Aerial Filming: He shoots He Soars

Every great film has a helicopter shot. You can look it up. Picture the panoramic opening of The Sound of Music when the camera swoops over the Alps to find Julie Andrews singing her nun heart out. Or James Bond skiing off a cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me. Or that episode in North by Northwest where a low-flying crop-duster terrorizes the normally unflappable Cary Grant. These scenes were all shot from a helicopter, the one indispensable tool of every ambitious filmmaker.


Every great film has a helicopter shot. You can look it up. Picture the panoramic opening of The Sound of Music when the camera swoops over the Alps to find Julie Andrews singing her nun heart out. Or James Bond skiing off a cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me. Or that episode in North by Northwest where a low-flying crop-duster terrorizes the normally unflappable Cary Grant. These scenes were all shot from a helicopter, the one indispensable tool of every ambitious filmmaker.

A helicopter is a director’s ticket to fame, fortune and stiletto-heeled Oscar floozies. And I have wanted one, very badly, for years. I’ve directed six short films. My first was a seven-minute epic called Farley Mowat Ate My Brother. Instead of buying stock footage of the author, I put a fake beard on a confused terrier and pretended that Mowat was mutating into a wolf. Total budget: $26.50. My sophomore production, William Shatner Lent Me His Hairpiece, featured an obsessed Trekkie (over-acted by me) who battled Shatner (actor/comedian Gary Jones) for control of his -alluring yet addictive magical hairpiece. Props included a rubber Spock ear and a parking ticket stolen from the windshield of somebody’s SUV. Total budget: $138.41. And yet none of those films contained a helicopter shot. Which is frustrating because it’s the only thing holding me back from directing feature films. Sure, it’s useful to have a good idea and a promising track record. You’ve also gotta grovel for cash, march your team to the brink of disaster and convince your producer not to commit suicide until the final shot is in the can. In short, filmmaking is no different than any other management career.

