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The Sundance Kid: the Making of Downhill Racer

The Sundance Kid: the Making of Downhill Racer

Features
By Morton Lund
posted: 12/20/1999

A reprint from the November 1969 issue of SKI Magazine.

The sport of skiing has suffered intolerably at the hands of artists(with a few mild exceptions. A handful of good draftsmen and painters have come up with compositions of the sport that are not all bad, but nothing compares with the effect that a Dufy or a Homer created for, say, the sport of sailing. Generally speaking, painters have created stony-looking skiers, while sculptors have done no better than to make workmanlike mannequins of skiers. There has been no da Vinci, no Michelangelo to immortalized the slalom racer.

When it comes to film culture, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, only a modest artistic success, has yet to have an equivalent in skiing. Ski film makers as a whole have proved little but the insatiability of ski film audiences for spectacular scenery and good turns to both sides. With the exception of Dick Barrymore's The Secret Race and Summit Films'Ski the Outer Limits, theesprit(that which makes the act of racing down the hill so compelling(has barely been probed by cinematographers. Let's face it, It Happened in Sun Valley is not about skiing.

As for the work of writers, we have had only meager literary attempts with skiing. Hemingway came closest in the short story form, but his focus was not on skiing. Irwin Shaw failed miserably to come up with a good, short, ski story. James Bond on skis, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is a laugh (a low in authenticity. Beneath perusal we have had The Downhill Racers by Squaw Valley resident Oakley Hall (way off the mark), Snow Gods by Frederic Morton, who could favorably be described as the Jacqueline Susann of ski fiction, and The Ski Bum by the talented Romain Gary, a French writer of note whose talent failed him in this one. Frankly, no one in any cultural medium has really made it with a ski subject.

The man who is going to change all this, if he has guessed right, is an actor. Introducing Robert Redford, star of Barefoot in the Park on Broadway and in Hollywood, a rising(no shooting(star of film, a skier and owner of a ski resort and what's more, a determined fellow.

Ever since he and his wife built themselves a Winter home six years ago in the snowy Wasatch Mountains outside Provo, Utah, Redford has been obsessed with skiing and making a great film about it. He started toward his goal in 1967, getting Paramount's okay to hire a writer to do an original script to be called The Downhill Racers. Done by James Salter, a fine writer living in Aspen, the script was rejected. Redford started again in 1968 with a tentative okay to make a film which would prove that "two hours of snow won't make an audience feel cold."

"My motivation was to erase the bad feeling between Hollywood and the ski world. In the past, because Hollywood had never had good intentions about a ski film, skiing was used as a background for some sex thing or for a dopey teen-age party film. I wanted to make a good film," said Redford.

Flash ahead to April 1969.

Redford, tired but game, has just brought home the footage needed from Europe: 300,000 feet of 35mm and 16mm film shot largely in World Cup races at St. Anton, Kitzbuhel, Megeve and Wengen. This was more than was shot on Doctor Zhivago. There were no studio shots in the film; it was filmed 100 percent on location, at the heart of the World Cup racing circuit.

That April, while a last few feet of film were being shot at Idaho Springs, Colorado, Redford was at his Wasatch chalet. People were calling in from all over: Redford is one of the hottest properties in film; everyone wanted him. He was also conferring on new lifts for his resort, Sundance, next to his chalet (a hop from Alta, a place Sundance may eventually outshine).

He was about to fly to Hollywood to start editing The Downhill Racers, and he was also working on the next project which his own production company, Wildwood Productions, was planning. He was, in ft, working his butt of. This is where I started observing him with my writer's eye. I soon stopped doing that, because while Redford may be an Orson Welles (ego and all) under the skin, as I suspected, he really comes on as a good, all-round fellow. Redheaded, slightly disreputable looking, hard-driving, hard-skiing, you can't help liking him immensely, thereby distorting your objectivity.

At 155 pounds and six feet, he is a light, almost slender fellow who belies his appearance by the way he skis (he can bomb pretty well) and the way he works (with unbelievable intensity). Redford has a tough, independent streak in him: he once took a year off with no notice to his agent to relax in Spain with his wife, Lola, and their two kids. He came back to the United States only when he was broke. He said he had just had enough of acting for a while.

Redford won't play just any part. When he completed the film Barefoot in the Park, which as a play had made him into a Broadway stage star, Redford vehemently turned down a lead in Blue, a western. ("The script was just crappy.") Paramount, which had him under contract, sued him "for all I was worth." Blue was released, and as Redford had predicted, it was a dog.

