Fact, Fiction, and Flying: Paragliding in 'The Upside'

Last week, The Upside soared past $100 million at the box office. What was filming the paragliding scenes really like?

By Erika Klein

Soaring side by side across the big screen, paragliders in The Upside conveyed the joy of flying and attracted pilot viewers across the nation following the film's release in January. Inspired by a true story, this heartwarming remake of the film The Intouchables follows paroled ex-convict Dell (Kevin Hart) as he begins a position caring for, and ultimately befriending, paralyzed billionaire Philip (Bryan Cranston). With fans extending far beyond the flying community, The Upside recently became the second U.S. film this year to exceed $100 million in domestic gross earnings.

But how were the paragliding scenes filmed? Did well-known actors Hart and Cranston really soar through the air for the shot, or was it all Hollywood magic against a green screen? USHPA Pilot editor Nick Greece and former USHPA president Paul Murdoch give us the scoop.

Yes, there was some Hollywood magic involved

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Rob Sporrer and Kevin Hart in the paragliding rig. Photo by Nick Greece

The scene begins with Dell (Hart) clutching the spreader bar (the bottom part of the paraglider) and glancing nervously at the ground below as his pilot (USHPA instructor Rob Sporrer) sits behind him flying the glider.

Unlike Cranston, Hart did not fly in any of the scenes. As a result, filming Hart “paragliding” required some creativity, including a flying rig that hung from a crane, a shade structure simulating the glider’s canopy, and a large fan for wind.

It took 4 days of paragliding to get all the shots

The actual paragliding scenes were more routine to shoot.

The flying scenes needed a launch that could handle the size of the production, provide reliable weather, and offer support from the surrounding pilot community. Working with locals Paul Murdoch and Kevin Lee, Nick helped the crew settle on Ruch, Oregon, home of Woodrat Mountain.

A site in Pennsylvania had already been used to film the paragliding launch sequences, so Paul scouted Oregon sites that were more visibly similar to the Pennsylvania hill than the initial choice of Woodrat Mountain. He also helped obtain permits and sourced other equipment needed by the production, including cranes and ultralights.

They had the site, the pilots, the crew, and the equipment--everything but the weather. “I had a fantastic producer who would listen to me in terms of waiting for the right weather window,” says Nick. Still, “It took weeks for the weather to come together, and just when the production was getting antsy, we finally got good conditions,” he recalls.

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Filming the flying from the ground. Photo by Nick Greece

The team spent the next four days filming Bryan Cranston and a Kevin Hart double flying around Rogue Valley. In addition to Nick and Rob flying the actors, tandem pilots Honza Remanjek (of Cross Country Magazine) and Mitch Riley (Red Bull X-Alps participant and U.S. paragliding national champion) flew the cameramen--who were seated both forward as well as backward to help them get close-up shots of the actors.

Flying in proximity safely, while maintaining enough stability for filming, were the most challenging parts of shooting the scene. “Two wings will not stay in perfectly synchronized flight,” Paul explains. “The actors’ wings and the camera wings were constantly moving up and down and drifting closer and further apart,” making the gliders difficult to capture on camera. Director Neil Burger even went up for a tandem and experienced the challenges of air-to-air filming in a paraglider.

Despite the complexities, “We had zero incidents during our dozens of tandems and hours of flying,” says Nick, adding that it was a “true joy” to work with the production team. Help from the pilot community, who worked in roles from driving to assisting in the landing field, also made the production go smoothly.

“I can’t say enough what tremendous skill the pilots have,” Paul adds. “They made it look easy while flying challenging setups, and most importantly kept it professional and safe.”

Paul also enjoyed getting to know Cranston, one of his favorite actors. “I found him to be tremendously approachable and genuine. He is just as he appears onscreen--except for Breaking Bad.”

Learn to fly!

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Air-to-air shooting for the film. Photo by Nick Greece

Near the end of the scene, Dell (Hart) spreads his arms to embrace the feeling of soaring like a bird. “That was amazing, man! I can’t believe I’m flying!” he calls out, with an answering whoop from Philip (Cranston).

With the film showing not only the freedom of paragliding, but adaptive paragliding for wheelchair-using pilots, Nick and Paul hope that anyone who dreams of flying will realize that they can paraglide.

“The most common initial experience for new pilots is simply to see flying happen,” says Paul. “I hope that this film reaches as many potential pilots as possible.”

Want to try flying like a bird for yourself? Find an instructor and learn to paraglide (or hang glide)!