When Christopher Nolan – the multi-award-winning director of ‘Inception,’ ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy – wanted the most cutting-edge boat for his new summer blockbuster, ‘Tenet,’ the F50 was the ultimate choice. It led to a unique partnership between SailGP and Hollywood, and gave Rome Kirby and Tom Slingsby the chance to appear on the big screen.
As they turned for another run along the Solent off the southern coast of England, Rome Kirby and Tom Slingsby were preparing for another race on the F50s. A flotilla of other craft were chasing them in the water, helicopters filled the skies above. This time it would be closer than before. Up in the air, Christopher Nolan, the Hollywood director, shouted: “Action!” This wasn’t SailGP, this was fantasy.
The week prior, Slingsby had guided the Australia SailGP Team to victory in the penultimate event of SailGP’s inaugural season at Cowes, UK. Now he was playing a supporting role to Kirby, in what was going to be the following summer’s blockbuster Tenet, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki.
Nolan is not a man to do things part way. When he filmed Dunkirk, real World War II battleships were used. So when the plot of Tenet called for cutting-edge boats, SailGP was the place to go, even if, when approached, Kirby thought it might be a joke.
“A friend of mine told me a contact in Hollywood had gotten hold of him and said they wanted to use some kind of foiling platform in the movie,” Kirby said. “I then had a meeting with the head of marine operations for the film. Large-scale movies on water are his thing, whether it be Dunkirk, Captain Phillips or the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
“They wanted the 50s in the movie,” Kirby said. “I kind of laughed and said, ‘that’s going to cost money.’”
While the film crew wanted to ship the boats to the Amalfi Coast, SailGP was in the middle of its first season, but offered an alternative.
“I said, ‘Come to Cowes after our event’. So they shifted the entire movie production and set to Cowes from the Amalfi Coast and we shot for two weeks. It was pretty full on.”
While Kirby would be on one F50, when news spread of the unique opportunity, everyone wanted to be involved.
“We just got told that a Hollywood movie wanted to use our boats,” Slingsby said. “It is one of those things that you hear and think ‘That will be cool, but it will never happen.’
“Sure enough, Nolan was serious. He came to a couple of SailGP events, loved it and thought they would be great in his movie. There was a bit of competition when we heard it was happening about who gets to go on the boats, just to say you are part of it.
“The production team decided they wanted one blue and one white boat. So we removed all the branding off the U.S. F50 to make it solid blue and all the branding off the Japan boat to make it all white.”
With Kirby in charge of the white boat and Slingsby helming the blue boat, they shot scene after scene, different scenario after different scenario. But Nolan never really let them know how the pieces fit together.
“He keeps that stuff pretty tight to his chest,” Kirby said. “We didn’t know fully what we were filming or where it would be in the movie. We still don’t know where it will be in the movie, but think it is going to be a pretty prominent scene.
“We did quite a bit of sailing side by side with choppers in the air. It was quite the production. Tom and I got the boats as close as possible. They are using these big IMAX cameras, so they have limited time. They can do 3-5 minutes of shooting before they’d have to go and land, change film and come back out – it was definitely a process.”
The first problem, though, was that despite having attended SailGP events, the filmmakers underestimated just how fast the F50s go. Soon they found that only the helicopter had a chance of keeping up.
“They had this super high-tech camera boat with millions and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment on it and when they got there, they said ‘We have got the boat, we can do whatever shots you want,’” Slingsby said.
“One of the sailors asked, ‘How quick does your powerboat go?’ They said it did about 14 knots, which they thought was pretty cool. And we said we don’t start foiling (flying above the water) until 16 or 17 knots. So then they thought there may be a problem.
“We can sit between 30 and 40 knots quite comfortably in the right conditions, which we had on the days we filmed. The camera boat couldn’t keep up so the solution was to give it a head start.
“We had to wait for the camera boat to get well ahead of us. Then we would take off after it and go blasting past, then have to stop.
“Then they would be stationary and we would do a manoeuvre around the boat. The good times were when we were told to get as close as we can.”
