The result is a pretty exemplary popcorn movie.
Out on the Colorado locations for "Downhill Racer," Robert Redford was limping and wincing occasionally when his foot landed the wrong way. He had injured his knee in a snowmobile accident. It was bad enough to have your knee banged up, but when you were making a movie about skiers, and doing a lot of the skiing yourself, it was murder.
"Three more days and we go home," Redford said. "The stuff we're doing now is easy. Most of the movie was shot in Europe between January and April, and that was rough. We were in Switzerland, up in the mountains, working seven days a week. And we anticipated a lot of difficulties and tried to plan for them...like a blizzard.
"Well, things weren't quite as severe as we expected. But what happened was that exhaustion set in halfway through, and finally it became a question of whether everyone would make it. Our energy was long-since spent. We finally made it, on a lot of tea and rum and not much sympathy. But a lot of rum."
For Redford, the work must have been worth it. "The Downhill Racers" is the first film he's personally been involved in producing, although as an actor he's on the brink of superstar status. He has two potentially big movies ready for release:
"Willie Boy," a western co-starring Katharine Ross (of "The Graduate"), and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," co-starring Paul Newman. His next film, like "Downhill Racers," reflects his active, outdoor image. It will be "Little Fauss, Big Halsy," a comedy about professional motorcycle racing, and it will costar Michael J. Pollard.
All this began far Redford nearly a decade ago, when he won the Broadway starring role in Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park." Screen roles followed, including leads in the movie version of "Barefoot" and "The Chase." So now, with "Downhill Racers," Redford was indulging a personal interest in skiing by backing one of the most elaborate attempts to film the sport. What they came back with was about 300,000 feet of film, a lot of it shot by Joe Jay Jalbert, a former racer with the University of Washington who functioned as a skiing cameraman. "At the risk of blowing my own horn," Redford said, "I think this is the best footage of skiing I've ever seen. The trouble with most movies about skiing is that they make everything seem abstract. You see some cat doing fancy stunts, and then you cut to somebody else who falls over, and the audience laughs because he fell over. And that's supposed to represent skiing.
"I wouldn't be interested in a film like that. I wouldn't want to see it, and I wouldn't want to make it. The important thing about a sport is the people who devote their lives to it. The sport is just background. What we're after in 'The Downhill Racers' is a movie about the specific lifestyles of the ski people. Politics surround this sport, like any business. People are cruel to each other.
"And the sport is cruel, too, although usually you think only of the beauty of it. In live TV coverage of skiing, you get some idea of the cruelty and the hardness of it, but in the movies it's made so beautiful.
"So we're going more into the area of the danger and the toughness, into the exploitation of the athlete, into the success syndrome that demands that the athlete win. You know, it's a funny thing, ski racers tend to look much older than their years. It's like that with all sports that involve excessive danger. Every time they face into a starting gate they face truth. They don't dwell on it, or think about it that much, but it's evident in their faces and attitudes." Redford wasn't talking in hypothetical terms. He and his wife live in a home they built themselves on a mountaintop near Provo, Utah. They operate a year-round ski resort nearby named Sundance, perhaps after the character Redford plays in Paul Newman's upcoming "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." And "The Downhill Racers" represents a personal commitment by Redford to make an accurate movie about professional skiers.
"I was offered the lead in 'The Ski Bum' a couple of years ago," he said. "I decided not to take it because...well, I didn't think much of the book, for one thing, and it wasn't really about ski bums anyway. But it seemed to me somebody ought to do a movie about skiing. For me, personally, skiing holds everything. I used to race cars, but skiing is a step beyond that. It removes the machinery and puts you one step closer to the elements. And it's a complete physical expression of freedom.
"But then when you take the sport to its farthest extension you begin to find the strange effect it has on men. Like, why does a man go 80 m.p.h. down the side of a mountain when he knows that in order to win he must ski almost out of control? That's what we're trying to get into with this movie. I would hate like hell to turn out just another ski movie."
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