INTERVIEW WITH EVEREST PRODUCER and DIRECTOR GREG MACGILLIVRAY
Q. WHY WERE YOU INTERESTED IN MAKING A FILM ABOUT MOUNT EVEREST?
A. For the past ten years I have been fascinated with the spectacular nature of the Himalayan Mountain Range, and felt that it would make a sensational subject for the large IMAX® screens. But it took many years to figure out exactly what the story should be. About five years ago, I felt that just a straight ahead climbing story might be the best solution because it would enable me to show the large mountains in their dramatic beauty and develop characters who had varying goals to climb the mountain. Many of my films are centered around themes of men or women challenging themselves to accomplish their life-long goals, of never giving up in the pursuit of a dream. In order to put this story on film, I knew I'd need a particular cameraman. It is a specialized filmmaking skill to be able to operate a camera in low oxygen conditions, particularly when the wind is blowing and the wind chill temperature is minus 40° degrees below zero. After my research was completed I narrowed the field to several filmmakers; one of them was David Breashears. He was particularly impressive to me because he had done some of the more imaginative and challenging filmic events on Mt. Everest including broadcasting the first live video signals transmitted from the top of the Mountain. He was also the climber who had helped Dick Bass complete his dream of climbing the Seven Summits of the World. I felt that just maybe I could get him excited about my dream -- the challenge of getting IMAX film from the top of Mt. Everest. I wasn't wrong. When I first met David he came across as a very energetic and intelligent person and was just at the time of his life where he really wanted to do something that would be memorable.
Q. HOW WAS THE ON-CAMERA TEAM ASSEMBLED?
A. After selecting David, he and I combed the world for the right climbers to be part of the team. I wanted a mixed group of two men and two women coming from various parts of the world. Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to climb Mt. Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary, was letting people know that he had a dream to climb the mountain in honor of his father. I felt that his story would make a terrific central theme. Jamling was interested and we contracted for him to be part of the MacGillivray Freeman expedition. David also had met both Sumiyo Tsuzuki of Japan and Araceli Segarra of Spain, two very well respected women climbers, who had great hopes of climbing to the top of Everest. We made casting tapes and I was immediately struck with the charm of Araceli and felt that she would be perfect for the expedition. Ed Viesturs, from Seattle, is probably the most well-known American climber today. So finding him was not too much of a chore. He came with what he felt was a liability but actually was quite an advantage. He was going to be married a week or two before the start of our expedition and he didn't want to leave his wife. As it turned out, creative minds got together and his new wife became base camp manager, which she had done before for other expeditions, and we were able to write into the script the romantic and sometimes amusing tales of having your honeymoon in minus 40° degree temperatures on Mt. Everest. Our script writers, Tim Cahill of Montana and Stephen Judson of Laguna Beach both crafted the idea of Paula and Ed's honeymoon on the Mountain into the story to give the film more human interest depth. For one of the first times in the IMAX film genre we were developing the characters more deeply so the audience could actually empathize with their hardship. This is important because much of the climbing is done with characters covered with down clothing, because it's so amazingly cold and windy. We had to let the audience feel the character's personality and hear their voices in the first half of the film so that later on the climbing scenes could resonate with emotion when the character's facial expressions are essentially covered with an oxygen mask. The writers tried hard to develop humor, personality, depth, purpose and other characteristics with which the audience could identify. In addition, the characters had to be dramatically different from one another. Therefore, it was handy that Ed was a newlywed. Jamling was climbing the mountain for spiritual reasons and dedicated his quest to the memory of his father and mother. Araceli wanted to become the first Spanish woman to summit Mt. Everest. Sumiyo was there to document the expedition for Japanese television. So our four main characters were each specifically yet realistically defined. This is unusual for an IMAX film. Most IMAX films have very little concern for character development or a full curve of emotion. I wanted the film to have more emotional depth which would be conveyed through these stronger characters.
Q: HOW WAS THE FILM DIRECTION ACCOMPLISHED?