It all made for a different work environment from the usual Hollywood sound stage. Not only did the filmmakers have to work around what the F50s would do, but also what the English weather would deliver, as Hoyte van Hoytema, the director of photography, explained.
“We were very much at the mercy of what is and is not possible with these boats,” van Hoytema said. “That was difficult because, as a film crew, you are used to setting the pace. We would be filming, getting into the rhythm, finding interesting shots…and suddenly the wind would come up and we’d have to go back. These boats are incredible and, in many ways, it was a beautiful experience, but it could also be frustrating because we were not the ones setting the pace. It was the elements that did that.”
For closeups and dialogue, a ‘buck’ was built—a replica of a F50 hull—which was strapped to a bigger boat. But the actors got a pretty first-hand respect for what the F50s can do.
“Those things are intense,” Washington said. “They were just high flying, and I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But I couldn’t be timid about it, especially seeing Chris and Hoyte strapped to the middle, filming us—they were just in heaven, loving every minute. It was so much fun. Smooth sailing!”
Another problem they had was the white boat, in the script, was being skippered by the character played by Debicki. In the real world, very few people are equipped to handle an F50 and while Debicki already had a stunt double who had more than a passing resemblance to the Australian actress, Kirby, even in a blonde wig, didn’t really cut it as Hollywood leading lady.
“My part is as a blonde woman in the movie,” Kirby said. “I was the stunt double to the stunt double.
“Our shoulders aren’t quite the same size. I’m about six inches taller than both of them and about 100 pounds heavier. There wasn’t a lot of similarity. There were these two women and then there was me. We got a picture of the three of us together.
“I’m sure all my buddies when they see it will be saying ‘There you are.’
Watching Kirby head off to hair and make-up every morning was a source of constant entertainment to Slingsby and the rest of the SailGP athletes.
“He had to spend two hours in make-up and come down with a wig on and dressed in women’s clothes,” Slingsby said. “We had countless hours laughing at him.”
Some may look out for when Kirby – with or without the wig – and Slingsby are in shot, others may be on the lookout for any local landmarks that reveal they are sailing in the English Channel rather than the Mediterranean.
“It is supposed to look like the Amalfi Coast, which is a bit different from the English coastal backdrop we had, but we did some filming by the Needles and some cliffs off the Isle of Wight and it should look pretty cool,” Slingsby said.
“There were plenty of action scenes of people falling off and near-crashes, so we had to do our best to put our boats as close as we could. We had helicopters and we were sailing as close as we could to each other. It was quite something.
“We didn’t have the actors on our boat, but it was really fun to see it all going on. It was really exciting.
“We had a helicopter out there filming one day when we had 25 or 26 knots of wind. It is a pretty surreal feeling having all these helicopters flying really close to the boats and seeing Nolan up in the pilot seat. It was something I really feel lucky to have been part of.”
Debicki did get to taste life onboard the F50, though, and it was an experience not to be forgotten.
“When the three of us were hanging on the side and the boat lifted out of the water, I’ve never felt anything like it,” Debicki said. “It was exhilarating but quite terrifying actually…certainly for people who aren’t trained sailors. But that is one of the gifts of a Nolan film: you find yourself in situations you would otherwise never, ever learn to navigate, inhabit or even witness.”
There was little time to settle into a movie star lifestyle, though.
“We had a limited amount of time and keep in mind we had just finished a big event in Cowes and then to do another two weeks on the Solent we were pretty tired,” Kirby said. “To go screaming down the Solent at 45 knots every day was pretty full-on. It was all business.
“I got a little insight into Hollywood. It was a fun project to be a part of. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Slingsby hopes that seeing the F50s in full flight on the big screen will bring a new audience to SailGP.
“I haven’t seen one camera take of the actual film, but the footage should look unbelievable compared to what we normally see,” Slingsby said.
“You have to guess that 90-95 per cent of the people who will watch this movie don’t have any idea about sailing. If it comes off amazingly, they might think ‘They race these things internationally? I’d love to see that.’
“That’s good. We want more people to learn about sailing and SailGP and that’s what we are trying to do.”