How one woman went from valet driver to Hollywood hot-shoe.
On the set of Ford v Ferrari with stunt driver and pit stop artist Jeff Milburn
Stunt driver Jeff Milburn knows his way around almost anything with wheels—two, four, or 18. He can fabricate it, drive it, and wrench on it. Hagerty contributor and founding editor of Rolling Heavy Magazine Matt Grayson sat down and listened to Milburn’s story, from his highschool years on a dirt bike in Odessa, Texas to his time with Matt Damon and Christian Bale on the set of Ford v Ferrari.
How did Milburn make it to Hollywood, and what are his plans after his last gig? Read on.
Matt Grayson: Hey Jeff, so you’re a stunt driver?
Jeff Milburn: Yeah. I try not to call myself a stunt man. Those guys are tough as nails—they fall out of buildings and stuff. Guys like us are drivers, so I say stunt driver. For the record, I don’t just drive cars. I actually do a lot of motorcycle stuff and I also do a lot of camera cycle work in chase scenes.
MG: So basically you do stunts with everything that’s motor vehicle related?
JM: Exactly. Yes.
MG: And then like a stunt guy, like say Colt Seavers from The Fall Guy, those guys do everything?
JM: Yeah, there’s a lot of guys—falling down, falling out of buildings, catch-on-fire kind of guys. And then there’s guys that specialize in stuff. Scuba stuff, aerial stuff, jumping out of airplanes. There’s also a lot of cowboy guys that specialize in horse stunts.
So I’m a stunt driver. In some cases on commercials we’re called precision drivers. I think the reason was some Screen Actors Guild wording on the contracts. When you’re driving that close and the camera’s within inches of the car, you have to come in on certain marks, so they named it precision driving.
MG: Got it. So let’s talk a little bit about your background, how you got started in the automotive industry and ultimately ended up stunt driving and working in film and TV.
JM: I grew up in Odessa, Texas and of course I had a motocross bike, because if you live in Odessa, Texas, you have a motocross bike. So I got myself a job at a body shop when I was a junior in high school sweeping the floors. It wasn’t anything exciting when I first started, but I worked my way from sweeping the floor to priming cars. My grandfather had passed away around the same time and left me $3000. I took that money and bought an offroad race buggy chassis. I spent every cent I had on it. Then a friend of mine worked at a Volkswagen dealer. Back then you could actually dig up a Volkswagen motor from a dealership. So he dug up some cases and we dug up some other parts from junkyards. We did run it in a couple of Texas races with not much success. But then, of course, there was no money left. At very best I was making $10 a day back then.
My stepdad worked in the oil fields, my mom was a secretary, my dad was a telephone man back in Washington, D.C. so I kinda got off on my own thing with cars and motorcycles. The real world came when I graduated high school and I kind of needed to do something. I ended up working in another body shop before I worked in a car dealership, and since I had some time behind me in a body shop I became a line mechanic. The whole time I was trying to pay rent and buy my tools, so I got a second job at a motorcycle shop, which, you know, was called Satan Cycles.
As things were going along I joined the Marine Corps, but I got hurt. I had a surgery on my knee from motorcycle stuff and I was in the Marine Corps on what’s called a waiver. The Navy doctors were like, wait. You’re here on a medical waiver? You know you’re going home, right? So I wasn’t there very long.
When I got back to Texas, I was talking to my roommates that I had from before I went in the Marine Corps. They knew a chassis builder whose shop was right by a professional drag racer named Gene Snow who ran a Top Fuel car. They hired me on even though most of my experience was in a dealership and motocross and offroad stuff. I was working on the race car teams and I was gone all the time, but people would call me and say, “Hey, can you ride a motorcycle in this shoot or that shoot.” If I could do it, I would do it. But it was very spotty.
Somehow I just took the plunge and I was like, I’m gonna run my own deal. I had already bought my first little 800-square-feet building when I was in the dealership. I made a deal with a chassis builder that built Top Fuel cars mostly, so I worked with him part time and tried to run my own deal.
