For the season finale of Fox series Alcatraz, showrunners will realize a fantasy born of working in San Francisco for months: to recreate the chase scene from Steve McQueen’s 1968 film Bullitt. And they had just the partner to help pull it off: Ford.
Ford has been tied into the JJ Abrams-created show from the start. The series centers on the disappearance of 302 Alcatraz prisoners and guards in 1963, and their mysterious reappearance in present day. Ford cars have appeared in the show and the brand has worked with Fox and series producers on elaborate brand content initiatives, like the Legends of Alcatraz alternate reality game which marked the launch of the show.
And now, the Ford Mustang will play a part in the conclusion of the series’ first season. The idea began with executive producer Jack Bender, a prolific television director (Lost, The Sopranos) who was set to helm the finale. "Jack wanted Rebecca [protagonist played by actress Sarah Jones] to drive the same car Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt, and Ford got very excited about that," exec producer Dan Pyne tells Co.Create. "Then we started talking about maybe recreating the Bullitt chase in San Francisco toward the end of the season. It actually worked out in a kind of magical way because it became central to the final pursuit in the final episode. It all sort of fit together and it feels very seamless now."
Pulling off a film-sized scene for the Fox show was a challenge. The original Bullitt chase, according to Pyne and his co-producer Jennifer Johnson, took one year to prepare and three weeks to shoot. Alcatraz spent a week prepping and three days filming, "which was nothing shy of a miracle," Johnson says. "It can be hard to get permits that quickly, but it’s such an iconic chase and such an iconic moment in San Francisco history and cinematic history, the city was very welcoming."
The production team hunted through the Bullitt chase, aiming for a shot-by-shot recreation. The result is intended to be a giant, loving homage. Hubcaps fly off the wheels. An old-style Volkswagen Beetle similar to the one that appeared numerous times in Bullitt reappears. As the sartorial finishing touch, Sarah Jones wears a turtleneck.
"And ironically, one of the prime shots in the original chase was down a street that has a perfect view of Alcatraz in the background," Pyne says.
There’s also a parallel with Ford’s classic hotrod. "It seemed natural to have Rebecca drive the Mustang, and it all kind of came out of that," Pyne says. "Bullitt was an iconic moment for Ford, it was one of the first Mustangs ever produced."
Of course the whole notion dovetails nicely with the advent of Ford’s 2013 Mustang. But Alcatraz treats the idea of a branded experience with care. "I’m very sensitive to it, because I think sometimes it can turn out badly," Pyne says.
"We always want it to feel like it’s part of the story and not stand out," Johnson adds. "We feel like we’ve been able to accomplish that. Ford has been very helpful, in just making things realistic and making sure it feels organic to our characters."
Ford took an interest in the series from the get-go. "When they saw the pilot they got really interested in the show, because it’s a really a high-octane show. They basically became our partners in the show and they were a big part of our premiere on the Rock," Johnson says.
Indeed, one character, Emerson Hauser (played by Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill), drives two Fords, an Expedition and an Explorer. At one point in the tenth episode, he utilizes his Ford’s Sync feature to call another character mid-chase. "It felt organic," Johnson says. "He calls her seamlessly, and it’s in the midst of a chase."
That integration was nothing compared to the scale of the finale’s Mustang chase, which Johnson dubs "huge." Alcatraz aims to have set pieces in most episodes, but those scenes are typically half-pages of scripts, worth a quarter- or perhaps a half-day of filming. The Bullitt tribute was given six times that length to shoot.
See how the Alcatraz crew fared at its homage on March 26, in what the team calls the "ultimate conclusion" to one of their lead’s biggest stories this season.