This was perhaps what made the Paramount management see that Redford might have some sense about scripts after all. In a reconciliation meeting with the studio, the star was allowed to broach once more his favorite project. "First," Redford had argued, "something like The Downhill Racers has never been done before. Second, it has all the ingredients of a commercial as well as an artistic success."

According to Redford, Charles G. Bludhorn, chairman of the Paramount board, had his own ideas. "They told me the ski project would cost $3 million. Roman Polansky was supposed to direct it, right? Polansky was $3 million over budget on Rosemary's Baby. I wouldn't trust him with a home movie. I am a businessman." Redford said, "We don't have to have Polansky. And I can bring it in for $1 million, not three."

Bludhorn, in Redford's version, said, "All right, you seem to know so much about it, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll take a chance. You say it can be made for around a million. You produce it, write it, direct it, anything you want."

The plot thickens. Bludhorn added a proviso: Redford had to come in with a pilot film that would convice Paramount finally to release the cool million.

The whole first year of The Downhill Racers project thus hinged on the man Redford picked to film the 1968 Olympics, the heart of the pilot film: ski film maker, Dick Barrymore.

We now have to record the fact that, whatever the legalities of the situation, Barrymore eventually left Redford a mess of film footage that was less than the situation called for. In the beginning Redford had taken Barrymore and his crew to the Grenoble Olympics and made up disguises for them so they could sneak past the official French camera crews. ("We lived like commandos," said Redford).

Then, when he and Barrymore came back to film the Roch Cup at Aspen, Redford discovered that the races had been signed up by International Management representing the U.S. Ski Team and sold to Pontiac, so that Redford had no right to shoot (as at the Olympics, but in Aspen interlopers were easier to spot), and that Barrymore had signed to film the races for Pontiac. "We all got to the Roch Cup and just looked at each others' faces," said Redford. Negotiating out of the impasse with International Management gave Redford another lesson in what the ski world is like today.

"I had no idea how political the ski world had become, how competitive," Redford said.

He tried to argue that if International Management represented the U.S. Ski Team, they ought to be glad he was making the film because it would be good for the team. Jay Michaels of IM was not buying Redford's idea. Michaels wanted money. He wanted Redford to feature Pontiacs in the film, too. "You can absolutely quote me," said Redford, "Mark McCormack, Michaels and that gang at International Management are a bunch of heavies." Bob Beattie finally got Redford permission to film at the Roch Cup.

The project's troubles had not yet been overcome. Quite a bit of such footage as Barrymore did turn in was unusable. (Barrymore admits he was not familiar with 35mm cameras). Further, Redford had Barrymore under contract to put the pilot film together, but Barrymore simply threw up his hands and left. "So," Redford grimly remembers, "I ended up making the film myself."

First, Redford ran to other sources, such as ABC, for additional footage. He ran into opposition from Robert Riger of ABC who had included some French TV network footage in the network's reels of the Olympics, (part of which Redford wanted to use). Eventually, while he was filming Willie Boy for Universal, Redford and an editing crew in 10 months pieced together 15 minutes of knockout downhill racing film. The editing team used every trick technique in the trade: double images, stop motion and a salvo of dissolves. They used Jum Barrow's fall in the Olympic downhill, superimposing one scene on top of the other, so that the air was filled with flying bodies and Barrows seemed to be falling forever, turning over and over and over. When Bludhorn saw the pilot film he turned to Redford and said, "Go ahead, you've got it." He meant the million.

A million would build a fairsized gondola, but it makes meager support for a full-length, 35mm film. Little by little Redford and his producer, Richard Gregson (husband of Natalie Wood), put the project together (hiring actors, arranging for European crews and finding a good director, Michael Ritchie. (All the while Redford was making his latest hit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) They hired a bare minimum of actors, including Gene Hackman (Clyde's brother in Bonnie and Clyde), Jim McMullan and Camilla Sparv as an ingenue, though I guess that you can't really call an actress that these days (Camilla spends her time seducing Redford (on screen) for a European ski manufacturer. They also hired a real, honest-to-God, Class A racer, Joe Jay Jalbert, late of the University of Washington Ski Team.

The film was readied as a realistic look at the effect on racers of the high-pressure commercialism of international skiing, a reality of which Redford had already gotten a fair sampling and of which he was to get more. "I signed up with Head to use their skis in the picture," said Redford, "and all the other ski manufacturers tried to shoot me down." Head allowed Redford to use former U.S. team member Jim Barrier, a Head employee, as a technical supervisor. Bob Beattie had been considered as the technical advisor, but for starters, he had asked more money than the director, Ritchie, was getting.