Next thing I knew, my phone was ringing off the hook about vehicles for the film business, ’cause I had my old Harleys and I had my hot rod truck. I really think my business model was “I’ll do whatever the hell you want as long as it’s in a car, truck, or a motorcycle.” And that’s how it was. I would get these calls—“can you cut the side off of this bus and make it so it’ll still be together?”—and I’m like, “hell yeah, I’ll do that.”
I was also getting a lot of calls about riding motorcycles in shoots. It got to the point when people would come to Texas to shoot a car commercial, somebody would say, “we need a driver.” And somebody else would say, “man, there’s this guy that just shows up in a pickup with tools in it. He’ll drive your car, and if you need work on it, he’ll work on it.” Things just started happening—it was kind of like never saying no.
I realized very quickly that really what was most important to the film industry was that it would get done and get done on time. If they called you and said, “we want a triple-decker bus or we want a motorcycle that’s painted green” or “we want, you know, an 18-wheeler that you cut half off”—it didn’t matter what they wanted to happen, they just wanted to hear it would get done. My clientele was probably split up among race car teams, rock stars and tattoo artists, and the film business.
The film business started taking up a lot of my time, ’cause an art director or a teamster would call me and say, “we need an 18-wheeler, and we need somebody to drive it too.” So I’d do the brakes the night before and show up and drive the damn thing on set the next day. I think what stunt coordinators really liked was that I would show up with my pickup, a pretty big set of tools, and a bunch of parts with me for whatever I was driving. Say it was a Harley Davidson—I would bring the parts that I knew were going to break on this 1950-something Harley and I’d have the special tools to take the clutch off or something. The stunt coordinators were like, man, this guy is pretty handy.
When you show up to set, you can’t be the driver that says, “Well, I can’t back that truck up” or “I don’t know how to ride that ATV.” You have to just be able to do everything. I think that background that I had was priceless. So, my stepdad was in the oil field business. When I was in highschool, he’d be like, “go get the truck and hook it up to that 48-foot trailer and take it out to the oil refinery.” I was 15 and in Odessa, Texas. There’s no telling your stepdad, “I can’t do that” or “I don’t know how to back the trailer up.” You’ve just got to go do it. Same thing when I was racing. I had to drag my trailer across the country and I had to park the trailer and I had to back it into places.
All of that stuff really gets you ready to do car and especially truck commercials where you have a boat hooked behind you. Those people that decide where to shoot these truck commercials, they don’t realize you can’t really back a trailer over there or whatever. Plus, when you’re self-funded like I was and you’re trying to race a POS motorcycle, you learn to ride POS bikes and drive POS cars. You learn how to make up for things. That’s how I ended up getting hired by stunt coordinators that were from Los Angeles. One or two of them would be like, “Hey man, if you can get here, I’ll hire you on this show or that show.” I thought, if I can just get myself to Hollywood, I’ll do fine.
MG: Can you walk us through a stunt driver’s typical day?
JM: Well, there’s two typical days. One is on a movie and one is on a car commercial. On a car commercial, especially when it’s all running footage, cars look the best—and this is very important—they look the best when the sun’s coming up and going down, and they look like shit in the middle of the day. So my call times usually are well before the sun comes up—like 5 a.m. in the hill country of Texas or somewhere way outside of New Orleans or Amish country in Pennsylvania.
Of course, as soon as I get there, some art director is like, come on Jeff, we’re going to shoot this thing as soon as the sun comes up and here’s your walkie talkie. I go jump in some car, and then the camera car guys and I have to be ready before the sun comes up and everybody’s yelling and screaming. A lot of the times they’ll do like four different cars at a time, because they’ll want one run with a pickup truck and the next one with a Mustang, then the next one will be, let’s say, a Ford Taurus. So you do that. You’re doing it for what seems like hours and then if the bright sun is starting to kill them, they shoot interiors or something. Then as the sun starts to go down and we get into “magic hour,” you would think the world was coming to an end.
The stuff I really wrestle with is the collision-avoidance stuff, because I’ll be working with an arm car and the camera gets really close to the car. I have to come up really fast and stop at specific points. The car starts trying to stop itself before I get close enough to the camera. It’s terrible.
