How To Make A Movie While Climbing Mt Everest

The director explains how he took a group of A-listers to the harshest place on earth to make his latest film about the 1996 Everest disaster

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Director Baltasar Kormákur took his cast, crew and all his equipment to one of the most dangerous places on Earth to make Everest, a new film about a 1996 mountaineering disaster starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

Here’s how he managed it.

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1 | Accept Mother Nature isn’t going to help

“We shot most of the film at Everest and in the Dolomites [in Italy] at an altitude of 3–4,000m, the highest we could go without people getting too sick. In the Dolomites, it was –30°C and there was a 100-year record snowfall; we had avalanche warnings on our call-sheets every day. There were times we had to evacuate very quickly. Even at Base Camp, if a storm comes in and people there haven’t acclimatised yet, you have to get a helicopter in to help.”
 

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2 | Have a cast who are really up for it

“Taking a bunch of A-listers trekking up Mt Everest in January is pretty gruelling. Their assistants weren’t allowed to come, or their family. We had to have electric blankets because the lodges aren’t heated. We all had to share our food. None of which is exactly what these people are used to, and one or two pulled out because it was going to be too hard. “But those who stayed really went for it. There is a scene where Jake [Gyllenhaal] is trapped up the mountain, that we shot very high up in the Dolomites. You can see his nostrils are frozen – that’s not make-up! Jason [Clarke] had a terribly bruised thigh from dangling off a ladder 12m up. Everyone was sick at some point because of the altitude. The cast really bonded, put their egos to one side and worked as a team, like the characters in the film.”

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Baltasar Kormákur on the set of 'Everest'
 

3 | Hire a talented special effects team

“The conditions were so harsh, we had to film a lot of the scenes in a deep tank at Pinewood Studios and add backgrounds and sounds we recorded up the mountain later. It was about as complicated as special effects gets, because you’re talking about a 360-degree landscape made on a green screen.
“It doesn’t get recognised in the same way as a monster or something, but when special effects like this are done really well, you can’t see it, and that’s the hardest thing to achieve. Even the cast and crew couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t when they saw the final cut – and they were there.”
 

4 | Don’t forget the story, too

“I am really proud of the ‘Why do you do it?’ scene, where the climbers sit and discuss their motivation for being there. We shot it near the end when the actors had been together for six months travelling all over the world, and it just felt very organic and intimate. In a film like this, a lot of effort goes into creating epic visuals, but this one was just shot in a tent and was important for getting to know the characters.”
 

5 | Come from Iceland

“I grew up walking through storms almost every morning just to get to school, so I am used to severe weather! I sail and ride horses, too, so it definitely helped, not feeling threatened by nature. All the same, you have to respect it. In Iceland, you have people flying into volcanoes as they’re erupting to take selfies. On Everest, only this year there were hundreds of tourists up there when an avalanche hit. I do think there is a conversation worth having about the commercialisation of nature, which is something we explore in the film.”

Everest is out on 18 September

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