Making "Off The Edge"
Making "Off The Edge"
One day in the autumn of 1973 a guy called Mike Firth dropped into the Alpine Guides office at Mount Cook. He wanted to make a full length adventure movie based around skiing and could we help? Nick and I said sure. A few weeks later one of the other guides, Gavin, took Mike and the three central characters glacier skiing.
Mike had met Jeff Campbell, an American, and Blair Trenholme, a Canadian, when those three had been skiing in France. Annette was a New Zealand ski instructor friend of Mike's and a dead ringer for Glenda Jackson. The three were powerful all-terrain skiers. That first day was exciting for the four visitors to Mount Cook. They watched a slab avalanche chase Gavin down the steep Murchison Glacier head wall.
The filming started in June on the Tasman Glacier among some crevasses and seracs. For a few days we ducked and dived on skis around and into interesting ice walled valleys, arches and caves. Once Jeff and Blair skied a very steep gully in a crevasse wall, while the rest of us watched and filmed from the top of the serac. My job was to provide a bit of local knowledge, check out the slots, be ready to haul enyone out of one and help carry (and occasionally man one of) the 16mm Bolex cameras and tripods. However most of the group were experienced mountain skiers and quickly tuned into the local snow and glacier condtions so that they could soon look after themselves.
Unfortunately, mountain weather patterns don't give that many perfect days. So there was a lot of waiting round. Some of the earlier ideas for the film got dropped when a folk singing woman in the crew got tired of the life and departed. A while later, Annette got fed up and left too. So that left Jeff and Blair as the stars.
The fine day routine was established where the crew would fly into the head of the Tasman and ski to the filming locations on the Tasman, Murchison or Mannering Glaciers. Depending on conditions and the places, I or another guide might go with them. We would get picked up at the bottom of the two to four mile runs and flown back up once or twice that day. At the end of the day it'd be back to the village and probably the Tavern Bar. Nights were for stirs and looking at the rushes. From the first it seemed obvious that the movie was going to be brilliant.
Sometime during that first winter, hang gliding found its place in the story. Jeff, an experienced flyer, had brought two kites out with him. And Blair was soon in the sky too, although he'd never flown before. After some skiing, flying and filming round Round Hill and Mt Hutt, they started jumping off the Minarets and Elie de Beaumont. These were the first hang glider flights ever off any of the 10,0 00ft peaks in New Zealand. Mike would follow on the helicopter, and Geoff Cox, the sound and camera man, would film from the ground somewhere. A small camera was occasionally used on the kites themselves.
Because the colour of their sails didn't show those kites up to their best advantage in the mountains, none of this first year's mountain hang gliding was ever shown in "Off the Edge". However it was used in a shorter movie specifically about hang gliding that Mike also made, called "Curved Air".
On several days when it was no good for flying, the walking, horse riding and camp scenes were shot. This was done mainly around the village and Ball Hut areas and in a valley of the Ben Ohau Range. Filming was also done at the hot pools at Welcome page 18Flat in the Copland Valley. On one beautiful September day we went out to some ice caves in the Hochstetter icestream of the Tasman Glacier. It was there amongst the gleaming translucent blue-green walls and dripping icicles that Mike did some of his most talented filming. The thaw had just started so entry into this best cave system was a oncer and we hadn't brought enough film for retakes. So Mike made difficult pans with no rehearsing and made every camera angle count as we all explored the winding cavern. Mike, Jeff and Blair were incredible people to be with, especially in the mountains.
By the end of 1973 Winter the boys still hadn't got into Pioneer for the hut scenes and some local runs. So back they came in 1974 complete with two suitably coloured gliders. They flew the Minarets and Elie several more times. Blair came unstuck during one take-off from Elie and sorted himself out only just before dropping over an icecliff. The group got their trip to Pioneer, skied the very steep slope below the hut, and skied out along the Fritz Range during a classic West Coast sunset. They also flew through Cinerama Col under Mt. Cook and off Glacier Dome down the Hochstetter Icefall. The Hochstetter flights were probably the most spectacular flying they had ever done. In the movie, the camera on the wing of Jeff's kite shows his mind-blown face as he dives between huge seracs and floats above the chaotic mass of ice blocks and crevasses.
The shooting was finished by the end of 1974. What remained was a long and difficult job of rough editing and selecting music and sound. In 1976 Mike and Anne, his film assistant wife, took the movie to the States for film editing. Eventually they started showing it around the skifields there. Two years later it is still showing widely and successfully, and has won world acclaim.