‘You are the bird, every twitch can move you this way or that’… Polli flies off Pedra da Gávea, near Rio de Janeiro, in a scene from Base. Photograph: Carlos Briceño Schütte
One week after his wingsuit-flying partner died, Carlos Briceño Schutte launched himself into the void holding an inflatable pig. The drop from the Aiguille du Midi, the 3,842m peak that towers over the French alpine town of Chamonix, had been one of Alexander Polli’s favourites. It was only right, says Schutte, to fly it in remembrance – accompanied by his friend’s spirit animal. “He was sometimes a little bit fat, not doing much exercise,” says Schutte. “I was like, ‘You’re not an eagle, bro. You’re a pig.’”
Polli, who was just 31 when he died last year, was the Jimi Hendrix of wingsuit-flying, the supremely dangerous sport whose elite are revered like rock stars, thanks to the eye-watering feats they perform. Polli, like Schutte, had taught himself by trial and error to use the nylon-webbed suits that allow base-jumpers to ascend to the next terrifying level. Launching themselves from peaks and helicopters, they cut horizontally through the air at speeds that can exceed 200mph, “proximity-flying” just inches from rockfaces and buildings. There is little room for error on such high-octane flights – and none whatsoever on the 2013 stunt with which Polli made his name: threading the needle of a 25ft hole in a rockface in Spain’s Montserrat mountains, an accomplishment unusually extreme even by wingsuit standards.
Rocketing down from a chopper towards a jagged escarpment, Polli needed absolute precision and commitment to hit his mark. Any unexpected air turbulence, distraction or hesitancy would have meant slamming face-first into rock.
But the potential price of such daredevilry was brought home in August last year, at another popular site near Chamonix – the Couloir Ensa, where Polli was keen to try out a new corkscrew manoeuvre. Instead, he became one of seven proximity-flying deaths that year – a casualty rate that calls into question the sanity of anyone who feels the need to dress up like a flying squirrel and chuck themselves off a mountain.
For wingsuit-fliers, the risk is worth it. “It’s one of the most archetypal human dreams,” says Richard Parry, director of Base, a new turbocharged film starring Polli and Schutte. “To fly unaided, where you are the bird, and every twitch of every muscle can move you this way or that. To course down valleys and over ridges.” Frequently filmed on GoPro cameras strapped to a person in flight, Base propels the viewer to the brink of the wingsuit experience – quite literally in the case of the opening scene, in which Polli ums and errs about taking one more step towards a precipice above Rio de Janeiro.
For something that supplies such a visual kick, wingsuit-flying has featured little in film – outside of documentaries, only in a handful of scenes in such blockbusters as The Dark Knight Returns. Base is the first film drama to craft a decent story around the sport, one that digs into its dark side, its pressurised psychologies. Polli and Schutte play adrenaline junkies whose camaraderie is tarnished when Polli’s character falls for his mate’s girlfriend. His judgment at critical moments starts to waver – with drastic consequences.
Parry, a former war photographer, started out with a screenplay about a base-jumping serial killer, but he decided it was too sensationalist, and opted instead to tackle preconceptions about extreme sports. “People shorthand all the time: ‘Oh, they’ve just got a death wish.’ They used to say that about me in conflict zones. It got irritating. It’s so thin. There’s so much more complexity to wingsuit-flying.”
The director, a 50-year-old father, doesn’t and won’t participate. But when he contacted Polli for insight, the two bonded over their interest in risk assessment and self-control, subjects they discussed while peering over the edge of a limestone cliff on Switzerland’s Hinterrugg mountain, a plunge that leads to a nauseatingly tight canyon known as the Crack. “I said, ‘What do you do with the fear?’ It was the same as covering a war. If you resist it, it becomes insurmountable. It rules you. Polli would accept the fear, embrace it and turn it into something positive. Use it as an energy.”
Schutte elaborates: “You will always feel fear, for sure, before every jump. But you start to get more aware of what you’re doing, whether your gear is set up properly. You take care of the little details. When you push off, in that moment the fear is gone. Now you are focused on doing the best possible jump. The fear returns when you have to deploy your parachute – whether it’s a two-second or a one-minute freefall.”
Polli sometimes found that acting, particularly improvising, stripped him down to the bare essentials, in much the same way as base-jumping. He was particularly freaked out by the idea of performing in a death scene, only agreeing to do it in a single take. They succeeded only too well: some viewers have mistaken Base for a snuff movie.
An Italian-Norwegian junior skiing and snowboarding champion, Polli was in the throes of youthful rebellion when Schutte first met him: “He didn’t like having any responsibilities. The world he was coming from was very plastic – rich people going to St Tropez.” The Venezuelan, 11 years older, became a surrogate big brother to the anarchic rich kid, who supported himself partly by playing online poker. “I was always the one taking care of stuff: ‘OK, we cannot leave this mess.’ It was like taking a master’s in patience.”
The payoff was Polli’s generosity, lust for life and raw talent. “When you’re at the edge of the cliff, everybody is at the same level,” says Schutte. “Whether you’re the richest guy or the poorest. That amazed him.” Months before his death, he briefly stopped flying and started experimenting with ayahuasca, the Amazonian hallucinogenic vine, on trips to Peru. “Ayahuasca changed his life for good,” says Schutte. “He was becoming more conscious of other people. Before, he’d be farting in the cable car, not caring about anyone else.”
At 7.30am on 22 August last year, Schutte found Polli up doing yoga. He was keen to fly the Couloir Ensa, a steep 400m gully near Chamonix where there are frequent avalanches. Schutte, who hadn’t flown much that season, didn’t understand the line his friend suggested and said that he would rather steer clear of any rock formations. Polli agreed to that different route and – unusually for him – said he would follow behind. His signoff was different, too. “Normally, he would say, ‘I love you, bro’ or something like that. This time it was, ‘Ciao, bro.’”
When Schutte didn’t see his partner’s parachute open, he feared the worst and called a rescue helicopter before he’d even touched down. They reached Polli – who had crashed into a tree – in just eight minutes, but it was too late to save his life.
Parry remembers getting the call. “It didn’t feel completely out of the blue,” he says. He delayed the release of the film, only moving forward with Polli’s family’s consent. His mother accepted his lifestyle – but tellingly she had bought him his first parachute, not his first wingsuit. Neither parent had been aware of the film. “They never realised their son was like a rock star,” Schutte says. “For them, he was a crazy spoilt kid. When they saw the love everybody had for him, they felt they should have spent more time with him – to understand what he was trying to do.”
As well as serving as a memorial to Alexander Polli, Base also inadvertently documents the voyeuristic and narcissistic impulses that seem to govern life in the age of YouTube and social media. Polli’s character is continually filming himself, or editing his recordings. This urge to self-publicise is a far more pressing issue in the world of wingsuit-flying: some people think the prevalence of cameras has pushed risk-taking to even more extreme lengths, fuelling the recent rise in fatalities. But Parry’s conscience is clear. “I don’t feel any complicity,” he says. “Alex would have done it no matter what. Nobody forced him to the edge.”