The Digital Journalist


by Dirck Halstead

Note: Click on the photos to view larger versions.

Besides dogging the President of The United States for all these years, one sideline that I have enjoyed is working as a "special" stills photographer in the motion picture industry.

What is known in the business as a "unit" photographer is someone hired by the studio to be on the set from "call" to "wrap" every day, during the entire production. A "special" is an outside photographer brought onto a set for the purpose of creating photographs to be used in publicity and advertising. Specials are brought on for a limited time (measured in days or a few weeks) to lend their particular skills to interpreting a specific visual message. Often, the special's work is used for the "one sheets" or posters that advertise the film. Among the best-known specials are photographers Douglas Kirkland, Greg Gorman, and Annie Leibowitz.

Sometimes these photographers work at the direction of an art director, but often they are given free rein to do their work.

Several years ago, I received a call from Tony Seininger, one of Hollywood's favorite art directors. He called about hiring hire me to work on a picture for Tri Star.  It was "Cliffhanger," starring Sylvester Stallone.

The main photography was to be done on location, in the Italian Alps. They would serve as "stand-ins" for the Rockies, where the story was supposed to take place. Filming was to be done in early March, when the mountains were still covered with heavy snow.

Tony sent me a pencil comp of the scene that interested him for the poster. It showed a figure, intended to be Stallone, coming around the side of a cliff. He was holding a huge gun in his hand (never mind the fact that he never used one in the movie).

On the plane en route to Venice, I looked at the drawing and hard can this be? It's just a guy coming around a rock!

My first day on location I scouted the site--a plateau roughly a quarter of a mile long and several hundred yards wide. It was about 3,000 feet above the valley floor and could only be reached by a cable gondola. The temperature was in the teens, with light blowing snow. It quickly became apparent to me that there was no "rock" in site--just lots of snow. During my week there, all filming was scheduled to take place on this plateau.

After explaining what I needed to do, one of the mountain safety guides (assisting the production company) said, "no problem, just come over here." He led me to the edge of the plateau and told me to look down.

At this point, I have to tell you, I am no mountain climber, nor am I  one with any surge to push the limits at great heights. I have never been able to figure out why sky divers feel the need to jump out of a perfectly good airplane in flight.

Laying on my stomach, I gingerly inched my way to the edge and looked down. The guide said, "see that little outcropping 100 feet below?  Well, if you will climb down there, maybe we can talk Sly into climbing down there too."

I looked at the outcropping. It was a small area, roughly four feet wide and separated from the plateau by a distance of about six feet. Surely, I would have to sprout wings to get to it.

"Not to worry," assured the guide. "We can put a harness on you, and help you down the side, and when you get even with the outcropping, you can just swing over." "SWING OVER?" I blurted in disbelief. Tarzan I'm not, and besides those trees in the jungle were only a few feet tall...not 3,500 feet straight down!

The guide shook his head, and left me alone to ponder the situation, which I did for the next hour. No matter how hard I looked around the top of that plateau, there was no g__d d___n rock!

Finally, I asked the guide if he could make absolutely sure I wouldn't fall. He replied with confidence, "No sweat." Well, we all know photographers will do ANYTHING to get the picture, so a few minutes later, there I was, crawling over the side. It was like going over the side of a tower at the World Trade Center!

Yikes! This was my introduction to rock climbing, at 3,500 feet with no net. The top of the cliff, as is often the case, extended out over the side. So, for the first ten feet, it was necessary to climb down the overhang, at roughly a 30 degree angle to the cliff face. When I looked down, there was NOTHING under my feet. Any illusions I had that they would lower me down, quickly vanished. This was fingernail dig-in time!

Very cautiously, with the help of the guide, I managed to make it down the 100 feet until I was level with the top of the outcropping.

The moment of truth had arrived.

The guide yelled for me to do exactly what he did. Then, pushing himself away into space, he swung across the top of the outcropping. HE MISSED!...HERE HE COMES BACK!...WHOP! right into the side of the cliff. I yelled to him, "I thought you said this was easy!" Muttering, he said something about not giving himself enough slack. On the next try, he was successful. He then called to me, "Come on over!" Clenching my teeth and cursing under my breath, I pushed away and MADE IT!

