Scott Mann sat down with us and talks about building a real radio tower and making a movie that Isn’t made anymore.
Written by Andrew Korpan / September 2, 2022
Like Scott Mann says in this interview, movies like Fall just aren’t made anymore. The closest thing to the adrenaline-fueled film that we have are the Mission: Impossible films — which have a charm of their own and are on a much larger scale. Fall stars Grace Caroline Currey (Shazam!) and Virginia Gardner (Halloween) as two young women who decide to climb a 2,000-foot radio tower after a tragic accident. The two get stranded at the top and the rest of the film chronicles their efforts to get off.
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This interview with director Scott Mann gave a deeper insight into the film and genuinely made me appreciate the film more. What he’s able to accomplish on a $3 million budget (think about that) is insane. While the film wasn’t a complete hit for me, the visuals are stunning and you can tell by what Mann says that his priority was making this film look authentic. Fall is a film perfect to close out the summer season in a crowded theater as everyone will have a fear of roller-coasters after watching it. I spoke with Mann over Zoom and he was one of the most upbeat interviews I’ve had in a long while. An incredible human and a genius behind the camera, I felt as if I actually learned a lot from his perspective. In this interview, Mann discusses working with his small budget, accomplishing the stunning visuals and the experience he wants audiences to have.
Film Focus Online: Hi, Scott. It's a pleasure to meet you, how's your day going so far?
Scott Mann: Good, thank you. Pleasure to meet you, Andrew. I am a little exhausted, but other than that — you know how these things [press tours] are — but no, it's going great.
FFO: Well, I'm appreciative of you sitting down chatting about your film, Fall. I just had a quick question really, it's kind of a joke, but I know that the film is about Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) trying to find catharsis through climbing and whatnot, but why couldn't they just ease her back into it with maybe an indoor rock climb or something?
Mann: [laughs] It's true, but it wouldn't have made [for] as [much of] an exciting movie. But yeah,100%, we purposely tried to do that. There is a sublime ridiculousness about climbing up that tower and it's like, “What are you doing?” but it's the best friend's advice.
FFO: Fall is an adrenaline film and it made me nervous for much of it. What made you want to tackle such a film that really keeps you on the edge of your seat as a viewer?
Mann: Well, for me, I think it was two things. One was myself and the writer, Jonathan [Frank], we were in a situation where we were filming — this is going back a few years — [and] we were filming on a stadium rooftop and we noticed that we were filming this spectacle of Dave Bautista riding a motorcycle and jumping off of something silly. But where we stood, it had an eight-story drop and me and the crew and John were all there and I remember us talking about how horrible it was to think that just a few feet that way, you're dead. And what is it about our fear of heights that kind of really charges through us and what is that?
There was a combination of that and then a little while later, we were thinking about cinema as well, like what is cinema capable of? What does it do and what is it not doing? And I think a lot of what it was not doing, maybe [it does] in moments in tentpole [films], but it was not doing anything that was kind of much like a theme park ride that kind of puts you through an experience in such a focused way. And I think it was those two elements together. Really, like we felt like there was films made [about] the fear of falling, the “horror of heights,” as we called it, and there was an opportunity to do something that was pure cinema that really used theaters and used the sound systems and the size and scale and everything there to really capture something that would make you feel your way through this. That was the aim, really
FFO: I must ask, are you a big rollercoaster guy?
Mann: I am but I would say [that] I am absolutely a big rollercoaster guy [but] I think I've only been out beaten by my daughter, Evie, who put me on the “California Screamin’” (known as the “Incredicoaster”) seven times in a row and I had to stop and say, “I can't do any anymore, Evie. You beat me.” But no, I am a big rollercoaster guy and I actually loved, I tell, I loved someone saying this to me earlier and the week was that they said like, how [the] Top Gun: Maverick experience was like a rollercoaster at Disneyland and this [Fall] is more like Six Flags. And I'm glad they said that because I feel like that's what we're trying to do. For me, I think you should feel like we all have different tastes of films and different needs, so I would say that there are films that play better in a streaming environment than in the theater. I think we have to be honest about [the fact that] we're all different and individual. But for me, in my test, this is for people who want to go there [to the theater] and have an experience, and that’s been the focus of this film really is to really take [viewers] through an experience like that and really try and ratchet up the tension and have you on the edge of your seat and have you with sweaty palms, you know, all the things relating to hype really, and that's what we wanted to play off.
FFO: I believe it was Variety that reported this, but you guys shot on IMAX, or intended to?
