INTERVIEW WITH EVEREST EDITOR, CO-DIRECTOR, WRITER and PRODUCER STEVE JUDSON
I. THE MOVIE
Q. WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THE FILM EVEREST?
A. Well, in terms of distribution, EVEREST will be a ground-breaking film in the IMAX® format; no other IMAX film has ever had such a wide release, with such a carefully coordinated promotional campaign. I feel that EVEREST will also be a ground-breaking film, artistically. Until now, there has never been an IMAX documentary with strongly developed characters, a chronological story-line, and a central dramatic arc connecting the film, from beginning to end. You care about the climbers in this film. Most important, there has never been an IMAX documentary where the audience can witness a life-and-death struggle unfolding. I feel that EVEREST may end up raising the bar with regards to how IMAX films are made. It's a watershed film.
Q. WHAT WAS SPECIAL ABOUT WORKING ON THIS FILM?
A. Well, I got to work with a lot of great people on the film. Mount Everest is a very intense place, and those of us most involved in making the film have been in the grip of the mountain for two years. It has been a very intense experience. We all had a sense early on that this had the potential to be a very special film, which gave us the responsibility of living up to that potential. At the risk of sounding pretentious, there was almost a sense of large-format history being made. So in writing and editing the film, I tried my best to make the footage really come to life, and to make the truest, most compelling film possible.
Q. SO WHEN DID GREG START TALKING TO YOU ABOUT EVEREST, AS A TOPIC?
A. Oh, it was some years ago, prior to the film. He asked this question out of the blue, you know, "what would you think about doing an Imax film about Everest?" And I just had an instant reaction of... "that's a great idea."
Q. BECAUSE WHY?
A. Just... I don't know... that was my instinct, that was my gut reaction to it because IMAX films like ANTARCTICA and GRAND CANYON have been both commercially successful and also have been very good uses of large-format, in that you're taking people to places they've been in their imagination, but they've never really seen. That's a wonderful use of the large screen. And here's a chance to do that on Everest. That's the first thing that hit me. Of course, I'm not a climber, I didn't know anything about how hard it was to get up Everest. So then the more I learned about that, the more I was going rrrrggghh, this is certainly not an easy film to do. The way audiences experience an Imax movie is different from the way they experience a television show or a feature film, it's fundamentally different. For one thing, obviously the picture is much larger so they feel enveloped by the picture. It's more of an experience. It's less like seeing a play or film inside a proscenium arch that's some sort of artifact, it's more like, "here's a place that I'm going to." It's more like reality. And so as a filmmaker you have to constantly keep that in mind and give people that opportunity to "travel." As an editor, you don't want to pace the film so quickly that people don't get a chance to soak in the environment of a particular shot before that shot is replaced by another one. So we, Greg in particular, and I, try to respect people's wish to be transported to a new place, a place they've never been before, through the magic of the large screen.
Q. WAS THERE ANYTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT EDITING EVEREST?
A. The fact that EVEREST has a stronger story, and a stronger chronological through-line than other IMAX documentaries actually made it easier to edit. In a film like THE LIVING SEA a scene can be placed anywhere -- at the beginning, middle, or end of the film -- so the choices in how to structure the film are almost overwhelming. That was not true of EVEREST. However, we had the problem in EVEREST that there was a tremendous amount of information to work in -- letting the audience know who is who, where they are, what is going on, what they're feeling, plus all the cultural background, and the physiology of high altitude climbing and the geologic story on how the Himalaya formed. There was so much wonderful material that Greg and I had to make some very painful choices, deciding what to leave out. That's often the case, in any film, only much more so with EVEREST. This film had a longer post-production schedule than most, because Greg chose that approach, from the outset. In editing IMAX, you have the unique problem that you are judging all your shots in 35mm before you've ever seen them in IMAX. Then you cut negative, and you're locked in to all your choices without the benefit of having seen your shots in IMAX. Inevitably, we wish we had omitted some shots, and held longer on others. On EVEREST Greg wanted to change that, so we built time into the schedule to cut negative and see the completed film in IMAX and then go back and recut the negative, with the advantage of knowing what the shots really look like in IMAX. And that has made EVEREST a better film.
