Fall – An ultimate vertigo-inducing thriller

Fall began life as a short film idea hatched by British-born, L.A.-based writer-director Scott Mann (Heist) and his regular co-writer Jonathan Frank, who were excited about “the idea of the fear of falling and the horror of heights.” When the short film series was cancelled Mann and Frank decided to expand their idea into a feature, on spec, and see if they could get it set up somewhere else.

“We’ve written specs before, but this was the most fun to write because the two of us kind of lived it and acted it out as we went on, trying to think what we would do in the situation that the girls find themselves in,” says Mann who built a paper version of the platform at the top of the tower so he and Frank could perch on it, “to figure out what to do and really play on the horror and tension. We wanted it to be the ultimate fear-of-heights movie, so we looked at previous films and wrote the script accordingly.”

Among those cinematic references were Martin Campbell’s 2000 survival thriller Vertical Limit, Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scales the outside of the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin’s incredible Oscar®-winning documentary Free Solo which detailed Alex Honnold’s quest to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes (2018, Documentary, Feature – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill).

“The experience of watching Free Solo was a big influence,” Mann recalls. “It got me thinking about the psychology of the fear of heights as opposed to just a visual medium because in Free Solo you are with the character, you can hear him breathe and the reflectance of fear is where it’s at. There’s a psychological fear I think we all go through at heights. Even a lot of climbing videos on the internet tap into that well. It’s the reaction, the ‘Oh my God, oh my God’ that influenced how Fall would eventually play out. From an experiential point of view, you’ve got to put yourself through the eyes of the character, be with them, and then climb it with them. So, you’ve done it together. What we wanted to get was a feeling of being raw and real at height and very human. So that was the backbone of it all.”

For best friends Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner), life is all about conquering fears and pushing limits. But after they climb 2,000 feet to the top of a remote, abandoned radio tower, they find themselves stranded with no way down. Now Becky and Hunter’s expert climbing skills will be put to the ultimate test as they desperately fight to survive the elements, a lack of supplies, and vertigo-inducing heights in this adrenaline-fueled thriller.

One of the things that makes Fall unique is its location, the real-life 2,000-foot-high B67 TV tower — the fourth highest structure in the U.S.

Namely, “What we found was there were a lot of internet videos of daredevils doing crazy stuff, but they were usually climbing things like cranes,” explains Mann. “So, we said, let’s find somewhere that would be the ultimate place to get stuck, and we came across this tower in California. When you’re at the bottom looking up, the tower seems to go out into infinity, into the clouds. It is a marvel of architecture. And being in the desert, made for a very barren, difficult place to survive in the first instance, let alone 2,000 feet up.”

Initially, both the short script and Mann and Frank’s first draft of the feature version focused on a boyfriend-girlfriend couple stuck on the tower, but for the second draft, they decided to centre the story on two female friends, with Becky losing her husband Dan at the start of the film in a tragic climbing accident and being unable to cope. The character was inspired by a member of Mann’s wife’s family whose husband had died young. “It’s quite personal,” says Mann. “It was the first time someone my age, in my family, had died. And I’d seen her go through a lot of the things Becky goes through in the script; finding the strength and the will to live after such a world-changing loss. Also, Covid was rearing its head when we wrote this, and the world was going into this grief-stricken place that felt more relevant as we went forward.”

Given that most of Fall takes place on a small, circular platform at the top of a 2,000-foot TV tower, Mann wrestled with the best way to make his movie. The filmmakers shot the film on a mountain where Mann could build the upper portion of the tower, and then film the actors on it against a real background, which because of the height and positioning would make them appear to be thousands of feet in the air.

To recreate the lower portion of the tower on location, Mann approached the designers of the real one in California that had been their inspiration during the writing process and had them construct the first 15 feet in the desert just outside of Los Angeles, in a place near Palmdale called Rocky Buttes, in Shadow Mountain near Victorville.

“They built a section of the tower on the ground there, which was safe, but we made it look rusty and abandoned, and we had the girls climb up that,” recalls Mann. “And then, past a certain point, it becomes a CGI extension.”

Once the mountaintop location was chosen, production designer Scott Daniel (Wrong Turn) built two different towers of varying height, the tallest being around 60 feet, not including the final section with the light, as well as a five-foot high platform for shooting close-ups. “We were limited by engineering how high you could make it, what we could get up there safely and construct to make it safe,” explains Mann of the main tower. “Also, there was a limit on the height of the Technocrane which only goes 70 or 80 feet up. If we made it too high, we wouldn’t get the look down and the
swing round, so we reduced its height.”

Partnering with Mann on making Fall as cinematic an experience as possible was Spanish-born cinematographer MacGregor (Vivarium). “He was amazing. He’s a director as well, is super talented and, like me, is into his technology,” says Mann. “His rule to me was production value in a movie is dictated by location. If you get the location right and you’re filming it for real, and you get the sun in the right place and everything else, you don’t need anything else. You just film the desert at the right time of day, and it looks incredible. This film has a low budget for what it is. And it looks bigger than that because of that rule — filming real stuff.”

From the beginning, Mann envisioned FALL as a movie, a film made for the big screen. “I wanted to do something that had genuinely theatrical potential,” he reflects. The idea with this was to really go for it.”

“This is a unique experience that you have to see in theatres,” says producer James Harris (47 Meters Down). “It’s like a ride. Vertigo is one of our biggest fears, and this film maximises it.”