Cliffhanger: How cinema's most expensive aerial stunt was made

Stunt coordinator Simon Crane takes us behind the scenes on Sylvester Stallone's 1993 action classic

USA. Sylvester Stallone in a scene from the (C)TriStar Pictures movie: Cliffhanger (1993) . Plot: A botched mid-air heist results in suitcases full of cash being searched for by various groups throughout the Rocky Mountains. Ref: LMK110-J7244-260721  Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
Sylvester Stallone in 1993's Cliffhanger. (LMK/Alamy)

When people think about 1993’s hit Cliffhanger, what pops into your mind is probably Sylvester Stallone in a singlet grunting and hanging from his fingertips on a high-up ledge.

But the most incredible scene in the movie actually comes early on and doesn’t involve Sly at all. The baddies are pulling off what looks like an incredible heist: a rogue government agent turns on his colleagues during a flight carrying millions of dollars in suitcases, kills (almost) all of them and then tries to transfer the money — and himself — to the gang’s plane which is hooked up to his by a mid-air wire.

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He then zip-lines from one plane to the other.

It's a staggering stunt — named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the costliest aerial stunt ever performed — and was actually done for real, by legendary British stuntman Simon Crane. Watch it below.

So how in the hell did he do it?

Crane has just got home from shooting The Instigators with Matt Damon, so Yahoo UK asked him.

How did you first get involved?

RELEASE DATE: July 23, 2010   MOVIE TITLE: Salt   STUDIO: Columbia Pictures   DIRECTOR: Philip Noyce   PLOT: When CIA officer Evelyn Salt is outed as a Russian sleeper spy, she evades capture by those who are convinced she's aiming to assassinate the president   PICTURED: ANGELINA JOLIE with stunt coordinator SIMON CRANE   (Credit Image: c Columbia Pictures/Entertainment Pictures)
Simon Crane on the set of 2010's Salt with Angelina Jolie. (Columbia Pictures/Alamy)

They were prepping to film in Cortina in Italy and I'd been approached by this aerial company. I'd done something previously on a film called Air America, where there's a guy that falls out the back of a plane and he's left hanging on. That was me. We thought it would be a similar premise for the stunt in Cliffhanger.

The producers decided to cancel the stunt, so after getting semi-excited about how we would do it, the stunt got cancelled. And it was only after they'd finished the movie that they decided they wanted to shoot it. And I think it was actually Stallone that paid for it out of his own money.

What was the premise of the stunt as you understood it?

The idea was I would be attached to a winch. They would winch me out of the DC-9, I would pretend that I was sort of sliding down and I had another piece of rope that was attached to me via a quick release with a weight on the end.

So I'm on this one wire being winched out and there's another rope tied to my waist and that had a 20-pound weight on it and was probably 40-foot long. The idea was, as they winch me out, [the guys in the smaller jet] would grab hold of the weight, then they would pull me in. That was the idea.

How on Earth do you prepare for something like this?

USA. A scene from the (C)TriStar Pictures movie: Cliffhanger (1993) . Plot: A botched mid-air heist results in suitcases full of cash being searched for by various groups throughout the Rocky Mountains. Ref: LMK110-J7244-260721  Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
A botched mid-air heist results in suitcases full of cash being searched for by various groups throughout the Rocky Mountains in 1993's Cliffhanger. (LMK/Alamy)

We prepped for quite some time in England, with hidden parachutes, making sure they opened. Also, we were aware of the extreme cold, because when we did it the wind chill was like minus 30, minus 40. And I had to sort of be protected from that.

I was wearing a sort of Special Forces survival suit. And then on top of that, I had a prosthetic head and prosthetic hands. It's very difficult, if something goes wrong, you've got to be able to get to your hidden parachute and with all this stuff that was on me, it was difficult.

At first, we did it with a dummy. We put a dummy out the back [of the plane], we lost that. It’s still out there somewhere!

We had to do it with the camera planes as well. In one of the tests, I remember it was really quite dangerous, not necessarily for me, but for the camera plane.

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This camera ship, we said, never ever come behind me. If they were lower than me and behind me, if I had to release, I'm going through [it].

But unfortunately, the weight that was attached to me via a quick release, it got snagged on my costume and it released. I managed to catch it. So now I'm holding onto this rope, which is a 20-pound weight, but a 20-pound weight travelling at 200 miles per hour and I’m trying to hold onto it.