Q. SO LOOKING AT EVEREST NOW, HOW MUCH DIFFERENT IS THE FILM FROM WHAT YOU ORIGINALLY ENVISIONED?
A. Well .. the treatment that I wrote didn't have any tragedy in it, so it's fundamentally different. It's a much better movie than the treatment, I can tell you that, and it's a much more emotional movie. Part of the thing that I try to do as an individual, I try to bring to these movies as much emotion as I can, both in the writing and in the performances. When you start interacting with these climbers, they put things into their own words and then Tim Cahill and I take those words, and massage them, and well, it becomes something better than we could have written just making it up out of our heads, you see. And so the film is richer and it's more emotional than what I had originally conceived, and I'm happy for that.
Q. IN NEPAL, HOW DID YOU PROTECT THE FILM FROM FREEZING AND BECOMING BRITTLE AND BREAKING? WHAT DID YOU DO?
A. We had to use alot of Estar film, which is very very strong, as you probably know, and so we went to Nepal with a whole bunch of it. We had some acetate film stock that we used at lower elevations, but up in the coldest regions, we were using the Estar.
II. THE PEOPLE
Q. WHAT WAS THE GREATEST SINGLE ACHIEVEMENT IN MAKING THE FILM?
A. The obvious answer is that getting the camera to the top of Mt. Everest was the greatest achievement in the course of this production. And that was truly an incredible feat, not only getting the camera there, but also taking great shots along the way. Incredible. That's obviously a first. But there are other achievements I find just as remarkable. The first is that, after the tragedy, Breashears and Schauer and all the climbers found the inner strength and resolve to try for the summit again. That takes a kind of courage that most of us will never need to muster, in our own lives. Also pretty amazing are the filmmaking hurdles that were overcome. Most newcomers to IMAX fail, no matter how much success they've had in other arenas. It is a great credit to David Breashears -- and to Greg MacGillivray and those of us who coached Breashears on the finer points of large-format filmmaking -- that David was able to pull off his end of it, artistically. It is equally astounding, in a way, that we have made a new kind of IMAX film here -- it is neither a dramatic re-creation, nor the usual montage of loosely connected images. EVEREST is a character-driven documentary story, from beginning to end -- a tight story with a strong time-line and dramatic tension. And that's a first.
Q. HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR BREASHEARS' SUCCESSFUL DEBUT IN IMAX?
A. Well, David is a good filmmaker, to start with -- and knew his subject as well as anyone. Most important, he never took a know-it-all attitude with regard to IMAX films. He understood early on that IMAX is a tricky medium, and alot of talented newcomers to the format have really stubbed their toes. So he took the attitude that he had a lot to learn, and he worked closely with Greg. I went to Nepal and up to the Base Camp partly to give him the benefit of my fifteen years of IMAX experience, wherever I could. Brad Ohlund did the same. And David was smart, he took advantage of that, and it was a friendly and productive relationship. Plus David is a quick study. Of course, ultimately, in this project, it came down to his Himalayan experience. Without David's depth of knowledge, and his patience, courage, determination and wisdom, it just would not have happened. David and Ed showed superb judgement and leadership during the tragedy.
Q. YOU'VE WORKED WITH GREG MACGILLIVRAY FOR 15 YEARS. WHAT IS THAT LIKE?
A. Greg is a unique filmmaker. He is a large-format visionary. He understands IMAX filmmaking and the IMAX distribution market place better than anyone -- at least, in my opinion. And I think his track record bears that out. He's not afraid to take a risk, if he feels it makes artistic and commercial sense. EVEREST was a risky project, because no one knew if it could be done, but Greg believed in the project, and made it happen. He was the moving force behind it. For me, a key part of working for Greg is that he is committed to making high-quality films. He doesn't waste money, but he'll spend money on things he feels are important to make a film better. And that was certainly true of EVEREST. That's one of the reasons I really like working with Greg. We like to challenge each other with new ideas, and we have a lot of fun doing it.
Q. HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WORKING WITH GREG?
A. Back in 1983, we knew each other by reputation, and he was looking for an editor for his IMAX film, DANCE OF LIFE. He called me up one day and asked if I wanted to edit the film, and I said "sure." It was pretty casual. But I already knew Greg was someone I wanted to work with.