A: Out of necessity this film became the most collaborative film of the 50 that I've made. Of our 3 directors, I guided the film and the myriad of a million decisions. David directed on the mountain during the two month expedition and on an aerial shoot in Nepal, and Steve helped direct in Nepal and guided the writing and editing. It was the hardest and most time consuming directorial job I've ever had. I was expecting to go to Nepal and co-direct the shooting up to the altitude I could probably climb, which was to the top of the icefall, but then our film on The Blue Angels became delayed due to complications. I had a decision to make: either delay the Everest shooting, or to send Steve Judson, another director at my company, and Brad Ohlund, another cameraman at my company, to help David Breashears and Robert Schauer shoot the movie. Rather than delay the production, I decided to go ahead with it and keep in close contact with David and Steve via our satellite phone, which was amazingly clear in its transmission. The advantage of this production decision was that I could evaluate and report on the developed footage, which was really kind of fun. One day I saw a shot with Araceli falling backwards in a slip as she set a ladder over a crevasse. David felt that perhaps the shot wasn't usable because it looked like she was too clumsy. But when I saw the shot I was delighted because her actions fit perfectly her character and I knew that we could develop that spontaneous and natural slip into another block that would build her character even more solidly for the audience. So in many cases I could almost be of more help in Laguna than in Nepal, even though I really wanted to be in Nepal.
Q. WHAT IS THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN THE FILM?
A. I wanted to convey the spiritual in this film. To the Nepalese and the Tibetans the mountains are sacred places. They feel that they are the home of the Gods and that climbers should treat the mountains with respect, with dignity and always move cautiously when climbing the mountains. Even people who go to Tibet, as I have, or to Nepal to visit the mountains get a sense that there is something more powerful there than just a massing of rock and ice. This power is told through Jamling's story of his deep Buddhist beliefs. Every day Jamling would say prayers for each one of the climbers and for the success of the day's mission. Before the climbers would move into the icefall each one of the ice axes and crampons were blessed through a Puja ceremony, when the implements were passed through Juniper smoke and blessed by prayer. Jamling felt that it was very important that the motivation of the team be pure and just and that at all times the mountain be treated with respect and dignity. Through the entire expedition, and particularly even after the other teams were caught in the tragic blizzard, our team was very sensitive to these beliefs. Further, I think that our motivation was right. Not only were we making a film of people chasing perfection in their own lives, the film will hopefully enrich and educate the lives of others in high quality entertainment centers and science museums around the world. With a film such as EVEREST, more than 80% of the box office income remains at the museums or science centers to help the museums pay for other educational programs. This is proper motivation in my estimation. In addition, I think the inclusion of Jamling's deep beliefs touches everyone's heart.