Mann: Yeah, we shot for IMAX. We actually shot large-format AARI [cameras]; so that allows you to do the vertical height and essentially we delivered it for IMAX, but we didn't shoot on those big 70 millimeter cameras — it would not have tied into our journey of getting on top of a 2,000-foot mountain. To be honest, the new AARI cameras, the [mini] LF’s that can go full scale, really compact and allow you to film at that height and in that environment really capture the scale of the landscapes in that massive way.
And I think like many things, there's all these technological advancements that have been coming through the pipe [and] there are filmmaking tools to be able to kind of do this at the scale [that] you want do it.
FFO: I do want to talk more about that and the actual tower itself, but something that jumped out to me was — I won't say who for the sake of spoilers — one of the characters has an encounter with a vulture in the film. How was that accomplished? It looked so real.
Mann: Yeah, thank you, I appreciate [that] you said that it looked real, [because] it was real. In terms of the vulture talent agencies around town, there's three clients. And look, the guys who handle the vultures, [or] the entourage, rather, are excellent, but vultures do not take good screen direction — they kind of do what they want. So we had to kind of work with those guys and work it around them [with] how we did it. I don’t know if I could say it without spoilers, but in terms of getting a vulture to eat something, you have to not feed it for a day and then put meat wherever you want it to eat, so there was a lot of work arounds to make that work, but just like everything in the movie, I think capturing it for real was really important and I don't think you can fake [that].
My view is this: The tone of a movie, and [specifically] the tone of this kind of movie, needs to be so psychologically-grounded to get you the experience. You really have to be super careful [because] anything that pulls you away from that, [that] glosses through it. So if you had a digital vulture, let's say, not only could this movie probably not afford it [laughs], but [even] having a good digital vulture, I still don’t believe it would look right, right? You would still know it's not real just in the same way that if we'd done it [the radio tower] on green screens with the height and everything, you would know it's not real and it would've pulled you out of it.
So even though filming with these vultures was horribly awkward, horribly difficult and hard to work with it, and get what we needed to capture over the cost of four days, it was a case of kind of getting it and filming those guys do the real thing and engineering it that way.
FFO: You kind of hinted there about the budget, which I read that was $3 million, which is incredible because the film really looks great and you do capture that grand scope. So, two questions about that. The first is, did you guys build parts of the tower on a sound stage? How was that done?
Mann: No, no; we stayed away from all that [soundstages]. The truth is, this film would be like $50 to $100 million if we'd done it on a sound stage and done it that way. And that film [$50-$100 million budget action film], today, does not get made without [being] baked in IPs and things at that level unless you're [Christopher] Nolan or a masterful kind of air-level director that can do that. I think for most people, you just can't do that. There’s not a business case for it, weirdly, so you have to go the whole other way, which is what we did [and] is like, “Okay, how about we get our air team of filmmakers and we kind of strip ourselves right down into going out into the desert. We take these cameras, we film it for IMAX, we go up a mountain. Basically. We found this mountain, it was called “Shadow Mountain,” in the middle of the desert. [It] took us a long time to find it, but there’s this rickety old road to get up the top there and then there was a big steep drop-off like a cliff.
So we went up there and we built sections of [the] tower, about a 100-foot piece, and then we were able to put Virginia [Gardner] and Grace [Caroline Currey] at the top and were able to film from there and sling Technocranes to be able film it and the rest of it and so it's all kind of real, but if you look the other way, you'll see that the camera is at the top of a mountain. But you're looking all one direction or, you know, 270 [degrees] at least, and you get that feeling. Because we built that structure so well [that] we were able to wrap around it with drones and do all the stuff that you see in the movie without any kind of CGI. I think it was really important to do that because it did two things.
One is: It's real and you've caught it on camera. The second thing: The weather up there was so strange and had all these different kinds [of weather] that we end up embracing it as part of the story and, and I think that’s why it feels real. It [was] strange, like the clouds were below us at times, [and] there's times like [when] there were two military airplanes [that] were flying and they were flying below us and it was the oddest thing. I remember going like, “That's weird [laughs], we’re above the airplanes.”
But I think having that kind of sandbox at [that] height allowed us to, with a small team, essentially go back to basics and really just film-make, ultimately, and kind of paint it out like that and spend a bit more time getting it right with a small team.
It's crazy when you look at budgets and things, but I would always say just because it’s a big idea, it doesn’t necessarily need a big budget. As long as you can kind of pull it off, I think you have a lot more freedom at that size as well to choose the actors you really want, for example, do you know what I mean? Rather than be forced into casting for the wrong reasons. I absolutely got the actors I wanted for this film and the best people for those parts and there's a lot more freedom when it comes to this [small-budget filmmaking]. I think it was the hardest film I've ever made, but my favorite film that I've had the pleasure to make.