A. Mainly because I'd seen a lot of his films and I liked the spirit of them and I liked his whole emphasis on doing it right. I mean, Greg is really somebody who tries to put as much quality into a project as he can. Otherwise he wouldn't see the point of doing it. One of the nice things about working on these films is the sense that you're putting your time and effort into something that is going to be around for years and years. And that means a lot to the people who see these films.
Q. I NOTICE THAT, AMONG OTHER THINGS, YOU ARE ONE OF THE DIRECTORS OF EVEREST?
A. Yes, well, I'm kind of the co-writer, co-director, co-yak wrangler. Greg and David are the main directors, I'd say. They are both cameramen, both very visual, and they are responsible for the look of the film. They are responsible for the key breath-taking visuals. My role as director was more in setting up shots to tie the story together, and coaching the climbers for some of their scenes, and also directing voice-over and narration sessions. Of course, I worked closely with Greg in shaping the film, but it's hard to separate that work from my role as writer and editor. That's where I've had the most impact on the film -- writing and editing.
Q. YOUR CO-WRITER ON EVEREST WAS TIM CAHILL. HAVE YOU WORKED WITH HIM BEFORE?
A. Yes, Tim and I worked together on the script for THE LIVING SEA and we really had fun. Tim lives up in Montana, so while I'm in California editing the movie, I am constantly revising the script. Then, when we get it to a stage where Greg and I are ready for Tim, he can look at the film with a fresh eye. And then I step back and let Tim take the script to a new level. So Tim and I never sit down together as co-writers; it's a back and forth process, more of a dialogue, really. The EVEREST script is very much a collaboration. The ideas are all mixed together, along with quotations from Greg and Breashears and our climbers, into one big tossed salad. An edible one, I hope.
Q. YOU MENTION QUOTATIONS FROM THE CLIMBERS. CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
A. I recorded the climbers in three separate sessions -- one in March, one in August, and one in December. We always had a script for them, which I made them read over and over -- they were very patient, I must say. At times, they felt like strangling me. But from time to time, the climbers would think of a better way to express an idea, or simply to put it in their own words. And we always welcomed that. After all, they're the ones that were there, on Everest. They know what it felt like. So, Ed, Araceli and Jamling have all been our creative partners, in a sense.
III. THE PLACE
Q. AS A NEWCOMER TO MOUNT EVEREST, WHAT WAS IT LIKE? WHAT WAS MOST SURPRISING ABOUT THE PLACE?
A. The region that you have to trek through to get to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest is known as the Khumbu. It's a valley, but a very high one -- higher in places than the highest peaks of the Alps and the Rockies. The whole idea of a very high valley takes a little getting used to. But what is wonderful about the place is the sense of going back in time. There is a string of little Sherpa villages, but not a single vehicle in the whole long valley, not a single motorbike, not even an ox cart, not a snowmobile, there's nothing. And so everything there is either carried in on a person's back or on a yak. And that total lack of vehicles takes you back in time and you really feel as though you're in the 19th century. That part of it was so, I don't know, refreshing. And then to visit a place like the remote Buddhist monastery at Thyangboche, it's something you can never forget. The sound of the monks chanting, for hours on end, with intricately shifting rhythms, just kind of gets in your blood. There's a mystical sense to the whole place, and Mt. Everest belongs to that context. The mountain does not stand apart, as just a magnificent rocky peak. It's a spiritual force in the Sherpa culture. You feel it.
Q. AS A FIRST-TIMER AT THE EVEREST BASE CAMP, HOW DID THE ALTITUDE AFFECT YOU?
A. Obviously, at Mt. Everest, altitude is a big issue; even Base Camp is pretty high -- it's 17,600 feet. I was doing fine up until 16,000 feet. But that final walk up to Base Camp I found pretty tough. I had to stop every minute or so, I was gasping for breath. And then I started to get dizzy and actually, sort of hallucinate. I could see my boots being placed on the rocks, but I had no sense that those were my feet; someone else was controlling them. I kept trying to tell myself, "those are your feet and you better be careful where you're putting them." But I couldn't get out of that hallucinating mode. I had tunnel vision. It was pretty scary. A few times, I slipped on the ice and fell on my face. Robert Schauer, the Austrian assistant-cameraman, stayed behind to look after me. He took my pack and carried it on top of his own pack, so I could walk more easily. I'll always be grateful to Robert for that.
