Watching “Everest”, I felt like I’ve climbed the planet’s highest peak for the price of a movie ticket.
I love mountains, was born at the foot of one and grew up dreaming about summiting Everest, Chomolungma to Tibetans – Mother Goddess of the World, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese.
Why would anybody in his right mind cough up over P5 million, risking life and limb, to clamber up this 29, 030 foot monstrous rock, as high as a 747 jumbo jet flies, through minus 40 C temps and super high velocity winds?
Well, I would, if I had the dough, just for the chance of setting foot in the throne room of the gods.
But watching “Everest”, the movie, all I had to do was don 3D glasses, sit back and relax.
It feels so real, nonetheless, down to the frozen bodies of dead climbers littering the South Col route to the stomach-wrenching, blackened, frost-bitten hands of a survivor being thawed before they are sawed off.
I can feel what it’s like, placing one crampon-strapped foot in front of the other, negotiating shaky steel ladders tied together over a bottomless crevasse as seracs collapse before me, descending blind, buffeted by the jet stream, trapped in a blizzard below the peak, stumbling over the edge of the massif.
“I wanted to take people on a journey up Everest and show them the mountain in a way that hasn’t been possible until now,” says Director Baltasar Kormákur.
Recreating the May 10, 1996 tragedy, which claimed eight climbers caught high on the mountain in a storm, his epic adventure production became an expedition in its own right as he filmed in Nepal, the Italian Alps, on top of studio shots in London and in Rome.
“Everest is a metaphor for any kind of ambition. Why do you need to climb Everest? Nobody can really answer that. But you might also ask, why do you need to live life?”
Of course, in “Everest”, the movie, the ultimate villain was also the most magnificent protagonist – the mountain itself.
Yet the film’s dramatic focus spotlighted Rob Hall, the Kiwi founder of expedition-guiding firm Mountain Adventure, who perished because he refused to leave his client, the American postal worker Doug Hansen and on Beck Weathers, the Texan doctor, who was left for dead on the mountain but survived despite losing both hands and his nose to frostbite.
Somehow, it skimmed over Rob’s rival group – Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness, which never lost a paying client on the peak though its American expedition leader, Scott himself, froze to death.
In his best-selling book, “Into Thin Air”, journalist Jon Krakauer (who was in Rob’s party) blamed Scott’s Russian world-class alpinist guide, Anatoli Boukreev, for failing to save everyone because he chose to climb without supplemental oxygen.
Anatoli co-authored a rebuttal, “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest”. Beck put out his version of the experience in “Left For Dead” while Lene Gammelgaard of Scott’s expedition, wrote “Climbing High”.
Everyone pointed fingers at everybody else for the 1996 high altitude horror, the deadliest climb in Everest’s history at the time. It claimed 15 lives, total. Every climber alive professed to know how and why it happened.
Yet up to now, 20 years, at least five survivor-authored books and as many films later, it remains an unsolved mystery.
Working Title producer Tim Bevan became interested in it after reading “Into Thin Air”. He contacted co-producer David Breashears, who was on the mountain, shooting a seminal IMAX film about Everest, as the 1996 tragedy unraveled.
They also brought in Guy Cotter as Key Alpine Adviser. He was one of Rob’s closest friends and climbing buddies. Guy coordinated rescue efforts for Rob on the day he died and now runs Rob’s Adventure Consultants.
“The story’s powerful and worth telling because it’s about how people perform in extremes, how they unravel when pushed to the limit,” he acquiesced.
And so well-known and well-documented, with so many different versions contradicting each other, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube, Baltasar added.
No wonder, filming “Everest” was the “hardest thing” he’s ever done.
The director read every document about the events, talked to Everest climbers, trying to understand a mountaineer’s mind-set. He even journeyed to Everest early in pre-production before traveling to New Zealand to meet the families of those involved.
Then, there’s the physical challenge for cast and crew.
“They need to face the elements and deal with their fears. To shoot in in the foothills of Everest in high altitude, we had to trek up there ourselves.”
While they cast 11 real climbing Sherpas and scenes were shot at altitudes of 16,000 feet, most of the crew have never been this high before. And they can’t slow down like an actual climbing group because they’ve tight deadlines to meet.
“The altitude really hits you,” confessed Jason Clarke, who played Rob Hall.
It was a Herculean task slinging huge loads of gear to remote mountain perches while keeping cast, crew and cameras from freezing. Worst, one of the heaviest snowfalls in recorded history buried their sets and tents. They had to dig the set out and rebuild it each time.
“Watching crew high up on the mountain in a snowstorm moving equipment, Sherpas carrying huge fans on their backs, helicopters dropping pieces of camera, all of us carrying things up there—setting lines 15 minutes before a take and bringing cameras up to different angles on different rocks was extraordinary,” recalled Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Scott Fischer.
