It might be difficult to believe, but nearly 130 years after the inception of motion pictures, stunt performers are still fighting for recognition of their craft. The backbone of nearly every onscreen action since cameras could roll, stuntmen and stuntwomen have risked life and limb to bring us some of the most daring and exciting spectacles we couldn’t possibly witness otherwise, whether it be skiing down a mountain, jumping over a car, or even skiing down a mountain and then jumping over a moving car. Even an organization as esteemed as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feels neglectful for having yet to include a category for stunts.
These oversights are glaring, as stuntwork is a prevalent and essential part of filmmaking, even if we aren’t always cognizant of it. And few blockbuster franchises are as synonymous with consistently incredible stunts as the James Bond film series. The screenplay for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth film in the franchise heavily featured elements of ski, snow, and ice, most notably the jaw-dropping escape down the mountainside of Piz Gloria, which culminates in Bond outrunning an avalanche. To pull such a dangerous sequence off, Cubby Broccoli needed someone who knew snow like a second language. What was a producer to do?
Enter Stefan Zürcher, a Swiss ski instructor who answered an ad in his local paper seeking “crazy skiers” for the production of a new James Bond film. What began as a convenient job opportunity blossomed into a decades-long career in the film industry, with Zürcher joining the Bond production team as the go-to snow and mountain expert for nine adventures, whereupon he was christened “The Snowman” by the Broccoli family. Zürcher’s expertise and dependable work ethic made him a fixture in the Bond family, who called upon him to handle any snow sequence, no matter how large.
Stefan Zürcher (left) on the set of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
And Zürcher was not limited to stuntwork, either. While the success of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service led to notable work such as doubling for Robert Redford in Downhill Racer, Zürcher also made a name for himself as a dedicated assistant director and production manager. His life and career is laid out in his new biography, In the Secret Service of James Bond, which was co-written with Roland Schaefli, Zürcher’s career is explored in terrific detail, beginning with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 through the recent Spectre in 2015, and hitting every memorable role in between.
Among those works include wrangling extras on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, scouting locations for Bob Fosse Cabaret, and even flattening natural sand dunes at Elaine May’s behest to give the impression of a vast and endless desert for Ishtar. Through all these credits, Zürcher has consistently exuded a humble, workman-like mentality when tackling any sort of position, firmly establishing himself as a reliable and valuable resource on any given film production. Even with the advent of new technologies, Zürcher’s experience worked in some old-school methods of film production to save time and money, and not let everything get kicked over to the CGI factory.
As exciting as his work in other features has been, the real draw is reading about Zürcher’s time as a core member in the Bond family, ultimately being one of the rare individuals to have worked with every single actor who officially played 007. Whether it be orchestrating the opening ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me, popularizing snowboarding in A View to a Kill, guiding Timothy Dalton on a cello case in The Living Daylights, or capturing Bond’s freefall and plane escape in the pre-title sequence of GoldenEye, The Snowman was always on hand, assuring everything would go smoothly for all involved. To celebrate the release of In the Secret Service of James Bond, Film Inquiry sat down with Stefan Zürcher to discuss his extensive career.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jake Tropila with Film Inquiry: Hello, Stefan! Thank you for joining me, it’s an honor to have you. Did the holidays treat you well?
Stefan Zürcher: Yes! And you?
Yes, very well, thank you. Are you in Switzerland now?
Stefan Zürcher: I am up in the mountains, yes.
Do you get to go to the movies often?
Stefan Zürcher: No, I do not go much anymore. I like to stay in and watch sports on television. I like golf, right now it’s in Hawaii, in Kapalua, that’s my island.
Wonderful. Alright, let’s go back to the beginning with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s one of my favorite Bond films. Could you tell me about your team and the stuntwork you did in the film?
Stefan Zürcher: The stunts were quite difficult to do, but we had skilled skiers and a lot of world champions and Olympic champions, and I was not a champion but I was a very good skier, so it was a lot of fun to keep up with all of these champions. We would lift up to the mountain head to get all the beautiful glacier shots, then they would film us jumping over the various crevices and icy rocks.
Did you get to spend a lot of time with George Lazenby?
