It was a freezing January in Arizona with an Alpine sun failing to melt ice that had lined the rim of the Grand Canyon for weeks. This was to be the stage upon which we wanted to film an idea that seemed wonderful, epic, adventurous… and formidably challenging, in eight months’ time.
There seemed little doubt that everyone we met would share our enthusiasm. After all, we wanted to recreate one of the great American adventures of discovery, the Powell expedition of 1869. But it turned out a little more difficult.
Park keepers in America share many of the same characteristics of park keepers the world over – a protective care for their charge beyond all measure of seeming rationality, backed up by an inordinately long list of rules. The difference: these park keepers called themselves wardens and had polished belts holding Tasers and guns.
So it seemed we couldn’t gather driftwood to make oars, or milk pines high in the Canyon for glue (essential to repair the boats). Even making fires was a problem. It was unclear if we would be allowed to film from powered boats at all, and certainly not the numbers we were proposing. As for using a generator to charge batteries – no way! Could we send a film crew ahead to position for a rapid – the shaking heads were matched with thin smiles that laughed at our naivety.
In response I thought I’d try a joke. Powell took glass barometers down the canyon that often needed recharging with (highly toxic) mercury. “But there’d be no problem bringing a flask of mercury,” I suggested. No one laughed. “That would be against regulations,” came the stern reply.
It took months of painful negotiations over almost every element of the production to find a way through what wasn’t so much red tape as red barbed wire. The whole production was almost shut down when permission to rig something called a “cord cam” to sling a remote camera from a rock face was inadvertently referenced to as a “cable-cam”.
So, understandably, when it came to the three filming weeks we spent around the Canyon in August, for all the foot rot, the pain, the freezing water, the tribulations of trying to interview the Powell crews after they had drunk a little too much rough whisky… every mile was a mile of intense satisfaction for the months of detailed preparation by the entire team to understand and abide by the man regulations without compromising an ounce of editorial ambition and integrity – my only regret the utter intransigence of the regulators to permit us to film from a small aerial helicopter. You can’t win them all.
And as we wound down, mile after mile, of gorgeously pure canyon, free of human waste and litter; think with undisturbed wildlife, I got it. These people have to protect one of the world’s great wildernesses, and they do it with a care and a passion. It was a privilege to be on the Colorado River at all, let alone be allowed to film on it, and stage such a remarkable historical challenge.
I get asked a lot by viewers – was what’s on screen really real? Well there are no Premier Inns in the Canyon, and the rattlesnakes and the scorpions speak for themselves… not to mention the red ants. And on a fast flowing river there’s no going back, no turning round, no retakes. We had to be simply there, every step of the way. By the end, the amazing crews of three Powell boats were on their knees, as were the filming teams, and all the safety and support we brought along… just in case. Oh, yes. It was real all right.