When Hollywood does mountain movies they often get a crappy critical reception, especially amongst the climbing community. Last year Kenton Cool told me: “I don’t watch too many climbing movies anymore, they disappoint me…"
But there are exceptions. Notably last December’s Sherpa, which told the Everest story from the Sherpa’s perspective. And Everest, the movie account of the 1996 disaster on the mountain, which killed eight climbers in one day, was also pretty well received, with the climbing scenes especially praised for their realism.
It’s now out on DVD, so I asked one of the filmers, Kent Harvey from Colorado, who is also a mountain guide, how they made it look so good.
Everest has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the mountain, why was that so important?
Previous dramatic feature films about mountaineering and climbing (ie. Vertical Limit, K2 & Cliffhanger) have not been very well received because they didn’t look or feel realistic. I think that because Everest is a true story about a very dramatic event there had to be an authenticity, and integrity to the making of this film. Also, there were several popular books about the 1996 Everest event and to make a movie that didn’t hold up to those books would have been considered a failure.
How did you go about achieving that?
Two things that made Everest feel realistic were shooting much of the film in an actual mountain environment and having an outstanding visual f/x team on board. Many of the mountain scenes were shot in the Italian Dolomites on the side of a mountain, in snow and in very cold conditions. It is very hard to replicate this kind of environment on a stage.
"Because Everest is a true story about a very dramatic event, there had to be an authenticity and integrity to making this film"
However several of the icefall scenes and scenes on and around the summit were shot on stage. This is where the visual f/x team came in and did a fantastic job. Our 2nd Unit shot a lot of plate and tile work in and around Everest basecamp and in the lower icefall to use for scenes shot on green screen.
Because of the Khumbu Icefall avalanche [which killed 16 Sherpas in 2014] and the subsequent shutting down of the mountain the visual f/x team had to rely on previously shot footage and still photos to recreate the environments and again they did a great job. Prior to Everest, climbing & mountaineering films had to rely on visual f/x work that wasn’t nearly as good as it is today. The visual f/x team on this movie did an amazing job. This is the same visual f/x team that worked on the film Gravity.
Was it shot with a viewer in mind?
I am sure Everest was made to appeal to a broad audience. A climbing audience alone is quite small and nobody could justify making a $60 million dollar movie just for climbers. The 1996 Everest story is a very tragic story and the fact that it was a true event and one that involves high adventure the film appeals to a broad audience. Mount Everest will always have an allure simply because it is the tallest mountain in the world. There is a lot of metaphor associated with this mountain and for that reason alone it will always have an attraction.
How did the A listers, such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin, handle the long cold days in the mountains?
The actors did a great job. I didn’t work with them as much as the main unit team did but when I did work with them they were great. My guess is the conditions on this film were much more difficult than on most other films any of the actors had worked on. But in the end there comes a lot of reward with that.
"Nobody could justify making a $60 million dollar movie just for climbers…"
Was Val Senales closed to the public during shooting?
Val Senales was open during the shooting. They would close down certain areas to accommodate filming though I don’t think that inconvenienced the mountain too much.
It snowed a lot when you were there, how did that affect the process?
Yes, it did snow a lot. I heard something to the effect that it was the snowiest winter Val Senales had seen in several years. This was interesting because Everest doesn’t see a lot of snow fall during the pre-monsoon climbing season and in fact much of the terrain is quite hard packed and icy and not laden with a bunch of fresh snow.
"Our Camp 3 set was actually buried by an avalanche and had to later be dug out for filming…"
However, for the most part, viewers don’t know this and the snow falling made certain scenes feel colder and more realistic. The biggest problem with the weather was having one day socked in and snowy and the next day with clear skies. Some scenes are not filmed in one day and require multiple days so the inconsistent weather made for tricky shooting in trying to keep scenes consistent.
All the snowfall necessitated that Val Senales do a fair bit of avalanche mitigation on the mountain. Not just for our filming but for the skiing public. Our Camp 3 set was actually buried by an avalanche and had to later be dug out for filming. Also, since we were filming up on the mountain all of our access for gear and crew had to happen via snowcats, which was not a fast process. As a result our mornings were early at around 5am and wrap was late around 6pm making for relatively short nights.
Is it hard to work when there's lots of fresh snow and you just want to go skiing!?
