Baltasar Kormákur interview: directing Everest
Director Baltasar Kormákur on Everest, reviews, and creating a mountain on screen...
Now in wide release in UK cinemas, following a week-long IMAX-exclusive presentation is Everest. The film is directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who previously gave us the hugely enjoyable 2 Guns. And he spared us some time to talk about his new movie…
Obviously this is based on the 1996 climbing accident. Shortly after that happened, we had the documentary, Everest, which was directed by David Breashears. We’ve had several other films looking at this incident, particularly documentaries; what’s the advantage of something that’s fictionalised?
First of all, to be able to create the mountain, we need quite a budget. And to be able to shoot high up, and be able to capture the mountain the way we wanted to capture it. I’m not saying they didn’t get shots of the mountain, but that’s a different, documentary style. That’s one thing. The other thing is that we had the opportunity which I don’t think anyone else had. First, the IMAX film was not about this. It was actually happening after, so it becomes a coda of the movie, like, ‘this happened, and we were there shooting a movie’. But countless books have been written about it, all of them have a first hand account – people saying the story from their perspective, wherever they were on the mountain. We had access to the real tapes, that no one has – they’re not allowed to – which are recordings that Helen Wilton did the day of the summit, and what followed. So that was actually team members’ communications?
Helen Wilton is the base camp manager played by Emily Watson. As I understand it, some of the communications were transcribed by the authors of some of the many books about the disaster.
Well, some of the people – they didn’t have the transcripts of her recordings. Some of the people were listening to the radio, and had access to the radio for some of it, not all of it, because it takes a long time for this to happen. And they were not recording, unless they recorded illegally and didn’t tell anyone about it, because there supposedly are no recordings of this. It’s not only, I think you’re talking about the conversation between [Rob and his wife, Jan]; it’s actually much earlier on day one, when nobody thought there was going to be a tragedy. So you can hear how things are unravelling, and starting to go wrong. And then nobody’s thinking about tragedy, so there’s nobody else on the mountain recording it, because it’s just another day on the mountain side. So all these details give us such an insight that I don’t think anyone else has had, about what might have happened on that day.
There’s controversy over some of the accounts of what happened during the disaster. For instance, Anatoli Boukreev, who was a guide for Mountain Madness, was criticised in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, but had his actions defended by experienced mountaineers the world over. Indeed, he ultimately published his own book, justifying his actions.
This film seems to have a take that, to an extent, follows Krakauer’s narrative from his book, what made you decide to go in that direction?
We didn’t follow Krakauer’s book at all. I read it, obviously; I read everything I could. Krakauer’s a great writer, and he was a very good climber as well. The only trouble I had with Krakauer’s book, apart from the fact that he had the whole thing about Andy wrong – he thought he had talked to Andy, and Andy had gone down ahead of him, and it meant a lot of misunderstanding about Andy, because no one could find him. Until they found his jacket at the top of the mountain, so you imagine, ‘why would the jacket by there? Why is he not in the jacket like most people would be?’ Hypothermia. He must have taken the jacket off where he was, or close to it. That’s not my problem with it, that’s a mistake, and tells you how much of of their minds people are at that level, what sort of problems that creates. Even the writer of the book had no idea who he was talking to. So you can imagine there were a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunication. My problem is that when you start analysing things in the hind mirror, they don’t always come off fair. If you have money, and you’re a socialite in New York, it doesn’t make you a bad climber, but that’s how people judge you. And I’m not interested in that, because that’s just bollocks. Gossipy. I also think the way Anatoli – I’m not sure it was intentional, I think there were two elements of it, I think [Krakauer] judged him a bit harshly. I also think him being Russian made him a target for the readers to villainize him. Whether that was Jon’s intention or not, I can’t say, but the result of that is that suddenly, Anatoli, who saved two or three people on that mountain, the only guy who goes up to save people, becomes responsible for that tragedy that really had nothing to do with him. There was not one person, except Scott Fisher, who lost his life in the Mountain Madness camp. He is not responsible for what happened with Rob’s team and his people. Most of the time, people aren’t even responsible for each other up there, even though you’re in the same team, because each and every climber climbs on his own, knowing what might happen. You can’t be carried down. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell the truth about what happened. Yes, he didn’t climb with oxygen, but if that would have been a big issue, then – I’ve heard that they had an argument about it – but he still [was allowed] to do it, so who’s responsible? The guy who runs the team, and owns the company. If you let someone do it that that way, then you become responsible. And by the way, the reason he could save people was because he was down earlier, and therefore, [rested]. You could say if he was there, they wouldn’t have hit the storm, but who can tell? That’s angry logic. But having these transcripts – not transcripts, we listened to it, which is much more informative because you hear how people say things, “Doug is gone”, Rob said, what does that mean, really? It doesn’t mean ‘Doug fell off the mountain’, it means Doug has gone, and Rob must not have seen it when it happened – That gives you that kind of information. Also, it’s an example of how they were dealing with things, in Beck Wethers’ book, Left For Dead, Beck says that he promised Rob he’d wait for him. That’s the reason for Beck’s tragedy, because there were a lot of people going down that obviously he didn’t go with, and he said, “I’m waiting for Rob, I promised Rob I’d stay here”. Rob’s wife, when I went to New Zealand to meet her, said that this was one of the big problems with Beck’s book: it doesn’t make any sense. But why would Beck be lying? That doesn’t make any sense either. Her having a problem with it made me look for [the reason for the discrepancy], and I found it, because it didn’t make any sense for an experienced climber to tell someone to wait for hours until he’d come down, and then take him down, it’s ridiculous. So Rob says, on the tape [and I’m paraphrasing], “I left Beck Wethers at The Balcony, and he was supposed to go with the first Sherpas who turned around”, because the Sherpas take the oxygen to the South Summit and then go down, they don’t go to the top, many of them. So there’s a misunderstanding between the two men that explains why this weird comments from Beck that, “I promised Rob to wait”. This happened because they don’t have the overview of the tapes to go into. What’s really interesting there is that clearly there’s room for fictionalisation in film. You have to fictionalise some elements, and you’ve done so. But did you feel constrained there, because there are people who survived, there are family members and there are other people who still have a clear interest in what happened.
