For ‘Everest’ director, a philosophy, and life, of extremes

19 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Everest’ review: The film relies heavily on awe, special effects and 3D.

September 19, 2015: A snow storm in 1996 claimed the lives of 8 mountaineers and the extraordinary story of those who beat the odds and survived has been made into a new movie called ‘Everest’. As I sat riveted in my seat by the sight of a dozen odd adventure junkies struggling to survive the punishing climb and the potentially fatal weather conditions on their way to the peak in Everest, one question came back to me repeatedly: Why would anyone put themselves through this?

An Australian mountaineer who survived a Mount Everest expedition in which eight people died, the story behind new Hollywood blockbuster Everest, has admitted he feels guilt about his own survival. He would go out with a small group, put all the supplies he could in a few bags and set out with nothing else but horses and an instinctive feel for the outdoors. “You pack everything you’re taking with you on the horses. Yes, Krakauer is a character in the movie, played by House of Cards actor Michael Kelly, but the film, which was adapted by William Nicholson (Les Miserables) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), does not stem from his memoir. Paul MacInnes talks to Clarke, Everest director Baltasar Kormákur, and celebrated mountain documentary-maker David Breashears about what it was like reliving and reconstructing the tragedy. Michael Groom was an Adventure Consultants guide alongside two others, leading eight clients on the expedition alongside seven Nepalese sherpas, when a blizzard struck the climbers during their descent from the summit on May 10, 1996. “I haven’t got a problem with the movie being made, and I haven’t got any hang ups about what happened in Everest ’96, but I actually have no interest in seeing (it),” he said.

And then you lose the horses in the fog or the river the first day, and you’re sleeping outside and you’re in trouble in a place very far from anyone,” he recalled. Expectedly then, an air of doom hangs over the film, as seasoned mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads a team of tourists to the world’s highest peak at 29,000 feet.

Groom had been mountain climbing for more than 15 years and said he had been in worse situations on other expeditions, but things simply fell apart in quick succession during that fateful day on the earth’s highest mountain. They faced cold temperatures, high winds and an unforgiving sun. “If you’re not shooting, then you’re off on some other adventure with a few other guys because you’re up on top of a mountain,” says Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays real life climbing group leader Scott Fischer in Everest (in theaters now). “Sitting around isn’t the best thing to do…You got to stay warm…When you weren’t shooting, you were just adventuring…It was great fun.” He added, “The coolest part of the day was just starting in the morning and gearing up down the mountain. Familiar faces include Josh Brolin as a rich Texan, and John Hawkes as an unassuming postman whose last attempt at conquering the summit was unsuccessful. But they did put the filmmaker in a frame of mind that allowed him to capture what climbers were feeling as they faced one outdoor hurdle after another during an intense storm on the epic mountain in 1996. “Everest,” which opens this weekend, follows a group of fact-based climbers — mailman Doug (John Hawkes), brash Texan Beck (Josh Brolin), surfer-cool veteran Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal) and prudent expedition leader Rob (Jason Clarke), among others, as they make their way up the treacherous mountain. (You can read Kenneth Turan’s review of the film here.) As documented in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” (he was on the trek and is played by Michael Kelly in the film) and other sources, a mix of miscalculation and sheer bad luck spelled a tragic fate for some and badly hurt others.

But perhaps more importantly, Everest also incorporates lines directly from the audio tapes of that day — tapes Kormakur, lead actor Jason Clarke (who plays climbing leader Rob Hall), and producer Tim Bevan listened to with Jan Arnold (Hall’s wife), fellow climber Guy Cotter, Rob’s daughter Sara Hall, expedition associate Helen Wilton, and the doctor on the mountain that day, Dr. Everest also stars Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington and Emily Watson and was directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Caroline MacKenzie. “None of the books that have been written had access to these tapes,” said Kormákur, adding that the crew of people who were on the ground that day hadn’t heard the tapes in 18 years. “They put them away and wanted to try to move onward with their life. The film’s flabby first-half introduces us to the large ensemble of characters, and yet you realize you don’t really know anyone, apart from a basic trait or two.

