Chad Moffitt (foreground) and Sonam Sherpa as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in "Beyond the Edge," a new film that blends archival footage with reenactments of Hillary's 1953 climb to the summit of Mount Everest. (Photos: M. Whetu)
Sixty-one years ago, beekeeper and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay made history, becoming the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Before then, dozens had attempted the climb, and 13 men had died trying. Some thought that man could not survive the "death zone" above 29,000 feet. But in 1953, as Britain prepared for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the race to the top of the world was on, and a British expedition led by John Hunt was determined to get there first. On the way, they'd battle extreme conditions, altitude sickness, and the clock — oxygen supplies were limited and they’d have to summit by May 15 to avoid monsoon season.
This story of man vs. Mother Nature is the subject of writer-director Leanne Pooley's gripping docudrama, which blends newsreel footage, archival photos, reenactments and the voices of Hillary, Hunt and others on the expedition, and the sons of Hillary and Norgay; Hillary's son, Peter, served as a producer and advisor on the film, which will be released in theaters and on video-on-demand on July 4. Pooley, who was born in Canada and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, shared her insights about the film with MNN.
MNN: Why did you want to make this film?
Leanne Pooley: Producer Matthew Metcalfe approached me to write and direct this film. It was the 60th anniversary of the first summit of Everest so it seemed the perfect time to tell the story. Like many people, I knew Sir Ed "knocked the bastard off," but I didn't have any idea how he did it. The more I read, the more excited I became about the project and it took very little to persuade me to come onboard. This is a wonderful adventure story and I feel incredibly honored to have been given the opportunity to tell it.
What spoke to you about Hillary's story?
Sir Ed had a fascinating, contradictory personality. He was humble and unassuming while at the same time driven and ambitious. He was a man who "got on with it." In our modern world there's so much "look at me, look what I did." Ed is an old-fashioned hero who worked as part of a team to achieve something bigger than himself. I find that admirable, and perhaps that's what has endeared him to those who know his story.
How easy was it to get the Hillary family, particularly Peter, involved?
Peter Hillary was actually onboard before I was. My producer didn't think it would be possible to make the film without the support of the family, and I agreed. Peter was wonderful, very supportive and I think his interview for the film is key to way the story unfolds.
How much footage and audio recordings were there to go through?
My researcher, Keiran McGee, tracked down literally hundreds of interviews with the men who were there in 1953. She found some truly amazing material, including interviews I don't believe have been heard before. This allowed me to let the expedition members tell their own story as I want the film to be as first hand as possible, giving the audience an insider's perspective on what happened. On top of this, there was the wonderful footage from the 1953 film "The Conquest of Everest" as well as thousands of beautiful still images to choose from, many more than we could use. That's a great problem to have!
How did you arrive at the hybrid documentary-drama approach and why did it best suit the story?
It started out as a documentary; there was so much wonderful archive to use, beautiful 16mm footage and stills from the actual expedition. However, this material finished at the South Col at 26,000 feet; they didn’t film any higher than that. We knew if we wanted to go all the way to the summit with Ed and Tenzing, we'd have to recreate at least part of the journey. At that stage, we decided to do our best to weave the different elements, old and new, together into one film. This made it possible for us to tell aspects of the story that hadn't been explored before.
What were the biggest challenges you faced — logistical, weather, etc.?
There were two separate components to the filming process and they provided slightly different challenges. It isn't practical to take actors, costumes and so on up Everest, so when we were using actors to reconstruct the drama, we shot in the Mount Cook region of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Then, because this is a movie about Mount Everest, we needed to film on the mountain itself. I had a crew summit Everest, filming the whole way. Both shoots were challenging.
When shooting in the mountains of Mount Cook, we were often above 3,000 meters. Isolation, weather, safety; there were a number of significant issues to deal with in that environment. Simply getting the crew to location everyday took hours and many chopper runs (no road access). It was a dangerous place to work as we were shooting on sheer cliffs, amongst crevasses and seracs [blocks of ice].
This meant the crew had to be harnessed to safety lines so getting tangled with other crewmembers was a constant occurrence. Moving actors into position and getting the camera to the best spot to cover the action always meant a logistical challenge, as simply moving around was difficult. We couldn't leave gear on location as we never knew what the weather would do and whether or not we'd be able to get back on the mountain the following day so we had to set up each morning and pack up every evening. At dawn each day we would make a call on what could or couldn't be achieved.
This meant the shoot days were unpredictable and condensed. The second shoot on Mount Everest was challenging for all the reasons you'd imagine. Everest is probably the most extreme environment on the planet. Our camera would freeze up, altitude makes concentration difficult, and there are many other climbers to shoot around. And of course you just might die up there. I think what my mountain cameraman, Mark Whetu, achieved — he summated — was truly astounding.
