For Beck Weathers, ‘Everest’ ‘takes me apart,’ but a sense of humor keeps him …

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Everest’ is a harrowing spectacle that lacks emotion.

About 6 that evening, Weathers, a hard-charging 49-year-old Texas pathologist and experienced mountain climber, became stranded in a blizzard on Mt. There are many ways to die on Mount Everest, as evidenced in riveting detail in September’s 3-D IMAX drama Everest, about the 1996 disaster made famous by Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.When your heroes are out-of-shape adventurers who’ve paid £42,000 a head to put themselves in harm’s way, your compassion – like their oxygen supply – starts thinning the further they ascend.

But this awe-inspiring movie is also one that’s laced with dread, little triumph and even less perspective as you wait, with a knotted stomach, for the disasters to manifest. “Everest” recounts the events of, and leading up to, May 10, 1996, when a series of controversial decisions and a heap of bad luck led to the deaths of 8 climbers – then the deadliest day in Everest history. After all, a mountain that is treated by the locals as a god can sometimes become a demon—especially when that mountain is the world’s highest and most dangerous.

The action focuses on a group of thrill-seeking amateur climbers who arrive in Nepal for 40 days training – or peak practice – before attempting to scale the 29,000ft mountain. Nearly blinded from the effects of the altitude, his supplemental oxygen depleted, Weathers entered a hypothermic coma and was deemed by fellow climbers to have no chance of surviving. While filming 16,000 feet above sea level, at a monastery in the shadow of the mountain, he captured a scene while so dizzy he calls it “probably the worst scene I ever shot.

It is not, however, based on the most famous account, journalist Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” It’s an amalgamation of stories, reports and never-before-heard tapes from the day, focused mostly though on Adventure Consultants lead Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Texan climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). The distinctly unsympathetic bunch includes a Texan good ol’ boy (Josh Brolin), a travel journalist (Michael Kelly) and a retired postman (John Hawkes), who’ve paid Jason Clarke’s professional guide to lead them to the top of the world. The [director of photography] was so altitude sick he didn’t know what he was shooting.” It did not, as you might expect, make it into the final film. Clichés abound. “Let’s climb this thing!” one guide calls. “You know what they say,” another remarks, “it’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude.” But “Everest” is an entertainment; you don’t go to it expecting poetry. (Although visual poetry is a reasonable expectation, given the subject.

The sheer scale of the challenge is neatly brought home by plenty of aerial shots of the climbers, the size of ants, clinging to the side of the jagged slopes and those lacking a head for heights are guaranteed to be left hyperventilating. Star Jason Clarke, who plays the expedition’s leader Rob Hall, shared his character’s enthusiasm for the high peaks, and completed hikes alongside co-star Martin Henderson in New Zealand and Scotland to prepare for the role. “I wouldn’t pretend to have the balls that Rob had,” Clarke insists. “But you do understand there’s that sense of freedom and sense of calculation at the same time which has to be married.

His presence as a journalist covering the expedition frames the growing tension between customer service and safety inherent in the commercialization of adventure. Mount Everest is really the unbilled lead actor of this nail-biting IMAX spectacular by Baltasar Kormakur (The Deep), a moody thespian at that, and woe to any human who attempts to steal the spotlight. “The last word always belongs to the mountain,” a character ominously says, in this highly involving but occasionally frustrating dramatic retelling of a tragic 1996 alpine assault doomed by a snowstorm that left eight climbers dead and many others seriously injured and forever changed. We’ll get to that issue too.) A clue to the essential problem lies in an early snippet of dialogue at base camp, when a guide tells his clients “Eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow we trek,” at which point the camera cuts to the group climbing into a huge helicopter that thunders up toward the mountain.

If you want to hit the top, there is a level of risk involved.” The level of risk on the film’s production was lower, naturally, but not insignificant—when the production moved to the Italian Alps, Clarke contracted early frostbite on his thumb, which still tingles, a year later. So imposing is the mountain, and so realistically rendered by Salvatore Totino’s camera (plus CGI imaging), it threatens to dwarf any attempt to bring a human element to the tale. If you’re going to make a mankind-vs-nature film, it’s a good idea to ensure your protagonists haven’t deliberately placed themselves in a life-threatening situation.

After lying unconscious for 15 hours in brutal conditions, he somehow woke up and staggered down to camp, suffering from severe hypothermia and frostbite that would lead to the loss of his nose and hands. Even indoor scenes took their toll, with jet engines blowing snow and salt into the actors’ faces to simulate a raging blizzard. “We built half a mountain and the Hillary Step and then locked it off in a big freezer and froze it in fucking snow,” Clarke says. “It put me in an ice cave. Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke play rival climbing pros who are attempting to turn a profit on leading wealthy Westerners, not all of them expert climbers, up the 29,000 feet of the planet’s biggest bragging right. Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is a bit of a daredevil, an American cocky in his assurance that he’s personally selected only clients with the right stuff to take Everest, the type of guys who scoff at the need for bottled oxygen at an altitude we’re reminded is the cruising level of a 747. Portrayed by Josh Brolin with cocky bluster and Texas bravado, Weathers at first seems an unlikely hero, but, over the course of the film, his facade falls away and he becomes humanized by the tragedy.

