From Slope To Screen: How ‘Everest’ Came to Life

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Inspired by the incredible events surrounding an attempt in 1996 to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Everest documents the awe-inspiring journey of two different expeditions challenged beyond their limits by one of the fiercest blizzards ever encountered by mankind. With friendships forged through hardship and strife—and their mettle tested by the harshest elements found on the planet—the climbers face nearly impossible obstacles as a lifelong obsession becomes a monumental struggle for survival.

The summit of Mount Everest, the mightiest mountain on Earth, is more than five miles above sea level, close to the cruising altitude of a 747 jumbo jet. Its fearsome and unforgiving peak has hosted thousands of daring climbers who have felt compelled to rise to the greatest challenge in mountaineering.

The tragic events in May 1996 represented, at that time, the deadliest climb in Everest’s history. The world’s media were transfixed by this story of human endurance, which became the subject of best-selling books and documentaries, often with contradicting accounts of the events.

Working Title producer Tim Bevan first became interested in the story when he read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” soon after it was published in 1997. Krakauer, a journalist who had been part of Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants team on the mountain that May, had first documented the events for an article in Outside magazine. Bevan’s producing partner, Eric Fellner, shared his enthusiasm for the project; they discovered that Universal Pictures, with which Working Title has a long-term distribution agreement, coincidentally owned other properties relating to the events.

These included Beck Weathers’ “Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest,” from which the film draws inspiration, as well as the transcript of the final satellite phone conversation between Rob Hall and his wife, Jan Arnold. While the families of the climbers involved had remained mostly quiet about the tragic events over the years, they maintained an ongoing dialogue with the filmmakers, working toward an appropriate time for a feature-film reimagining of the events to be made.

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Reflects Bevan: “To start with, we reached out to David Breashears, who had been on the mountain in 1996 and shot the seminal IMAX film about Everest. I discovered that he definitely had the best documents relating to it. It’s one of those stories, because there’s something so gripping about it—and the fact that so many people either have written or spoken accounts about what had happened up there—that it’s a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. Every way you jangle it, there’s another permutation that pops up. It was in danger of becoming one of those stories that would never be told because of that fact, but it was truly a passion project for Working Title.”

While it had looked as if the movie was going to be made earlier in the ’90s with director Stephen Daldry in charge, it wasn’t until 2011 that the elements finally started to come together to bring this story to the big screen. Blockbuster film screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy worked to deliver a deeply moving and powerful script, while advances in visual effects meant it would be possible to capture the jaw-dropping conditions that day without putting the cast or crew at risk.

It was at this point that Bevan and Fellner began communicating with director Baltasar Kormákur, who was in Los Angeles shooting Working Title’s action-thriller Contraband, which starred Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale. Says Nicky Kentish Barnes, who produces Everest along with Bevan and Fellner: “Baltasar was far and away the man for the job. He had a commitment to bring the story to life authentically.”

Critically acclaimed in his native Iceland, Kormákur is a director as skilled in action as in drama, and his roots provide him with more than a passing familiarity with cold weather. Kormákur’s films include 101 Reykjavík, A Little Trip to Heaven, Jar City and Inhale. After Contraband, he went on to direct The Deep, which eerily captures the tragic real-life story of the lone survivor of a capsized fishing boat off the frigid Icelandic coast. Shortlisted for the Academy Awards® in 2012, the film showcases the director’s talents for tackling the harshest of nature’s elements.

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When he was first asked to read Everest, Kormákur’s reaction was pure excitement. “Landscape and weather is at least the half of me,” he provides. “In Iceland, nature is never far away. Volcanos erupting and avalanches taking out villages on a regular basis remind you of Mother Nature’s might. Having traveled on horses through the highlands of Iceland for weeks and no civilization in sight, I always wanted to tell a story of people faced with the extremes of nature and that way reveal their characters in a subtle way—learning more and more who they are as they get deeper in. In my experience, you will never learn to know your friends better than in such conditions—what they are made of—especially when it gets real. So being offered to tell a unique story on the world’s tallest mountain was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I could not shy away from.”

