While most of us spend our days hunched over computer screens in cubicles, Matt Gerdes and Mike Steen hurl themselves off cliffs, zooming past craggy mountain ridges at roughly 150mph. Flying head first, thanks to high tech wingsuits, they look more like X-Men than mere humans, and that's the beauty of this otherwise suicidal-looking pursuit. Wingsuit flying is more than just another Red Bull-infused extreme sport; it's at the bleeding edge of our species' centuries-old desire to fly.
This idea is at the heart of Birdmen: The Original Dream of Flight, the first full-length documentary about the "past, present, and possible future" of wingsuit flying. The sport is an extension of B.A.S.E. jumping, the general term for diving off very high structures -- buildings, aerials, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs). Gerdes and Steen, who do most of the flying in the film, are also co-directors and executive producers of the project. Along with director Matt Sheridan, they discuss the making of the documentary, how they got into the sport, and why they're "not completely insane," in an interview below.
What makes a wingsuit pilot? In the excerpt below, Lester Keller, PhD, a sports psychologist for the the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, discusses what motivates thrill-seeking athletes like B.A.S.E. jumpers. In the same clip, Gerdes and Steen climb the Dolomites over two days for one spectacular flight. The point-of-view footage of their jump (Gerdes wears a blue suit, Steen's is red) reveals how terrifyingly close they fly to cliffs and ridges. Unlike skydiving, the thrill of wingsuit flying seems to be more in the nerve-wracking proximity to the ground than the sheer height.
The Atlantic: How did you get into this sport, instead of something less risky and terrifying, say, tennis? What does it take to be good at wingsuit flying?
Matt Gerdes: I grew up around tennis, and it looked fun, but for some reason I was pulled strongly to gravity sports. From a very young age, all I wanted to do was ski and that eventually brought me to the mountains. While hanging out in Tahoe I saw images of Frank Gambalie B.A.S.E. jumping and the moment I realized the sport existed, I knew I had to do it. There was never any doubt at all. No one knows why certain humans are sensation seekers – theories abound, but they are just that. My theory is that, evolutionarily speaking, oftentimes big risks equaled big rewards for ancient man.
Mike Steen: I was born into a family of aviators, both my parents are corporate pilots and I was flying in airplanes before I could talk. I soloed in a glider when I was 14, two years before I could drive a car. I have always enjoyed being in the air and wingsuit flying is the culmination of all those dreams and hundreds of hours spent in the sky. Wingsuit flying at its most basic level is not very difficult, with only 200 skydives, you are qualified to don a wingsuit and do your first flights. Beyond that it may take as many as 200 more wingsuit skydives out of a plane before you are able and ready to start jumping with a wingsuit off of cliffs. Practice, practice, practice, the more time you spend perfecting you piloting abilities, carving around clouds, the safer you will be when you are flying less than your arm span next to trees, rock etc. Wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumping is not something that you literally jump into!
It's interesting that Birdmen is produced by wingsuit athletes, rather than outsiders. How did the project come together?
Gerdes: We saw a wonderful story about the dream of human flight that hadn’t yet been told through the eyes of the people who are, in our opinion, closest to achieving it. We had worked with the director, Matt Sheridan, on other flying projects in the past and it only took a moment for us all to agree with his vision of the film. The story is about the “why” of it, most of all, and therefore needs to be steered and explained by those who feel, if not fully understand, the reasons we do this stuff.
Steen: We spend our lives traveling to amazing locations all over the world doing things that 99% of the population don't even know exist. Bringing that visual experience and feeling to more than 1% of the world was our inspiration for making this film.
Clem Sohn, an early birdman in the 1930s, in a still from the film
As the first comprehensive film about the sport, is this a milestone for the community?
Gerdes: The B.A.S.E. jumping community may be too small, fractured, and narcissistic to recognize or appreciate milestones. But I hope that it is one, and that it helps the sport to be appreciated more by the general public and makes wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumping less apt to be written off as just another YouTube stunt.
Steen: There are a few films that have been made about wingsuit flying over the years, but none of them have ever explored into the past, present and future of this beautiful sport. We take a glimpse at the dream that has haunted us for millennia and then show the viewer the best of human flight in its present iteration -- that makes this film the first of its kind. We made this film for everyone; whether you are one of the top B.A.S.E. jumpers in the world or someone whose flight experience culminated with a paper airplane in their childhood, you will enjoy this film.
What was the process of shooting like? What are some of the locations in the film?
Matt Sheridan: We shot in the Dolomites of Italy and the Alps of France and Switzerland. The exact locations we will keep to ourselves as to not annoy the wingsuit community. It is important to shoot the pilots with something in the background instead of just blue sky, so there is a frame of reference as they fly by. So we had to hike a lot to shoot at the same level or above the fliers. But when every jump could result in death, there is a huge amount of stress during the shoots. Where I set up my camera can tempt the pilots to try to buzz me, so working with pilots that are experienced enough to make good decisions was the key to a successful shoot. In the age of GoPros [HD helmet cameras] and digital cameras, "Kodak courage" has contributed to many deaths and serious injuries in a lot of sports, and I didn't want to be responsible for causing a death to one of my friends simply because my camera was in a certain place. (It should be re-named "GoPro courage," now that Kodak is out of business.)
In some ways, you have it easy as documentary filmmakers because you have this thrilling and visually amazing subject to cover, but what were some of the challenges of telling this story?
Sheridan: It was easy in many ways. For example, as long as the record button was pressed on the helmet cams, great footage was guaranteed. As for storytelling, the challenge was to tell the story in a reasonable amount of time. There is a lot of information in the movie. Each section of the movie could have been expanded into a full-length documentary. I had to pick and choose carefully what to cover or the movie would have been five hours long. Also, it took time to explain the sport clearly and concisely as most people don't know the basics of wingsuit flying. I'm often asked if they have parachutes, for example. This movie is geared to the general public, not adrenaline junkies.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
Sheridan: I wanted to break the stereotype of these guys being one-dimensional adrenaline junkies. People will be surprised how articulate the subjects are, although certainly not all wingsuit fliers have the same mentality. But most are in it for the mental and physical challenges, the beauty of the sport, being in the mountains, and so much more. Hopefully viewers will be inspired to face their own fears and try something new, just preferably not with deadly consequences.
Gerdes: That wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumping is beautiful, that those who are engaged in the highest levels of the sport understand the risks, and that we’re not completely insane.
Steen: Flying a wingsuit, at the moment, is the closest thing that I have found to realizing my dream of flying. I want people to see the result of hundreds of years of development, countless deaths and the resilience of the human spirit to overcome the challenge, be it gravity or fear, and to succeed in fulfilling our dreams in any aspect of our lives.
What's next for you?
Gerdes: The sport is advancing at an amazing rate, thanks in part to technological advances but more to pilots opening new lines of flight and new cliffs every day. I live in the Alps and love to explore here and share incredible new flights with my friends. Every sport has its golden age, and for wingsuit B.A.S.E. that age is now. I’m thankful to be a part of it.
Steen: There are so many places that I want to travel in the world to see different cultures, experience something new and hopefully have the opportunity to fly. My goal when traveling to these places is to see things from a perspective that has been exclusively reserved for birds, until now.
All videos are courtesy of Proximity Productions LLC and Team Thirteen. For more information about Birdmen and to sign up to be notified about the forthcoming digital release of the film, visit www.birdmenthemovie.com. Matt Gerdes's book about B.A.S.E. jumping is available at www.base-book.com.