Why director Scott Mann hired Tom Cruise's Burj Khalifa safety team for 'Fall'

The vertigo-inducing film follows two girls as they climb a 600-metre-high TV tower in the desert

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If Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t already claimed it, Vertigo would be an apt title for Scott Mann’s woozy, stomach-flipping new thriller. Even for viewers with a head for heights, Fall will cause them to grip onto their armrests, especially if watched on IMAX.

The film follows two intrepid girls as they climb a 600-metre TV tower in the desert. It taps into something primeval, says Mann, who also directed Final Score (2018) and Heist (2015). “The idea of falling is horrifically scary,” he says. “And, it’s a fear we all have.”

At the heart of this was the expert safety team who helped Tom Cruise climb Burj Khalifa while filming Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011).

The story centres on Becky (Grace Caroline Currey, who featured in DC movie Shazam!), who is grief-stricken after the death of her boyfriend in a mountaineering accident. Her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner, from the 2018 Halloween remake) convinces her to climb the tower, partly to boost her social media profile.

“I think it makes an interesting character arc,” Mann tells The National. “What they’re trying to put out there is not necessarily the true version of themselves. That’s Hunter’s journey really, figuring out who she is.”

Although the pair make it to the top of the gravity-defying tower, they become trapped when a segment of the ladder falls away. With no phone signal, and little chance of rescue, they suddenly face a nerve-racking game of survival.

It is a visceral and thrilling feature. However, what really impresses, is how Mann pulled off shooting his two stars — safely — at such heights. “To do this right, we had to kind of do it for real in a lot of respects,” he says.

“Faking it was going to pull us, as an audience, out of it.”

Mann and his producer decided to build the top portion of the tower on a cliffside of Shadow Mountain, near Victorville, California, close to where the spectacular plane crash in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was filmed.

It was extremely physical and difficult. They were amazing. And, it was scary. It was genuinely scary
Scott Mann

With a huge drop below the tower, it created the impression of enormous scale for the cameras to capture.

“You’re looking down at the ground, which is 600 metres away,” says Mann, who admits he was “lucky” to have the team he did, especially given their modest production budget.

After productions around the world stopped owing to Covid-19, Fall was one of the first indie pictures to shoot in California when the pandemic began to subside. “No one was working. So, weirdly, we ended up getting the very best crews,” Mann explains.

“They rigged the safety,” he says with a grin. “They were incredibly safe.”

Stuntman Chris Daniels, one of Hollywood's go-to stunt coordinators, was part of the team. His career is dotted with big-budget productions including Spider-Man, Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame.

He also helped action movie favourite Cruise conquer the soaring Dubai skyscraper more than a decade ago and was integral in helping to secure the spine-tingling shots Mann wanted in Fall.

Even so, Mann still had the task of finding actresses willing to ascend such heights. “When I was auditioning people for the film, I made out that it was going to be hard. I’ve been here before," he says.

“I think a lot of actors and actresses will say all sorts of things to get a job. It wasn’t that they had to be avid climbers or anything, but I wanted them to tell me the truth.”

Mann showed them artwork and gave them “the worst-case scenario” of what filming conditions would be like. “I think that filtered out a lot of people because even though every actress I interviewed still said: ‘It’s good. I’m fine.’ I could see it in their eyes. I could totally tell.”

When he chose Currey and Gardner, he initially rehearsed the scenes with the actresses on a mini version of the tower in his back garden. However, soon they climbed the real tower, in the blistering desert heat.

“It was extremely physical and difficult. They were amazing. And, it was scary. It was genuinely scary. Because there’s one thing saying: ‘Oh, well, I’m at the top of a mountain.’ But when you climb up that thing … it’s quite terrifying.”

Factor in swarms of locusts and buffeting winds and it was one of the most arduous shoots imaginable. “In terms of the bravery of the girls, they were always up for it,” he says.

Of course, the actresses had stunt doubles, but Mann is keen to point out how much they did themselves. Even the moment where Hunter hangs off the tower ledge, to film a stunt even Tom Cruise himself would be proud of, was done by Gardner.

In a bid to show solidarity with the stars, Mann also climbed the tower.

Though, how did he cope up in the clouds?

“I’ll be honest, you become numb to it,” he says. “Because I was more scared of heights when I started this movie … but I still am very fearful.” Whether you’re making it — or just watching it — Fall won’t be curing anyone’s vertigo anytime soon.

Fall is out in UAE cinemas on Thursday.

Updated: May 09, 2023, 1:25 PM