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Still flipping for gold — Figure Skater turns stunt driver

Former French skating star in Toronto to film car-chase scene for Transporter, a Canada-France co-production for TV based on the action movies.

Published August 10, 2012

“Car flips, Audi fishtails to stop . . .”

The instructions on the “call sheet” for the day’s shooting could hardly be more concise. This, says Pascal Lavanchy, “is what I do when I go to work . . . another day at the office.”

Today, Lavanchy’s office is a puke-green 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis that he has to put on its roof at the Toronto Marine Terminal off Cherry St. Someone else will fishtail the Audi.

It’s a crucial few seconds in episode 10 of the 12-part action TV series Transporter. Based on a French movie and two sequels of the same name, the show is a joint Canadian-French production, filmed both here and there.

The hero is Frank Martin (played by Chris Vance, taking a nap right now in his trailer), a two-fisted, hard-driving ex-Special Forces ball of testosterone — albeit soft-spoken and with a kinder, gentler side. And a black Audi A8.

Forget FedEx. Frank’s the go-to guy, the show blurb says, “if you want something moved, moved fast and moved right — anything, anywhere, no questions asked on schedule, he never quits until the package is where it’s supposed to be.”

Sort of like an old-fashioned mail-carrier, except beset by bad apples instead of bad dogs.

This episode, “Give the Guy a Hand,” is one of two set in Toronto, says producer Susan Murdoch. “It makes life easier. We can see the city being itself instead of pretending it’s France.”

Director George Mihalka outlines the scenario: Frank is following the Grand Marquis. Both cars are boxed in by two Chevy Suburbans and three Ford Crown Victorias that look like unmarked police cruisers. The Merc rolls and the Crown Vickies and SUVs disappear. Or do they?

The show uses seven identical A8s. Some have been modified for different tasks — driving on two-wheels, for instance, or reinforced for jumps. Blowing up tires to a pressure of 90 psi apparently does wonders for sliding (Kids: don’t try this at home).

Let’s not waste sympathy on the Grand Marquis, a boulevard barge of unremarkable vintage with fake suede upholstery and wire-wheel hubcaps.

Murdoch won’t shed any tears. She’s a General Motors devotee, the daughter of a mechanical engineer who worked on GM trucks.

“If I drove anything else, I’d have been disinherited.”

She believes she’s the only producer in Canada with a Class A licence. “My favourite thing to drive is a big-rig.”

If you think that’s incongruous, Lavanchy not only has an auto-racing background, he was also a skating superstar — a silver medallist for France with partner Sophie Moniotte in the 1993-94 world ice-dance championships.

The stunt is done in two segments and then Vance will add the close-up stuff in the studio.

He’d love to do some of his own driving, “but the insurance companies won’t let me. I’ve learned a lot from the stunt guys; those sweeping slides and how to gun it in reverse and do a 180.”

For the boxing-in sequence, the cars and SUVs barrel in and sweep around a large pile of gravel, with the Merc and Crown Vickies swapping paint, NASCAR-style.

The ramp, about half a metre high, is set up close to the water, and Mihalka explains which way he wants the car to roll — away from the lake.

What goes through Lavanchy’s head as he accelerates?

“You’re not thinking, ‘Oh, the car’s going on its side, going on its roof.’ You’re concentrating on the ramp and carrying your speed, 60 km/h and then feeling and understanding what the car wants to do. You have to move the steering wheel at a good angle and at the right time to make sure it goes over and doesn’t drop back onto its wheels. And then it’s over.

“I don’t know if I’ve done 100 of these but . . . a lot. Hurt? No, never.”

He makes a couple of practice runs up to the ramp.

Ideally, he’d like to keep going — without the rollover — “so I can tell how the car will bounce. But this is an old car. We don’t want to risk killing it too soon.”

The stunt seems to start in slow motion. With the chase cars in Snowbird-like formation and then pulling clear, the Mercury goes up on two wheels and almost onto its side. It hangs there for a moment before it crashes over, sliding on its roof.

An ambulance that’s been discreetly in the distance is suddenly on the scene and stunt-driving co-ordinator Michel Julienne runs across to make sure his driver is OK.

He flashes a thumbs-up and the film crew breaks into applause. As Lavanchy crawls out of the car, a jubilant Mihalka is there to kiss him on both cheeks.

When’s the last time your boss did that for a job well done?

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