how I would create the final diorama. The pieces of cardboard were like parts of a puzzle or cards in a deck of Tarot cards. The little 1/160 green Mustang of McQueen and the N scale brick (for the bottom of the flat) would be arriving soon.

In Bullitt, detective Frank Bullitt chases two bad guys at a 90 MPH up-and-down the unbelievably steep streets of San Francisco. Now, 50 years later, I too seem a type of detective chasing down a scene from a famous movie.

(Continued … see Chasing Bullitt: Part Two)


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