So I have those sort of days. Sometimes they’re a lot smoother but they’re usually really hectic in the beginning and really hectic at the end—and I’m just driving the car all day long. Which those are my more favorite days to do.
Now, on a movie, it’s the complete opposite. They call you in at like six or seven in the morning and everybody takes an hour to eat and then you got to go to your trailer and get your wardrobe. And then you’ll go to hair and make up. They look at you and then you stand around and then you go to get your props, and you’re like, “where’s the car I’m gonna drive?” ’cause it’s not there. Then when it’s time to do the stunt, everybody’s screaming and hollering. That’s a typical day. A lot of nothing and then a lot of hurry up to do something and then nothing again.
MG: Did you have a favorite stunt driver growing up that you looked up to?
JM: No, I probably didn’t even realize there was such a thing, you know. I can remember when I was really young, though, my dad was a big race fan. He kept up with the racing news and during the week of the Indianapolis 500, he would subscribe to the Indianapolis newspaper to read what was going on at the race. I recall as a pretty young kid looking at the newspaper—it had this guy and he was sitting in his pit stall and he laid out a bunch of his tools. My dad explained to me that this guy was the crew chief and he’s the guy that made the car go fast—you know, the brains behind the operation.
I think I asked my dad, why does this guy have so many hammers? He said, well, when the cars gets messed up he has to fix the body. I was like, this is the guy that’s actually the hero. The driver’s badass, but the guy that actually built the cars? That’s the really badass kind of thing. I don’t know who that guy was, I don’t know who his driver was, and I don’t really remember what year it was. But I remember like it was yesterday—he had a bunch of different body hammers, and this is why I have that giant drawer full of different body hammers.
MG: Of these three movie stuntmen, which is your favorite and why? Hooper (Burt Reynolds), Colt Seavers (Lee Majors), and Super Dave Osborne (Bob Einstein)?
JM: I can definitely say Hooper. You can’t even go there without thinking of the guy that drove backwards on the highway hauling ass, and you cannot think of Burt Reynolds in anything without thinking of Smokey and the Bandit, which of course has burnt an everlasting impression. To me, that’s a documentary, that’s not really a movie. Bert Reynolds—he’s just cool. There’s people that try so hard to be something but the Bandit is the Bandit.
MG: Have you ever sustained any major injuries while stunt driving?
JM: I’ve had a few injuries but the one that stands out most was in a gig where zombies knocked me off a motorcycle. Somewhere in five takes of that, I’m pretty sure I broke my foot. I had to drive to L.A. over the next two days and my foot hurt like hell. But I was in such a hurry to get off the one set and get to the next that I finished that day of work in Atlanta and drove all the way to L.A. When I got to L.A. I realized my foot was black and I must’ve broke my foot. I had to ride a kickstart motorcycle and then some of the other people that were in it couldn’t kick start their motorcycles, so I’d have to start their motorcycles, then go start mine… and that was the foot that was broken.
MG: Has there ever been a stunt that you had to turn down because it was just too hairy?
JM: I can think of one and this wasn’t that long ago. I don’t even think the DP (director of photography) or the director knew how cars worked, but one of them claimed he was a race car driver. So we were talking about a front-wheel-drive Acura, and they were like, we want you to drift this front-wheel-drive car. I was like, you can’t drift a front-wheel-drive car.
And of course they got mad at me and said that I was a girly man and I was too cautious. So I tried to explain to them. If it had a hand e-brake, I could slide the car one way or the other, but it didn’t, it had a push-button e-brake. After me telling him that we couldn’t do what they wanted to do, the DP came to me and he was like, well, how about if we just take the front brakes off the car? I knew at that point that they really didn’t understand anything and they were going to try to put me in a really tight spot. That’s okay, ’cause I’m paid to be put in a tight spot, but I knew there was no getting out of their tight spots. So I quit that job. It’s only job ever in my career that I just went and told the producer, I’m out of here. I’m just out of the whole thing.
MG: Can you tell us a little about the experience of working on Ford v Ferrari?
