DAYS LIKE THIS

5:30 AM: Malaysia, 6000 feet above the ground in an A-Star helicopter. We were in our third day of filming a skydiving sequence for an Indian movie called “Don”. In the sequence, the good guy and the bad guy (with hidden parachutes) fight over a single parachute system. The good guy wins, of course, but the sequence was actually quite good. The hero drifts to earth, barely holding on with one hand to the parachute leg straps.

Our rigger, Kevin McGuire, a 250 pound, no nonsense man, threw open the door and the cool wind rushed into the helicopter. The hero’s double, Omar Alhegelan, stepped out onto the skid and carefully turned around to face Kevin, who was holding his parachute. On Kevin’s command, Omar stepped off the skid and dropped away, dragging with him the entire rig and parachute, which inflated immediately.


Soon after, with helmet mounted cameras, I stepped from the opposite side of the helicopter, fell away, and then opened my own parachute. Holding on with just one hand, Omar waited for me to maneuver into position to begin filming. I flew into formation with him and shot the entire roll of film before turning away, which signaled him to let go of the leg strap and drop away to open his hidden parachute.

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It was a perfect jump, except for a detail. The parachute was rigged to collapse the moment Omar released. It didn’t collapse. Picture an 18 pound parachute harness, suspended under a full sized rectangular parachute in full flight. Like a helium balloon, it just flew away and disappeared. A half hour later, and ten miles away, the empty parachute system settled down to hang in a short tree, in the middle of a maximum security military prison complex.


When our spotters drove up to retrieve it, they were immediately detained and questioned. The military police were filled with adrenaline, and demanded to know, “where’s the guy?”. The spotters explanation just made the cops angry. “Where’s the guy, and why are you here?” They refused to release the parachute or our guys, and anyone from production who tried to help, was quickly detained as well. The MPs just couldn’t make sense of a fully functional parachute system drifting into their compound without a passenger. Five hours later, I believe it was the chief of police who was able to negotiate our crew’s release and then to recover the parachute system.

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2:00 PM: We flew back to 6000 feet to film the remaining action for the parachute hanging shot. This time, we were especially careful to make sure the parachute collapsed upon release. It spiraled down perfectly and splashed into a reservoir below. As the helicopter descended, Kevin noticed that someone was swimming out to where the parachute splashed down. At about fifty yards from shore, the swimmer turned back and began to splash frantically. He was drowning. The pilot saw it too and descended, practically in a dive, straight for the swimmer while Kevin disconnected his harness and tore off his shirt and shoes. At about forty feet, before they’d even slowed to a hover, Kevin leaped from the helicopter into the water.

Indians, and Malaysians believe that all things happen by design, that our lives unfold entirely in accordance with our destinies. While drowning, the young Malaysian man, who’d been fishing just moments before, probably wasn’t contemplating his destiny. More likely, he was thinking, “How in the hell am I supposed to save some parachutist when I can’t even swim?”. Most likely, he was gasping in fear and helpless panic as water splashed into his mouth and nose and eyes. He probably didn’t see the helicopter fly overhead, or notice the large pale figure that crashed into the water next to him.

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Kevin McGuire – Master Rigger, Lifesaver

Kevin was a paramedic, and had played on the US water polo team, so pulling a small man from the water was easy. He really didn’t think much of it. On the shore, he checked to be sure the guy was Ok, and then dove back into the reservoir to retrieve the parachute. By the time Omar and I wandered back to base, he was drying the parachute and grumbling about the hassle. He didn’t mention the drowning guy.

Then a crowd began to gather. Entire families stacked onto small scooters pulled up to the airport and walked over to our base. More than a hundred people wandered around the set and most of them crowded around Kevin, who found the experience entirely uncomfortable. The helicopter pilot explained everything and then we, along with the locals, looked in awe at Kevin. “Well, yeah, the guy was drowning. Of course I grabbed him. Yeah, Thanks. No big deal. Thanks. Be careful around that gear. Look, I’ve really got to get back to work here if we’re gonna get the shots today.”.

And so we continued, filming jumps until sunset.

IMG_83169:30 PM: The drive, each night, back to Kuala Lumpur took about two hours. Our Indian driver was small and brown and spoke perfect English with a strong Indian accent, just like Abu from the Simpsons. He loved to chat, and we loved just listening to him. Our van was an old diesel that struggled to just to drag us around.

About an hour into the drive, the traffic slowed almost to a stop because of a police checkpoint up the road. Our driver, Abu, asked, “Do you have your identification?”. We responded that our passports were at the production office. “Oh no.”, he said as we drove into the checkpoint.

Cars were parked alongside the highway with their doors and trunks open as the police poked around with flashlights. Other police peered into passing vehicles to select which ones to pull over. As we rolled by, a policeman looked into our overloaded mini-van with his flashlight. Four big white guys, two drivers, and a bunch of gear. He motioned our driver to pull over.

IMG_9027“Oh no. Are you sure you don’t have any ID?” said Abu, as he continued to roll by the waving cop. We had nothing. All of our documents were at least an hour away. “That’s not good”, he said in all sincerity as he kept rolling to the next cop, who motioned more urgently for us to pull over. “Maybe you have some kind of ID in your parachute equipment?”, he said hopefully, but we really had nothing. By now, a third and forth cop had joined the two who were jogging alongside the van. One of them knocked on the side of the van to get Abu’s attention, but Abu just looked forward as if he didn’t notice. He was thinking, mumbling something to himself.

Then he hit the gas and pulled around the police. First gear, the police are almost keeping pace. Second gear, and we’re beginning to pull away. Third gear, now they’re a couple hundred feet back, still running, flashlights waving around. And forth gear, puts us up to speed with traffic and we’re on our way as the checkpoint disappeared behind us.

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Omar, Greg, Kevin, and I just started laughing, harder and harder as we rolled away from the checkpoint. I could hardly breath, “We’re goin’ to jail!, hahaha, Hell of a getaway vehicle!”. It was a hard drunk laugh from the core, the kind you can’t stop, even when you’re running from the cops. Our vehicle was practically a bucket with wheels, driven by a defiant little man with a perfectly funny accent.


We asked Abu what had possessed him to run from the cops. His answer was slapstick. “I am driving this van around since five in the morning, driving for this, driving for that. Why do I have to drive this piece of crap? Then I am at the military prison for hours with those stupid guys and I miss lunch and then the food is cold. Finally I get to go home, but your ID is at production and then these stupid police. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS BOOLSHEET!”. Then we asked, what if the police chased him down in their cars, to which he replied, “Well, then that would be my destiny.”.

11:00 PM: An incredible day comes to a close.

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