Director's Chair: Baltasar Kormakur — 'Everest'
Issue: September 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Baltasar Kormakur — 'Everest'

Who you gonna call when you need to make a film about a climbing tragedy set against punishing conditions on the world’s highest mountain? Easy — Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandic director whose credits include the harrowing action drama, The Deep, where the director jumped into the frigid Icelandic waters with a camera to make sure the true story of a fisherman who survived the sinking of his trawler looked authentic.

Inspired by the events surrounding a treacherous attempt in 1996 to reach the summit, Everest documents the journey of two different expeditions challenged beyond their limits by one of the fiercest snowstorms ever encountered, and their struggle for survival. With a stellar cast that includes Jason Clarke ( Zero Dark Thirty), Josh Brolin ( True Grit), John Hawkes ( Lincoln) and Jake Gyllenhaal ( Brokeback Mountain), the film also features a top creative team that includes director of photography Salvatore Totino ( The Da Vinci Code) and editor Mick Audsley ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director talks about making the film (which will be released in 3D and IMAX 3D), all the special effects, and his love of post. 

Did you feel an added sense of responsibility making this, as it’s based on a true story?

“I did. So, I read all the books and accounts, and met with people involved in the tragedy, and set out to make a film that’s as authentic as possible, and that could give audiences a sense of place — Everest in all its glory and might and danger. I wanted people to feel like they’d almost climbed it themselves.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together? 

“Every single thing was a challenge, starting with the financing. You can make this on a small budget, and it’s not the sort of film studios are panting after. It’s a heavy drama without a really uplifting ending, and I wanted an ensemble cast with top actors, so that adds to the budget. And then you can’t just go to Everest and start shooting — so it’s like a space movie in that sense. There’s only so far up you can go, because of insurance companies, and you can’t risk an actor’s life just for a film. So I pushed to the limit everything I could shoot on location in Nepal, on the foothills of Everest, and then we shot in the Dolomites in the Italian Alps, and at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, and then at Pinewood Studios in London.” 

How tough was the prep and shoot?

“Very tough. It was January in Nepal when we shot for two weeks, so it was so cold, and we used helicopters to drop off gear as there were no vehicles, and then we all had to hike up as far as we could — just below base camp at 18,000 feet, and people were falling out and had to be air-evacuated quickly. Then we shot in the Dolomites at around 12,000 feet, and the first day it was minus 30 Celsius. We had five weeks of that, along with so much snow that we had avalanche warnings every day on the call set, and often had to leave and find new places to shoot. Then we did two weeks in Rome and recreated base camp, and ended up for six weeks at Pinewood on the huge 007 stage, where we had enough height for the sections of Everest that we built on stage.”

How did you go about building Everest?

“We used places in the Dolomites to stand in for Everest, and then we used some enhancements and changes in post, and combined all that with sets. We also mapped out the mountain in a 3D model so we could use that in post, and also have an idea of where we were shooting. And at Pinewood, we created this huge transparent box so we could drop the temperature minus 30 Celsius as we also used real snow for the set. I don’t think it’s ever been done before, but it had to be authentic on the actors’ faces and so on, and snow’s really hard to fake anyway.”

How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?

“Right from the start. We did as much in-camera stuff as possible, and we were editing the whole way through. Dadi Einarsson, our VFX supervisor who worked on Gravity, used to be at Framestore and together we created a VFX company in Iceland called RVX, which headed up all the VFX for this. So all that was going on during production, long before we even got to post.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it, as it’s like cooking. You’ve gone out hunting in the cold wilds, and now you’re back in a nice warm kitchen with all the ingredients, and you start creating. I like each part of filmmaking, including shooting — I like the physicality and excitement of it, along with the difficulty and exhaustion. But I often feel that the DPs and people who work almost entirely in production really miss out a lot, as you learn so much in post about your material — what works and what doesn’t.” 

Where did you do the post? 

“We began the director’s cut in Iceland at my company, and then we moved to London and got deeper into it, and did all the sound there too, at Pinewood, and all the grading at Company 3, who are great. And RVX is in Iceland, but some of the guys were in London too, so there was a lot of back and forth. I think London is one of the best places to do post, because everything’s so close together in Soho. And it was long — over a year to finish the post.”

The film was edited by the great Mick Audsley, whose diverse credits include Dangerous Liaisons and Twelve Monkeys. Was he on the set? How did that relationship work?

“He wasn’t in Nepal but he came to the set in the Dolomites, and then stayed with us for the rest of the shoot. I hadn’t worked with him before, but I needed someone who was experienced in dealing with a huge production like this, and he also has a bit of a classical approach. I’m not someone who’s in the editing room a lot while shooting, unless there’s a problem that needs discussing or fixing. I feel like the film’s in my head a lot during the shoot, so I don’t rely much on the editing then. I’d rather do a re-shoot if something’s missing, as most of the time you can sit with the editor and fix it. And at the start, I like my editors to just have the material and not have me on their backs explaining how great it is. They have to digest it and hate it and love it and to take ownership, so they can be objective and creative. Then, after they’ve done their assembly, I get far more involved — but I’m still in and out. I like to give them space to work.” 

There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?

“Around 1,000, and we used various vendors, including Framestore, One of Us, ILP, Stereo D and Milk VFX with my company RVX doing most of the work. I like working with VFX, and I love to be able to enhance things and create stuff you couldn’t have otherwise. I’m not that excited about creating explosions and monsters. I’m more into creating reality-based VFX, and to me the best VFX often go unnoticed, because they’re so good you don’t even realize they’re there.”

What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?

“Probably the really bad weather scenes, because you can’t really do that practically, so we had to build a lot of that from scratch and there are hardly any sets there. I had to be very high in the air to create the right look. I storyboarded it all, but there’s only so much storyboards you can do.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“It’s another layer and another whole world you can create. Glenn Freemantle, who won the Oscar for Gravity, was our sound designer and supervising sound editor, and he did an amazing job. We even sent someone up Everest to record the real sounds, and for me, the authenticity of film lies just as much in the sound as the visuals. And I didn’t want to have that action-movie-based type of sound. I wanted it to be exciting, but reality-based. Of course, just reality would be a documentary approach, so you try to find the essence of the sound. And music is very tricky, as you have to support the drama and emotional journey the audience goes through, but you don’t want to overdo it. And studios tend to go for the obvious. We did all the sound and music at Pinewood.”

The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“I’ve done a couple of films with Company 3 and they’re so good and Stefan Sonnenfeld did a great job on the grading. We wanted that stark, strong light of Everest, but there’s also the period look of ’96, so we needed that look, too. I just didn’t want it to be dark or gloomy, but keep it very natural, and the look is almost monochrome, as it’s this enormous white mountain.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

“Yes, I’m very happy with it. It’s this long journey, and there are always surprises in post — some are good and others turn out differently from the way you’d pictured it. So that initial vision you have changes and develops, and you learn more and more about the story and the film just by doing it.”