Q. DID YOU RECOVER FROM THAT EPISODE?
A. At Base Camp, I had quite a bit of trouble breathing. And I came down with a bad cough. I later learned that I had water in my lungs. It was really tougher than I expected. In writing the script, I had done a lot of research into the physiology of high altitude, so I understood it intellectually, but until I lived through it, I didn't realize how tough it really was. Having made it to almost 18,000 feet and actually experienced what it was like, I have a profound respect now for the people who can climb to the top of Everest, at 29,028 feet. Especially someone like Ed Viesturs, who does it without using supplemental oxygen. Or people like Robert Schauer and David Breashears and the Sherpas who carried the IMAX camera to the summit. It's really almost unbelievable to me that anybody can do it.
Q. HOW COLD IS IT AT BASE CAMP?
A. The temperature at Base Camp isn't too bad during the day, but as soon as the sun sets, the temperature drops really fast. By the time dinner rolls around, it's very cold. "Dressing for dinner" means putting on a down parka and hat and gloves. The Everest veterans accept this as business as usual. After dinner, you pretty well stumble to your tent in the pitch blackness. Everything in the tent is freezing, including your sleeping bag. One thing that makes life much more bearable is if you take a hot water bottle and put it in your sleeping bag; it warms up the sleeping bag in a hurry. Of course you're breathing during the night and all you're breath condenses inside the tent, so that you wake up in the morning, and snow is falling inside your tent. One evening we were standing around Base Camp taking a sunset shot, and we noticed that one of the Sherpas was still in sandals and didn't have any socks on. We asked him if his feet were cold and he said no. He was very nonchalant. The Sherpas really have an amazing ability to tolerate the cold.
Q. AT BASE CAMP, DOES MT. EVEREST MAKE ITSELF FELT AS A STRONG PRESENCE?
A. Base Camp at Mt. Everest is right at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall, and there's a wonderful amphitheater of mountains right there. You're just ringed by mountains, close in. It works as sort of an echo chamber. There are constant avalanches and ice cracking in the glacier itself. So all day and night, you're hearing these cracks and rumbles and thundering sounds, as some huge chunk of ice lets go. And every time I hear that, I ask myself, "how could anybody have the courage to climb up through the Khumbu Icefall"? The Khumbu Icefall is right there above Base Camp. It's a huge glacier and it's full of crevasses; new ones open up all the time. The Sherpas have a saying. If you fall into a crevasse, it's known as "going to America." Actually, the first day we got there, one of the Sherpas from another expedition did fall into a crevasse in the Icefall. He was in there overnight, with a broken leg. It took hours to get him out of there. And then he had to be air-lifted out of Base Camp by an emergency helicopter, the following morning. It's a dangerous place.
Q. THIS ALL SEEMS LIKE SUCH A SOBERING EXPERIENCE. DID ANYTHING FUNNY HAPPEN ON THE SHOOT?
A. Whenever you're directing people in a foreign language, there's always bound to be some miscommunication -- and that was certainly the case in Kathmandu. The first day that I was trying to get Nepalese people to perform in a shot, we rehearsed the scene and rolled camera. When I called for "action," everybody just stood there and looked at me. And it turns out that in Nepal, the words "ek chin" mean "wait just a minute."
Q. ANYTHING ELSE FUNNY THAT YOU CAN REMEMBER?
A. When we were filming the Buddhist monks at the Thyangboche monastery, there was a ceremony where the monks were blessing the climbers and some of their climbing equipment. David Breashears had the bright idea of having the monks bless the IMAX camera, as well. And we're happy to report that the blessing worked.
Q. WHAT ABOUT THE SHERPAS? DID THEY HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR?
A. Most Definitely. One of the great characters on the expedition was the head cook, named Changba. He's one of the most cheerful people on the face of the Earth. He gets up at six in the morning and starts singing as soon as he gets out of bed. He also brings around a pot of hot tea to each tent. So you get a cup of Sherpa tea before you ever get out of your sleeping bag. Which is pretty nice. On Easter Sunday, he came around dressed up as the Easter Bunny and gave each one of us a chocolate Easter egg.
Q. THAT DOESN'T SEEM VERY FUNNY.
A. You had to be there.