As it turned out, Barrier "faded out," as Redford put it. "He didn't trust the project," said Redford. "Not many people did. We were over there on the World Cup race circuit, and people from whom I had expected help were no help at all." If he got no help from Americans, a couple of Europeans pitched in. Ueli Gertsch, of ski binding fame, and Marc Hodler, president of FIS, skiing's international governing body, got permission for Redford to run his "racers" before and after four of the World Cup events of 1969: the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, Austria; the Arlberg-Kandahar at St. Anton, Austria; the Lauberhorn at Wengen, Switzerland; the Grand Prix at Megeve, France.

Although Redford did not know it, a couple of Canadian skiers, Tom J. Kirk and Robin Hutton-Potts, were at the moment living over a garage at five dollars a week in Kitzbuhel. They would help by adding a healthy slice of authenticity to the film. As a couple of modern culture heros, college graduates in no hurry to pick up with the hurly-burly of making an eight-hour-a-day-living, they were intelligent, observant, sure of themselves andoo. "You can absolutely quote me," said Redford, "Mark McCormack, Michaels and that gang at International Management are a bunch of heavies." Bob Beattie finally got Redford permission to film at the Roch Cup.

The project's troubles had not yet been overcome. Quite a bit of such footage as Barrymore did turn in was unusable. (Barrymore admits he was not familiar with 35mm cameras). Further, Redford had Barrymore under contract to put the pilot film together, but Barrymore simply threw up his hands and left. "So," Redford grimly remembers, "I ended up making the film myself."

First, Redford ran to other sources, such as ABC, for additional footage. He ran into opposition from Robert Riger of ABC who had included some French TV network footage in the network's reels of the Olympics, (part of which Redford wanted to use). Eventually, while he was filming Willie Boy for Universal, Redford and an editing crew in 10 months pieced together 15 minutes of knockout downhill racing film. The editing team used every trick technique in the trade: double images, stop motion and a salvo of dissolves. They used Jum Barrow's fall in the Olympic downhill, superimposing one scene on top of the other, so that the air was filled with flying bodies and Barrows seemed to be falling forever, turning over and over and over. When Bludhorn saw the pilot film he turned to Redford and said, "Go ahead, you've got it." He meant the million.

A million would build a fairsized gondola, but it makes meager support for a full-length, 35mm film. Little by little Redford and his producer, Richard Gregson (husband of Natalie Wood), put the project together (hiring actors, arranging for European crews and finding a good director, Michael Ritchie. (All the while Redford was making his latest hit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) They hired a bare minimum of actors, including Gene Hackman (Clyde's brother in Bonnie and Clyde), Jim McMullan and Camilla Sparv as an ingenue, though I guess that you can't really call an actress that these days (Camilla spends her time seducing Redford (on screen) for a European ski manufacturer. They also hired a real, honest-to-God, Class A racer, Joe Jay Jalbert, late of the University of Washington Ski Team.

The film was readied as a realistic look at the effect on racers of the high-pressure commercialism of international skiing, a reality of which Redford had already gotten a fair sampling and of which he was to get more. "I signed up with Head to use their skis in the picture," said Redford, "and all the other ski manufacturers tried to shoot me down." Head allowed Redford to use former U.S. team member Jim Barrier, a Head employee, as a technical supervisor. Bob Beattie had been considered as the technical advisor, but for starters, he had asked more money than the director, Ritchie, was getting.

As it turned out, Barrier "faded out," as Redford put it. "He didn't trust the project," said Redford. "Not many people did. We were over there on the World Cup race circuit, and people from whom I had expected help were no help at all." If he got no help from Americans, a couple of Europeans pitched in. Ueli Gertsch, of ski binding fame, and Marc Hodler, president of FIS, skiing's international governing body, got permission for Redford to run his "racers" before and after four of the World Cup events of 1969: the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, Austria; the Arlberg-Kandahar at St. Anton, Austria; the Lauberhorn at Wengen, Switzerland; the Grand Prix at Megeve, France.

Although Redford did not know it, a couple of Canadian skiers, Tom J. Kirk and Robin Hutton-Potts, were at the moment living over a garage at five dollars a week in Kitzbuhel. They would help by adding a healthy slice of authenticity to the film. As a couple of modern culture heros, college graduates in no hurry to pick up with the hurly-burly of making an eight-hour-a-day-living, they were intelligent, observant, sure of themselves and having their go at Europe.

