Danger man. Marc Wolff’s life has had many hairy moments – from extracting the wounded in Vietnam under heavy fire to injecting thrills into the James Bond movies.
I’ve often noticed that people who’ve had successful and interesting careers readily admit that as youngsters they had no idea of what they wanted to do with their lives. Marc Wolff is a case in point: “I was born in Chicago but when I was five we moved east and I went to high school in New Jersey. I wasn’t very academic, had no clear ambitions and so I was happy enough to be drafted. The army decided to send me to flight school and eventually – this was around 1967 – I was commissioned as a helicopter pilot. After that I’ve never looked back, as they say.” But he realises he was lucky to survive. “I suppose so. I spent a year in Vietnam, a lot of the time extracting the wounded from combat zones under heavy fire. Could be tricky at times, but luck was on my side, it seems, and my own good judgement. Those two factors, in combination, have been crucial in my career.”
“It’s dumb to be reckless”
“After Vietnam I was posted to Germany as the youngest captain in the US army. I realised they had plans for me in military management. Most likely I’d have ended up driving a desk in the Pentagon. I quit and went commercial. I joined a company that flew helicopters for aerial surveys and the like. Tame stuff compared with Vietnam and what came later but it led me to settle in the UK and I ended up with dual nationality”. Perhaps settle, though, is not quite the right world. Eventually, Marc was travelling all over the world as a helicopter pilot working for film companies. “I got into the business more or less by chance but my career soon took off, so to say, and I became one of a couple of dozen specialists around the world doing something I’d never have dreamed of in high school.
Basically, my work with film companies is of two kinds. Firstly, I fly the guys who operate cameras. There’s a lot of skill in choosing the right position for filming. And then I do stunts. Actually, I don’t like that word – it sums up a picture of a guy falling down the stairs without hurting himself. I prefer the term ‘aerial sequences’ in which the helicopter has to do some pretty hairy things.” (as in Cliffhanger, pictured). So he’s got a taste for risk and danger? “That’s not the way I’d put it. I still have a military mind and it’s dumb to be reckless. You have to assess a situation and the element of risk and danger and calculate how you can come out alive. In fact, helicopters are pretty safe aircraft in the right hands. I’ve survived two mid-air collisions and I once crashed into a mountainside in Greece. I survived, obviously, but sadly one guy died ... because he didn’t follow my safety briefing.”
Marc Wolff’s CV reads like a history of the action film over the past three decades, from Superman and Full Metal Jacket to Black Hawk Down andCasino Royale (one of nine Bond movies he’s worked on); and he’s flown camera for a range of quite different pictures from Harry Potter toBridget Jones’ Diary. In recent years his career has taken a new turn: “I’ve got into directing – what’s known as second unit directing. That means handling all the more physical and technical aspects involved in a film which gives you a key role in the creative process leading to what is eventually seen on screen.” Has this meant a major change in his working life? “Well, I’m sixty next birthday so I’m quite happy to slow down a little bit and I love directing but I’m still doing the hands-on stuff in the air.”
“A wonderful place to unwind”
A couple of days after I met him Marc left his home in Mougins and flew to Cape Town where he’s second unit director for Doomsday, a film set in a flood-stricken London (South Africa is a relatively cheap place to work). How long has he lived in France? “I came here for the first time in 1976 to work on commercials for SNCF and Renault. I loved it and began to think of one day living here. We finally settled in Mougins in 2001 and we’re staying here; it’s a marvellous life-style, a wonderful place to unwind after a hectic spell of filming – and there’s a good school up the road”. Marc’s daughter Lily, 17, has taken a year out from Mougins School to study drama in the US, his son Henry, 14 is still (like his dad all those years ago) unsure of what he’d like to do. If he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, would Marc encourage him? “No problem. I’ve had a great life. So could he – if he has luck and good judgement on his side.”
Find out more at www.marcwolff.net/credits.htm
From Riviera Reporter 120, April/May 2007