The plane that we said never go behind me went behind me and if I had let it go, it would have gone through that plane. But eventually they pulled out the way I released the weight and parachuted down.

That sounds terrifying…

What we found in Air America is there’s a sort of dead space as you go out the back of a plane, about 12 feet from the back. It’s a very dangerous area to be in because you start to pendulum. You get into the fast air, then you get pushed up.

In one of the tests, unfortunately, they stopped me in this dead area. And I started to pendulum and I hit the tail of the plane. I had to release myself and parachute down. But it's a very dangerous area. And you only learn that by experiencing it.

Did anything else go wrong during rehearsals?

In one of the practice jumps, I cut away and I’m flying down. The safety guys jump out, marry up with me just to see that the parachute’s revealed.

We all had quite high-performance parachutes, the wind wasn’t much at first, but as we were coming down, there was sudden gusts, it was like 40-mile-an-hour. Now, a parachute is good to about 20/25-miles-an-hour and one of the guys, he was probably about 15 feet from the ground and his parachute collapsed. He crash-landed and broke his leg badly, ended up in hospital.

So tell us about doing the actual stunt on camera for the movie?

Sylvester Stallone and Janine Turner in 1993's Cliffhanger. (Alamy/LMK)

We were a small unit out in a place called Durango, in Colorado.

There I was being winched out, pretending to rappel down. And this bloody weight, the guys didn't catch it. The guys in the second plane missed the weight, it went over the wing and underneath the engine of the second jet.

That wasn't a problem, but they came in a bit faster and actually sort of hit me. I hit the front of their plane and got bounced onto the roof. But as the guys never had that weight, I was going wherever that rope was going. There's nothing to hold on to on the top of the jet, I was sort of clattering about.

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There was a fantastic pilot of that smaller jet and he heard me being bashed along the roof and he knew I was going back towards the engine and literally he peeled off the one way, I fell the other way and parachuted down with all our safety jumpers.

But I nearly went through the engines.

Was there a take two?!

I did it the once. They sort of got the shot even though I didn't end up in the other plane. Because I sort of bounced towards the door and then they had the actor going into the door on the [studio] stage. I was totally prepared to do it again, but they didn’t need to.

It didn't look as special to me [in the finished film]. Like I said, the outtakes are much more frightening than what's in the movie.

You’ve since become a celebrated second unit director on Rogue One, Jason Bourne, Edge of Tomorrow and loads more. Why did you decide to do that too?

A lot of directors don't know action and they don't know how to get the best out of it.

One of the hardest things I had to do was in the James Bond film Licence to Kill. And it looks so s*** in the movie. That probably pushed me to get into directing, because it was filmed badly.

Tell us what happened.

Permis de tuer Licence to kill 1989 Real  John Glen Timothy Dalton. Collection Christophel © Danjaq / Eon Productions
James Bond atop a tanker in 1989's Licence To Kill. (Alamy)

I was doubling James Bond and I had to climb out on the wing of a crop duster plane and basically jump from the plane onto a petrol tanker as it drove down the road.

And in the rehearsals, we'd never got anywhere near this bloody petrol tanker that's traveling 70-miles-an-hour.

We come to film it and we had to do it at five o'clock in the morning because we shot it in Mexico and it had to be before it got too hot.

We're flying along and we fly over the fire engine that's following the camera car and we fly over the ambulance, which is to scrape me up if it goes wrong.

Eventually, I jump, I make it and it’s fine. But what it looks like in the movie, you might as well have hung the crop duster from a crane and have the real Timothy Dalton jump onto it.

That opened my eyes because that was difficult, like I say, the plane has got nowhere near this petrol tanker in all the rehearsals.

I know why it was shot that way, you'd shoot it a totally different way now. But it's sort of like, that was a lot of hard work, a lot of danger, really for no payoff.

Still, at least you played James Bond!

The guy flying [the plane] was doubling the girl. So he's wearing a dress, I'm wearing a suit.

[When we were practising] the plane broke down and we ended up in the mountains in Mexico. We got arrested by the Mexican equivalent of the DEA. They came out with guns because they thought we were drug smuggling!

Cliffhanger is streaming on ITVX and Studiocanal Presents.