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Out of Window Out of Body: “Drop Zone” Tales, Part 1

"Tom Sanders' shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie." {Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 | "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com}
"Tom Sanders' shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie." {Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 | "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com}
Written by Moe Viletto

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Originally printed in issue #52 (March 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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I had been working on the movie “Drop Zone” as a rigger and aerial stunt performer in Miami for nearly three months in 1994. The movie is a bit hokey from a skydiver’s point of view but the majority of the stunts were not faked. Computer-generated imagery was used for some stunts, but only minimally. Executive producer and director John Badham is known for action movies with as real as possible stunts.

I was a lucky boy when there was a script change that allowed me a jump from the First Federal Building. This was the first BASE jump in a feature film in the U.S. in more than 10 years. After one went awry in the early ‘80s, the stunt industry put the kibosh on Hollywood and real BASE jumps. When my first jump pleased the producers, (I didn’t shhpank!) they changed the script again to allow for another building jump, just outside of Los Angeles.

I was about to perform this stunt for the final kill scene. It went something like this: The good guy (Wesley Snipes) whom I was doubling for, and the bad guy (Gary Busey), are shooting it out on the top floor of a building. Snipes still has his rig on, sans the main he had cut away after landing on the roof. They come together face to face, with guns pointed at each other’s heads. Click … Click. They are both out of ammo. Snipes tackles Busey and crashes through a glass window. Deploying his reserve, he drops Busey, who then crashes head-on into his partner’s oncoming truck windshield. End scene.

I was tortured for more than 3 hours in the makeup and wardrobe trailer to make me look like Snipes. They greased down what was left of my hair and glued on a tight rubber cap. I had been doubling for Michael Jeter (who is 5’4”, bald, and white) and already sported 3 shaved-out bald spots.

"Moe Viletto as Earl Leedy, Michael Jeter’s computer nerd character." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 | "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Moe Viletto as Earl Leedy, Michael Jeter’s computer nerd character.” Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1” by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Next, they glued black sheep’s wool on top of the rubber cap. Sponges, pads and airbrushes made me black. It was somewhat frightening as I looked at a radically different me in the mirror. I walked outside to make my way 280 feet up to the top floor of the Warner Center building to make the jump. As I walked across the street, there were about a dozen of my friends sitting on the curb waiting to watch. Some wished me luck with nervous smiles. Many of them could not look me in the eye.

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BASE jumping was still considered the lunatic fringe and many of my friends thought I should have been dead long ago. In fact, in my early somewhat manic BASE jumping days, should I take the mighty whipper, I had willed everything I owned to a friend, in trade for practically free rental space in his industrial building for my rigging shop. He and his partner were pretty sure I was going to die BASE jumping. We just looked at it like a business deal. They got the raw end of the deal though; I lived!

Our aerial-stunt team had been doing some very serious stunts for the last 3 months and we were all pretty surprised that we had no serious injuries … or deaths. Would this be The One? All the major stunts were in the can except for this one. But first, here are some behind the scenes stories and out-of-the norm jumps that we made.

The majority of the stunts were done in Miami. We made many night jumps over the ocean, landing in a downtown Miami park. On one of those jumps, world renowned aerial cinematographer Tom Sanders, wearing an unfathomable amount of camera gear, had a malfunction and skidded in on his back; gutter-balling down an asphalt walkway under a Cricket reserve. No damage to the camera itself but the custom magnesium housing acted like a rudder as it ground into the asphalt bringing him to a stop. There was a helicopter that was not supposed to be airborne while we were jumping and it nearly hit Tom’s cutaway main. The all-yellow canopy luckily landed on a sea wall and we were just as lucky to have found it—in the dark, no less.

Tom also filmed Jake Brake landing on the roof of a building surrounded by death, also at night. The roof had several levels and was scattered with air-conditioning units, a stairwell and microwave dishes, and was surrounded with high-tension lines that you could hear buzzing and crackling. An out landing was not an option. Not one you could walk away from anyway. Jake made a steep accuracy approach with Tom flying just above and behind, filling up the frame and barely out of Jakes canopy’s turbulence. This perspective, to me, is one of the best shots in the movie.

"Tom Sanders' shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Tom Sanders’ shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie.” | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1” by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Tom later told me that once he lowered his head and rested his chin cup on his chest it became as stable as a tripod. But once his head was lowered he would have to use his hands should he need to raise it again. This says a lot, seeing that Tom has the neck of an ox from all that belly paddling in order to surf. Watching him walk around balancing 2 concrete blocks worth of camera gear on his head makes one wonder how anyone could handle an opening shock. A hard opening or poor body position had the potential to break his neck.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Tom later told me that once he lowered his head and rested his chin cup on his chest it became as stable as a tripod. But once his head was lowered he would have to use his hands should he need to raise it again.” | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1” by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

 

The very well-known cinema-photographer Norman Kent also wore his share of pre-Go Pro anvils and 35-millimeter movie film cameras. These guys are super human.

