'Everest' Director Talks "Losing Your Shit" While Shooting at the Highest Place on Earth

Universal Pictures

Baltasar Kormakur hauled his A-list cast and crew up Mount Everest for "authenticity" purposes when making the disaster epic, which opens the Venice Film Festival today.

The 2015 Venice Film Festival opens Wednesday with the chilling all-star disaster epic Everest, Universal/Working Title's real-life story of the 1996 tragedy that saw five mountaineers die on the slopes of the world's highest summit.  The film's ensemble cast is led by Jason Clarke as New Zealand guide Rob Hall, alongside Josh Brolin, Jake GyllenhaalSam WorthingtonEmily WatsonJohn HawkesMichael KellyKeira Knightley and Robin Wright.

Everest faces the daunting task of following in the footsteps of previous Venice curtain-raisers, Birdman and Gravity, which used the festival as the launchpad for successful Oscar campaigns. But Baltasar Kormakur, whose previous features include 2 Guns and Contraband, isn't known for shrinking from a challenge. For the $60 million film, the Icelandic filmmaker didn't just throw his cast and crew into a studio with a few green screens and snow machines. Determined to achieve "as much authenticity as possible, both visually and from the actors," he hauled the team up Mount Everest itself, to the "the coldest and highest places you can take film crews," and later to the Dolomites in Italy for a six-week shoot that saw continual avalanche warnings.

Ahead of Everest's world premiere in Venice, Kormakur spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about fighting altitude sickness and marauding yaks and what it's like to shoot 12-hour days at minus 30. 

Working Title has been working on the Everest project for over a decade. How did you become involved?

Evan Hayes, who used to work at Working Title, produced Contraband with me, and he sent me the script. I think I was doing The Deep at the time, and they kind of put these two together and thought ‘ok, he might be the right guy, he’s done extreme, he’s done drama and he’s also done bigger action films and dealt with movie stars.’ I remember when I read it, there was a lot of work to be done but I was like ‘wow’. There was nothing that could stop me from making that film, not even that mountain.

But it took a while before you were actually able to get on the mountain.

Yeah, it took a few years until it could be realized. It’s not the kind of bread-and-butter film made by Hollywood, and it took a lot of hard work to convince people. Financiers fell off, and it almost fell apart in the mid prep, just months before we started shooting. But then fortunately we got other people involved and (Working Title's) Tim Bevan shared the same passion. We were together in getting it going. Everything from prepping to financing was an adventure, and then you go to the mountain and the cold.

What were the conditions like when you got there?

Well, the first thing is that the airport near Everest is the most dangerous airport on earth. I was scouting there before the shoot. We spent a day up there to adjust, without the actors. We took off on helicopter to scout the mountain and when we came down, where we had taken off there was a crashed helicopter. And I think somebody lost a life. So you realize that we are in a situation where anything can pretty much happen.

How was it shooting on Mount Everest itself?

The first day and a half we couldn’t get up because of the fog. When we did manage to get the actors up there, from that point on there are no vehicles allowed. So we started walking, like in reality with donkeys and yaks. You have A-list stars and they’re carrying their own shit  no assistants allowed! And it’s January, so it’s freezing. And then there’s the height sickness. I think you’re around 10,000 feet, just as a starting point. We had some helicopters come in to drop some stuff off, which freaked the yaks out. There was one hairy moment when one of the yaks couldn’t take it anymore and charged into a group of people. But everyone was at the same level, whether they were a third grip or a movie star. And it was brilliant, because they’re all back to film school, carrying equipment. It just gave us the right in to the movie.

How high did you actually get?

We got up to the memorial [for climbers and sherpas who have died on the mountain], about 14,000-16,000 feet above sea level. And that was the highest we were allowed to go by the insurance companies. But even if we would have been allowed to go higher, it was impossible. We began shooting there and people started dropping. We had to evacuate them. I started losing it myself. You just lose your shit. It’s like getting drunk or high, but with a lot more pain. You get drunk and have a hangover at the same time.

What other extremities were there?

Well then we went to the Dolomites [in Italy]. And that was starting at 7 a.m. for 12 hours a day at minus 30. And it pretty much stayed like that for the next six weeks. Not only that, but there were avalanche evacuations on the call sheet every other day. And it was a record year for snow. There hasn’t been more snow in the Dolomites for 100 years!

Were there any moments when you – or the cast – thought 'enough, this is crazy'?

Pretty much every morning at 7 a.m. The ski lift would take us an hour to get to the set, and you’re about to throw up because you haven’t slept enough, and you’re thinking ‘I’ve got a beautiful wife and wonderful kids and a warm bed.’ But you get going and you get excited. You just get into it. I loved it. You really want to push actors. It's my experience that if you put yourself in a similar situation, they will do anything for you. You're there with the actors, not just sitting in a van somewhere sending them instructions by text message. That was my way of approaching it.

You were obviously dealing with a real tragedy. How did you manage the balance the responsibility to those involved in the actual disaster and to the film?

I basically traveled a whole circle around the world before the shoot, and Tim came with me, which was so important. As time goes on you start respecting the effort, because it’s not a given that a producer will always put themselves on the line. We traveled to New Zealand and Los Angeles, and sat with the people involved. We were lucky that Jan Arnold [wife of mountaineer Robert Hall, who died on Everest] and Helen Wilton [mountaineering coordinator, who stayed at Base Camp] both listened to the tapes that were recorded on the mountains with us for the first time in 19 years. And they were able to explain them to us as they knew the voices better. Of course it became a very traumatic experience, and it puts an immense responsibility on your shoulders. But at the same time I was clear that I wasn’t going to pull any punches. I wasn’t going to make a soft version where everyone is a saint. I wanted to make a human story, not a story about heroes; a story about people who makes mistakes, wrong decisions, but it doesn’t mean that they’re responsible for fatalities.

Have the families of the mountaineers seen it?

Yeah, we had a screening in New Zealand and it was extremely, extremely positive. I was worried, but we got a letter saying they were very happy. Of course, there will be some people who don’t agree. There are 10 books about this disaster already, so we tried to work out the most believable scenario that we could possibly come up with. There are some filling in the holes where people have different opinions of different events. We had to unravel all that.

And now, with the crampons and thermal underwear put away, Everest is opening Venice. Are you excited or terrified?

A bit of both. It’s mixed feeling. I’m very proud of the film and I believe in it with all my heart. I will stand behind it. But it went from ‘is it going to be good?’ to ‘is it going to be better than Birdman or Gravity?’ Of course, no movie should be judged like that, but it is what it is. But it’s extremely exciting. It was a great surprise to me to be offered this spot, and it’s great and at the same time terrifying. I keep rolling this around my head.

Having filmed on the highest point on Earth, are you planning to do something a little lighter for your next project, perhaps a rom-com somewhere on the Mediterranean?

A surfing movie, yeah! No, that’s not me. I might do an Icelandic movie, a Viking movie that I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. That was the reason that I went to Hollywood, to try to finance that project. So that’s one. And I’ve got a company here, so I’m taking what Hollywood has given me and putting it into the local business. We produced a movie called Virgin Mountain, which won some of the main prizes in Tribeca. And we have a TV show  Trapped — which is now being sold around the world and just picked up by the BBC, which has never happened with Icelandic TV before. It’s like a Scandi noir, the real Fortitude!