At the top of my must-see movies premiering this Fall is Everest, directed by Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, The Deep, Contraband) and filmed on location in Nepal, the Dolomites of Italy, and the United Kingdom. Everest's powerhouse cast includes A-list actors such as Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, and Sam Worthington. The movie retells the awe-inspiring journey of eight climbers on their ill-fated Everest expedition in May 1996 during the fiercest snowstorm in recent history. Filming the movie on location on the foothills of Mount Everest was one of the most difficult projects the filmmakers have ever done.
The Extreme Film Locations and The Talented Cinematographer Who Captured Them All
Known as the highest and most breathtakingly beautiful mountain in the world, Mount Everest stands at 29,029 feet above sea level. It often tops the bucket list of highly experienced mountaineers and seasoned climbers. There are two major climbing paths to the summit, one from the southeast in Nepal (the standard route), and one from the north in Tibet.
During the making of Everest, the cast and crew had a chance to experience a fraction of what it was like to scale Mount Everest themselves when they were at its foothills for almost a month filming in January 2014. “It was a very difficult shoot, physically challenging, with weather you couldn’t control,” said Everest’s director of photography Salvatore Totino. The production filmed in Kathmandu and Lukla, one of the most dangerous airports in the world for planes to land and depart from. Lukla is where visitors of Mount Everest fly into before heading to Base Camp.
Totino is an American cinematographer known for his beautiful work on The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon, and many other feature films. Totino states in a behind-the-scene clip that the filming of Everest was very difficult and challenging. There were avalanche concerns constantly, and the minute they stopped moving around, they were exhausted.
Harsh and unpredictable weather wasn’t the only challenge the production had to face filming on Mount Everest. They also had to shoot at some of Everest's most extreme and dangerous locations. “We filmed at Lukla and then at a suspension bridge, which was about an hour and a half trek from Namche Bazaar,” shared Totino. “Then we filmed at Namche Bazaar, at 1,200 feet, and at a temple in Tengboche. And then we helicoptered up to 1,500 feet, where the memorials are for climbers who have perished on the mountain.”
Shooting at higher altitudes poses many challenges for the cast and crew. “You get out of breath and dehydrated very quickly,” said the cinematographer. They also had to get the equipment up the mountain. “We had a crew of 75 Sherpas - plus donkeys and yaks - carrying all of our equipment.”
The lift however was only to a certain point. After that, everyone had to continue on their journey to the other side of the mountain on foot, with equipment in tow. In order to stay as safe as possible on the snowy slopes, they had to be harnessed in. “There were times when you were moving from one area to another and you had to clip off one rope and clip on to another,” said Totino.
To film a few angles that couldn't be captured even with a crane, Totino hung from a cliff to get the shot. “I could climb that cliff because there was a great shot there. I’d climb with the camera and get the shot. The actors did the same thing. That was hard, but it was fun.”
For an action scene involving a helicopter, he volunteered to be harnessed outside the helicopter holding the camera while filming. Talk about supreme dedication to one's work of art.
The Challenges of Filming in Extreme Altitude
Jake Gyllenhaal, one of our generation’s greatest actors (you have to watch his two recent films Nightcrawler and Southpaw), was surprised at how much discomfort he felt while filming inside a 30,000-feet altitude simulator.
“We [Brolin and Gyllenhaal] thought we could handle it, and we were feeling good. We were laughing and talking about the fact that we didn't think it was so bad, and then, all of a sudden, we got out of the chamber and just felt sick,” said Gyllenhaal. “We went from laughing to immediately feeling low energy and sad. It was an incredible realization. We realized the power of being so high up and what that does to your mind. You're not thinking the way you should be thinking, despite your best intentions, and so you are not acting the way you would in normal life. It became very clear how hard it is to survive at such a high altitude."
Up on the mountain, one has to deal with icy temperatures and limited oxygen. As human, our body begins to shut down. "Everest is a mountain of extremes," said geographer and climber Jon Kedrowski. "At altitude, the body deteriorates on a certain level." High-altitude cough and acute mountain sickness are common symptoms among Everest climbers. Mountain sickness can result in headaches and shortness of breath. Totino experienced excruciating headaches while filming in Nepal. “It felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat to my head,” said the cinematographer. “I never had a headache like that.”