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com.  | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

It takes two to make a thing go right. And to hold up Norman Kent’s gigantic camera setup. Norman and his late wife Deanna on the set of “Drop Zone.” Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1” by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Accuracy master and former Golden Knight Rusty Vest, with me as a tandem passenger, landed on a raised boat dock. The director wanted us to land hard. We had no choice. Coming up short would have slammed us face first into the raised dock. Overshooting would put us in the drink. Not so bad. Rusty stove-piped us straight down to the dock, just over a tree line. Just like the accuracy guys do, only the tuffett was a hardwood deck with no give. Proving that a circa 1994 tandem canopy is not for accuracy, we hammered. We had Harry O’ Conner, an ex-Navy SEAL, waiting under the dock should we whack it and plop into the drink. We came close. At the very least, the potential to snap a limb on this jump was something a stuntman may choose to accept.

I sat out of camera view in the front corner bed of a dual-axle truck, with radio communication to the driver. I would be giving him speed corrections as jumpers attempted to land in the back while the truck was rolling through downtown Miami. And that was with tricky winds, and at night of course. On the attempt, even after radio checks, I lost communication with the driver as Guy Manos (who wrote the original script for the movie) was overshooting the truck. I was screaming “STOP!” so loudly through the radio that the driver finally heard me from his open window. He stopped and didn’t mow Guy down. The other two jumpers, who also had their hands full, saw this and aborted early on. Just flying a canopy in these windy conditions was challenging enough, let alone trying to land in a moving truck surrounded by skyscrapers. No more attempts were made due to the yahoo city winds of Miami.

 Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“On all night photos, no flash photography was allowed since they were rolling movie cameras. Back in the days of film … I am happy I got anything of the night action.” —Tom Sanders
Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1” by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Longtime Skydive Deland owner Bob Hallett did complete the stunt twice, as did Manos later on in L.A. On one attempt, Bob approached in somewhat bumpy air, side-saddled the right side of the truck bed and rolled inside. Rolling the other way would have put him under the rear wheels. Thump thump … But it wasn’t over. His pilot chute had wrapped around the dual axle. As the truck started to speed away, the wheel and axle started to wind up his bridle and reel him back out of the truck. Of course that is the shot the editors chose.

On several day and night jumps we were asked to “dump in a clump.” No intelligent skydiver would ever think about deploying a parachute with a group of others deploying at the same time in the same space without tracking away. Sometimes you just have to say no. The best compromise we gave them was on a 5-way. We picked a pull sequence where, when the first person’s deployment bag left the container, the next person would pull and so on down the line. A slow opening or hesitation could have put us dangerously close on opening. On some of the larger formation jumps, if you look closely you can see where canopies were added to the frames digitally in order to get multiple openings at the same time. If Hollywood wants it, they will get it, one way or another.

One scene called for “the gift wrap.” This was where one of the good guys intentionally flies and wraps his canopy around a bad guy’s body as payback from a previous encounter. The good guy then jettisons his canopy, leaving the bad guy cocooned in a mess of line and nylon. And then the bad guy follows up with a crash and burn landing in front of a set of bleachers while still wrapped up in the cut away canopy. Guy Manos intentionally docked on, then wrapped his canopy around Utah Steve in a bundle of nylon and then he would back away and repeat while being filmed from a helicopter. Shoobi Knutson was stacked on top of Utah’s canopy and out of frame. This helped to help keep Utah stable and have his hands free to control the wrap. The guys performed these controlled wraps at a safe altitude, should Utah need more time to deal with clearing the mess if it turned into a true wrap. But the docks were perfect, engulfing Utah in canopy fabric only and keeping the lines away. The actual cutaway was done separately. Harry O’Conner and Guy Manos both performed an intentional cutaway with “air guitar move” and reserve deployment.

A team of non-jumpers was working on the crash landing portion of the stunt. They constructed a rigid framework inside a canopy suspended from a crane. The idea was to swing and lower this contraption sideways across the ground with a stunt man suspended beneath. Later in post-production, they would digitally erase any rigging and speed up the film. After watching how ridiculously fake this looked, Utah coaxed BJ Worth, the aerial stunt coordinator , to do the crash and burn himself. BJ had a chat with the director and it was a go.

Utah Steve exited the chopper and opened with other canopies next to him. Next, from a pouch on his chest strap, he unfurled a “canopy wrap” costume with sleeves that also had a pair of goggles sewn into them. He put them on and distributed the fake canopy around his head and body, simulating being gift wrapped. The sewn-in goggles were a good idea but Utah was gasping for air as the zero-porosity canopy fabric was blocking his nose and mouth. The struggling he was doing was not acting, but he managed to catch a breath now and again.

For the crash landing, a section of lawn was watered down and Utah carved a turn and took the hit—although he didn’t realize how close he came to being taken out. The trailing lines and risers of the wrapped canopy just nipped the top row of the bleachers when he was carving the crashing turn. If the riser would have stuck, the outcome would have been very different. But as it turned out, it was way better because it was for real, albeit a little more risky than the original crane idea. In fact there were several times when our aerial team ended up doing non-jump-assigned stunts for the regular stuntmen. They weren’t happy. The director was more than pleased.

To be continued …

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