Except, of course, that I need at least one gorgeous soaring-over-the-peasants helicopter shot that would make Hollywood agents wet their pants in excitement. My latest crack at a chopper shot came last summer. The Whistler Film Festival announced Whistler Stories, an Olympic-themed short-film competition sponsored by 2010 Legacies Now. Four winning teams would get $5,000 each to produce a short film about Whistler that would premiere at the festival’s fancy opening gala. Cool! I paired up with my hockey teammate, John Meadows. John had previously penned the script to Wisegirls, starring Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino and Oscar-overlooked Mariah Carey. Better yet: John lives part-time in Whistler so we could apply as lovable locals instead of Big City carpetbaggers. We wrote an action/comedy script featuring Kate, a server at a five-star Whistler resort. She hates her job and, as a skateboarding loner, is sick of the Olympic hype. But when a heart surgeon loses a frozen human heart in her hotel, Kate leaps into action. She pops the heart into an ice bucket, jumps on her skateboard and races to save a dying transplant patient. We shamelessly stuffed our script with Olympic events. Instead of simply jogging two blocks to the Whistler Health Care Centre, Kate finds her inner Olympian by speedskating, luging, ski jumping and (why not?) curling to the hospital. For the climax, we decided the patient would be the “heart of the Vancouver Canucks,” Trevor Linden. Ta-dahhh! Moments after the surgeon sews up his chest, Linden leaps up, grabs his hockey stick and runs back to the rink where he scores the winning goal in a charity hockey tournament. We called it Heart of Whistler, an inspiring cross of Run, Lola, Run and Raiders of the Lost Ark. To tug at the jury’s heartstrings, I wrote a “Director’s Visions” statement in which I claimed a close relative had just survived back-to-back heart attacks. I peppered it with artsy-fartsy terms such as “aesthetics” and “mise en scène” (arts juries eat that stuff up). And I made “visionary” pronouncements such as, “Since there are five colours in the Olympic rings (blue, yellow, black, green and red), these colours will become my colour palette for this film.” Which sounds good, I guess, but it’s like saying, “Vitamins A, C and D will be the menu palette for my porridge.” I promised to snag heaps of sponsors and bragged about how I recently got my wedding sponsored in a local magazine column. Hell, if I could snag $32,000 in free wedding rings, tuxedoes, gin and vodka and a honeymoon on the Mayan Riviera, surely I could raise $50,000 for a helicopter, film gear, hotel rooms and the hockey rink I’d need to shoot my five-minute Citizen Kane. How hard could it be? I submitted the application and stewed for a month. Then I drunkenly told John, “There’s no way they’ll pick our script. Too ambitious. Too many stunts. And any short script that opens with, ‘As we float over Whistler’s mountains, we see a panoramic view of a Five Star Hotel,’ deserves to be ¬rejected.” Next morning John received this email: “We are happy to inform you that your project has been accepted. Congratulations!” John was ecstatic. I said, “Uh-oh, they called our bluff. Now we have to make the damn thing with only $5,000. Our movie’s gonna suck.” “Don’t worry,” said John. “Hey, can I be the producer?” Now, John’s a brilliant writer, but he’d never produced anything other than belly-button lint. “Okay, you can be the producer,” I said. “Great,” he said. “We start shooting in three weeks. Find some sponsors now. Go-go-go!” My first attempts were totally fruitless. I asked the Heart and Stroke Foundation for cash or hospital locations in exchange for free use of our film on their website and fundraising campaigns. But they didn’t want anything to do with us. I asked Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment if we could shoot inside GM Place; they gladly agreed to a discount price larger than our entire shooting budget. Most depressing, I was rejected or ignored by four Vancouver helicopter companies. Nobody wanted to help me lift our film into the sky. Then I met Cailin Boyle, a Vancouver-based branding expert who read and loved the script. So we sent out a press release about our film that contained a mega wish list of gear: services, helicopters and limos to and from Whistler (why not?). We sent the release to a billion journalists and… nothing happened. [pagebreak] I kept hustling. My first and most important stop was the Paladin Show Services warehouse in Burnaby. Paladin is managed by Ed Brando, a film producer and rising star in the B.C. film industry. Ask any director in Vancouver and they’ll tell you how Ed has personally helped them bring their film to life. Ed is the hardest working man I know. Not only will he supply you with valuable lighting equipment and grip gear at reasonable rates, he’ll sometimes offer to lug the stuff to and from the set and personally light your scenes like a pro. If he likes you, that is. To my utter surprise, Ed said, “Hegan, I’ve thought about this a lot… and I think I like you.” Then he offered to drive to Whistler and make my film look like a Spielbergian delight. Love that guy! I tried to thank him by hugging him, but, when that didn’t work, I said, “The least I can do is find you a world-class hotel to stay in.” Just a day later, John snagged us the hotel sponsorship of the century! Thanks to a recommendation from a close friend, John garnered us major support from the Four Seasons Resort Whistler. They graciously offered us their spectacular hotel to film our hotel scenes, inside and out. Plus they donated a block of gorgeous suites to house our cast and crew in their famous five-star style. According to their website, our actors would “experience one of North America’s top year-round mountain resorts, wrapped in Four Seasons comfort and intuitive care.” Now, I come from a tough-as-nails pulp-mill town, so I have no idea what intuitive care might feel, smell or taste like. But I do know that on most low-budget films, the actors get assigned lumpy beds in fleabag half-star motels. Our shoot would be different. Thanks to the gods and goddesses at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler, John and I would be able to pamper Ed and our actors with gentle, respectful care. Speaking of actors, with our shoot only two weeks away, we didn’t have any. Our co-producer, Rob Riley, tried to slip our script to Jessica “hot-cha-cha” Alba, who was in town to shoot Good Luck Chuck. And the Canucks still weren’t returning our calls about Trevor Linden. We tried Bertuzzi. A day later he was traded. Next? We thought, “Anson Carter. He’s got fun hair.” Within days, the dreadlocked wonder packed his bags for Columbus. We branched out into other celebs. Ross Rebagliati? Too busy suing the Whistler TV show. It was worse than trying to find a third Sedin. Meanwhile, Wade Fennig, our hustling production coordinator and beer-hockey- league teammate, booked auditions at the Vancouver Film School. We ultimately chose Rikki Gagne, a rising young Vancouver actor and professional stuntwoman. You might recognize Rikki from her role as the accident victim in an Insurance Corporation of British Columbia drunk-driving PSA. When the drunk’s car gets T-boned, Rikki flies headfirst through the windshield. She’s plucky, sweet, fearless and a talented skateboarder and rollerblader. Perfect.