JM: I guess you should know the backstory. The second unit director and the stunt coordinator and the majority of the stunt drivers were all the same people that worked on Baby Driver, another movie I was on. I heard that there was going to be some period-piece race movie, called Go Like Hell or Spoilers or something like that. I didn’t even know what this movie was, I just knew it was a period piece and my friends were on it. I was going to be a loser if I wasn’t on it in my mind. So when I got a call from the stunt coordinator’s assistant, I was like, yes, I’m available, I’ll be there.
On Tuesday I get to work and I go in my trailer and I get my wardrobe. I haven’t even seen the stunt coordinator yet, but I’m told that I’m going to pull a race car into the shop or something. So I get down there and the stunt coordinator is in deep conversation with the director and the AD and the assistant stunt coordinator and it looks like they’re just discussing world peace or something. I’m just standing there and all of a sudden everybody turns around and they’re all staring at me and the director is like, yeah, that’s my guy right there, that’s him, he’s perfect and I’m thinking, what is this about? I’m thinking I only have today and the next day and I’m going home.
The assistant stunt coordinator was like, this is the deal: They were pretty dead set on having stunt guys do the pit stops, and Nagle (he’s the stunt coordinator) had told them he had a guy that can do a pit stop. And the director was like, well, we want him to be a real guy that can really do the pit stop. And Nagle said yeah, Jeff’s a professional race car mechanic, he can do a pit stop. So I got shooed off, and then I got a new wardrobe and a message saying, “so are you busy the next, like, two and a half months of your life or something?”
And then I realized what was happening, that I was going to be a pit crew member. They had some actors playing key people, but they needed somebody who could literally do this stuff—it was a pretty integral part of the story. So I went, okay, yeah, I’ve got this covered.
Right off the bat it became very, very crazy for me. It was like working in this breathing museum. Everything we did, I felt like I was in a museum of coolness—even the tools. The prop guys are like alright, we got to take Milburn over in the trailer. They told me, “you pick out all the tools you want to do your pit stops with.” I had my tools, my wardrobe—it was all just so friggin’ cool.
It got to the point where when Matt Damon and Christian Bale and some of the other actors would say something, they’d tend to run it by me ’cause everybody was told that I had been a professional race car mechanic and also a stunt driver, so they would be like, “Would this guy say it like this?” and I’d have to think, well your character’s from England, and an English guy would use this wording for race car stuff, and your character’s from Texas but the scene’s set in southern California and that’s another kind of racing. Then there were characters from like North Carolina and I had to think of their dialects and how they would say things.
I’m usually not that close to the main actors, because stunt drivers are usually doing second-unit stuff in a car somewhere or on a motorcycle. This was the first movie where the whole time I was right there with Number One and Number Two on the call sheet. I was right next to ’em all during the stuff they filmed for Le Mans, all the stuff they filmed for the Daytona race and stuff that the shop, at the test facility and at one of the test track locations. I was there the whole time for all of it. It’s kind of a crazy experience and since it was vintage, I loved it.
MG: What would be your dream film to do if you could name or pick any film to do?
JM: I can answer that question with the three parts. One, Streets of Fire is the greatest movie ever made, so I don’t get to work on that. Two, I worked on Ford v Ferrari, which is probably gonna be the coolest movie that I’ve ever worked on. And three, if there was one film I wish I could have worked on that I didn’t, it’d be one of the Batman movies.
MG: When you feel like you’ve finally done all the stunts you can do, what’s next?
JM: I’m going to throw my cell phone away. When I’m not in this business, I’m not going to have a cell phone anymore—I’m going to start systematically messing with every one of my cars and motorcycles. I’ll just start at one of ’em and I’ll take it completely apart and redo every little nut and bolt of that one, then I’ll start on the next one. And I will finally find that Mopar C-body station wagon with manual windows and a four-speed that I’ve been looking for forever. That’s the holy grail to me, a Mopar C-body station wagon with manual windows and a four-speed. I’ll probably get rid of the camera cycles and the camera cars and all that stuff and just start working on my own stuff. That’s what I’m going to do.