I made very clear before making the film that I was not going to sanitise people, I was going to humanise them. It was going to be real, and I was going to show their faults and their humanity at the same time; I wasn’t looking for a villain, I wasn’t looking for a hero. And I think, going that way, I was actually freed instead of restrained. You have a really dramatic story. I’ve been [to screenings of Everest] in the cinema, and people are sobbing. And it’s actually downplayed if anything. When you have a powerful story like that, you don’t have to pour sugar and cream over everything. Let the story speak.
And it gave me an opportunity of freedom away from Hollywood conventions about how blockbuster scripts, or big movie scripts, become all the same, at the end of the day, because they have to be digestible to everyone out there. So there has to be a villain, there has to be an explanation to everything, and there has to be a hero who saves the day, these are the most common elements. And I get it. It’s great in Marvel movies, because it’s hyperrealism. We all dream that life could be like that if we only had Batman or someone to save us, but that’s not reality. And having the opportunity to almost force the studio into make a real movie on that level was very, very exciting to me, and therefore I wasn’t going to fall into the pitfalls of doing that. And if someone doesn’t like that, it’s all right with me. That wasn’t the movie I was going to make. It’s a great opportunity, because there is no one to blame. But at the same time, [in the film] Anatoli goes down before them, he’s down there, he doesn’t use oxygen, and there’s a dialogue about that. So I’m not staying away from the problems, but I’m not a moralist, sitting there telling people if they should climb mountains or not. I showed comments on the commercial nature [of Everest climbing], it is a problem, and this is [set at] the beginning of that. In the end, I tried to offer the audience a story that they can actually take what they chose to take from it, and not force a solution. Yes, it’s annoying, probably, for a lot of audiences that we don’t explain what happened with the oxygen, but no one knows what happened. We were [at the Venice Film Festival premiere] with the survivors, they were still having that conversation, because no one knows the answer. So why give a simple explanation and blame somebody for these people’s deaths? If you’re with the character, it’s the chaos that is the problem, it is not the explanation. If someone took the oxygen by mistake, whatever, it’s the chaos, and that is the real reality of the characters in the situation, not what happened to the oxygen. I’m not trying to find anyone to blame for this, whose fault is this? It’s the fault of everyone who decided to put themselves at the mercy of the mountain. I’d love to continue with this, but sadly we’re running low on time
I’d love to too. It’s great to get into. I’ve seen some people’s reviews saying that the dramatisation didn’t round out the characters. The fact is for me, if you start rounding characters with epiphanies and all these pitfalls, and seeing Rob as a kid, because ‘he’s a good man’, all these tricks, they don’t need it. Put these people on a journey, and let learn about them as we travel.
One question before I go: After watching the film, I wondered why anyone would possibly want to climb Everest, but during the course of researching this interview, I started to get an understanding of what drives these people, and that was just through reading. You were filming at Base Camp, in fact, I understand you had some crew at Camp One [on the mountain]. When you were that close, did you…
Yes. Ever want…
Yes. …to climb it?
Yes. I’ll tell you what it is, it’s like a femme fatale. The weird thing about Everest is, you’re standing at Base Camp, and it doesn’t let you see the top. So you’re like, ‘Fucking hell, I want to get closer’, so you get closer. And it starts opening up to you. And the more close that you get, it opens up to you, and you’re totally seduced, and at the mercy of the mountain. The mountain decides at that point, and like we say in the movie, the mountain has the last word. It’s the fact, it has gotten you, and now you’re at the mercy of it. That’s its character, it’s like a femme fatale character in the movie.
Baltasar Kormákur, thank you very much
Everest is out in UK cinemas now
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