Baltasar Kormakur was sitting in the bathtub in London when he first read the script for Everest and his jaw dropped. “What you have searched for,” he told himself, “is coming.” The Icelandic director had made his name on the backs of dark comedies and thrillers in Europe as well as the U.S. (Contraband, 2 Guns). At heart, though, he was a thrill-seeker, a director who has jumped into Arctic waters to get the shot, and almost drowned while filming a ship-sinking scene. Everest would be the ultimate challenge.
During the months of filming, he brought the cast (Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhall) to an oxygen depravation chamber in England to simulate the altitude, where your brain gets 30 percent of the oxygen it needs. He filmed crucial climbing scenes in the Italian dolomites when it was minus 30 degrees Celsius. And of course, he shot scenes at actual Everest BASE camp (at 20,000 feet). With him all along was Guy Cotter, an accomplished mountaineer and Everest guide who now runs Adventure Consultants, the guiding company Rob Hall founded before dying in the 1996 disaster.
Kormakur: It was all fun in the beginning and everyone was funny and jokey and then you’re halfway up to Everest and people are throwing up and are like ‘I can’t do this, and started to fall apart.’ We walked all the way to Namche Bazaar (at 11,286 feet, the “Gateway to Everest”) and we had to hand carry some of the equipment. We had to sleep in unheated hotels in below freezing temperatures. You had to have electric blankets to sleep, and these are movie stars used to better than that. And then they got scared they couldn’t handle this job for five months, so it started getting real. And I love that you know? And in the end they felt a feeling of accomplishment. They probably didn’t know what they were getting into.
Cotter: One of the hardest things for a filmmaker to do with mountains is to explain to the audience why you would want to go to the mountain in the first place. We’ve become a very risk-averse world in the West, and so a lot of people are brought up to avoid risk at all cost. And a lot can’t understand why you would put yourself in the way of danger … So to explain all of that to the viewer … I think that’s important, because otherwise you’re looking at a disaster movie. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Balt’s a strong guy. He’s a Viking. And even though the director is God on a film set, at least I could have his ear.
Kormakur: We shot in the Dolomites mostly, because above base camp you won’t get insurance. There’s no company that would let us up there. We almost got to base camp (at 17,598 feet) and that’s where people started getting sick, and you have to acclimatize. It was important to understand the elements to get the feel as much as I possibly could to understand what it is, and to give the actors that as well. To give people a sense of place and danger. I went to base camp in a helicopter to scout and my oxygen bottle was empty and it was really, really tough.
Cotter: Jason [Clarke, who plays Hall] and I would talk before-hand about how it would look. People have to breathe differently, they’ve got to look differently, ask about the amount of snow stuck to their hat. All of those things run together, to give an image of what a person should look like on the summit of Mt. Everest. Their acting really carried the movie … And then there were the yaks. [Kormakur] was sending the yaks across the bridge for a shot, back and forth, and you could see them get irate. And one of them started to stampede a bit. And luckily Josh [Brolin] and Jason were able to grab it by its horns before it garroted somebody. The actors had no problem dealing with it. It wasn’t ‘Hey where’s my trailer?’ They were willing to get in and do it. They were cast well.
Kormakur: Everest still has a strong pull for me. It’s a siren. And after being there, I really was like, ‘I’d love to do this myself.’ But with the tragic avalanche [in April 2014, which resulted in 16 deaths], I’m not sure that’s necessarily where I want to put myself. I’m not pointing a finger with the story, but it’s a little bit of a warning: Nature and commercialization doesn’t always go very well together. Nature has it’s own way. It’s not a theme park.