Jeffrey Bunzendahl, director of the upcoming spy-spoof WILSON CHANCE: THE MOVIE, spoke with 007Forever last fall and detailed what it was like to film an independent movie using friends, low reserves of cash and attending film school. As the release date for WILSON CHANCE approaches, Jeffrey has opened up his filming diary of the most dangerous sequence in his movie. It chronicles the fears and hazards that go into such a complex action scene.
I thought I would take some excerpts from my filming dairy during production of a particularly challenging scene. From inception to execution, it took about a month to pull off one complicated scene, which involves skydiving and assorted mayhem.
I was sitting at home in front of my Mac G4. I was working on my script to flesh out a scene I had been avoiding filming due to budgetary apprehension. I stared at a section of my script that read “Skydiving Sequence.” What the heck was I thinking? True, I tried to write this film using what resources we had access to. But a skydiving sequence? Maybe I`ve watched the Bond films too many times and feel I NEED a skydiving sequence to make this any kind of a respectable spy movie. My better judgement screamed back at me. YES- you need a skydiving sequence!
In the script, the villain has knocked our hapless hero Wilson Chance, unconscious and tossed in the back of a prop plane. With full intention of killing our hero with unnecessary flair, the villain plans to toss Chance out of the plane at 30,000 feet. Chance will of course escape, by pure luck, not skill, thus again reinforcing his name Chance (the connotation of pure luck).
I called my brother George in to the living room and we had an impromptu production meeting. George is also my producer. As my producer, he looked at me as if I were nuts when I told him my proposal.
George said, “Jeff, how in the heck are we going to pull that off? You`ve been watching too many Bond films again. Not every spy film has skydiving in it. And what about the older Bond films? They didn`t have any.”
He had a good point. Nevertheless, somewhere adrift in the mire of my subconscious danced images of 007 fearlessly diving from a plane with a raised eyebrow. A direct result of a so-called bankrupt Bond generation weaned on Roger Moore films.
I started with uncertain confidence. George shrugged and walked away into the kitchen. He was probably convinced I had lost my good sense and judgement as a director. I thought he might have been right this time. I got up early the next day and looked in the phone book for local skydiving places. Eureka! I found a skydiving school operating out of a small airport in Calhan, a farming town outside of Colorado Springs. It`s got flat land everywhere, so it will double out for Mexico nicely (which is where this scene is supposed to take place). The only trick now was to wait for a day that the weather was sunny and clear. That would look really lame if Chance parachuted down somewhere in Mexico and he`s stomping around in fresh snow; although Ed Wood would be proud.
That night I left a message with the coordinator of the skydiving school. I very politely asked if we could come out and just film some of the guys parachuting down. Then later, I would maybe match the footage of Chance in a similar outfit for close ups using a “green screen.” I know that would look hokey, but I had to work with what I`ve got, right? WRONG! I could not pretend here. I wanted this scene to look as cool as possible. But how? I resigned myself to the fact that I would figure that out eventually.
I got a call from the owner of the establishment the next morning, a gent by the name of Jay Smith. He said I could come down and film whatever I want and that they do most of their jumping on Saturday and Sunday. Hot Dog! I couldn`t believe it! Most people had been very resistant to let us film anywhere or anything during the course of this production, and the enthusiasm from Mr. Smith was more than welcome.
My mind was working overtime. It was exciting to think that if this scene worked out it would really give the film another boost in its production value. I love it when people see our footage and say, “How the heck did you guys pull that off?” That`s what I was aiming for.
On that weekend, I drug my brother and my friend Mike (who plays one of our villains) out to the Skydiving range in the morning. They said they wanted to tag along. I figured that way I wouldn`t look like I`m lost when I walked in there. When we arrived, we saw a prop plane parked outside of the main hanger. Everyone jumps out of this plane when they skydive. We traveled inside the first hanger and wandered around a bit. A few rowdy but friendly people were repacking their parachutes off to the left of us. We found the office in the front and met Jay, the owner. Jay is the pilot and alternately skydives when he gets a chance. While we talk, he asks me specifically what I would like to shoot for the film. I quickly explained what I had in mind. I was waiting for the big “get lost.” Jay paused for a moment, then told us to follow him and he`d introduce us to Greg, one of the skydivers who uses a helmet camera. So, into the second hanger we went.
Inside about 15 skydivers or so were all repacking their parachutes. We saw Greg across the room. He was an intense looking guy who was cracking jokes and teasing one of the other skydivers about how he landed on his last jump. Jay introduced us to Greg and he gave us all a hearty handshake. I explained to Greg what we wanted to do. It was time to up the ante. I asked about the possibility of having somebody double out for Wilson Chance and somebody film him jumping from the plane. Mike and George look at each other, as if to say, “What is he up to?” Greg instantly became animated with excitement and began to give me some ideas of how we should shoot the scene and what he could do from the air in terms of filming. Then he grabbed Jordan, another skydiver that was quietly packing his chute. Jordan was a young, laid back kinda guy, who volunteered with a mere nod and a shrug. Jordan was almost a tall as Justin and had a similar facial structure and build. Was this fate or what?
Everything was working out better than I even imagined. These guys were great. They thought what we were doing was exciting, and they fully wanted to be involved. The only thing they wanted from me was to pay for their skydiving slots (reserved space on the plane) each time they jumped for me, and then to pay one slot after that. Pretty affordable, considering a stuntman would charge me more per hour than our camera cost to buy.
