Movies and Mountains - Scaling Everest

21 Sep 2015 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins

Everest is an account of the extraordinary true-story of two expeditions that set out to climb Mount Everest in 1996, but ran into difficulties when the weather changed dramatically. The film captures their fight for survival in spectacular fashion, and examines what possesses people to undertake such dangerous missions.

The Tallest Mountain onEarth

At 8,848 metres (29,029ft), Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world. The first official ascent of Everest wasn't completed until 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the top in an event explored in the 2013 documentary Beyond the Edge. As of 2012, Everest had been climbed successfully 5,656 times, with another 223 people tragically having lost their lives in the attempt. Lack of oxygen, extreme cold, exhaustion and climbing hazards all contribute to the rise in fatalities, and Everest makes it clear that climbers are very much at the mercy of nature and whatever it chooses to throw at them.The events of 1996 sparked news coverage around the world and led to questions around whether commercialised guided trips should even be carried out in such a dangerous place.

Everest on film...

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mount Everest has not featured as a location in many feature films. However, the director of Everest, Baltasar Kormákur, was determined to capture it as authentically as possible. Therefore filming took place aroundEverest base-camp (itself almost 18,000ft above sea level) and the surroundingNepalese area. In addition, camera crews went up by helicopter to capture aerial footage of the mountain, which as events in the film make clear is still extremely dangerous.

More filming took place in the Italian Alps, before the production relocated to Pinewood Studios in London. Here, a replica mountain was painstakingly created on a sound stage to allow the crew to capture all-important close-ups of the actors in safe conditions. Our young reporter Jake went along to meet Jason and Baltasar and found out much more about the adventure of filming Everest. Watch below.

 ...and filming on Everest

Filming was very perilous and rustic, with all the actors undergoing serious training on mountains prior to filming to prepare. Many cast and crew suffered from altitude sickness and actors were forced to sleep in hostels rather than luxury hotels and carry their own gear around the site, along with camera equipment, lending the film a curiously independent feel, despite its budget. The cast mostly performed all their own stunts, in conditions of -30 degrees, or colder!This was not only to capture physical authenticity, but to replicate the bonding experience that would have been felt by climbing crews similar to those being portrayed in the film.

Even after filming relocated to London, Baltasar continued to put his actors through the mill, dropping temperatures in the studio to below freezing and importing real snow to hurl in the casts faces, instead of soap-flakes and bits of potato, which are traditionally used in such situations.

True Stories

The filmmakers behindEverest drew on several books about the events for their story, but it is practically impossible to gain a definitive understanding of exactly what happened on those fateful expeditions. The film is mostly based on Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.Jon, who is depicted as a character in the film, was a journalist covering the expedition for a magazine, and turned his account of events into the book.Prior to this trip, Jon wrote the bestselling Into the Wild, which told the true story of Christopher McCandless, who dropped out of college and set out on a journey across the Alaskan wilderness. This moving story touches a nerve with a great many young people and Into the Wild became a very affecting film in 2007, starring Emile Hirsch and Kristen Stewart.

True stories of mountaineering and extreme peril are popular subjects for films. The brilliant documentary Touching the Void told the story of two British climbers stranded on the Siula Grande mountain in South America, while Danny Boyle's more intimate but exhilarating 127 Hours focuses on a climber who found trapped in an isolated desert canyon with his arm trapped under a rock. Mount Everest also featured in the beautiful, very moving silent film The Epic of Everest - made 30 years before anybody reached the summit - which captured the ultimately doomed attempt by two British climbers who came closer than anybody had before to reaching the summit, in breathtaking, beautiful, but brutal fashion.

Keeping Everest Grounded

Baltasar is used to capturing events of extreme human peril on screen. His 2012 film The Deep was a riveting account of a fisherman attempting to survive in the freezing ocean after his boat capsizes off the coast of Iceland. His commitment to adventure even extends to his own life: when he's not making films, Baltasar likes to take arduous trips on horseback across the Icelandic highlands and up volcanoes! This may provide him a greater sense of empathy for adventurers, enabling him to more fully appreciate what makes people willingly undertake such dangerous missions and translating that to film

The script for Everest was written by two British screenwriters William Nicholson, ( Gladiator , Les Misérables ) andSimon Beaufoy ( The Full Monty , Slumdog Millionaire ,127 Hours). The combination of these two writers - one familiar with epics, and the other with character-driven narratives - together with Baltasar's skills as a director, ensures Everest is suitably awesome in scale, but that the story is also is driven by intimacy and emotion, with characters that go beyond the stereotypes traditionally seen in disaster films.

The film was also co-produced by Working Title Films, a British production company that began by making low-budget character dramas such as My Beautiful Laundrette and rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral. Now one of the most successful film companies in Britain,they've brought a huge range of domestic and international titles to audiences to great critical acclaim. Everest is a step-up for them in terms of scale, but like any production company, their ambition is the same to reach as many audiences as possible with original, entertaining and thought-provoking work.  

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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