xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Lords of the jungle :
xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Words: Tom guise    
Photography: Joshua Blanchard and Tal Roberts

xXx: Return of Xander Cage opens with a scene so ridiculous, instinct tells you it’s created by a computer. But the stunt is 100 per cent real. Here’s how the world’s only jungle skiers pulled it off 

An hour’s drive from Seattle lies a skier’s paradise. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has more snowfields than any other US national forest outside Alaska, and some of the highest annual snowfall of any resort on Earth. In winter, the slopes of its mountains are carpeted in perfect, fresh powder. Yet the greatest skiing Mount Baker ever witnessed took place over two hot summers.

During the dog days of 2012 and 2013, freeskiers tore through the lush emerald woods, skimming over the shagpile of forest ferns, carving between perilous rocks and roots, boosting over collapsed timbers and stalling on the moss-covered trunks of giant evergreens. They captured it in a film called Valhalla – a dreamlike sequence glimpsed through leaves and drenched in balmy sunlight, all without a snowflake in sight. 

“The segment got nominated for best special effects at one of the ski film festivals, even though there are no special effects,” says Karl Fostvedt, one of the skiers in the film. “Because nobody believed it was possible.”

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“The reason to ski through a jungle is because you’re so obsessed with skiing you just want to not stop skiing, but there’s no snow so you just strap on skis and keep trying”
Cody Townsend (pictured above: top, chasing LJ Strenio)

One person did believe, however. Hollywood star Vin Diesel saw the film and wanted to recreate the sequence for his return to the role of Xander Cage, the extreme-sports super-spy in the xXx movies. Like Valhalla, he wanted it done for real, only bigger. And hotter – this time in the jungles of the Dominican Republic.

“We got a call,” says Mike Brown, one of Valhalla’s directors. “The producers at Paramount had done some research and realised they needed the people involved in the original piece. So we got on a plane.”

“xXx: Return of Xander Cage“: in cinemas Jan 17

© youtube // Movieclips Trailers

Last July, the first trailer for xXx: Return of Xander Cage debuted. Twenty seconds in, Diesel’s eponymous hero climbs a transmission tower, straps skis to his feet, and free-falls into the jungle below. What follows are fast edits of him leaping and bounding off the trees, exactly like Valhalla only bigger and hotter. The internet went into overdrive.

“The skiing through the jungle bit is sort of dumb,” remarked traileraddict.com. “Way too exaggerated,” whined someone on YouTube. “Because that’s entirely feasible,” mocked the Radio Times. Nobody believed it was possible.

So xXx’s producers decided to stage the scene again, only this time with witnesses.

Thayne Rich ski stunt

Thayne Rich gets big air off a log: “Skiing on snow is a lot more fun, you can go off really big cliffs and be fine, even if you don’t land it. Whereas even if you were to go over a 5ft drop here and fall, you’re much more likely to get hurt”

“There are five people in the world that do this, and four of them are here,” says Fostvedt of himself and the skiers flanking him in the dense arboreal surrounds. If you’re into freeskiing, you’ll know them as LJ Strenio, Cody Townsend and Thayne Rich.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

“It started out as mogul skiing – an Olympic sport. A group of skiers didn’t like the rules and branched off, doing their own thing. That’s how freeskiing started”

It’s October 2016, it’s raining, and they’re in Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon filming what’s been dubbed Jungle Ski Shoot 3.0.

“It started out as mogul skiing – an Olympic sport. A group of skiers didn’t like the rules and branched off, doing their own thing. That’s how freeskiing started,” says Strenio as he climbs the slippery forest slope, eyeing the soil for deathtraps – stones, stumps, roots. 

“It was about doing things as differently as possible,” he adds. “That meant skiing outside of ski resorts, off trails, and then the whole skateboarding influence, going into cities and trying to grind rails. Now this is the cutting edge of that evolutionary process. We’re in the forest and there’s no snow. We’re seeing how far we can push that limit.”

There’s even a word for it: jibbing. “It came up in regard to doing wild things on skis,” says Brown. “It’s not necessarily the real name – it evolved.” In the tropical verdure of the Dominican Republic it evolved again, into jungle jibbing.

“We spent two years on our original film and built on that in the xXx movie. We had more resources, so we could put the guys higher in the air, let them go faster while making it safer. On this shoot we’re continuing that amplitude.”

Thayne Rich, xXx ski sequence stunt co-ordinator Todd Schneider and director Mike Brown

Left to right: Thayne Rich, xXx ski sequence stunt co-ordinator Todd Schneider and director Mike Brown

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Going faster while making it safer, crucially, involves cardboard boxes, lots of them. At the bottom of the hill, film crew and skiers alike furiously stack them into a huge wall. “It’s where they’re going to stop,” says Brown. “It’s low-tech but super-effective at keeping people safe.” On Valhalla, he didn’t even have boxes. “We were running super-limited resources. Some people took a 40ft air into a ramp and smashed through the wood. Luckily, no trips to the hospital.”

