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‘Fly’ Directors Spent Seven Years Capturing the Drama Behind BASE Jumping

In making Fly, their feature documentary about BASE jumping, directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau spent seven years trying to capture the feeling of whole-heartedly wanting to throw yourself off a cliff.

The doc, which premiered this week at the SXSW Film and TV Festival, takes a look at the sport, which has been maligned for the obvious dangers it imposes on its participants, through the lens of three romantic couples, whose love of BASE jumping butts up against the realities of being in love with a partner.

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The BASE jumping, as seen in Fly, is either jumpers deploying parachutes after leaping from high surfaces (bridges, buildings and cliffs) or using wingsuits (web-sleeved jumpsuits also called squirrel suits), that allow the user to glide down a mountain, sometimes reaching speeds of 200 mph. “Sometimes we would hike hours just to have what’s called the “fly by shot.” You’re spending days planning and two hours walking and then [get] a three second shot,” says Schwarz.

After their SXSW debut, the directors talked to The Hollywood Reporter about earning the trust of the BASE jumping community and capturing the speed and sound of flights.

How did you come to the sport?

SHAUL SCHWARZ I have a really good friend who was a very good climber, Dean Potter, and he was telling us that he and his friends at Yosemite have started climbing and then instead of descending, they would be jumping a wingsuit off. And they were dying a lot. We’d seen it a little bit on YouTube, and we said that might be an interesting short film, maybe we’ll head out there. A week or two after that, Dean died. We headed out there and pretty quickly found that what they do and these people are just amazing. We also came to the conclusion that we don’t want to focus on someone who had already passed. We had heard that the people who taught Dean how to jump were these legends into sport called Jimmy and Marta.

How did you decide to focus on the romantic relationships in BASE jumping and not just the sport?

SCHWARZ It takes time to actually get access. They are quite a close a closed community and we get why, now. But it took us a while to think that [the film] is about couples and about relationships. In this world that is so dangerous, how do relationships look? How do you love? That became the guiding light.

Why did the community take convincing?

CHRISTINA CLUSIAU They feel, from the outside, they’re quite judged. There’s a lot out there that portrays them as this reckless death cult that are just adrenaline junkies. The convincing came through us spending a lot of time with them, and they started to realize that this is a longer term [project] and that these guys are interested in our lives. We integrated ourselves into their lives, not just dropping in and filming for a couple of days and leaving and never having a real connection or highly produced shoots. This world is seen through very quick hits of videos on YouTube. We wanted to be in their heads.

SCHWARZ When they were filmed, in the early days, there was a lot of clips of these guys, especially doing wingsuit proximity [flying], and there was a couple of sponsors who came in. A lot of people were still dying and the sponsors got scared of the sport and left it to be this dirtbag, on the edge [hobby]. One of the things we immediately told them, we never want you to change anything for us. It’s interesting to us to see if when you want to jump, and you choose to back off. We don’t care if we had to climb three hours, that’s a better scene. The more we got to know them, you actually start caring for them. You kind of become a Jewish mom, at the end of the day. You’re like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But you’re not supposed to say it out loud.

How did you shoot the case jumpers? What kind of equipment were you using and how did you capture their flights?

CLUSIAU The film team is mainly Shoal and myself. Shoal spent a lot of time climbing with these guys with a good solid camera that was heavier than it should have been.

SCHWARZ We started persuading them to pay more attention and to shoot 4K. We also realized, because we both came from photography and love cinematography, it wouldn’t be great if it doesn’t celebrate what they would call “art of human flight.” We made this movie on a very tight budget and we always dreamed of being able to shoot on a Cineflex [a very stabilized camera system used on series like Planet Earth], a very expensive toy that is commonly used in in this kind of action-y mountain-y setting, but we never had the money. So, when we sold the film [to Nat Geo] we did one last shoot and we captured some [footage] that helped fill this angle that we felt we had a void of. They’re moving faster than a helicopter, but we could kind of keep up with them with this big zoom. It made for this ability to cut from an outsider’s perspective right into their cameras.

The wingsuit sounds like jet engines when they fly past the camera. How did sound design work on this film?

SCHWARZ Parachutes are louder than they seem, and if they’re in an environment where there’s a lot of echo they really become kind really loud. But the real crazy sound that we were shocked by is a wingsuit when it passes you. Nothing you hear in the movie is messed with; it’s just how they sound. We would mic the jumpers, but those mics only worked before and after [the jump] because the speed meant that the sound is completely gone, no matter what we tried to do.

CLUSIAU We really tried to enhance these natural sounds that they talk about. The moment that they jump off the cliff, it’s like complete silence with everything ultra focus. We really tried to emulate so when they jump there’s nothing, and then you hear the wingsuit. We tried to enhance a lot of also what they spoke about — how it sounds for them and how it feels for them — to give the viewer a feeling of being right there with them.

What do you was audiences to take away from your film?

CLUSIAU In this community, when they’re standing on the edge of the cliff, it really informs how they live. That’s something that I continuously thought about and wanted the audience to feel. You don’t have to BASE jump, you don’t have to wingsuit, but we want you to feel for a community that really truly lives with intention. And the question [for viewers] is, “Are you living the life that you want to live? Are you really living with intention?”

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