Next time you get a chance to see Lara Croft pulling wheelies in Tomb Raider, take a closer look at the pouting beauty on the bike. For you’re actually watching Ride Forever instructor and serial motorcycle modifier Chris Smith.
Training (and playing) Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider represents just one of Chris’s many movie credits. He taught Matt Damon, and rode scenes, in The Bourne Ultimatum; ditto Natalie Imbruglia and the ‘Nuclear Red’ (pink) Speed Triple in Johnny English. Other CV highlights include Syriana and the forthcoming Mad Max movie.
From the start, Chris’s involvement in movie production went beyond teaching celebs to ride and standing in for them as a stunt rider. The exploding Vespa in Bourne Ultimatum? Chris’s work. Making Ms. Jolie’s TRX 850 look like a Ducati one minute and a Motocrosser the next? Also the fruit of Chris’s labour. His background as a factory-trained bike mechanic and engineer helped, as did an early fascination with modifying bikes.
In fact Chris’s penchant for modding bikes was probably what got him the gig in movie production in the first place. Like most of his ‘career decisions’, it seems like a series of accidents and coincidences.
“I had a friend doing CBTs [Compulsory Basic Training, the UK’s equivalent of our BHS] and got involved helping out,” says Chris. “I really liked it, and progressed through the exams to instructor level, starting my own business. The real motivation was helping people to not fall off. I’d fallen off a lot–at one stage I went through three bikes in a year–and I saw the difference training made.”
His skill as a trainer was quickly noticed: by the UK’s Driving Standards Agency, no less. Examiners reported how good the standard was of riders graduating from Chris’s Passmasters school. As well as compliments, Chris got an invitation to help with the UK’s then new rider training and testing regime. For a guy barely in his 20s it was quite an accolade.
This solid reputation and a base in north-west London created another unplanned opportunity. BBC scouts identified him as a perfect choice for training actors to ride for TV roles. Word got around, and soon it was rock stars and other celebrities. It was only a matter of time before the first call from a film crew.
At that stage, Chris’s out-of-school bike was a modded Bandit. In erstwhile style it was a full-on streetfighter, with the 600 lump breathed on and sporting 1200 heads. When he arrived at Pinewood Studios for an interview the crew were as interested in the bike as they were Chris. “They basically asked if I could teach an actress to ride and whether I had a passport. I said ‘Yes’ and I was straight out to Shanghai for three days teaching Angelina Jolie.” While on set Chris’s expertise was called on further, helping modify TRX 850s for scenes and doing the odd stunt for camera.
An experience like that could turn a young man’s head, and it did. But not in the way you might expect. “I’d been working flat out on the training business. I’d had three weeks holiday in three years, was covering over 100,000 miles [160,000 km] a year on bikes and averaging one ‘off’ a month. It was exhausting. But that short break, doing the film work, made me realise the passion I had for instructing. It also made me think how refreshing it was to do the film work. Doing a bit of both seemed perfect.”
So while Chris continued building his Passmasters training business, he kept saying yes to the movie opportunities. Inevitably, bikes in movies means stunts. And that means working closely with the stunt pros and the Special Effects department. Hence blowing up the Vespa in The Bourne Ultimatum. As part of working in effects he soon acquired professional qualifications in explosives.
Between films, he kept returning to the UK to teach at Passmasters. Until a Kiwi girl called Donna stepped into the picture. Chris moved to New Zealand in 2009 and he and Donna now have two children growing up in rural Franklin.
For a while, Chris took the opportunity to change down a gear or two. He shifted his UK company on but kept an interest from a distance. And, as he puts it, “went back to spannering at a local bike dealership and enjoying doing New Zealand stuff.”
Leopards, they say, never change their spots. And Hollywood production teams never forget to transfer useful contacts to their new iPhones. So eventually Chris was contacted about other film opportunities. Along the way, the bike dealership closed its doors and Chris decided it was time to resurrect his old career model in his new country. He set about transferring all his old training qualifications and established Passmasters NZ.
Not long after, Ride Forever began planning for a New Zealand-wide training programme. Chris’s skills were soon identified and now he’s one of the senior trainers in the north of the North Island.
Meanwhile the film projects keep rolling in. He recently completed work on the new Mad Max movie, due for release next year. It sounds right up Chris’s street. “We got to do some amazing stuff,” he says. “Putting 3 metre swingarms on R1s, firing WR250s from catapults, outrageous monster trucks...”
It sounds like good old times but Chris is adamant that he doesn’t want to be overseas on location too much, especially with two young children. Which means, if you book for Ride Forever training in the top of the North, there’s a very good chance you’ll be trained by the same instructor as Angelina, Matt, Natalie and a score of other movie stars.