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True Lies: How James Cameron Pulled Off That Explosive Bridge Scene (Without CGI)

It’s all about building bridges… and then smashing them to smithereens.

By Benjamin Bullard

As it turns 30 this year, True Lies (streaming here on Peacock!) might be considered long in the tooth — at least, that is, in movie terms. But to this day, James Cameron’s 1994 action-comedy romp still remains crammed from start to finish with some of the most spectacular special effects ever captured on film.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker, a spy so high up the secrecy ladder that he even conceals his government-issue day job from his wife (a never-better Jamie Lee Curtis), True Lies broke the bank as the first film reported to exceed the $100 million budget barrier, with oodles of that cash going to fuel Cameron’s perfectionist eye for capturing explosively epic scenes.

How True Lies mixed reality & VFX to create that big bridge bang in the Florida Keys

True Lies (1994) by James Cameron

In a film packed with ridiculous action sequences (including a mounted horse chase that ascends the elevator of a hotel skyscraper and a Harrier jet hover sequence outside an urban Miami high-rise), the movie’s heart-pounding car chase that unfolds over the blue Gulf waters on the fringes of the Florida Keys just might be True Lies’ craziest.

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After getting mixed up in her husband’s spycraft and being kidnapped by terrorists and their vampy antiquities-dealing associate Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), Helen Tasker (Curtis) finds herself trapped in a speeding limousine, held hostage by Skinner as ransom. Why is she there? To assure that Harry, of course, won’t try any trickery to stop the baddies from detonating their prized terrorist possession: a stolen atomic bomb.

But with help from the U.S. military, Harry decides to call Juno’s bluff, marshaling a pair of Harriers to precision-strike the Keys’ Seven Mile Bridge with a missile — a move, if it works, aimed at leaving the terrorists stranded and vulnerable (but crucially, alive) high above the waiting water.

It’s a lengthy, high-octane scene that comes late in the movie, serving as the pinnacle in a series of escalating action sequences that seemingly top one another for spectacle. And given what’s shown onscreen, audiences easily could be excused for believing that Cameron must have gotten special permission to actually blow up a real-life section of abandoned causeway somewhere in the Florida Keys.

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a white dress shirt and black bowtie in True Lies (1994).

But while much of the scene indeed was filmed on location at Seven Mile Bridge — which serves as the sole land-based connecting route between the Keys and the Florida mainland — True Lies’ big missile strike and its resulting destruction all were filmed under slightly more controlled circumstances.

Speaking in 2019 with film-industry effects web magazine befores & afters, Leslie Ekker, who served as mechanical effects chief for the Stetson Visual Services company that Cameron recruited for the sequence, described how the director split the scene between on-location stunt shots (captured in the real Florida Keys) and a carefully-choreographed demolition of a miniature (but still massively scaled) bridge specially built for the explosion.

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The miniature, said Ekker, was a delicately-made plaster structure that was shipped in pieces to the actual bridge site. “It was a big model. This was big. It was about a a hundred meters long and about a meter and a half wide and about three meters tall, by the end of it. A big model,” Ekker explained, noting that managing all the destructive pyrotechnics — a make-and-break effort that absolutely had to be captured in one take — required loads of careful planning to ensure the cameras would have time to “see” all the fire and flying debris.

“…[W]hen you build roadways like this, we usually use plaster,” said Ekker. “If you load too much pyro into that plaster, you’ve got a model in one frame, and the next frame, you have a puff of dust, and the next frame after that, it’s gone. So it has to be blown up in just the right way in almost a slow explosion, to see particles and to see chunks and the guardrail bending and flying and things falling and splashing in the water, not just vaporizing.”

As awestruck viewers know, the missile strike and bridge explosion merge seamlessly with those portions of the scene — the vehicles and the actors (including Curtis herself) — that were captured atop the real bridge in live action. Highly trained stunt actors were of course deployed to film the set piece’s most risky and hair-raising moments, which culminated in Harry rescuing Helen, via helicopter, from the roof of the speeding limousine… a mere split second, no less, before it springs from the edge of the damaged bridge and dives into the water.

In a recent behind-the-scenes look back at True Lies, Curtis and the film’s creators reflected on just how perfectly stuntwoman Donna Keegan, who stood in for her during the car-plunging shot, timed that last-second “escape” from the speeding limo’s sunroof. Keegan “does the pull out at the end of the bridge — the actual stunt, which is insane,” said Curtis, while John Bruno, visual effects supervisor for the Cameron-cofounded effects company Digital Domain, explained just how slight the wiggle room was for something to go wrong.

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“As it went off, the car literally fell away from her, which makes it look like she’s being pulled out,” said Bruno, with Cameron adding that the take was the epitome of a “one and done” practical effects shot.

Taken together, the entire scene unfolds without betraying even the faintest clue as to how Cameron and the True Lies crew pulled it all off. The exploding-bridge scene is only one among several eye-popping effects moments in a movie where Schwarzenegger downhill-races an attack-dog squad on skis, dangles a hapless sap (the late, great Bill Paxton) over the edge of a dam, and still finds time to deliver a truly Ah-nold-worthy action hero line (“You’re fired!”) as he rockets the movie’s final-boss bad guy into oblivion.

Catch True Lies in all its insane, over-the-top action-comedy splendor on Peacock here… and maybe even let yourself marvel at how little Cameron could do today — even with 30 years’ worth of technological advancement to lean on — to make that big bridge explosion look any more lifelike than it already did in 1994.