For the next half hour, I just sat on top of that little piece of rock, afraid to even stand up...but the late afternoon shadows were beginning to fall, and I realized that I would have to do something soon. The guide swung back to the cliff face, and for the next few minutes pretended to be Stallone, inching around the side of the cliff. I shot tests with my Bronica, and sent them back up to the top of the plateau where my assistant ran them over to Sly.

Another half hour went by. It was now getting dark, and snow was beginning to fall. The wind picked up, and cut through my parka like tiny knives. About that time, I heard a bellow from 100 feet overhead...


I looked up at Sly, only to see him turn and walk away.

Guess that means I'm not going to get my shot today, I mumbled to myself as I managed to swing back, and climb to the top of the plateau.

Arriving on the set the next morning, I saw Sly pacing back and forth at the edge of the plateau. Suddenly I realized-- I've got him!

At lunch break, I knocked on the side of his tent, and showed the Polaroid again. It truly was a spectacular shot. The guide was big in the frame, with that 3,500 foot drop behind him.

Pushing my luck, I told Sly..."You know what's so great about this shot is that not only is it going to be one of the best advertising shots ever made for a film, but it can only happen if you are willing to risk double this time, it will be you hanging out there for real."

He bellowed, "GET THE F__K OUT OF MY TENT!" But I just knew there was no way Sylvester Stallone was going to let some wiseass photographer show him up.

Sure enough, later that afternoon, I watched Sly stalk over to the safety people and ask the same question I had asked the day before..."Are you sure this is safe?"

After a less than certain-looking guide, seeing his future in show business disappear before him, nodded in the affirmative, Sly barked, "Well let's get it over with!"

While I slipped back over the side, displaying my newly found yet tentative confidence, Sly buckled himself into his harness. Before the now terrified director, Reny Harlin, could get to him, Sly too, was over the edge.

Harlin, along with Sly's personal trainer, started screaming..."SLY, ARE YOU NUTS?? THIS ISN'T EVEN THE MOVIE, AND YOU'RE DOING IT FOR A STILL!!"

With his guide by his side, Sly managed to make it most of the way down the cliff, but in his path, another outcropping meant that he would have to push out from the cliff face himself. I was ten feet away, atop my little rock, and I could hear that he was having problems. I yelled to him..."Hey Sly! Would Neil Leifer do this for you?" I was referring to our mutual friend who had photographed Stallone on several films.

Sly stuck his head around the side of the cliff, to see me balancing on one foot, cameras around my neck, pretending to be some sort of daredevil. I must have been quite a sight...well, he just broke up.

Pulling himself into position, snow swirling around him and clad only in a shirt, Sly patiently posed for the next 20 minutes on the side of that cliff.

As the sun went down over the mountain, we clambered back to the top. A jubilant Sly Stallone and I high-fived each other...we got the picture!


The next morning Sly's trainer, Tony, came up to me on the set. He said, "I have to thank you." He explained that Sly had gone through a series of movies that had not performed well. It seemed that because of this, during the first weeks of filming Cliffhanger, Sly just hadn't had the macho bravado he normally demonstrated. "Last night, going over that cliff was all he could talk about," Tony said, "You know what...MY SLY IS BACK!"

I would like to say that there is a happy ending to this story, but it turns out that this photo session probably cost Tri Star a lot of money. Sly had become so pumped over this short but daring adventure that he insisted on rewriting and refilming almost all the shots he had done before. This time, however, he would be on the cliff, not his double. The shots of Sly hanging on the side of the cliff at the opening of the movie are real.

Unfortunately, when Tri Star tested Cliffhanger, prior to its release, their research data showed that people liked the movie, but because of previous pictures he had made, they weren't sure they wanted to see Sylvester Stallone.

As a result, in the original ads, they dropped Sly's image from the "above the line" advertising, and used a silhouette of an anonymous figure leaping into space.

But I know, and Sly knows, and now you know, what we accomplished that day in the Italian Alps.

 Photographs of Dirck Halstead by Andrew Cooper.


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