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EXCLUSIVE: Dangerously Close To The Automotive Madness Of Ken Block's Gymkhana Nine

Behind the scenes, the creative process—and brand business—of Block and Hoonigan's latest film.

Ken Block was so close. So so so damn close. After six takes, he had finally drifted his rally race car so that the back tires hung for just the briefest of seconds off the dock and over the splashing waters of Lake Ontario. Watching it from the sidelines, it was a hold your breath, peek through your fingers, holy sh*t moment for everyone there. Not least the camera guy crouched in a four-foot sinkhole with his face seemingly inches away from Block's screeching tires, but also the assembled production crew, the firefighters, police officers, EMT techs, and even the water rescue squad bobbing on the waves with a boat's eye view of the whole thing. But it just wasn't close enough. Not for Block. And not for Gymkhana Nine.

Launched in 2008, Block's insanely popular Gymkhana film series is a rally car joy ride of clinical driving that has tapped into every driver's fantasy commute on its way to more than 500 million views. It's the kind of car video that could land in your inbox from your 12-year-old cousin, your 35-year-old brother, or your 70-year-old uncle. This particular brand of automotive WTF enjoys broad appeal across the spectrum from gearhead adrenaline dirtbags to suburban minivan pilots.

Eighty-six years ago this dock was part of Ford's sprawling Fuhrmann Assembly Plant in Buffalo, New York. At peak production, a new vehicle cranked off this assembly line every two and a half minutes. Now a shell of it's former self, it sits largely empty on a massive lakeside lot, wild grass and weeds staking their claim through cracked concrete. Perhaps it's only fitting the car Block is threatening to take for a swim is a Ford Focus RS RX rally car.

After that last take, Block climbs out of the car and walks over to a white minivan parked off to the side of the scene. Inside is director Brian Scotto's mobile monitor, and the two take a few long, hard looks at that last take. The problem wasn't the drift, it was that coming out of it, Block missed curling around a pair of steel barrels the way he had intended, and the shot just didn't feel right as is. This is day two on a five day shoot, and both Block and Scotto don't want to start compromising now. Someone leans in the side door of the van says, "Can't we just fix it in editing? He made it around the barrels before, and that was a good take."

A sense of finality ripples out among the crew. But it's more nerves than clock watching. At the end of a long day, with at least three more long days of filming ahead, this is when nerves can get frayed. These films may look like a video game, but standing mere feet away when Block is spinning his car so perilously close to the concrete edge drop-off, the IRL dangers are pant-soiling obvious.

This is Scotto's first turn as Gymkhana director, but the tall, burly 36-year-old, who's perfected the skate rat-turned-grown-up uniform with shaggy black hair, black Hoonigan hat, black T-shirt, faded black jeans and a gray pair of high-top Vans, has been either consulting on or creative directing the series since the beginning. Needless to say, this conversation isn't new. "It's that time of the day where you hope he doesn't end up in the drink," says Scotto. "We have something we can use, but we want to go for it again."

For Block, the motivation to strap back in to the driver's seat comes directly from his background in skateboarding and snowboarding, most notably as founder of DC Shoes, where reputations are built and broken on the quality of your video part, and that quality hinges on sticking the landing on your tricks. No fixing it in editing. No splicing multiple takes into one trick. The foundation of Gymkhana's massive popularity is in how he and the Hoonigan crew have taken that code to motorsports, favoring raw and real over slick and contrived.

It took four more takes, but eventually, as the sunlight sank into the lake, sailboats of curious onlookers cruising by, wondering what all the screaming tires and smoke followed by wild cheering was all about, Block nailed it. On the phone the next day, his reason for getting back behind the wheel is simple. "It didn't look exactly how I wanted it, and there wasn't enough smoke," he says. "At the end of the day we want to make the best video we can, and I was able to get to the edge on that shot but the way I came out of it wasn't perfect, so unfortunately I had to put myself back in the danger zone again, but it all worked out."

Scotto says that decision is a microcosm of his and Block's working relationship. "He's playing driver today, but he knows when we're sitting in the editing bay, he would want another take of that shot," says Scotto. "It can be a hard question to ask not only your buddy and business partner, but someone who could potentially have to be pulled out of the lake by a crane."

Behind the scenes on a Gymkhana shoot is exactly what you might imagine. The vibe is more Bones Brigade than Michael Bay, like a group of friends trying to make their childhood Hot Wheels-inspired dreams a reality, as opposed to a scripted, visual effects-heavy Hollywood production or run-of-the-mill car commercial.