Kormákur admits that this opportunity appealed to him on a profound level: “I wanted to make it in the most authentic way possible. To take people on a journey up Everest and show them the mountain in a way that hasn’t been possible until now…and at the same time create intimacy between the characters that is all too rare in big studio films.” He pauses, believing this story is both one of achievement and a cautionary tale. “Everest is a metaphor for any kind of ambition, and anyone who has ambition needs to balance that with his or her family life. There’s the mountain and there’s home, and the distance between the two is immense, pulling in two opposite directions.”

The filmmaker was fascinated by the many who’ve attempted the climb, interested in the glory of the experience or desire to achieve a lifelong goal.  He reflects: “You might ask, ‘Why do you need to climb Everest?’ and nobody can really answer that. But you might also ask, ‘Why do you need to live life? Why do you need to have a career?’ Even people who have a lot of money, they still need to have careers. So it’s one of these questions that is hard to answer.”

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Kormákur immersed himself in discovering what happened that day on the world’s highest mountain, recognizing the immense challenges of the project, both emotionally and physically. “The story is so well-known and well-documented,” says Kormákur. “But there are many different versions, and they often contradict each other.”

As he worked with his fellow producers and with the writers, Kormákur insisted that they shape the film’s story in a way that respected all concerned. It was of paramount importance that they honour those eight people whose lives were lost on the mountain that May, and to tell a balanced story without looking to justify or criticize any of the decisions made before or after the ascent and descent.

To give a bit of context, delay-causing crowding and congestion have long been an issue for climbers on Everest; there were 34 climbers from multiple expeditions attempting to summit on that fateful day. But no one could have foreseen the sudden arrival of such a vicious storm after what had earlier been ideal conditions for standing on top of the world.

Co-producer Breashears has been working with Working Title on the project for more than a decade and served as a consultant, advising on climbing and filming in Nepal. When the 1996 tragedy unfolded, he was on the mountain co-directing and co-producing what would become the beloved 1998 IMAX film Everest. In turn, Breashears was able to instruct cast and crew in exactly what conditions were like. “Everyone associated with this film that I work with has been deeply concerned about its authenticity, and honouring the characters involved,” he says.

Also helping to translate these events to the screen is Guy Cotter, the Key Alpine Adviser on the project, who now runs Adventure Consultants and helped coordinate rescue efforts for his friend Rob Hall on the day he died. Cotter and Hall had climbed together since they were teenagers. “For us in the high-altitude mountain-guiding fraternity,” he says, “the events of 1996 taught us a lot. There were a lot of questions that we asked ourselves afterwards, about how we avoid this sort of thing happening again. I think as an industry, this enabled us to grow up, if you like.

“Rob was definitely at the peak of his game,” continues Cotter, “but it was very early in the development of high-altitude mountain guiding, and sometimes pioneers don’t always survive the discovery of the parameters of the environment that they’re in.”

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Kormákur’s research and preparation for what he describes as “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life” began in earnest with his reading every book and document about the events that he could get his hands on. He had countless conversations with people who had climbed Everest, trying to understand the mind-set of a climber. He took a trip to Everest early in preproduction, then traveled to New Zealand to meet the families of those involved.

Kormákur reflects on what he learned: “I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to be on Everest, to get to travel, to get to be in a part of the world, which I honestly never thought I would. I always dreamt of Everest, but it wasn’t part of my journey.”

Rounding out the team of producers are Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson of Cross Creek Pictures, who last partnered with Working Title in 2013 to bring the extraordinary epic Rush to the big screen. “The production was an extraordinary collaboration on a massive scale, and we are proud of what we created,” says Oliver and Thompson of Cross Creek. “Hear the name Mount Everest and you’re transported to a place of adventure, admiration and profound respect—not only for the people who have conquered the mountain, but for the people whose lives were lost realizing that dream.  This film delivers an intimate portrait of what it’s like to cling to life in the harshest conditions on the face of this planet, and Baltasar is one of the very few directors who can push the envelope far enough to capture on film the actual dangers and anxiety-ridden excitement of surviving at 30,000 feet.”

With the core production team in place, it was time to get moving with the casting process. This team would indeed find the perfect set of actors—an eclectic and supremely talented ensemble—who were up for the challenge of facing all the emotional and physical strain involved in telling the story of Everest in all its amazing detail.

Everest will arrive in cinemas around Australia on September 17 and around the U.S. on September 25.