Extreme cold temperatures aside, climbers also have to deal with extreme heat. With snow and ice acting as a giant sun reflector on Mount Everest, they can easily get sunburn, especially near Base Camp where day time temperatures can be in the 90s (Fahrenheit) during climbing season. In low-oxygen situations, people also tend to make rash decisions, often resulting in deadly consequences.
The director shared that the production filmed at as high altitudes as humanly possible. "We walked almost up to base camp, no vehicles are allowed there … at that point, we were shooting at the climber's memorials, people started to get sick, and we had to evacuate pretty quickly," said Kormákur. "It’s one thing climbing up a mountain, which is really hard in itself, but it’s another to work a 12-hour day when you get there."
To prepare for their roles, both Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin went hiking in the Santa Monica mountains. Brolin also climbed Mount Whitney and Mount Shasta - both in California, and the Eiger in Switzerland. He plays Beck Weathers, the Texas pathologist who survived the harrowing expedition and wrote the book Everest is based on. His book Left for Dead is one of the memoirs penned by survivors of the 1996 Everest expedition. The others are Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Lou Kasischke's After the Wind. In the movie, the Krakauer character is played by House of Cards' Michael Kelly.
The Fearless Director
As tough as this film was to make, Everest was also a once-in-a-lifetime project led at the helm by the talented, tenacious Baltasar Kormákur. Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, the director graduated from Iceland's National Academy of Arts in 1990. In 2000, he wrote, directed, acted in, and produced the feature film 101 Reykjavik, which won the Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Variety soon after selected him as one of the "10 Directors to Watch," along with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Lukas Moodysson, Christopher Nolan and other notable filmmakers of the time. And the rest for Kormákur ... is history.
Kormákur admits that he pushed his cast and crew beyond their limits during the making of Everest because he wanted to "do everything as real as possible." "I wanted the actors to respond to the environment," Kormákur said. “The more you draw from reality, the more likely you are to get reality.” In doing that, he insisted on filming the movie at the foothills of Everest. "I'm not a sadist," said Kormákur. "But I don't really care for happy actors. I don't think they are that interesting."
"I really wanted to take Everest mountain shooting to the next level," Kormákur says. "We basically trekked up to sixty thousand feet and slept in lodges that were unheated and used electric blankets to keep ourselves warm. The actors even carried equipment sometimes. We were shooting at -30 Celsius for six weeks. How do you deal with that? If you tried to hide or pretend it isn't there, it's not gonna help you."
“Baltasar likes to roll and wants us to experience the elements, and he pushes us in that way,” shared Gyllenhaal. “I love that in making movies; getting as close as you can to the real thing is always fascinating. He's relentless, driven, courageous and a bit crazy at times. There's fearlessness to him, and at the same time, he's incredibly sensitive and understanding."
The Indomitable Second Unit
In addition to the main cast and crew, there’s also a second unit filming on Mount Everest after principal photography wrapped up. Leading this unit was director of photography Kent Harvey, tasked with the mission of getting all the crucial establishing shots of the icy, Himalayan landscapes, including the South Col, the Hillary Step, and the summit.
Harvey's team was at Everest Base Camp in April 2014 during the tragic avalanche caused by the Khumbu Icefall at the height of the Himalaya climbing season. Luckily, none of the members of the second unit was harmed. "There’s a difference between pain and injury," said Kormákur. "I put them through a lot of pain, but no injury."
Natural disaster threats didn't stop Harvey and his team. After the avalanche, they climbed above Base Camp to head into the Icefall (led by New Zealand expedition company Adventure Consultants). “We spent two hours getting visuals for the effects team,” said Harvey. I can't wait to watch Everest to see the incredible footage they captured.
Everest Soundtrack & Official Trailer
After a series of successful limited screening, Everest will be released nationwide this coming Friday. Until then, you can listen to the movie's haunting soundtrack on Spotify and get a peek at Everest with the below official trailer and its companion behind-the-scene clip.