Stefan Zürcher: He came up a few times to do close-ups. We had him on a toboggan and would drag him through the glaciers, and there was also a cameraman on this toboggan, who would shoot the big close-ups. Otherwise, we were the action unit and I was more involved with shooting the skiing sequences. But I also worked quite a lot on the first unit, because I had come back from the United States when I got that job and spoke English quite well, so being bilingual in German and English I had to do a lot of translation with different departments.
So, you acted as the go-between for both sides?
Stefan Zürcher: Yeah, I think that was also an advantage that helped me belong to the Bond family, because they appreciated my work coordinating the stuff between the English crew and the German crew. For a start in the movie business, that was a big advantage.
After you wrapped Majesty’s Secret Service, how soon did you get Downhill Racer with Robert Redford?
Stefan Zürcher: I think we were finished around the middle of March 1969, and I went back to Wengen, which is my hometown, and Robert Redford and his film crew were there to do some sequences from the Lauberhorn downhill race, so I had the chance to double in these sequences for Redford.
How did you make the transition from stuntwork to assistant director?
Stefan Zürcher: On Downhill Racer, I met a very famous first AD, Wolfgang Glattes. He saw my qualities in dealing with the crew and dealing with different departments, and he knew that I spoke English very well, so he took me to Munich to Bavaria Studios, where we made a lot of big American pictures were made from about ’72 to ’82, ’84. One of them was Cabaret.
Yes! Tell me about Cabaret.
Stefan Zürcher: It was, for me, one of the greatest pictures I’ve worked on, as a guy coming from the mountains and you suddenly meet up with the lead crew who did the musical on Broadway, and then you’re face to face with Liza Minelli, with Bob Fosse, with Joel Grey, these great actors, great singers, great directors, and great choreographers. Having just done ski stunts for another picture, that was quite the experience for me. I also had a history lesson here, because in school we learned about the Second World War, but didn’t really learn about 1931, when the film takes place, through 1939, which was the upcoming of the Hitler Youth and National Socialism. [Cabaret] was a big history lesson for me.
Eventually, you go back to Bond and work on The Spy Who Loved Me. Was there any contact from the Bond family between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and this film?
Stefan Zürcher: No, it was a bit of a silent period for me. I think it was in part due to Harry Saltzman selling his shares to Cubby Broccoli, and I heard there were a lot of open questions and they didn’t really know what belonged to who, which company held which copyrights, so that’s why there was quite a big gap between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me.
Let’s talk about that opening sequence, which is really quite extravagant. You got the opportunity to double as Bond and a Bond villain chasing him. What was it like shooting the downhill action?
Stefan Zürcher: In that glacier, it was really amazing. In addition to being the stuntman, I was responsible for the locations, so we found the most beautiful glaciers we could find in St. Moritz, where we shot this opening sequence.
Stefan Zürcher doubling for Roger Moore on the set of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
And if I recall from the book, you had to survive part of the time in an igloo?
Stefan Zürcher: Yes, that was quite an experience. Willy Bogner, who was excited about the skiing and camerawork he did, didn’t listen to the locals and mountain guides who warned him about the fog or bad weather coming in. He just kept shooting, and suddenly the fog came, and we had helicopters moving the crew out, but a few of us who grew up on the mountains were the leftovers up on the glacier, and the last helicopter couldn’t come back because we were completely fogged in. So, we were three mountain guides and two skiers, but I had a lot of experience of staying out overnight from the army, because I was a mountain infantryman in the Swiss army. We spent a lot of time in the mountains and in glaciers, staying and sleeping in igloos. This day was special because I was doubling for James Bond, and he had a very thin suit with hardly anything underneath, so when it became twenty degrees below zero at night, that was quite an experience. So, we built an igloo, and to build an igloo you have to take your clothes off so you don’t sweat into them, and then you really have to dig for your life to make it big enough for five people. It’s a special kind of structure, where outside it can get to twenty, thirty below, but if you build it right, on the inside it won’t get below zero. With the body heat of everybody, it stays at the freezing point, maybe one Centigrade plus, but it doesn’t get to where you’ll freeze to death. We had this old wooden tripod, with the legs made of wood and the camera piece out of metal. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I took my Swiss knife out with the saw, cut the tripod into little pieces, and made a little fire. In the meantime, the tea was frozen in this big canister, so I hacked the tea out and cooked the tea in some film cans for the boys in the igloo. They were surprised to get hot tea on a mountain at three o’clock in the morning.
