Annual action sports films—those highlight reels released throughout the year by athletes, brands, and media houses—are produced through a partnership of funding, talent, and distribution. As the brands, which provide the funding, strive for more authenticity with their audiences, they've increasingly turned to the athletes for direction. Hollywood directors are looking to capture some of that same authenticity in scripted films, filming action sequences in-camera with big-name athletes rather than with green screens and CGI. The surf film Blue Crush used surfers Keala Kennelly and Kate Skarratt; Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon hired BASE jumper J.T. Holmes.
Director Ericson Core took this idea and ran with it for his remake of Point Break, which is coming out on Christmas next month. The original 1991 film followed FBI agents as they investigated a group of possibly bank-robbing surfers, and it used real-life surfers for many action scenes. More than two decades later, Core has expanded and update this premise, enlisting some of the most accomplished athletes in the world for help. The result is a reel of action sports porn—wingsuiting, surfing, snowboarding, climbing, and motocrossing—that just happens to live inside a scripted movie.
"It was very important to me that we were true to the sports and that we shot it all in-camera," Core said. "Although the Marvel movies and lots of great others are shot on a green screen with [computer-generated] stuff going on—that's fun, and it's entertaining, and it's certainly been very commercially successful. But they lack a sense of authenticity and real peril, which would be a shame not to have in a film like this."
The criminals in the new Point Break aren't just surfers; they're a gang of adrenaline junkies trying to pull off eight extreme feats in search of nirvana with a Robin Hood twist: robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The eight challenges became Core's vehicle to show Chris Sharma free-climbing in Venezuela, Bruce Irons surfing Teahupoo, John DeVore wingsuiting in Switzerland, and Steve Haughelstine ripping his bike down a badlands spine in southern Utah.
"We wound up in 11 countries on four continents because that's where the guys told me to go," Core said. "I don't know of another film that's done that except maybe BBC's Planet Earth."
Core waxes strongly about the film's authenticity. He wanted tier-one athletes. He wanted to film the sequences in the best possible locations, and he relied on the athletes to advise him on where to shoot the sequences. And, of course, when he put a camera in front of the athletes and gave them the green light to go big, he captured some heavy footage.
What separates Point Break from annual action sports films, though, is time and money. Hollywood has more of both than what endemic media producers can generally bring to the table.
"When you look at the YouTube clips that a lot of these guys put up, mostly it's the GoPro aesthetic," Core said. "What you do get out of that is a sense of, holy shit those guys really did that. What we were able to do—different than say a GoPro video—is that we had the time and resources to set it up properly."
For the wingsuiting sequences, for example, Jeb Corliss told Core that the best place to fly was through a canyon in Switzerland called the Crack. At that point, only two people had flown in formation down the mountainside gorge. For Point Break, five wingsuiters flew the Crack 60 times during three weeks of shooting.
"We had to get profiles and close ups and lead- and follow-angle shots and all the rest," Core said, "but the vast majority of the footage is in-camera, shot from a Red camera mounted on the helmet of one of two operators, one of which was Jhonathan Florez."
Florez died on July 3 in an unrelated wingsuiting accident in Engelberg, Switzerland.
Shooting in-camera films rather than using a green screen isn't unheard of, but it's not the norm. Core was director of photography for the first Fast and Furious in 2001. Fast and Furious has since evolved into cars flying through buildings in Dubai, but Core calls the original, "a very in-camera shoot."
"The last Mad Max did a decent amount of in-camera work, from what I've heard, but let's put it this way: it's very much against the grain," Core said. "It's significantly easier to go to New Orleans or Atlanta or New Mexico and go with a green screen. It's easier, it's air-conditioned, and you can stay on production schedule and do things the way you want. But it lacks reality and intensity."
The reality of shooting Point Break was incidents like pro surfer Laurie Towner breaking his jaw on the reef at Teahupoo, and set conditions like living in tents in the Utah desert. Rather than the light plants, trailers, and large production squad typical of big-screen films, Core and a handful of others traveled lightly and used local support crews. Core, who worked as a mountain guide in the Colorado Rockies as a younger man, viewed the filming as an expedition and a chance to work with athletes he admired.
Oakley Lehman, a former motocross racer who has been a stuntman for 17 years, first worked with Core on Fast and Furious. For Point Break, the men spent three weeks in Austria shooting a dirt bike chase scene. It was Lehman's first time doing a high-speed chase scene on a 450 cc bike, he said.
"It was the best," he said of the experience. "Like we were on vacation. Very nonchalant. No egos, no actors, no suits standing over us, and once in awhile we were forced to do some cool, gnarly stuff."
"These guys are extraordinary people, and I was profoundly affected by them," Core said. "I wanted to get to the heart of who these guys are, both in terms of mentality—what it takes to do what they do—as well as some of the belief systems behind it. I hope that like the first Point Break, this film can be grounded in this world and that it's a film the guys can call their own."