"You'll notice we don't have camera cars, pursuit cars, we don't do that because the more it feels like a Jason Bourne chase, the less people will connect with it," Scotto told me earlier in the day, as we ripped around the Fuhrmann plant's campus in what looks like a golf cart on steroids—courtesy of Block and Hoonigan's latest brand partner Can-Am—running through the course they'll run Block through over the next 48 hours. "Viral videos are shot on phones. That's a raw look and feel, and that's what we try to stay true to because the driving and tricks are all practical and real, and we go out of our way to show that."

It's not a common creative approach in motorsports. "That's why you still see BMW making fake videos of a car drifting on an aircraft carrier, and it's all completely fake," says Block. "We don't fake anything. I'm doing all of these tricks, so that's real, but we also look for the camera angles that show it as best and as real as we can."

Planning Gymkhana Nine

Typically planning starts at least four months in advance, working around Block's rally car racing schedule. This year, in a nod to the locale of new brand partner Microsoft's Forza Horizon 3 video game, the plan was to film Gymkhana Nine in Australia. But authorities there had other plans. The root word of Hoonigan is "hoon," an Aussie pejorative term for dudes who like to dangerously mess about in cars, and the government has strict anti-hooning laws it takes very, very seriously. It didn't help that around the same time Ford—a major Gymkhana sponsor—was launching its Focus RS with a "drift mode," that opens up the traction control so you can slide a bit, and the police asked Ford to remove that function from the car to be sold in Australia. Not a good omen. It quickly became clear to Block, Scotto, and the Hoonigan crew that hitting bureaucratic roadblocks at every turn may not be worth a few shots with the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. So at the midnight hour—after weeks of location scouting, and with Block's rally car about to be loaded onto a freight plane in Los Angeles—they made the call to ditch down under.

Even before abandoning Australia, the plan was to shift away from the epic city tour style of the last couple Gymkhana films in cities like Los Angeles and Dubai, and back to the rougher style of the original film, putting the emphasis on cool tricks over snazzy scenery. About four weeks before filming at this derelict auto plant in Buffalo, Scotto got on Google Maps and Images, and went on a virtual Rust Belt walking tour in search of the industrial wasteland setting he had in his head. He scanned the entire Buffalo shoreline, and between that and sifting through images of potential sites, landed on the Furhmann plant, as well as the long abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal, designed by Fellheimer & Wagner, the architects on New York City's Grand Central Station.

"This is back to something that's a bit more about the driving in a landscape you wouldn't normally see these things being done—like a dilapitated factory—and just trying to make things interesting, fun, and different," says Block.

Microsoft's Xbox global marketing lead Jonathan Segall was not optimistic when the Australia plan went up in flames. "When I found out Australia was falling through, my heart dropped and I thought it was the worst possible case scenario," says Segall. "They came back with a new plan literally within a day, and everyone was very excited but concerned that the timeline was just too tight to get all the logistics together. They had to rewrite everything, plan it all, find and secure new locations, deal with all the permits and everything. It's an amazing feat they've pulled off."

As you can see from the film's original treatment (in the slide show above), a handful of specific moments are planned out—both the freight train drift and the helicopter donuts are nods to elements of Forza Horizon 3—but Scotto says overall they keep things purposefully less structured.

"There's a huge difference between manufacturing a moment and capturing the action," says Scotto. "Whenever we work with people from traditional car filming they don't quite understand why we're so loose. Where are the storyboards? Well, it might look a lot different in reality. You don't make storyboards for exact shots in skateboarding. You have an idea mapped out, but you need to see how it looks and feels in reality before deciding on it."

A Branded Joyride

This isn't just a film about Block anymore. Over the years he and Hoonigan have turned it into a brand content hub. Before the first film no one but Block's own DC Shoes were willing to sign on, but now, with a broad audience and particular sway with guys 18 to 24, they basically have their pick of brand partners clamoring to bask in the glow of the Gymkhana halo. And Hoonigan has branched out with other content series, like Recoil featuring driver BJ Baldwin.

For Gymkhana Nine, not only are title sponsors like Ford, Microsoft, and GoPro slapping their logos on Block's car, but Hoonigan works with each to create content for each specific brand—from an exclusive behind-the-scenes 360 film that will debut soon on Ford VR, to Forza Horizon 3-branded behind-the-scenes content and Hoonigan designed vehicles in the game itself.