You know that’s a funny question. I’m a long time skier and do a fair bit of off piste skiing and when I showed up to Val Senales I saw all of this great side country/off piste skiing potential but only a few tracks. For the most part the skiing public at Val Senales only stay on the groomed runs and don’t touch anything off piste.
I eventually learned that the tracks I was seeing were from the climbing safety crew members on the film! Once on the mountain much of my movement was on skis so I would get to get in a bit of skiing even on a work day. The bonus days were when I could ski a nice line of untracked on my way to another location. I would get out and ski on the weekends however because I was also needing to train for filming on Everest I would skin up the area on my days off but then be able to ski on the way down.
When you were at Everest was it stressful trying to look out for your own safety while getting the shots you needed?
I have summited Everest twice and been on the mountain four times so I have a certain familiarity with it and with that familiarity comes feeling more comfortable. With the help of Guy Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants and technical and safety adviser on the film, we had assembled a solid crew of professional climbers to serve as both climbing doubles and safety during filming. Because of the avalanche on April 18th, we never got very far above the lower icefall so we never really had to deal with the more significant stressors of climbing and filming all the way up through the icefall and on the upper mountain. I can say though there was plenty of stress leading up to the trip and sitting at basecamp looking at the Khumbu Icefall strategising on how best to approach filming safely.
Being at base camp when the avalanche struck which killed 16 sherpas, how hard was that for you mentally when you were making a film about the 1996 tragedy?
To be honest the fact that I was there filming for a movie about the 1996 tragedy when the avalanche hit hadn’t really hit me until I got home. What was immediately hard for me mentally was knowing that several Sherpas had been killed in that avalanche and we didn’t know how many or who.
Every year that I have climbed on Everest there have been Sherpas killed and that is something very tragic. They are really wonderful people who are working so hard and generously to help accommodate other people’s successes on the mountain yet they are often the ones who pay the ultimate price.
There is an inherent danger in climbing Everest and everyone who embarks on it understands this and on some level agrees to this internally. If they don’t then they’re delusional. My first film as a Director of Photography was in Tibet documenting a climb and ski descent of Shishapangma, the lowest of the 8,000 metre peaks. On that project an avalanche killed renowned climber Alex Lowe and my camera assistant, Dave Bridges. Since then I have lost a lot of friends in the mountains. That is hard. The mountains are a beautiful and unforgiving place and understanding and appreciating that balance is challenging.
Were you sad not to summit due to the avalanche?
I can’t say I was sad but I can say that we had a great team and a solid plan to film to the summit and I would have liked to have seen us give it our best shot. There are so many things that have to come together for a successful Everest climb including weather, health, mountain conditions, team dynamics etc so just climbing Everest without filming is a tall order.
"Every year that I have climbed on Everest there have been Sherpas killed and that is something very tragic. They are really wonderful people."
To be able to climb and film to the summit is an even taller order but I think we had the team to do it. On both my previous summits in 2009 and 2012 I climbed and filmed to the summit on much smaller projects and it was a tonne of work mostly because I was working by myself. Filming Everest I had fantastic help from many of the best in the climbing and filming business and it would have been great to give it a shot. But in the end what we were doing was so insignificant to the tragic loss of life that day and everyone understood that.
Why are people so mad to climb Everest?
Because Everest is the tallest mountain in the world and because of that Everest will continue to have the allure it’s had since people first began trying to climb it in the 1920s. Again there is a lot of metaphor there and human beings are drawn to wild places that offer some sense of significance and relevance.
How did you get into mountain filming?
Following university, despite having a degree in film, I chose to pursue my interests in climbing, mountaineering and skiing and I became a professional mountain guide in Colorado where I am from. I did this for about seven years before realising my interest in cinematography was still very strong so I began making efforts to get into film production. I worked my way up the ranks of the camera department over several years eventually getting behind the camera.
I eventually found myself working as a freelance director/cinematographer for Warren Miller Films shooting ski action around the world. On many levels this made a lot of sense as I had been a life long skier, had worked as a professional ski Patroller and had spent years in the mountains. I was a very experienced skier and I knew how to capture ski action. In the end this was great prep for getting into shooting action sequences on feature films.
What's next for you?
Since filming on Everest I have had the pleasure of working on Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War as well as shooting commercials. I’m now at home in Colorado shooting commercials looking forward to another movie.
For more info go to Kent Harvey Films