"I got worried when I got over there," said Redford. "The team members just acted like bodies." Where other skier-extras froze and got wooden-faced in front of the cameras, these two Canadians were more American than Americans. They became the nucleus of the film's "American Team." According to Redford, "All it meant to them was a free lunch. They weren't a bit impressed that a movie was being made. They were marvelous."

Other racers, mostly six Swiss, became the European ski opposition: the French star, the Austrian star and so on. The Redford operation, which was courageously trying to do all the filming on the actual courses instead of on faked courses or studio setups, caused some consternation in Europe.

"How many people watch at the Hahnenkamm?" asked Abby Rand, SKI's travel editor, who served on location as the film's publicist. "Thirty thousand? And they watch it by the million on TV too, just like we watch pro football. When Peter Rohr, the Swiss, comes down in a French outfit, somebody has to explain it." The European announcers would intone, "And here is No. 4, Peter Rohr, racing for the Paramounts."

Redford himself was constantly mistaken for Billy Kidd. He finally tired of explaining his blue, skin-tight, American Team "cat suit" and simply muttered, "The ankle is better, much better, thanks."

Redford, the Catsuit Kid, skied no more that he had to. He had cut his knee to the bone in a snowmobile accident just before leaving for Europe. His stand-ins did nobly, however, especially during the mano-a-mano sequences in which one American teammate challenges Redford to a downhill duel on the Lauberhorn. The racers, traveling shoulder-to-shoulder at 60 miles an hour, achieved some remarkable effects. Joe Jay Jalbert, turned cameraman, skied behind them, just as fast, handling a 15-pound, 35mm camera. Sometimes the racers scared themselves so much they refused to continue running; their facial expressions should be authentic. Joe Jay, enacting a fall for one sequence, overdid and wiped out three spectators (a new high for authenticity on the project. When the camera crews ran over to the limp, motionless Joe Jay and lifted his head, he whispered, "Are they still filming?"

The difficulties were heroic in size. "All the props had to be moved to the top of the mountain every day(the race bibs, the gates, the skis. Some guys wore different numbers for different scenes. And then trying to corral everybody..."Redford turns gray at the memory.

The English crew had to be run up and down the mountain on snow cats because they did not ski. They had to be served tea and pastry on the mountain promptly at 10:30 and 3:30, plus lunch between the snacks. At one point, a special train carrying pastries was run up twice a day from Grindelwald to the Klein Scheidegg. It was not possible to buy just plain pastries in Switzerlandthe train carried the world's finest. The pastry bill came to just under $500 a week.

Once the crew threatened to quit en masse because Redford and Ritchie were driving them too hard. They were placated at an all-night meeting "at which we promised them more tea," said Redford.

Joe Jay and the rest of the cast did "gag reel shots" to relieve the constant boredom of waiting for their turns or for the sun to come out. (One of the problems was that all sequences for a given race had to be filmed either in all sun or all overcast, whatever the weather had been in the actual race, so that the "fiction shots" would match the "fact shots" filmed at the real race). A gag reel is composed of all the stuff that is funny because of the deliberate clowning of a crew bored out its collective mind (movie making is nothing if not repetitious. One gag reel shot shows a stark naked skier coming down in full egg position. In one bedroom scene Redford peered out from under the covers next to Miss

Sparv(wearing goggles and a U.S. helmet.

Natalie Wood, in Wenggen to watch the filming, fell while skiing and broke her leg.

Such were the conditions fo the filming. It was boring and it was exciting. It may lead to a fine flick. It took a nervy fellow to conceive of the project and carry it through to completion. Redford likes to live on the think edge. I have seen him come skiing almost over his head down the trails at Alta and Sundance, with his knee still bad and when there was no reason for it except that he wanted to go fast for the hell of it. When an actor of Redford's stature gambles several hundred thousand dollars, because there haven't been many parts written for a man in a leg cast, not since The Man Who Came to Dinner, and there are not likely to be any available, either.

It could be that Redford is just the man to come up with the first authentic, exciting piece of film to get inside the skin of ski racing, a film that shows us, in a way that only a good film can, what the human dangers and human grace of the World Cup circuit--and by extension, the whole sport--really are.ving their go at Europe.

"I got worried when I got over there," said Redford. "The team members just acted like bodies." Where other skier-extras froze and got wooden-faced in front of the cameras, these two Canadians were more American than Americans. They became the nucleus of the film's "American Team." According to Redford, "All it meant to them was a free lunch. They weren't a bit impressed that a movie was being made. They were marvelous."

Other racers, mostly six Swiss, became the European ski opposition: the French star, the Austrian star and so on. The Redford operation, which was courageously trying to do all the filming on the actual courses instead of on faked courses or studio setups, caused some consternation in Europe.