FFO: It paid off cause it's one of the best looking $3 million movies I've ever seen. You did kind of answer my second question. I was going to ask about whether or not you used a soundstage at all. There were some shots where someone may be hanging off of the tower, but the ground below looked so real, you know what I mean?
Mann: Yeah, no, totally. Like, when you look straight down, If you imagine the tower and you're able to film everything up and down, [if] you go past a certain point, you're going to start seeing the base of the tower. What we did is in another area of the desert, I think it's about 30 minutes away, we built the base of the tower that they arrive at and look up [at]. That was about a 100-foot structure there and what we did is we took a drone up there at different times of the day and filmed from a fixed point, which we knew was 2,000 feet up and filmed all of that there. So when this camera at the top of the mountain looks down and it gets on upon itself [the base of the tower], it's looking down the actual footage [from] the drone stuff we shot. So it all kind of stays real and it just stitches between the two.
Keeping it real and not being dragged into kind of what typically happens, which is replace more on the screen [and] do it the easier way. Everyone had to work very hard to get to that point, I think, and no one really wanted, yeah. You know, When you end up with having let's we had so many little safety wire removals that were on Virginia and Grace, You could paint out the whole sky, for example, and just kind of replace the sky to make it easy for the artists, but it’s just all those little things that you've picked up [filmed] that are real, [and] you don't want to miss them. So even if it was tedious, it was because of going through that bit-by-bit and just doing that right.
And it's not the conventional way, it's not the fastest way, but I think whatever you capture, keep as much of that as possible [real]; [that] was always [what I] pushed.
FFO: This might be grasping at straws, and this is just a connection that I put together, but I know that one of the producers on the film is James Harris, who produced the 47 Meters Down films. This is going to sound really dumb, but I noticed that on the first part of the ladder on the tower, it's surrounded by a steel cage and the characters even say that. Is that a reference to the shark cages in 47 Meters Down?
Mann: [laughs] You know, it’s actually not, but I love that you picked [up] that reference. It’s funny. James did 47 Meters Down with Johannes Roberts who did an incredible job on both movies, in my opinion. You know, we jokingly would call this [Fall] “47 Meters Up,” so you're not a million miles off [laughs].
What James brought to the process [came] when John [Frank] and I were writing [the script and] it was what he'd learned from 47 Meters Down, actually, which was in [regards to the] kind of sub-story jeopardy of goals to get out of this situation [and] to make the most out of them and plot through these things in a very kind of logical, organic way. And he helped guide us in the script to make it efficient but enjoyable [and to] make sure it's different enough [because] you don't want to kind of be doing the same beats again and again. And you’re always fighting those things. There are always little things like, “Oh, we've got two drone scenes,” and things like that, but you do your best to try and kind of maximize the meaty and most important things.
FFO: My final question for you has to do with the ending. I’ll avoid spoilers, but the viewer doesn’t really see a whole lot of what happens. Maybe you just didn't feel that the viewer needed to see it, or was it a runtime or budget thing?
Mann: I'll be honest, it's definitely a budget thing. I don’t know if it would have made the film better, though, if I'm being honest with you. I think [with] these kinds of things, you try and make the right choices. The truth is, there's an element of like, we all want to see different things in our movies. I think [that] just [in terms of] personal taste, we are all slightly different. Originally, we wrote that scene, I'll tell you that much. We actually had a scene where we played out what happened, but it was a very expensive scene [and a] very awkward scene. And for the worth of what that was, it really becomes a choice.
And this is what always makes me laugh whenever I kind of talk to the film story, like, I think that you have a, you don't have the chance to do everything right, so you’ve got to make a choice. What do you kind of focus your budget on? Yes, I would prefer to have it [the ending scene], but not at the cost of not being able to build a real tower at the top of where we shot; not at the cost of not being able to shoot this thing for IMAX; not at the cost having riggers
[who work on] the Mission: Impossible [films] do this stuff so [that] they could do their own stunts. I made the choices to kind of make the experience the [priority]. And certainly not just the time you mentioned there, but there's other times in the movie where I would've preferred to have X, Y and Z, but I can honestly say I make those choices, [and] they’re hard choices because I'm very much an [advocate of] “Don't let perfect be enemy of good,” and [you have to] pick the priorities and the battles.
But you're a 100% correct. I think that if money were no object and time were no object, then I think you would have seen a scene there that is very much what you [expect].