Block and Hoonigan have been working with Ford Performance since 2010, and global marketing manager Henry Ford III, says the partnership has worked out extremely well for the brand. Not only has Gymkhana allowed the brand to connect with Block's fans, but its gone far beyond a typical sponsorship. "The great thing is Ken has really been involved with Ford in the development of a lot of these vehicles, not only his Focus RS RX race car, and prior to that his Fiesta ST race car, but also our road cars like the production Focus RS," says Ford. "This is not just some simple product placement where we give Ken a check and he agrees to drive our vehicles. This is a really serious integration of someone who we think has a lot of skill and knowledge in the area of performance vehicles, and a great connection to a large customer base, so it's a really unique partnership."

Block says he picks his brand partners carefully. That he makes sure every company or product he works with or endorses is one he actually likes or uses. This becomes abundantly clear when I climbed onto his on-set tour bus and there he was casually drinking a tall can of Monster Energy drink. Turns out it's not just a gargantuan logo plastered on the outside of the bus, he actually drinks the sh*t.

"Mostly we want things that are authentic to the team and to the lifestyle we're a part of," says the 48-year-old Block, calm and relaxed as if we were about to go for a beer on the front porch, instead of, y'know, being mere minutes from burning out donuts underneath the 80 mph winds of a 1970s-era Sikorsky helicopter dangling a Ford Raptor truck a few feet over his windshield. "Companies like DC, Hoonigan, Ford and Monster all align with what we do, from the action to the attitude. Anyone that wants to be a part of it has to know that. I also have to make sure that it's something I actually believe in. I don't want companies that are fake or do things I disagree with. I'd never work for a cigarette company, I'd never work for a fast food company. They just don't align with my ideals or the type of thing we want to project as a brand."

Hoonigan Evolves

As the brand partnerships have grown in number and scope for Gymkhana, so too have the opportunities expanded for Hoonigan to stretch the radius of the series' halo. The brand is branching out into original content series aimed at cable networks, as well as offering up its creative and production expertise to create content for other brands.

Hoonigan began as a Block pet project, a lifestyle brand incubated and launched with Wasserman Media Group where Block's agent Steve Astephen heads up the sports marketing and talent management company's action sports and Olympics group. But what has up til now been largely an apparel brand that made content, is transitioning into a media content company that has merch. Over the year, so many brands came calling, asking for Scotto and his crew to "do a Gymkhana" for them that they've now decided to add client work to their own original content goals. Scott likens their aspirations to what Vice and its in-house agency Virtue have done, in creating content for a passionate audience, and then helping brands tailor their marketing messages to reach that those same people.

"I'd like to create a Vice-like place for automotive content and brands," he says. "We don't compete with Motor Trend or Drive because, while there is some cross-over, we have different audiences. Not only can we come up with a great idea to reach this audience, we can produce and execute it, and put it out to that audience. We're not going to do anything that damages our brand, so almost the best thing for brand partners is that we're looking out for our own brand so they know they're going to get our absolute best."

The first real test was for Can-Am to launch its new Maverick X3 off-road vehicle. Hoonigan created, not only videos around the Maverick X3, but the look and feel of all it's marketing materials. Can-Am product manager Nicholas LeBlanc says the Hoonigan crew have the keen expertise into what works and what doesn't for the audience his brand is trying to reach. "It was really about the tone and feel they were able to bring to it, we were looking for something a bit more raw and natural than a traditional launch," says LeBlanc.

As Gymkhana now looks ahead to its 10th edition, Block says the key to maintaining its success—and that of Hoonigan for that matter—is to continue to foster the culture of its crew, which has largely been working together for the last seven years.

"I'm really lucky to have such a great group of guys who work so well together. We can all have different opinions, but we all have a critical eye to move things forward, to progress what we're doing, to keep innovating, while keeping it as cool as possible," says Block. "And the thing is, we have this amazing group of creative people, but none of us are marketing majors. These are all self-taught guys, and we really try to maximize the opportunity we have, not only making the videos but then playing with all the social media, the teasers, and all that stuff marketing agencies get paid a lot of money to do. But we do it all ourselves, and we do it exceptionally well."

After at least 10 takes to get the dock overhang drift shot, Block celebrated in perhaps the most fitting manner. Climbing up onto a camera crane hovering 20 feet above the lake to launch a backflip, landing in that water on his own terms.

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