"How many people watch at the Hahnenkamm?" asked Abby Rand, SKI's travel editor, who served on location as the film's publicist. "Thirty thousand? And they watch it by the million on TV too, just like we watch pro football. When Peter Rohr, the Swiss, comes down in a French outfit, somebody has to explain it." The European announcers would intone, "And here is No. 4, Peter Rohr, racing for the Paramounts."

Redford himself was constantly mistaken for Billy Kidd. He finally tired of explaining his blue, skin-tight, American Team "cat suit" and simply muttered, "The ankle is better, much better, thanks."

Redford, the Catsuit Kid, skied no more that he had to. He had cut his knee to the bone in a snowmobile accident just before leaving for Europe. His stand-ins did nobly, however, especially during the mano-a-mano sequences in which one American teammate challenges Redford to a downhill duel on the Lauberhorn. The racers, traveling shoulder-to-shoulder at 60 miles an hour, achieved some remarkable effects. Joe Jay Jalbert, turned cameraman, skied behind them, just as fast, handling a 15-pound, 35mm camera. Sometimes the racers scared themselves so much they refused to continue running; their facial expressions should be authentic. Joe Jay, enacting a fall for one sequence, overdid and wiped out three spectators (a new high for authenticity on the project. When the camera crews ran over to the limp, motionless Joe Jay and lifted his head, he whispered, "Are they still filming?"

The difficulties were heroic in size. "All the props had to be moved to the top of the mountain every day(the race bibs, the gates, the skis. Some guys wore different numbers for different scenes. And then trying to corral everybody..."Redford turns gray at the memory.

The English crew had to be run up and down the mountain on snow cats because they did not ski. They had to be served tea and pastry on the mountain promptly at 10:30 and 3:30, plus lunch between the snacks. At one point, a special train carrying pastries was run up twice a day from Grindelwald to the Klein Scheidegg. It was not possible to buy just plain pastries in Switzerlandthe train carried the world's finest. The pastry bill came to just under $500 a week.

Once the crew threatened to quit en masse because Redford and Ritchie were driving them too hard. They were placated at an all-night meeting "at which we promised them more tea," said Redford.

Joe Jay and the rest of the cast did "gag reel shots" to relieve the constant boredom of waiting for their turns or for the sun to come out. (One of the problems was that all sequences for a given race had to be filmed either in all sun or all overcast, whatever the weather had been in the actual race, so that the "fiction shots" would match the "fact shots" filmed at the real race). A gag reel is composed of all the stuff that is funny because of the deliberate clowning of a crew bored out its collective mind (movie making is nothing if not repetitious. One gag reel shot shows a stark naked skier coming down in full egg position. In one bedroom scene Redford peered out from under the covers next to Miss

Sparv(wearing goggles and a U.S. helmet.

Natalie Wood, in Wengen to watch the filming, fell while skiing and broke her leg.

Such were the conditions fo the filming. It was boring and it was exciting. It may lead to a fine flick. It took a nervy fellow to conceive of the project and carry it through to completion. Redford likes to live on the think edge. I have seen him come skiing almost over his head down the trails at Alta and Sundance, with his knee still bad and when there was no reason for it except that he wanted to go fast for the hell of it. When an actor of Redford's stature gambles several hundred thousand dollars, because there haven't been many parts written for a man in a leg cast, not since The Man Who Came to Dinner, and there are not likely to be any available, either.

It could be that Redford is just the man to come up with the first authentic, exciting piece of film to get inside the skin of ski racing, a film that shows us, in a way that only a good film can, what the human dangers and human grace of the World Cup circuit--and by extension, the whole sport--really are. in Wengen to watch the filming, fell while skiing and broke her leg.

Such were the conditions fo the filming. It was boring and it was exciting. It may lead to a fine flick. It took a nervy fellow to conceive of the project and carry it through to completion. Redford likes to live on the think edge. I have seen him come skiing almost over his head down the trails at Alta and Sundance, with his knee still bad and when there was no reason for it except that he wanted to go fast for the hell of it. When an actor of Redford's stature gambles several hundred thousand dollars, because there haven't been many parts written for a man in a leg cast, not since The Man Who Came to Dinner, and there are not likely to be any available, either.

It could be that Redford is just the man to come up with the first authentic, exciting piece of film to get inside the skin of ski racing, a film that shows us, in a way that only a good film can, what the human dangers and human grace of the World Cup circuit--and by extension, the whole sport--really are.

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