Wow, that is amazing. Did you work closely with Roger Moore at all?
Stefan Zürcher: Ah, Roger Moore was never up there, no. We shot our sequences, and then there were a few shots in Canada, in Baffin Island. These were the only shots not filmed in Switzerland, where Bond goes off the mountain and opens the parachute with the Union Jack on it.
Were you involved with that stunt at all?
Stefan Zürcher: No, I was not involved in that, that was another team, a special team who went there. That was Rick Sylvester, a very good skier and also parachutist who did that stunt.
You worked with Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights, specifically the cello case chase sequence. From what I read, that case sat on a guide rail. Could you explain the process behind that?
Stefan Zürcher: In Weissensee, where the frozen lake chase takes place and Bond crosses the border and is escaping the Czech soldiers on the cello case with Maryam d’Abo, we had a special hardshell case made, and underneath we had rails like you would have on a toboggan, so they’d travel in a straight line, and Timothy Dalton and Maryam d’Abo sat on it while he steered with the cello. I skied next to the cello case and did camerawork here, and I also pulled the toboggan while they shot the close-ups of the actors.
And then you had a close call on the frozen lake, right?
Stefan Zürcher: That was almost the end of my life, when I nearly drowned with a snowcat in Weissensee. Overnight, we had a lot of snowfall and had to clean the ice the next day to shoot the car chase. We had a big pile of snow at the lake’s end and had to remove that because it was in the shot. We decided to get a big snowcat, but nobody wanted to drive it. So, I got into the snowcat and started working for three, four hours, moving snow away from the lake. I drove a hundred times over the same spot and somehow, when I put the reverse gear in, the tracks went into the ice and I was in the lake. I had water in the cabin with maybe a foot left between my head and the roof of the cabin, and I was already hearing the guardian angels singing. The ice master for the lake jumped into the cold water and he opened the door just a little crack on top, and I could slide out of this little space. Otherwise, I probably would’ve drowned there.
Wow. Well, we’re very fortunate that it did not end that way.
Stefan Zürcher: Yeah. I’ve had some hairy incidents with helicopters, but I think that was the closest I ever got to that.
What was working with Timothy Dalton like?
Stefan Zürcher: He was a very nice guy. He maybe knew that he was a second choice, because they already wanted Pierce Brosnan, but he was still with his big TV series and they couldn’t get him, but Dalton was a very nice guy and I think he did quite a good job as Bond. He was different.
You worked on Ishtar, a film I have a soft spot for. Could you talk about bulldozing the sand dunes?
Stefan Zürcher: That was an amazing experience, because there was Elaine May, who had written Warren Beatty’s scripts like Heaven Can Wait, and he had promised her she could direct a film, so he arranged all this with Dustin Hoffman in the other leading role with Isabelle Adjani. So, she got the job as director, but it was quite a strange thing. I went on location in the Sahara Desert, which was near Morocco. It’s a beautiful, beautiful desert, but May was looking through her viewfinder and said “This desert doesn’t give me the ‘infinity.’ What can we do?” I said it’s a sand desert, and wherever there is sand, there is wind and dunes. But she said “I want to see the infinity, I want a sand desert that is flat.” So, I was ended up in the desert for two months, flattening out a square mile of desert with ten big caterpillars. All these locals thought I was absolutely crazy, they didn’t know what I was doing out there. And I flattened out the desert for about a square mile. You’ll see it in the shot where they come into the desert with the camel, before the vultures come.
And you got to work closely with one of the vultures too, right?