On location, actors worked outdoors at -30°C, twelve to fourteen hours a day, sometimes well into the dark.
“The water was freezing. We didn’t have heating in our accommodations. We slept with electric blankets. We could hardly get out of the bed to take a piss because it was so cold. The cast didn’t have assistants. They had to walk to set and carry their own gear.”
“The director wanted it as real as possible,” Josh Brolin, who played Beck Weathers, elaborated. “We worked whatever hours they needed us to work so the conventional filming day—when you get a call time, go to a trailer to get your makeup done and so on—just didn’t exist. I remember lying in bed, exhaling massive clouds of breath, not believing quite how cold I felt.”
One time, the actors stayed longer than 10 minutes in an altitude simulator calibrated at 30,000 feet, thinking they could handle it.
“We were laughing, thinking it wasn’t so bad,” Jake put in. “Suddenly, we got out of the chamber and just felt sick. That’s what being so high up does to your body and mind. You can’t think or act the way you would in normal life.”
The characterization part proved to be even more complicated. They felt obliged to honor those who died, to tell a balanced story without justifying or criticizing decisions made before or after the ascent.
The peak was congested that fateful day, with 34 climbers from multiple expeditions attempting to summit. But no one expected the vicious blizzard before nightfall.
Needless to say, New Zealander Rob Hall’s character wasn’t easy to play.
Elite mountaineers abhor commercial climbs with outfits offering packaged trips costing $65,000 to over $100,000 per person for a shot at the top. But Rob believed the mountains belong to everyone and provided expert guiding to clients.
By 1996, he has brought 39 climbers to the Everest summit.
Still, “Rob was pretty conservative, planning well, wanting to control things. They called him Mayor of Base Camp,” the director noted.
Some actors might attempt to make his character more charming but Jason took on Rob’s annoying qualities though he also depicted how loving Rob was with his wife, how he violated his own set turnaround time out of consideration for Doug, how he refused to abandon his client to save his own life.
Jason visited New Zealand to meet Rob’s widow, Jan, and their daughter, Sarah, who was still in her mother’s womb when Rob died.
“It was extraordinary. We had three days together. Until then, I’ve never heard their experience of it. We shared a lot, even though there was a lot of nervousness to begin with on their part.”
Preparing for the role, Jason climbed with Rob’s best friend, Guy, and fellow actor Martin Henderson, who played Andy Harris (one of two guides working for Rob’s expedition, who perished with him), to understand elements to be simulated in a studio with wind machines and snow effects and to learn all he could about mountaineering technicalities and equipment.
“I wanted to rely totally on my gear and my own skills, to feel what altitude does to my mind.”
In addition, he studied photos of Rob, listened to his radio interviews to get his accent right and even stopped drinking coffee because the climbers drank tea.
Jake, who played Scott Fischer, corresponded with Scott’s children. “They talked about going to Nepal themselves, heading to the base of the mountain and meeting the people who knew their father.”
Scott’s love for his children lived on. His kids remember how much he listened, how fun and loving he was. “I think Scott’s attitude kept him very present and positive. He didn’t fear death.”
Jake was drawn to the contrast between the two men. “Rob was a bit of a hand-holder, whereas Scott believed people should find their own way.”
May, 1996 marked Scott’s first commercial expedition to the summit of Everest. Jon, the American journalist, originally signed up with Scott to write about the group tours industry but ended up climbing with Rob in exchange for a 5,000-word story in Outside magazine.
Acknowledging the responsibility actors had in playing real people, Michael Kelly, who portrayed Jon, asked himself whether the presence of a journalist influenced the rival expedition leaders’ fatal decisions on Everest.
“Had Scott’s team made it and Rob’s team failed, Jon might have written about that. It does beg the question.”
For Josh, who played Beck, the most irresistible lure was Everest.
“I like the idea of this immeasurable unknown. You go up there with great intentions—and maybe there’s a little hubris, a little escapism, a little inability to deal with family issues or personal issues—and you deal with something that’s so much grander than anything you could ever comprehend. Yet you don’t really know what that is until it consumes you.”
Beck, who pursued mountaineering to shake off his depression, authored a book about his experience and refused to blame anyone. Despite his injuries, he returned to his medical practice and became an inspirational public speaker.
In his book, “Left for Dead”, Beck revealed he suffered depression since his college days. He was looking for something different and started climbing mountains quite late. On that 1996 expedition, he realized he just wants to get back home.
“I’ll never understand how he survived against all odds in Everest, exposed to 80-miles-an-hour winds and sub-zero temperatures for 18 hours,” Josh remarked.
But Beck clung to the thought of his family. “In the end, he realized he didn’t need to summit because he already found what he’s looking for in his family,” the director summed up.
After all is said and done, after devouring countless accounts of the tragedy years before and the books of two survivors, I had high expectations of the film.
And “Everest” did not disappoint.