Q. HOW DID THE EVENTS OF THE BLIZZARD AND TRAGEDY AFFECT THE FILMING?
A. Under normal conditions, climbing Everest is a difficult and dangerous undertaking. I made it very clear from the outset that no film is worth the life of one person and no unnecessary chances were to be taken. On May 9th, I telephoned Base Camp and was patched through to David who was at Camp 3, high on the Lhotse Face. He was planning to go up to Camp 4 to try to get to the Summit the next day, but it was very windy near the summit. He told me that not only wouldn't it be safe, but that he probably wouldn't be able to hold the camera steady enough in the wind to get a good shot. During that conversation, I again underlined the fact that we had a budget and a schedule that would allow us to come back a year later if we weren't able to get to the Summit in 1996. Nothing should be done to take a dangerous gamble. And so David and his team left the camera up high and returned to Camp 2 to wait for the high winds to subside. It was at that time that the other teams from Rob Hall and Scott Fischer's expeditions passed them by and on May 10th, tried for the Summit. It was late in the day on May 10th that the blizzard moved in, caught seventeen climbers high on the mountain, and trapped them for the night. Eight people died on Mt. Everest in that storm. Then Ed, David and Jamling determined that they should help assist the stranded climbers and those who were in need high on the mountain. One of the first things they did was to ascend the Lhotse Face once more to help Beck Weathers down the Face in his debilitated condition. He could barely see. He walked with a stumble and his hands were nearly useless. Ed, David, and Robert Schauer clipped in to Beck and helped him down the steep and icy Face down to the middle camp. From there Araceli Segarra came up with an idea to paint a Kool-Aid lime colored X in the snow where a helicopter could land to evacuate Beck Weathers. Beck was in desperate need of hospitalization and it's doubtful that he would have lived had the helicopter not been able to land and take him away. There were still others high on the mountain in desperate need for oxygen because they had run through all of their oxygen containers during the night that they spent out in the storm. Hearing this, David instructed those at the High Camp to cut into our tent and our supply bags and to give our oxygen and food to the needy climbers. Jon Krakauer in his book "Into Thin Air" has done a remarkable job in conveying this whole story. The entire month when the team was on the mountain, particularly when they were up high, was one of the most stressful moments of my life. Because I was responsible for these people being there in these hazardous conditions, I was very nervous and concerned. There wasn't really anything I could do to improve the situation or to help with it, but I still felt obligated to at least be able to offer my support to their decisions. I have to say, I have never been more proud of one of our film teams. Ed, David, Jamling, Araceli and Robert acted heroically in trying to save other people's lives on the mountain during the storm. It 5 was an honor for me to be associated with the individual excellence and moral judgments made by these team members. In a situation where there is just a third as much oxygen as there is at sea level, and where the wind blows almost continually and the temperature drops at times to minus 100° wind chill, it's very difficult to motivate oneself to do anything, let alone to help someone else. Every living moment is spent trying to conserve energy, to eat or drink the small amounts that your body will handle, and to force your brain into planning your next decision. So the effort that the team gave to the struggling and desperate climbers was remarkable.
Q. WHAT ABOUT THE TEAM'S LEVEL OF DETERMINATION AFTER THE TRAGEDY?
A. I was quite certain that the team would give up the attempt for the summit. Once they'd come all the way back down to Base Camp, once they surveyed the depletion of the food, oxygen, clothing and other elements which were given to the climbers during the tragedy and the need to replenish those supplies and once it became apparent that most of the other teams were leaving the mountain thinking that the year's climbing season was finished, I frankly felt that it was unlikely that our team would rally their energies well enough to climb to the top. They were all very sad because of the deaths of two of their best friends, Rob Hall from New Zealand, and Scott Fischer from Seattle, who Ed and David had climbed with in the past, and others who had become friends during the previous 40 days on the mountain. It was very difficult for me to believe that the team could reinvigorate themselves enough so that they'd climb back up. Our chance had already passed. Our team was exhausted, they were emotionally spent, and in some ways their intellect was telling them that it may not be their year to climb the mountain, that the Gods seemed to be against climbing that season. The team spent a week at Base Camp before they started to rally and as we depict in the movie, there are many elements that added to their enthusiasm. One of them was Beck Weathers' rehabilitation back in Dallas, Texas. He was communicating with the team, telling them how grateful he was for their help. Then the Monastery which Jamling was in touch gave him the spiritual strength and courage to try again. However, Paula didn't feel that Ed should go again. She was upset and determined that it just wasn't the best season to go up. She had such a strong negative premonition that she had to leave Base Camp for a couple of days. But when she returned, knowing that Ed really did want to try once more, she gave him all her confidence and encouraged him to climb the mountain as he'd never climbed it before. The team replenished the high camps with new supplies and then set out. But when they reached the Middle Camp, the winds were still horrible on the top. They could see a huge plume of snow blowing off the summit of Everest, which usually means that it is blowing at least 100 6 miles-per-hour up where the jet stream winds howl. They waited at the Middle Camp for two days in stormy conditions, huddled in the tents, trying to keep warm, trying to keep their energy and their enthusiasm up, but they knew it looked bleak. Finally, David made a decision that if they didn't go now they probably wouldn't be able to go at all. And so they set out from The Middle Camp, up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3, and then up to Camp 4. When finally they reached Camp 4 two days later, the winds subsided and they knew that they were in luck. They decided to go that night, Ed leaving at 11 o'clock and the rest leaving at midnight, in the dark, climbing with headlamps, trying to be the first to ascend the mountain after the most devastating disaster that had ever hit the mountain. As they climbed that morning, Ed leading the trail through snow that was at times waist deep and untracked, because no one had been up the route since May 10th, the team continually pushed on, encouraged by the fact that there was very little wind. When they finally reached the top, I was called. I was on location shooting The Blue Angels movie and awakened at 1:00 a.m. from a sound sleep. I couldn't believe it! They had made it to the top and had shot pictures in IMAX from that location. I was ecstatic! I called everyone I knew and woke them up and then tried to go back to sleep. Obviously, I couldn't. I was so proud of our team.