Cailin sent heartfelt pleas to hospitals and medical clinics, but, for some annoying reason, they said they’d rather use their hallways and operating rooms to actually save lives

I started to freak out about locations. We had cast all the major roles, I had completed my shotlist and storyboards (hand-drawn pictures of what the scenes should look like, also known as the director’s cheat sheet) but our two-day shoot was just a week away and we still didn’t have a hospital in which to film the climactic surgical chase scene. Cailin sent heartfelt pleas to hospitals and medical clinics all over Whistler, Squamish and Vancouver. She was selling the sizzle, telling health officials how much their staff and patients would enjoy watching us shoot our miraculous open-heart surgery comeback scene. But for some annoying reason, the hospitals said they’d rather use their hallways and operating rooms to actually save lives. Which sucked. Man, I wish it were 1991, before The X-Files, when Vancouverites actually got excited about movie crews taking over their neighbourhoods and stealing the best parking spots and women. Still no luck on a celebrity hockey player or GM Place. But then Ollie Kearnes and the Meadow Park Sports Centre offered us their NHL-sized rink for our climactic hockey sequence! Plus our Whistler assistant director, Angie, said, “I’ve got an entire hockey team of guys who acted in the hockey movie Miracle. They’d love to be in your movie. And I recommend you bring beer.” John and I took a Greyhound to Whistler for a quick scouting trip of the Sports Centre. It was perfect. Along one side of the rink, there were giant windows that should help us light the players. The other side of the rink had plenty of seats for our hordes of ecstatic extras. I gave myself a mental note: find hordes of ecstatic extras willing to stay indoors on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon in Whistler. Four days from shooting, we still didn’t have ecstatic extras, a hospital, a helicopter, a celebrity hockey player or any money left in our budget. I figured John’s future kids wouldn’t be going to university. Then something hit me like a ton of bricks on a bald scalp: finding a celebrity hockey player to play my heart patient was the wrong approach for my film. Pro hockey players spend their entire careers hiding their true emotions from video cameras. Their TV interviews are perennially cautious and uncomfortable, as if they’re terrified of making mistakes. And that is the opposite of what an actor does. The best actors completely reveal themselves to the camera, letting us peek through their eyes to see inside their souls (hmm, must remember that line for my next grant application). So it was obvious: I needed an actor who could play hockey, not the other way around. And since he wouldn’t appear until the very end of our film, this “Brave Heart Patient” character had to be instantly believable as a person first, if we’re ever going to care about him as a hockey hero. John agreed and we made a big decision: we’d offer the part to our production coordinator, Wade Fennig. He’s an up-and-coming commercial actor who played semi-pro hockey all over the U.S. He has a killer smile and a wicked slapshot. Wade accepted, saying, “I will lay down and die for you guys.” “Thanks, Wade,” I said, “I might take you up on that.” [pagebreak] Two days before the shoot, my fingernails had been chewed to bloody nubs. On the positive side, John had found us a hospital! The down side: it was a hallway at the Vancouver Film School’s Game Design campus. It didn’t look anything like a hospital and we risked having a hundred cocky students trudging through our curling scenes. Damn. It was manageable, I figured, but we still hadn’t found a helicopter, food and booze sponsors or any surgical costumes, tools or oxygen ¬machines that go beep. Suddenly Angie called with awesome news: we could shoot the ski-jump shot at the Whistler pool jump where the national ski jump team trains during the summer. Then our sponsorship producer, Cailin, called to say she’d snagged a big bag of swag: a $300 gift certificate from Boston Pizza in Squamish, a keg of Russell beer from some dude named Feds, surgical equipment courtesy of John Bradshaw, post-production sound from Airwaves Sound Design Ltd., visual effects from Exile Media, rink signs from Industry Images Inc., graphic design from Zeeworks Media, post-production effects and colour timing courtesy of Write Shoot Edit Productions, Whistler footage courtesy of Tourism Whistler and a custom-made human heart courtesy of Todd Masters at Masters FX (a god!). Best of all, she had found me a free helicopter! Based in Squamish, Victoria, Vancouver and Kelowna, Omega Aviation manages a fleet of aircraft that includes Cessna Citation jets and Bell and Eurocopter helicopters. Omega’s super busy in the summer, and yet they graciously offered to fly my cameraman and me over to Whistler the following Saturday morning.

