Behind the Lens: The Summit with Nick Ryan
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The Summit, which won an award for editing at the Sundance Film Festival, is a production of Image Now Films, Passion Pictures and Fantastic Films.
In August 2008, 25 climbers from several international expeditions converged on High Camp of K2, the last stop before the summit. Forty-eight hours later, eleven of them were dead. It was big news in Ireland because, among the dead, was Ger McConnell, the first Irishman to successfully summit K2. Shortly after the tragedy, I had a meeting with Pat Falvey, who had climbed Everest in 2003 with Ger McDonnell, who along with Pemba Gyalje Sherpa had saved his life when he ran into trouble near the summit. I am not a climber, and one of the first things that struck me was the statistic relevant to climbing K2: one of every four climbers who successfully summits K2 will not survive the descent.
The tragedy was in the news and there was a lot of commentary including criticism about commercial climbing, bad preparation, and lack of experience. What nobody realized – and I didn't realize until Pat told me at that meeting – was that the Sherpa, especially Pemba, had done so much to save lives and were being written out of the story. Our goal, initially was to redress this omission.
We started off in October 2008 by interviewing Wilco van Rooijen, the leader of the Dutch team. From that interview it was clear to us that not all was as it seemed initially [in the news reports]. It was still unclear at that early stage what had really happened, and as is the case in these situations, the stories didn't add up. Next, we interviewed Pemba in November 2008. We went to Kathmandu with a Sony EX-1, which is a fabulous camera for interviews, and we also comprehensively went through the photos he brought back of K2, trying to piece through what happened.
The photos that Pemba took included ones he took of the two Sherpa who died in the final avalanche. In that initial stage, we filmed all the survivors of the event, with the exception of the Korean climbing leader, the only survivor of the Korean team, who declined to be interviewed. We also interviewed members of Ger's family.
One of the more difficult, challenging aspects was financing the movie. We started in 2008, when the economy collapsed. Initially we heard quite a lot of "No's" for making the film. But you have to never take no for an answer. I met very influential people who thought it was an incredibly fascinating story and who put me in touch with Mark Monroe, who wrote and worked on The Cove and The Tillman Story. I connected with Mark and we really hit it off. Although he was in Los Angeles and I was in Ireland, we had an open Skype line. Together, we pieced the story together, investigating and trying to work it out. It's hard to get to the bottom of the story when there are so few survivors.
One of every four climbers who successfully summits K2 will not survive the descent.
There will always be elements in the story that will remain a mystery, but Pemba shed a light on key aspects of the events with the photographs that he took, as well as the radio conversations he had with other Sherpa attempting rescues that day.
When we first interviewed everyone, it was still so close to the event that everyone was shell-shocked. We knew that Ger had a camera, and Wilco, when I interviewed him, told me he had footage. I knew the Swedish climber Fredrik Strang also had a camera. In fact, Ger was interested in making a film about Pemba and the Sherpa, and filmed the trek in, as well as the basecamp meetings, which were very interesting.
Some of the original cameras had intact footage and audio, and clips were used in the film.
Fredrik had an idea to make a documentary about climbing the mountain, and he interviewed various team leaders and shot a lot of material on the mountain. He had his camera with him morning of the summit push, and filmed the line of climbers ascending slowly towards the bottleneck as the sun rose. We also had footage from the Serbian independent climber Hoselito Bite, and photographs from Bite, Marco Confortola, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, Chris Klinke, Pasang Lama, Tshering Lama Bhote, Lars Nessa, Nicholas Rice, Cecilie Skog, Oystein Stangeland and Alberto Zerain.
Strang also had a smaller Canon camera with him, which he brought up with him when he climbed up to help the fallen Serbian climber, Dren Mandic, who was the first to die that day. He had the camera on in his pocket when they were attempting to lower the body to Camp Four, so it was still recording, and the audio from his recording was what we used in the film for that scene. It is truly shocking.
Hours of original footage from the mountaineers was combed through.
We had hours and hours of footage from the mountaineers but not all of it was interesting or relevant to the story we were telling. When bad things started happening, the cameras went dead because people were busy surviving. Every climber who took video had a different camera, from the Sony EX-1 to a Canon still camera and another small camera with the HDV codec. We even had some footage shot on a Nokia phone.
Even before we had all that footage in hand, I had decided early on that reconstruction – a dirty word for documentaries – would be the way to go. I knew it would be a very complicated story and the best way to keep audiences engaged would be to re-enact it. We also decided on reenactments because there were huge tracts of the story – for example, nobody filmed the event surrounding the fall of Dren Mandic with the exception of Fredrik Strang who zooms in on the bottleneck searching for him – and Mark and I felt the narrative of the film needed to flow as smoothly as possible, so that viewers aren't taken out of the story.
All my previous films have been shot 35mm, and, as much as I disliked the RED, we ended up shooting the re-enactments with the RED Mysterium and LOMO anamorphic lenses that we bought in Russia and converted to PL lenses. We shot anamorphic to differentiate between the reenactments and the archival footage, and we never mixed the two within the same scene.