The script shuffles between different subplots, on different stretches of the climb, as the storm worsens and small errors prove dangerous and even fatal. It also allows the film to explore more human questions that effects can’t convey. “You have everything in this, really: hubris, humanity, courage, fear,” Kormakur said, adding, “The last thing we wanted to do was cook this into a conventional Hollywood blockbuster.” Kormakur is in a Toronto restaurant, the latest stop on a barnstorming promotional tour that has included Venice, Italy (where the film opened that city’s late-summer festival), France’s Deauville, Los Angeles and various points in Asia. To be fair though, one isn’t expecting character depth and human drama from a film that’s shot in the IMAX format, and ‘Everest’ relies heavily on awe, special effects and 3D. This is not to be confused with a horse trip he recently took with his family to Denmark from the Icelandic town where they spend much of their time; that excursion was less of the PR variety.

There’s little mention of the Nepalese guides who were killed that day, while the stories of Hall and Weathers are expanded to include their wives back home: Hall’s pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), and Weathers’ wife, Peach (Robin Wright), who springs into action calling embassies to get her injured husband off the mountain. More than once you’ll find yourself clutching your armrest as climbers teeter dangerously close to the edge of the mountain, or when the camera swoops threateningly over bottomless drops. Bundled up tightly in parkas, their bearded faces covered in ice and snow, it’s often hard to tell the characters apart in the film’s harrowing final act. Kormakur, who in the U.S. is best known for English-language thrillers such as “2 Guns” and “Contraband,” actually has a history making outdoor movies, notably directing the Icelandic film “The Deep” about a deadly nautical accident and its aftermath. He was more interested in re-creating the actual events that led to the demise of eight climbers. “This wasn’t going to be an obituary,” he said. “I wanted to humanize them.

Kormákur deploys all the technical skills at his disposal, including visual effects and an awesome sound design, to give viewers a full sensory experience. (The movie is opening in 3-D in IMAX theaters for a week, before opening at regular theaters, and the big-screen experience is worth it.) “Everest” never answers the why of risking one’s life to climb a mountain — beyond Sir Edmund Hillary’s oft-quoted “Because it’s there” mantra — but it does thoroughly cover the how of making it up and back, which is fascinating in itself. He is known for using natural setting in extreme locales — he refused to buld a water tank on “The Deep,” instead shooting in the open seas, forcing him at several points to swim in the water with his actors, at one moment rescuing the film’s star. In between the scenes of chilling tragedy, Kormakur cuts routinely to the wives as if asking us never to forget how many lives were irreparably affected by these events.

He had hoped to shoot much of this movie on Everest, but bonding companies and studio executives tend to get nervous about locations that helicopters can’t reach. In the end though, while Everest” is testing brutal and spectacular in portions, there’s never enough tension to keep you consistently invested in the drama. Still, he shot outdoors in the elements as much as possible, even if not every cast and crew member might have had the same enthusiasm for the prospect of working in subzero temperatures for weeks at a time. “Everest” goes light on the exposition, not getting into back stories in a way that explains why many of the men and women took on the challenge in the first place. The thrills too are fewer than you’d expect from what’s essentially a disaster film, and we never get one compelling central character to root for. But Kormakur says that he was simply staying true to the experiences of climbers. “I read somewhere that characters are underdeveloped, and I totally disagree,” he said. “It’s an ensemble film, for one thing.

The storm was just the final thing that finished them off.” So what about the Krakauer book — the one that has familiarized most people with this tragedy? Plus, that’s a story Kormákur says he wasn’t interested in telling. “To be honest I wasn’t that interested in telling a story about a writer on a mountain. I’ve seen a lot of movies about writers,” he says with a laugh. “His book is a first-person account and there are a lot of things that he assumes or thought that happened that didn’t really happen. All these characters have their moments, and then it builds into something.” Indeed, while those who see the grueling conditions portrayed in “Everest” may wonder why climbers embrace the challenge — Hawkes’ Doug explains that it’s the inability to resist the possibility of observing such beauty — Kormakur says there’s something more fundamental about extreme outdoor behavior. “Yes, you’re tired and hungry and physically suffering,” he said. “But you become a truer version of who you are.

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