Stefan Zürcher: Yeah, that was an amazing thing. We had a scene where Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman lay on the sand in the Sahara Desert, and Hoffman is almost dying and Beatty sees all these vultures up in the sky circling, and one of these vultures comes down and lands next to Hoffman. That was all written in the script, and they wondered “How will you do all that?” Well, we organized a trained vulture to come from Los Angeles. I went to the airport to pick up the animal trainer with the trained vulture. When he got off the plane, he opened the cage and said, “C’mon, Higgins, get out.” And Higgins got out of his cage and we walked down the hallway of the airport, we went to the carpark, and he said “Higgins, get into the car.” Higgins looks at him, moves his wings and jumps into the car. Then we went onto the set in the desert. We built a tower of about 30 feet high, and the trainer went up there with Higgins in his cage. Hoffman was laying on the ground, and he was told to absolutely not move, because a vulture will not go to him if he’s moving. So, he had to play dead. The trainer put a little red mark in the desert for the vulture to land on for the camera, which we hid with a little bit of sand on the camera’s side. When we were ready, the cameras were rolling and he said “Higgins, fly.” And Higgins went out, did his circling, and landed on the red spot. You see it in the film, he landed in one take. It was amazing, and whenever he did something good, they gave him his goodies, a treat. And this treat was very, very rotten, stinky meat. I asked the trainer if the vulture got sick of the rotten, stinky meat, and he said “It takes a lot to make a vulture sick.” And that became a guideline in my life, when the bankers, controllers, and all these people from Los Angeles would come onto set, I remembered this story: “It takes a lot to make a vulture sick.” That was the story of Higgins.
That’s fantastic. So, there was a break in Bond action, but you came back for GoldenEye and worked on another pre-title sequence. Could you talk a little about this?
Stefan Zürcher: I was really a part of the Bond family then, and whenever there was something in the mountains or with snow and ice or with rockfaces, Barbara Broccoli, now a young producer, would say “Call Stefan, the Snowman!” We were sitting in a room, making up the story of “How does Bond get into this chemical weapon facility in Russia?” Some said he could climb down, he could ski to it, but we were always trendsetters for new sports, and bungee jumping was just coming up, so we suggested he could bungee jump off of one of these dams. So, we scouted and found that dam so he could infiltrate and set up the charges to blow the facility. As for how he gets away, we thought “Well, there’s an airfield, and he fights a pilot starting a plane, and then they both fall out of the plane, and then the plane goes over the edge without a pilot into a straight dive into the valley. What does he do then? Well, he takes one of these motorcycles, he jumps off after the plane, approaches it, gets into the plane in mid-air, and flies away.” Everybody then looks at me and says “Stefan, you go find these locations and make it happen.” During these meetings, I was never talking too much, I was more of a doer, not a twiddler, because there are enough twiddlers around in this world. The world is full of twiddlers, and not enough doers, and if you’re a doer you also have to make decisions. So, I found these locations, it had to be a rockface with a 3,000-foot overhang for the dive down. There, we were also trendsetting because base jumping started. We had a really good pilot who drove that plane in a straight dive down into the valley, and we had Jacques Malnuit, he was a very good motorbiker and also a base jumper. In his suit, he had a little parachute, and after about eight seconds in free fall, he would open it and land safely. We used about eight brand-new Cagiva motorbikes until we got it. The timing was quite difficult. I built the end of this runway, on the mountainside where the plane goes over the edge into a dive, and the plane had to have a minimum speed of about 60 to 70 kilometers per hour, otherwise, it would’ve stalled and crashed. The motorbike had to go 100 kilometers per hour. But we got that, and in front of the rockface that was all done for real, only the close-up where Pierce Brosnan goes into the plane was that shot in Pinewood Studios.
Stefan Zürcher on the set of Quantum of Solace (2008) – source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
And I read that you got along well with Pierce Brosnan?
Stefan Zürcher: Yeah, he was my favorite James Bond, just as a person. He was a really, really good person. He lost his wife, and I had also lost my mother when I was very young, so we somehow had the same chemistry and we had a lot of nice talks together, not just about films but about life, the here and now, and what we were actually doing on this planet. It was a very interesting relationship, we had a lot of nice chats together. And at this time, we were also on The World is Not Enough, that’s where I had a lot of time to talk with him, that’s when we had this very heavy winter with all these avalanches. We had a lot of days where we couldn’t shoot, so we just sat by the fireside and had a lot of nice talks. Also, maybe to say that at this time we didn’t have social media, not like later on for Daniel Craig, where there were always like twenty film teams and forty journalists, we had to protect him so much. It was a completely different life, and for a Bond-like Daniel Craig in the last few pictures with social media, that was quite a tough job. He went up to his room, he had his dinner up there because people were waiting all around the hotel. You know how it is these days with these big stars.