Four days from shooting, we still didn’t have ecstatic extras, a hospital, a helicopter, a celebrity hockey player or any money left in our budget

I called John and said, “Buddy, we got a free helicopter, pizza, a keg of beer, a human heart and an entire hockey team to do our evil bidding. All we need are ¬machine guns and we can take over a small Central American country!” John said, “Congratulations Herr Director. Now don’t f*@# it up.” Thursday, November 30th, 8 p.m. Telus Whistler Conference Centre The theatre is packed and my head is spinning. The film’s finished, my cuts and bruises have almost healed and we’re seconds away from our world premiere. A Whistler Film Festival volunteer leads me through the crowd to a reserved section at the front. There John and I are quickly surrounded by family, friends and 1,400 buzzing film fans, including 300 stoned snowboarders and Canadian directing legend Norman Jewison. My heart’s beating like a jackhammer. This is the moment. John flashes me a grin. We’ve invested 12 months of hoping, six months of planning and eight months working night and day to create a six-and-a-half-minute film that could soar like fireworks or sink like an anchor. My mind drifts back to our golden weekend in the summer Whistler sunshine. I remember three favourite moments: On the Sunday shoot, we stole “Warning: Construction” signs and blocked off a cul-de-sac of million-dollar homes. Our crew took over the street, I strapped on rollerblades and hockey shoulder pads, grabbed the HD camera and filmed low behind Rikki’s legs as she rollerbladed down a steep cul-de-sac. Unfortunately I’m twice as heavy as Rikki, so I rolled too fast, forgot the safety word, crashed into her neck, sent her flying to the pavement and then skidded to a stop while sitting on her head. But Rikki was fine, I got the shot and saved the camera. My cinematographer, James Liston, ran up and said, “Heegs, you’re a madman.” I also operated the camera for the climactic hockey sequence. In front of 50 actors and crew members doubling as hockey fans, I skated full tilt across centre ice, looking face-down into my camera monitor. The shot looked amazing, the way I wished they’d shot Slap Shot. Suddenly Wade skated into the frame, he split the defensemen and we got a perfect view of Wade’s bare bum cheeks bouncing out of his hospital smock. Good times! That is, until I slammed head-first into the huge defenseman. I crashed to the ice and spun around like a comatose breakdancer. Just before I hit the ice, I protected the camera by holding it high in the air. After I got my wind back, John laughed and said, “It looked like you were in a bar and someone knocked you down, but you saved your beer.” My most memorable moment, however, was that magical hour in the helicopter. Floating high over the Whistler mountains, I felt like a film god, barking directions through my walkie-talkie at my professional stunt coordinators in the town below. I felt like a Spielberg. A Hitchcock. A leader of dozens of dedicated film freaks who’d all gathered to tell the best story we could with just a $5,000 grant, another $5,000 of John’s future offspring’s tuition money and $40,000 in support from the greatest sponsors in the entire world. As the opening titles roll, my wife squeezes my hand and whispers, “Listen to the crowd.” Just then the entire audience roars with delight at our majestic helicopter shot. Suddenly we’re not in a theatre anymore. Here we are, 1,400 happy strangers soaring over snow-capped B.C. mountains and searching for the Olympic spirit inside us all. In April 2007, Heart of Whistler received its U.S. premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Ken Hegan is currently writing/producing TV Made Me Do It, a new documentary series for the TVTropolis network in Toronto.