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On location: Filming Last Base

Last Base is a Norwegian short film directed by Aslak Danbolt. The film tells the story of two base jumpers who are making their last jump to scattering the ashes of their friend who died in a base jumping accident. I saw this film as a programmer at the Slamdance Film Festival. The one thing that struck me while watching this film is how authentic the film looks and feels – all of the danger of the film feels real. Talking to Aslak at the festival, I learnt that this is because the danger was real. The making of the film is a story in itself and it is one that is quite unique to dramatic film. I sat with Aslak and the two main actors of the film, Petter Width Kristiansen and Kenneth Åkerland Berg, in March over Skype.

Regarding the experience of being on set making this film, Petter commented, “It’s very easy to get alienated, especially as an actor. You come to the set, and there are all these people doing everything. You’re just going in and doing your part, and you don’t have the physical connection to the movie. Here, it’s quite opposite.”

Aslak comes from a documentary background, and his narrative films reflect this: “I’m very inspired by [documentary film] and its authenticity, so the films I want to make are really realistic. Even though they can have extreme things in them, I want the characters and everything to be as realistic as possible.”

Aslak made Last Base as his thesis film in the graduate program at London Film School. The film was inspired by a documentary Aslak made about a group of base jumpers. A year after making the documentary, one of the main characters died while jumping. The friends of the deceased jumper went up the mountain to scatter his ashes to commemorate his life.

It was important that the cast and crew were really committed to the film. Aslak: “If someone was not that into it, it could sabotage the whole film.” To start finding the cast, Aslak sent out emails to actors he liked. “Five minutes after I sent them out, I got a reply from Kenneth. He asked if he could make the jump himself. I asked him if he was a skydiver or base jumper, and he said no, but he said ‘I’m going to take this certificate next summer so I want to get a kick start.’ Then I knew pretty much he had to be in it. And then I met Petter – they both were singled out pretty early. In the end – it had to be them. And I’m glad.”

The film is shot on location in Norway primarily on Katthammaren, a mountain located in the Dovrefjell National Park. They filmed two days in the valley and started to climb the third day. Early in the shoot while they were getting ready, one of the camera bags was not secured, and it suddenly started to roll down the mountain. The crew tried to stop it, but it kept rolling. Aslak: “We just realized that could have been any of us, and if you fall you’re never going to stop. This really set the tone for the next day, because everyone realized that if you slip and fall that might well be it. I was on the brink of just cancelling the whole thing because I really feared for people’s lives.”

The climb up the mountain is normally a short five hour climb, but they took their time climbing as they were very concerned about the safety of the cast and crew. They also stopped several times to film, and they were further slowed down by carrying heavy gear. It was getting dark, and they were behind schedule, so they decided to store their food, heavy clothing, and extra technical equipment further down the mountain. Aslak: “The plan was to go down and get it the next day. And then we would just have to – you know – crack on.”

Petter describes this mountain as being made for base jumpers: “They are not going there to have a nice walk and enjoy nature; they just want to get up as fast as possible. It’s really steep.”

Aslak: “We climbed the last hour and a half in the dark, but we got up OK. The chef (we brought our own chef) had gone up early and prepared food for us, so we had a really nice dinner and went to sleep. And then the next morning it was a total blizzard outside with about a half meter of snow. That was unexpected. We talked to locals and checked the weather very thoroughly, and there could be small amounts of snow that time of the year, but apart from that it should be fine. We were well prepared for autumn, but not at all for ‘North Pole-ish’ weather.

“The weather was crazy. It was shifting so quickly from total blizzard to blue skies. We thought it was fine and we’d go out, and then it would change again to blizzard. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t see any mountains – we could be anywhere. And then it would clear again.

“We were unable to get down to our supplies, so our food, clothes, and gear were stuck there. So we were always running short on food. Normally you have lots of food on a film set and everyone eats all the time, but here it was just like – now you can have this piece of chocolate until supper in five hours. It felt more like a polar expedition than a film shoot a lot of the time.”

The weather interfered with the centerpiece of the film: the helicopter shots with the base jumpers. Due to the weather, they had to reschedule for Sunday, and they weren’t sure if even then it would be safe to jump. Meanwhile, they were running out of food. Petter: “We had one chocolate bar, a jar of peanut butter, and one fistfull of oatmeal to feed ten people.”

The day before the helishots, one of the base jumpers and the technical advisor on set, Richard Olsen, went to Aslak and said, “Hey man, I can’t do another night in that tent. Can I please jump?” This was concerning to Aslak. Richard had stopped jumping two months prior due to another close friend dying in a base jumping accident. Aslak: “I really didn’t want him to jump, but it was his equipment so I couldn’t stop him.”

Leading up to the shoot, Aslak got Richard to teach the actors how to pack the parachutes even though they didn’t need to do this in the film. Aslak: “I wanted the actors to learn how to pack the bag just to get into the base jumping.” Richard felt confident enough to ask Kenneth to check his pack. Kenneth: “You can’t ask me that, I don’t know what I’m doing!” Petter eventually was the one to pack Richard’s bag. Petter: “I was so scared when he was jumping.”

In the shot in the film, you can hear Richard’s jacket flying in the wind. Aslak: “That’s a very bad sound, because that could interrupt the parachute when he loosens it. Ideally you shouldn’t hear any sound when you jump.” While he was jumping, everybody had to stand still and be quiet in order to not spoil the recording. Aslak: “It was just dead silence. Then finally we went out on the edge of the mountain, and I saw his parachute.” Richard made the jump, and they got the shot. Aslak: “That was by far the most tense moment of the whole shoot.”

Sarah Hudson

Sarah is a Canadian filmmaker based out of Alberta, Canada. Sarah was born in Newfoundland and grew up across the country, and she holds a Bachelor in Media Arts from Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. When not making media, Sarah is a narrative shorts programmer for the Slamdance Film Festival.