Weathers, now 68, is not a particularly spiritual man, so he doesn’t explain his “resurrection” in terms of miracles or destiny. “My guess is the sun warmed me up just enough that it triggered consciousness.” Or maybe, he suggests, there was another, even more mundane explanation. “That was going to be the day of my daughter’s first date,” he says dryly. “The things some fathers will do to keep their daughter from going out with some grubby-mitted boy.” Clearly Weathers has held on to his sense of humor. I think this is as extreme filmmaking as it gets. “I wanted to create a movie with the intimacy of an indie but the scale of a blockbuster,” Kormákur continues, describing his use of handheld cameras that reminds the audience at all times that “the mountain is always way bigger than you.” A sobering reminder of that happened in real life while the film was in production last year, when an avalanche killed at least sixteen people at an Everest base camp.

That’s part of the problem of “Everest.” All the elements are there, but the emotions never land – even with the inclusion of previously private conversation between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) as his plight atop the mountain becomes direr. Both men are angling to look good in the Outside magazine cover story planned by journalist/climber Jon Krakauer, whose subsequent bestselling book Into Thin Air informs the screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours). The large ensemble cast is packed with recognizable faces – Clarke, Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Knightley, Sam Worthington, and on and on.

There’s not a lot of time to get to know the individuals before their faces are obscured with ski masks and goggles and they’re reduced to, and dependent on, our ability to recall the color of their snowsuits. The style and tone of the ponderous thing tell us that it’s about heroic struggle and living one’s dream, while the evidence of our eyes tells us that this saga of mostly overprivileged and often undertrained adventurers is also, if not mainly, about economic inequality. His nose was reconstructed with skin and cartilage from other parts of his head and neck and, for months, grew on his forehead until doctors could safely attach it to the middle of his face. Hindered by equipment and face masks that make them appear as astronauts on the moon, it’s very hard for them to fully register as individual characters.

The director was Baltasar Kormákur, a gifted filmmaker from Iceland who shouldn’t be blamed for a case of industrial filmmaking gone wrong—the culprits in elaborate clunkers like this are usually the producers and the studios. Recovering psychologically took even longer. “For a while you put the emotional healing aside because the physical demands have to be dealt with,” said Peach Weathers, who is played in “Everest” by Robin Wright. “Finally times get quiet and they’re not quite as hard, and you can sort of mull over things.” Over time, it got easier for Weathers to talk about Everest, and, after returning to practice medicine, he eventually began a second career as an inspirational public speaker. “I’ve always been a storyteller. The film feels like a climb itself. “Everest” starts off slowly, showing the detailed preparations for the ascent, including cutaways to the family lives of Hall and Weathers.

It’s easy to lose track of people when the camera is revealing the most realistic and stunning of moments, such as when the peak is revealed to be a tiny garbage dump of flags and other debris left by all the climbers who have followed the trail blazed by Everest pioneers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. At the screening I attended, the screen wasn’t small, but it wasn’t all that big, and the 3-D images, far from being visual poetry, were medium-murky prose. Baltasar Kormákur directed this hurtling action adventure, or action misadventure, given how much goes wrong for the resourceful hero, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a master smuggler gone straight and determined to remain so. And then I did.” From the start, Weathers had gravitated toward climbing in an attempt to try to free himself from a depression that had settled on him in college.

Though his growing obsession with mountaineering put a strain on his marriage, by physically pushing him to the limit, he found he could keep the black cloud temporarily at bay. Shot partially on location in Nepal and later in Italy’s Senales Glacier, “Everest” utilizes cutting-edge visual effects and cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s talents to create sweeping, breathtaking shots that were simply impossible to do before. Everest represented the biggest challenge he could imagine, a way to escape his encroaching sense of mortality and to be what he envisioned to be his best self. “I think Beck was trying to prove himself to himself,” Peach says. “He was really hard on himself.

Such death-defying stunts and shots have usually been the stuff of fiction in overdone mountain-climbing thrillers such as 1993’s “Cliffhanger” and 2000’s “Vertical Limit.” But “Everest” has both an icy authenticity and a profound craftsmanship that elevates it far above those flicks, having more in common with the fantastic films “The Impossible,” which is based on another real-life disaster, the tsunami that struck Thailand, and “127 Hours.” I guess it’s just something that you come with.” When Weathers learned that a big-budget Hollywood take on the 1996 Everest disaster was in the works, he was wary, and not only because it would dredge up painful memories. “I’d never seen a Hollywood movie about climbing that I thought was worth a hoot,” he says. “It always looked to me like a bunch of actors on a ski slope screaming at each other.” Over a three-hour meeting in a hotel in Los Angeles before shooting started, Brolin worked to get below the surface of the story Weathers had told so many times, but it took the help of several rounds of Jack Daniels and Coke. “That always seems to tear away a few onion layers,” the actor says.

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