The forest goes silent. Everyone seems to vanish into the scenery. There’s just Brown and his camera crew at the base of the hill. “Good to go?” he says into his radio. “Cable is set,” confirms a voice to the other end. “Riders ready? Roll camera: 3… 2… 1… drop!”

cardboard boxes to make stunts safer

Boxing clever: “It’s the way you do this with Hollywood movies, run into the boxes,” says Mike Brown

The swooshing of skis reverberates around the trees, and on the crest of the hill Strenio shoots from the foliage, knifing through the leaf-bed as three black-clad figures emerge in pursuit. They zig-zag gracefully between the trees, one even leaping a log, as a camera on a zip-line whirs over their heads. The skiers carve to a perfect halt right before the end zone. Boxes damaged: zero. “Cut. Did we get that?” Brown asks his radio. “It was a little late,” says the zip-line camera operator. “Let’s go again.”

“The stunt guys were saying: ‘Get into character – if he’s being aggressive, ski aggressive.’”
Cody Townsend

Cody Townsend grew up in the beach town of Santa Cruz, but weekend family trips to Lake Tahoe gave him the skiing bug. By age 20, he was a sponsored ski-racer, but his heart lay in a different place. “Freeskiing was exploding. The feeling of jumping off cliffs and skiing lines was unparalleled. So I asked my sponsor, ‘You mind if I switch over to this?’ and they said, ‘Please do,’ and gave me a cheque for $2,000. I felt like I’d won the lottery.”

Townsend never imagined he’d one day get paid to impersonate Vin Diesel on skis in a jungle. “I had to shave my head and put on a muscle suit,” he recalls. “The stunt guys were saying: ‘Get into character – if he’s being aggressive, ski aggressive.’”

LJ Strenio

LJ Strenio shoots from the foliage, knifing through the leaf-bed

He also probably never imagined freeskiing could be so laborious. “We were tasked with adding a jump or a drop. I dug out runs, chopped trees, removed rocks – we had to do it ourselves, because a construction guy that’s never skied in their life isn’t going to know what you need, especially on dirt.”

“land straight-legged and you break your limbs. I heard that the term for it is a ‘meat puppet’“

Perhaps the biggest stunt was the opening shot of lead character Cage dropping from the transmission tower into the jungle. “That would be physically impossible in real-life,” says Brown, “And that’s where the stunt crew took over.” But for one of the skiers, it proved too much. 

“They had this cable-rigged system that can drop you hundreds of feet and stop before you hit the ground, so you land in that perfect crouch,” says Fostvedt. “But land straight-legged and you break your limbs. I heard that the term for it is a ‘meat puppet’.

“LJ was the meat puppet. When I heard he was going, I said prayers. We do things that look crazy, but within our abilities. When things are out of our control, like avalanche danger, we assess the risk and if we get red flags we won’t go near that slope. With the meat puppet, I was getting red flags left and right.”

Skistunt

“When things are out of our control, like avalanche danger, we assess the risk and if we get red flags we won’t go near that slope. With the meat puppet, I was getting red flags left and right.”

Fostvedt departed before the shoot began. “I totally understand why Karl dived out,” says Townsend. “It made me question it – maybe this is more dangerous than I thought. And it was dangerous. But the hard part was that as a pro skier you only get four months of winter to film. You don’t want to get hurt and put your season in jeopardy. Karl had other stuff to do.“

“These are the biggest jumps so far,” says Townsend, standing with a shovel at the lip of a 10m drop. He and the other skiers are busy packing homemade snow onto a wooden in-run that can launch them over 8m. But the biggest revelation is that jungle jibbing does use snow. 

“I totally understand why Karl dived out. It made me question it – maybe this is more dangerous than I thought“

“On Valhalla, we had snow,” confesses Brown. “We took our minivan up to the glacier, shovelled snow in up to the ceiling, drove it down and unloaded it. We devised structures and camera angles so the snow was hidden.” But in the Dominican Republic, such deviousness wasn’t an option – there’s simply was no snow.

“We were hoping to get these artificial sliding surfaces, but they never came through,” says Brown. “We were burning time until we got a truck filled with thousands of bags of ice cubes and an industrial woodchipper. Dump the ice in and out shot snow. We had enough to put on the jump approach, but not the landing, so it was a big step getting these guys to do massive flips and spins onto astroturf.”

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Mike Brown: “It’s a compromise between finding the landscape to bend into the script and bending the script to match what you find”

In Oregon, there’s a different challenge – torrential rain is fast melting the snow. Stunt co-ordinator Todd Schneider climbs up onto the in-run and sprinkles salt onto the surface. “It’s different from the salt you put on roads,” he explains. “This is table salt, it hardens the ice.”

With the window of opportunity rapidly shrinking, Strenio climbs onto the in-run. “There’s the potential for you to go too big on this one,” Schneider cautions. “I’d rather too much speed than too little,” counters Strenio. “LJ, you ready?” barks a voice over a megaphone. “Sending rider in 3… 2… 1… drop!”

Strenio pushes off. With the shrill scrape of skis on table salt and wood, he flies off into the pouring rain. If you didn’t see it yourself, you wouldn’t think it possible.

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02 2017 The Red Bulletin

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