Q. ONCE THE TEAM RETURNED, THE LONG EDITING TASK COMMENCED; WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
A. This film is definitely the most complex of any large format film yet produced. Not only is it non-fiction, and tells the story of three deeply defined characters, it also has science, cultural and religious content, and philosophical themes which give the film more depth than other IMAX films. The challenge of putting together a film with these elements, in a short format of 44 minutes, required a tremendous amount of time and effort, particularly from Steve Judson and our editorial staff. Telling this kind of story in ninety minutes would have been ten times easier. Telling this intricately woven story in just over 40 minutes was an immense struggle. We had to stay to the 40 minute length because most of the IMAX theaters are located in museums or science centers which have huge attendance and need to show the film at least 14 times a day to derive the biggest success. Because of this economic constraint, the films have to be in this shorter length. With a normal documentary about animals or a film that's a travelogue, this is an easier challenge. Because our film was so complex it became the most difficult editorial challenge in my 35 years of filmmaking. Our plan though was to edit the film to about a 45 minute length and then screen it for people, get their impressions and questions, and then re-edit the film. By doing this several times, probably 6 times in a 7 month period, you can tell a story which is complex, but not redundant or boring on one side, or too quickly paced and confusing on the other side. Steve Judson and I labored long nights and days in trying to get this film as good as we could get it. We even did the unusual thing of completing the film and showing it in IMAX for test audiences in three cities, and getting questionnaires from each one of those 1,400 people so that we could make the film even better in a recut form. So the film required almost a year and a half of post-production of editing, re-editing, developing the music, and writing and re-writing the narration and voice over so that the stories and the characters weave together well from beginning to end. This is the first IMAX film which has a story which is like a traditional drama, where the character react to life and death situations, and where there's a profound emotional are to the story itself. All these elements are traditional for Shakespeare or modern filmmaking but have never been tried in the IMAX format before. In my estimation, the emotion becomes even more compelling and powerful when conveyed through the medium of the giant screen and the super clear soundtrack. The audience can see and feel things much more clearly in this big format and feel them much more intensely. Therefore a story such as this, in EVEREST, where the characters truthfully and realistically go through an emotional range is, to me, much more emotionally fulfilling than a story that the audience knows is straight from an author's imagination. Real life, in my estimation, is something that is very attractive to the audience today. And for that reason films such as APOLLO 13 or TITANIC are more compelling than stories that are fictional. And along the same lines, stories which are filmed as they happen, like EVEREST, become even more enthralling and gripping to the audience. I feel this is one of the strengths of IMAX. The audience seems to have a hunger for truth, in its television, in its politics, in its leadership and I think, in its entertainment. They feel by coming to an IMAX theater they will be getting not only solid entertainment but information that will be enriching to their lives because it is factual and they can rely on it as being the truth. I love the fact that EVEREST will touch people in a unique and powerful way and hopefully will stimulate reading on various subjects including religion, geology, physiology, and cultures. And this is one of the rewards that I really enjoy from making 20 IMAX films.