Shot in Switzerland
We shot in Switzerland, which isn't the cheapest country in the world, but it was all about access. We did discuss bringing people to K2, but we needed an infrastructure and a crew for the reenactments and it just wasn't practical. In April 2010, we did a test shoot with lead safety climber Paul Moores, beneath the north face of the Eiger, a mountain in the Bernese Alps, using a green screen to replace the alpine mountain with Himalayan landscape. We wanted to see how we could achieve the look for these scenes. The test proved we could make convincing and compelling footage work in that accessible region.
We filmed a year after the test shoot. The crew was composed of mainly a camera department; Robbie Ryan (Wuthering Heights, Ginger and Rosa) was the director of photography. To portray the events as accurately as possible, Pemba was our technical advisor, on the reenactments, and Chhiring Dorje and Pasang Lama, who also summited that day, and Tshering Lama who was sent up on a rescue mission the following day, were also there for the shoot. We got three main actors to play Wilco, Ger and Marcos; the rest were the ski instructors that we pulled in during the day. We filmed at 3700m (12,140 feet) for some of the footage, which took a small amount of acclimatization. Preparation was important and safety was our chief concern with the non-climbing actors.
To portray the events as accurately as possible, Pemba was the technical advisor.
For the Switzerland scenes where we used greenscreen, we replaced it with footage of K2 and the Himalayas that we got on our single trip there, on July 25, 2010. The initial idea was to fly to K2 in a helicopter as high as possible, and film with a small hand held camera, but we decided on using the Cineflex, a 5-axis gyro-stabilized camera system designed for use on helicopters.
We took us nearly a year to get the visas to Pakistan and then we arrived there three weeks after they killed Osama Bin Laden. A group of four of us, Nisar Malik (coordinator), Mike Wright (Cineflex camera engineer), Stephen O'Reilly (cameraman) and I landed in Islamabad, drove 400 miles to Skardu, Pakistan, the gateway to K2, and then flew from there with the Pakistan Army to K2. We were on a tight schedule; we had one day to get there and back, and we took a risk that the weather would be good.
We had three flights to K2 in the helicopter, and I operated on two of them; Stephen operated on the third one. Just like the climbers in the movie, we got really lucky and had a perfect day.
These helicopters go up to 6,500 meters, the absolute tops, and we went to 7,400 meters, or 24,300 feet. Of course we were concerned about safety. The air pressure is really low at that altitude. The helicopter was outfitted with oxygen tanks for the two pilots and a free flow tank for the operator is in the back. But you have to physically place the mask on your face, so I only took two or three hits of oxygen, which resulted in a mild case of hypoxia, which was very disorienting and gave me a firsthand feel of how it must have felt for these climbers. By the way, the actual helicopter you see in the movie is the one that Wilco was in when he was airlifted out, which is kind of eerie.
I had started logging material from the beginning and continued over the years as we shot it. The initial film edit started with Helen Chapman, a fantastic editor who worked on it for nine weeks and then had to go to a TV series. During that time, we did a lot of logging and organizing, but only edited about seven minutes of the film. I said I'd take over the edit until we block it out, and then we brought in Ben Stark (9/11: The Falling Man) who's won a BAFTA Award and is an incredible editor. We had started the edit the end of April 2011, and Ben cut from January 2012 to May 2012, so The Summit took a year to edit, all of it on FCP 7.
Getting all the footage to work seamlessly together was one challenge. We shot these other interviews in Switzerland of the Sherpa and they were so beautiful, I remember thinking that if we put them in, all the other interviews wouldn't look good. We had to go by the content of the material; if someone is saying something interesting, it doesn't matter if the camera is falling down. In retrospect I would have liked to shoot all the interviews against a black screen, but at the beginning I didn't know what would happen. That first interview with Wilco was filmed on a houseboat in Holland. We had to take things as we could get it.
The biggest challenge in editing was the structure, finding a way of creating a narrative and keeping the audience engaged. We had a lot of different voices, faces and characters. Mark and I also wanted to show the human side of the stories from that fateful expedition of 2008, and not make it so much about mountaineering history, but to tell these individuals' and Ger's stories.
Along the editing process, some people in the film fell by the wayside. But we made a point of not minimizing any of the deaths. At some point in the edit, some funders said, it's too many stories, but we refused to [omit any of the deaths]. We show all the deaths on screen that we can, with a corroborating witness. The avalanche at the end was shrouded in clouds, so we can only represent what Pemba saw.
It's been an incredible ride since the BFI London Film Festival, and Sundance was a dream come true, as for any filmmaker to be competing and pick up an award. As a filmmaker you don't set out thinking what awards you might win but can I get that story out there/ to get such a wide audience has been fantastic and an incredible honor.
The Summit opens in the U.S. on October 4.