How long was production?
I first met with the producer, Matthew Metcalfe, in March 2012. We started working together almost straight away, and we premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013.
Members of the reenactment cast in "Beyond the Edge" trek up a mountain. (Photo: M. Whetu)
Was it important to replicate everything exactly, including 1950s equipment and clothing? What problems did that pose?
I wanted the reconstructions to mix as seamlessly as possible with the archive material so we paid very close attention to the details. I had a wonderful team. Grant Major who is an Academy Award winning production designer and Barbara Darragh, my costume designer, did an incredible job. They made sure everything we shot matched the archive exactly. It also helped that Chad Moffit really captured Sir Edmund, not just how he looked but how he moved. This meant I could intercut between the old and new material freely. I very much wanted the audience to go on the journey and not be thinking about what was real and what was reconstructed. The fact that we pulled this off is, I believe, one of the film's strengths.
What measures were taken for health and safety? Were there any close calls, illnesses?
Safety was a huge issue. As I mentioned before, we were shooting at altitude in very dangerous situations but we had a fantastic safety team headed by Guy Cotter so I never felt nervous. Guy's team would go up the mountain ahead of us every day and make sure the location was safe, mark out any crevasses, assess the avalanche risk, dig chopper pads etc. They also set up safety ropes. The cast and crew were harnessed to a member of the safety team or the mountain a lot of the time. Sir Ed was very proud of the fact that no one died on any of his climbing expeditions and perhaps his spirit was with us because despite the environment we didn't have any accidents. I think the worst that happened was that I managed to sunburn my eyeballs one day.
How much of it was actually shot on Everest?
It's hard for me to say exactly what percentage of the material is from the Everest shoot because of the way we've woven it all together. Some of the shots are composites as well because we used material we shot on Everest as plates behind footage shot in New Zealand. So it's a real mix of real and created. Of course all the aerials are from Everest and most of the wide mountain shots.
Did actors have to train to play these physically demanding roles? Was their fitness a factor in casting? Even so, were they prepared for how difficult it was?
Both leads trained with Guy Cotter. They had to learn to climb in period gear, which is different from climbing in modern gear. Chad had some climbing experience and is very fit so that really helped. Sonam, who plays Tenzing, is from the Himalayas and while not a climber, he was comfortable in the mountains. This was a consideration during casting. I think there were days when both Chad and Sonam were a little nervous. I mean, we had them dangling down crevasses and clinging to the side of ridges. We did use climbing doubles for some of the really dangerous sequences, though.
I read you're not fond of heights. Isn't that ironic, doing a film like this? Did you conquer your fear?
I do have a fear of heights, but I was harnessed to a mountain man most days and I felt certain he wouldn't let me fall, so I felt very safe. Also, when you're on set you're so busy you don't get much time to think about anything but the next shot. That was a good thing, I'm sure.
Moffitt (left) and Sherpa as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay during a reeancetment sequence in "Betond the Edge." (Photo: M. Whetu)
Climbing Everest is deadly, as the recent avalanche proves. Why do people continue to try?
I don't think I can answer that question. People have asked me if making this film has led me to have Everest aspirations of my own, and I can say the opposite is true. I now really appreciate just how hard it is to climb Mount Everest, how dangerous it is, and while I admire those who do it, I'm not tempted.
What do you hope audiences take away?
I am hoping the audience feels they've been on a journey to Mount Everest with Sir Ed and Tenzing. One of the reasons I made the film in 3-D is to allow the audience to get as close to being in the Himalayas as possible without having to go there. Our 3-D is reasonably subtle as I didn't want to throw the environment at people. I wanted to bring them into it. While they're on the journey I also hope the audience comes to an understanding of just how incredible the 1953 expedition was. These days it sometimes seems like everyone and their granny has climbed Everest, which makes it easy to forget just what an accomplishment it was in '53. In 1953 they really didn’t know if it could be done, if it was physically possible and that's huge. They really didn't know if the human body could cope at that altitude, brain hemorrhage was a serious concern. Every time Tenzing and Ed went over a cliff-face, or around a hummock they didn't know what would be in front of them. Unlike today, there were no fixed ropes, no established route. These things really changed the nature of the challenge; just knowing it can be done has a psychological impact. Finally, I hope the film reminds people that by working together we can sometime achieve something truly worthwhile. Sir Ed and Tenzing were a team and they climbed not for individual fame or glory but because they were part of something bigger, they were part of history.
Related on MNN: