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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005

Telling it on the mountain

"Touching the Void" falls smack in the middle of the current mini-boom in feature documentaries, but Kevin Macdonald is no newcomer to the field. His 1999 film, "One Day in September," a gripping look at the 1972 Munich Olympics Hostage crisis, won an Oscar for best documentary, while his 2000 doc for Channel 4 on Mick Jagger, "Being Mick," also garnered much acclaim. We spoke with Macdonald by phone, and he revealed that his next project will be a fiction film, set in Uganda in the 1970s, based on the novel "The Last King of Scotland" by Giles Foden.

What was behind the decision to split the shoot between two locations?

News photo
Director Kevin Macdonald shooting on location for "Touching the Void"

Well, it was really just logistics. Filming at very high altitude, like we did in Peru, is really, really difficult. We were up at almost 20,000 feet [6,000 meters], and every step is painful. People get irritable, your body's in breakdown, your lips are splitting, your skin is flaking off, you can't eat anything, you're peeing the whole time -- it's unpleasant! (Laughs) So, we filmed the climbing sequences and the wide shots in Peru, and the rest of it, the close-ups with the actors, we shot in the French and Italian Alps. In Peru, a lot of the long shots you see of climbing are Joe and Simon themselves, who doubled for the actors who were doubling for them. Quite strange.

I imagine they weren't eager to get too close to those mountains again . . .

Well, they had a tough time; they found returning quite traumatic. Prior to going they'd been very gung-ho about it, but the closer we got to the mountains, the more anxious they became. Joe, in particular, suffered considerably, with flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What about the scene in the crevasse? How could you find a location like that?

The crevasse sequence is made up of four different locations. We found bits that suited each part of the story and composited them together. We could have never found one place exactly like he described. We went location hunting with some climbers -- we'd look for crevasses, dig down into them, have a look around. In some ways, it was quite comfortable down in the crevasses, because the temperature is quite constant, about 0, whereas up top it might be -40 with a gale-force wind blowing. They're very beautiful places, and as a filmmaker it was quite exciting to actually shoot them, because they're not commonly seen. People don't know what they look like.

It must have been a challenge to find a place that looked terrifying enough but was also safe enough to shoot in . . .

It was a bit dangerous, because you've got thousands of tons of ice and snow above you, but we had experienced climbers with us who told us which ones were safe. Most places on the mountain you can shoot in, if you're prepared to be uncomfortable.

Didn't you ever wish you had cheated a bit and used some computer graphics?

(Laughs) Well, no, I mean, I thought it was only going to work if we made the dramatized parts feel as authentic as possible, make them feel really real.

Why did you avoid doing a 100 percent fictional re-creation?

Well, I think it would be much harder to make that film. People have tried to turn it into a feature film before. Tom Cruise had the rights to it at one stage and wanted to star as Joe. But the problem was what's special about the story is what goes on inside their heads. And that's hard to show in a movie. And I thought by combining drama and documentary, we can get inside their heads, and know the interior monologues. Because in a way this is a story about the strangeness, the ambiguity of the human mind. If you see the real people there, and talking spontaneously, you get a sense of what they're like, and how strange they are, in a way. I mean, we're all odd once you get past the polite surfaces. But in fiction film, everyone's usually reduced to stereotypes. It's hard to get that grayness, that ambiguity of character.

That's true. Like the crucial scene, where Simon cuts the rope; in a fiction film that would have been more clear -- one way or the other.

Exactly. Why exactly did he do it. But in this film, you just have to look at Simon's face when he's talking about it, and you know it's still something that pains him, and that it's very complicated, and he probably doesn't know why himself. Which is often what happens in life. You don't do it because, oh, you know, "Joe slept with my girlfriend once." That would be the Hollywood movie motivation.

Did you have any mountaineering experience before this project?

Not at all. If I had, I probably wouldn't have done it. I was very naive and just sort of thought, "Oh, this will be great, filming in the mountains! It will be beautiful!" Only slowly did it dawn on me how exhausting and difficult it would be.

So you're not a convert to it now?

No. Quite the opposite. I mean, for me, I had a goal, which was to make a film. But to actually do it for pleasure? That's extraordinary. I mean, it has its pleasures. But at high altitudes, it's really tough, you don't feel well and it's strange psychologically. There's that sense of utter aloneness, of being a tiny inconsequential speck in a vast, uncaring, dead universe. You feel, in a way, human beings aren't meant to be there.

But do you feel like you understand what drives climbers?

I sort of understand, but it is an intellectual interpretation. The people who do this tend to be loners, unmarried, don't have kids, and they're willing to risk their lives. Because, really, a lot of them die in high-altitude mountaineering. But they risk it because they get a tremendous buzz from it; they feel very alive. There's also an element of wanting to get away from the world, from civilization. I think there's a Puritanical streak in a lot of climbers. They want to take life back to its simplest. It's kind of an existential challenge, of proving to this big hulk of uncaring ice and rock that you can beat it. Not to get too pretentious, but it's hard to talk about mountaineering without getting philosophical.

The way in which Joe drags himself out of that crevasse with a shattered knee . . . I'd never have believed it if it had been in a fiction film.

Well this is the thing: In fiction, anything can happen. And these days we're all used to dragons and armies that are 10 million strong. You can see anything in movies. I think one of the reasons documentaries are coming back is as a consequence of those big, CGI kind of films. Somehow there's more of a thrill in knowing that this story, however small, is real and really happened to these people.

Your film and others like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Super Size Me" are being cited of examples of how documentaries have become commercially viable. Is it easier to get projects off the ground now?

Yeah, definitely. There's money available, commercially, to make documentaries for the big screen, which there never was before. In the old days, you had to fund it yourself and hope you could sell it afterward. Is it just a fad? I don't know. I hope it continues.

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