Fast-forward a month: we`ve been filming other scenes while we wait to shoot the big skydiving sequence. Snow and rain had kept us away up until this point. But the snow had melted off enough, and it was a 50/50 chance of rain that day. We had decided to go for it anyway. I got Justin (Wilson Chance) up very early and we both headed out to the Calhan Airport before anyone got there. Our main goals were to do some shooting from the ground and get shots of Jordan landing as Chance. Greg would be high above catching the action in the air. When Greg and Jordan arrived, I showed them an earlier version of our film trailer.
They both yucked it up and got a feel for the film. I gave Jordan his motivation for acting like Chance. I told him to basically act like a moron as he falls through the sky. Chance should act like he`s a guy doing his first jump, but trying to act cool and play off the fact he doesn`t know what he`s doing.
First jump of the morning, the plane loads up the skydivers and makes its way skyward. Justin and I crossed the street and over through some barbed wired to an open meadow. A local farmer owned the land. But Greg had assured me that they touch down on his property all the time and he had already talked with the farmer about coming on his property. About 15 minutes after Jordan and Greg had went up, Justin spotted the plane getting into position for the jump.
Out came the skydivers. I tried to get a focus with my camera. I looked right into the sun and I`m blinded for a moment. Justin yelled, “Jeff-they`re coming this way! Hurry!” Darn, I thought to myself. All of these years of production classes and I looked right into the sun on the first shot of the day? I shook it off and scanned the sky for Jordan. He was flailing comically as he headed toward us. Greg followed behind but cut away from us so he wouldn`t land in our shot. Jordan swung in our direction and landed effortlessly. It looked cool, but too smooth to look like a “Chance” landing.
I walked over to Jordan as he pulled in his chute. “Anyway you can wipe-out when you land?” I asked. “Uh, sure, if you want me to break all my bones”, Jordan replied. Dumb question, I guess.
On the second jump, Jordan takes a sharp turn as he`s about to touch down, and goes face down into the dirt as he lands. “Beautiful!” I shout. Wait- Jordan could have been hurt. I call out to him as he lies still on the ground. “Jordan! Are you okay?” I yell. “Yeah-I`ll make it” he replies as he crawls to his feet. “Oh in that case, that last landing was great!” I reply. Directors. We`re very heartless when it comes to getting our shots.
Suddenly, a car zoomed up. Out came a man and his wife. They briskly move toward us. Justin is in front of Jordan and me, and they made a b-line for Justin. This guy was the farmer who owned the property. He began to scream at Justin, spit flying everywhere, as he frothed at the mouth. I could only make out that he was shouting about trespassing and his startled cows.
Greg had forgotten to call the farmer the night before and now this guy was out for blood. I jogged up to join the conversation. I had to try to settle this guy down and redirect him but I could see he had no interest in hearing our side of the story. You could tell this hick was the kind of guy who dances in place waiting to start trouble. And now, he had a reason to be justified if he did something to us. The farmer guy then turned toward me, saw that I was holding a camera, and his eyes turned a dark shade of crimson red. He announced he had a shotgun in the back of his car, and he was going to use it on all three of us.
Wow. What a way to liven up a conversation. What`s worse was that his bitchy wife kept repeating everything he said. Almost like redneck reverb. The farmer then took a step forward to intimidate me. I stood my ground and politely smiled. I tried to talk softly and be apologetic.
For some reason when people see a camera, they assume you`re up to no good. I wanted to resolve this whole thing without violence and I did. I said all the things he wanted to here and apologized as many times as he wanted. The farmer hunkered back to his car, satisfied he had become the alpha male of our little confrontation. We promised the guy it was a misunderstanding and we would be off his property in five minutes. In those five minutes, I quickly snuck in some insert shots of Justin taking off the parachute before we headed back.
We caught up with Greg and took a peek at his footage from his helmet cam. The footage looked fantastic. Wilson Chance was airborne! The last jump for the skydivers of the day, Justin talked me in to letting him go ride along in the plane. Justin took the smaller camera with him to get some interior shots and to film Jordan leaping out of the plane from his point of view. They gave Justin an emergency chute, tossed him in the front, and up they went. Justin said he wasn`t prepared for the sudden pressure change during the flight and one of his contacts flew out. Jay, who was piloting, took the plane in a nose-dive for fun. I watched all of this from the ground and turned green. I kept thinking, “Why exactly is the star of my film 15,000 feet in the air, stuck in a nose-dive?”
The director has to be aware of the safety of his actors. This sentiment tended to lapse in and out during the course of this film. I found myself rationalizing that, as long as Justin didn`t get “considerably” maimed during any given stunt, we`d still be able to go on with the film.
When the plane finally landed, I was glad that it was the last shot of the day. Justin admitted he had the urge to jump out and see what it was like to free-fall. I told him to stick to playing Wilson Chance, and stop thinking like him. Justin agreed. The next weekend we came back and finished our interior shots, and did all the dialogue inside the plane while it was grounded. This scene, which may only have about five minutes on screen when edited, took two full ten-hour days to film. It wasn`t easy, and wasn`t necessarily the most fun I`d ever had in my life. In fact, it was downright grueling, and frightening in parts. Why do this, then, you might ask? The answer is simple, really. I love to entertain. And, I love making movies, baby!
I hope this has given everyone an interesting insight to what it takes to shoot a sequence of this magnitude on an independent level. It definitely separates the men from the boys, or the sane from the slightly off.
–Jeffrey Bunzendahl is the Director of WILSON CHANCE, due to be released in 2001. Vic Flick is working on the soundtrack.