In the book, you described Spectre as having one of the biggest stunts you were a part of. Do you have any memories you’d like to share about that snow chase sequence?
Stefan Zürcher: Well, Spectre for me was the last Bond film I made and for me also a big, big highlight. I was already 70 years old when I did Spectre, and I was standing in the forest every morning at four, five o’clock, minus ten, twenty degrees until the late evening at ten o’clock, where we would put on the snow machines and start again. I was on that film for one and a half years, it started again in London, getting the story straight for that spectacular chase from the mountaintop down into the valley, into the mountain village, we made up this story with the production designer, with Sam Mendes, with all the special effects people, and then they looked at me and said “You make it happen now.” Then I went out, I went to France, to Italy, to Switzerland, to Austria, for all these locations. We found a lot of nice mountaintops where that clinic is supposed to take place, and we presented a lot of pictures from all the different countries. They finally decided on the Ice Q in Sölden, in Austria, and also Obertilliach, the village, where we did the scene where he flies the plane through the forest, and also Altaussee, where Bond goes over that lake to find that old guy down in the basement. That was all shot in Austria. That was an amazing scene and it was such an interesting job to do because I probably the oldest guy in the Bond family, and had worked with all the James Bonds. I didn’t do the ones with Sean Connery, but I did work with Connery on Five Days One Summer, also in the Swiss Alps. That’s where I worked with Connery, and the other Bonds I worked with over my 58 years in Bond pictures.
Do you have any parting wisdom after all these years of work?
Stefan Zürcher: If you want to be successful, you have to be a good communicator, and a good communicator also has to be a good listener, sometimes you have to just listen. In many meetings, I listened and watched others for a long time before I would even say anything. And then, you have to be a hard worker. When you are part of a film crew like that, can you imagine in 1968 you are a good skier, you are a mountain boy, I lived in the United States for a few years, I was a ski instructor there, I also did some commercials, and you are suddenly in the feature film business. You’ll be so proud, you’ll start at four in the morning and end at ten o’clock at night, you’re just part of this family, it just becomes a part of your life. You have a good salary, but I was just happy to be among this crew. And it’s not just any films, it’s Bond films, it’s Cabaret with eight Oscars, it’s all films which you can be proud of being part of the crew. It was never a question of working hours, you just gave your best and you put all your efforts into it. What I also suggest is you leave your ego at home, because if you want to be successful, especially behind the camera, the ego is not the right thing to bring with you. On Spectre, everyone had to fill out budgets and costs, but I had more or less carte blanche from Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson because they trusted me so much and they knew I was not going to cheat them and would work for the production to make it happen.
Let’s say Bond 26 comes down the pipeline, there’s something needed up in the mountains and they put out a call for the Snowman. Will you return to duty?
Stefan Zürcher: I don’t think I wouldn’t go in the operational part anymore, there are a lot of good people around, but if they asked me I would probably work as a consultant and advisor, because there is so much experience, especially for Bond films. In one film, they started using CGI and people didn’t like it at all. That was Die Another Day, where he was surfing and all this ice was breaking off, that was ridiculous. They had a big shitstorm there, because everyone knew that Bond films put so much into their stunts and were well-planned, and there were also so few accidents over twenty-five Bond films, to organize all these stunts and not have anyone killed or hurt was something to be proud of. I would also work on the set as a sort of safety officer, I would oversee entire scenes and if I thought I saw any danger coming up I would intervene.
Stefan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. The book is a tremendous success and I hope many have the opportunity to read about your exciting career.
Stefan Zürcher: Yeah, and this is a good end, too: I was in a talk show with Matt Lauer, and I don’t know how big his audience was but I told him my life story, and at the end he said “Stefan, you are a very famous person, it must be terrible to walk down Broadway in New York and nobody knows you.” And I said “Thank God!”
In the Secret Service of James Bond is available now. Film Inquiry would like to thank Stefan Zürcher for his time, and Roland Schaefli for a copy of the book.
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