Everest Movie – Cast Interview
Baltasar Kormakur’s riveting new adventure thriller, “Everest,” takes audiences to the top of the world where the ambition to summit the world’s highest mountain leads to one of the worst disasters in the history of Everest mountaineering. The movie follows the ill-fated 1996 journey of two different expeditions — one led by Rob Hall, the other by Scott Fischer — that find themselves challenged beyond their limits by a fierce blizzard. The climbers’ lifelong obsession becomes a monumental struggle for survival. The impressive ensemble cast includes Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, John Hawkes and Michael Kelly.
At the film’s recent press day, the director and actors discussed what drew them to the project, the richness of the characters and their individual story arcs, how they set about capturing the mountaineering spirit and sense of adventure of the real-life climbers, their commitment to portraying them authentically and honoring their story, their preparation for the grueling physicality required by their roles, the challenge of delivering thrilling action that’s believable in a realistic sense, why there’s nothing more fun for an actor than putting themselves in a situation that feels as real as possible, and why people take great risk to pursue their dreams.
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: This is a powerful and entertaining story with rich characters. What was it about this story that made you, Baltasar, want to direct it and the actors want to be a part of it?
BALTASAR KORMAKUR: For me, it was a no brainer to make a movie on Everest. It was a true story that was very captivating. There was no question in my mind. I wanted to do this. The story is very real. It’s hard to come by those kind of stories, but also it has a huge scope. It’s not about a storm hitting people on a mountain. There are a lot of things that happen before that. It’s also about getting down the mountain, not getting up the mountain. All those things made it a no brainer to make this movie.
MICHAEL KELLY: For me, by the time I jumped on board, all these people were already attached. It was all these actors who I very much look up to and respect. So, it was the opportunity to work with them. That, with this story itself, which was an incredibly compelling story, and to try to tell that story and to be a part of that was just a huge honor for me.
JOSH BROLIN: I knew the story. I knew the book. I had a massive reaction to the book. And then also, before I met Balt, I had a director come over to my office and sell a film to me that said, “We’re going to do a film and it’s not going to be any of that Hollywood bullshit. It’s going to be real.” I thought, “Who is this guy?” And then, Baltasar came to the meeting after that. I thought, “Oh I need to work with this guy because there was none of that.” It was real. It was him. He was 100 percent organic, and it was the fact that I thought he was perfect to direct a story as powerful as this and as sensitive as this. I needed to work with him and it turned out well.
JASON CLARKE: I was always haunted by the fact that this man, Rob Hall, was at the top of the world and couldn’t get home to his pregnant wife. That really haunted me. He was sitting up there, and his wife was pregnant, and he couldn’t get home. And then, the more you dug into it, the richer and the more complicated it became. It was like a detective story of what happened. Jon Krakauer wrote an extraordinary book (“Into Thin Air”) about it. You kept following this trail, and it was this massive journey of people dying and wanting to live, and just wanting to live in extraordinary, inhospitable places, and then understanding what it is to want to live. It just stayed with me forever.
EMILY WATSON: I had a very strange and bizarre connection to this story. I wasn’t connected myself to the story, but this event happened on the day that my very first film premiered in Cannes. I was having the most intense and bizarre moment of my life. It sort of was a little bit disappearing up my own backside to be honest, just the height of it all and I’m in a movie in Cannes. I just remember reading this story in the paper or hearing that this guy was on the mountain, and he couldn’t get down, and he was dying, and he called his wife, and hearing the story unfold and just being transported away from my own sense of importance for a few minutes to this unbelievable event. Then, when I read the script and I met Balt, I felt a connection to it. But it also fascinated me to play somebody like this who is being a bystander. I thought that was a really interesting thing to do, to be a bystander on somebody else’s incredibly intense, emotional story, and trying, and to be helpless to serve it.
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: I loved the book when I read the book, and I was aware of the situation and what happened in reality. To me, what was so moving was the idea of the inevitable in a movie which felt like reality to me, in a massive entertaining movie where mother nature wins. In the end, the inevitable happens, and [it’s something that] these characters were ultimately – particularly with Rob and Scott (Fischer) – not necessarily afraid of. They’d ventured into the idea of life and death and walked the precipice of that all the time, and I liked that idea. I liked a movie that was dealing with something that felt very honest. Also, a tangent of that is that the experience felt like that too. Like Josh said, Balt promised us that we were going to be in the elements, that we were going to make a movie where we would legitimately be cold and legitimately be scared. That’s fun for someone like me. And I speak for almost all of us, I think, when I say that’s what we’re looking for. It’s something that’s reflective. We get to learn something about our lives as well as do the work that we love. That’s what Balt promised us. I just wanted to be a part of it in whatever way.
JOHN HAWKES: I got the script in January 2013 and sat down with Balt a month later. For me, it was Balt. I just had a feeling that this would be the guy to make this movie and somebody that I would really enjoy getting to know and work with. And that all turned out to be true.
Q: For the actors, is part of the appeal going into an environment that you’re not completely in control of? Do you feel you share a little bit of that mountaineering spirit and sense of adventure that the actual people that did this had, and are you willing to put it all on the line to do what you want to do, which is act?
GYLLENHAAL: I find it hard to compare acting to anything in the real world in the sense that what we do and what we’re trying to do is mimic what these guys did and continue to do, which is legitimately risk their lives. I mean, we had maybe 25 percent at times when it was the harshest for us what they experienced in reality. But I think, at least for me, there is nothing more fun than putting yourself in a situation that feels as real as possible. It’s fun for me to think of an audience watching that and feeling those feelings as well. I believe the unconscious experience of a movie is even more powerful than the conscious experience of it. So, that is all in there. It’s all over the frame and all over everybody who’s in the movie.
BROLIN: We’re trying to be as respectful as we possibly can, given what we do. We fake it. We simulate it. We’re not mountaineers. We joke around, and we try to make little moments that you can write about, but it’s much deeper than that for us and why we chose to do the film. I did a bunch of interviews yesterday, and the last interview, a woman walked in. I don’t even know why she was there. She said, “I’m a mountain climber and I just want to talk to you for a second.” Two years after this disaster, she summited the North Face of Everest and then she attempted two more times. The second time she attempted, she had to turn around and go back because no ropes had been put up, like Beck (his character) had to do in this situation. Anyway, the point is, I became so emotional with her that I couldn’t even do the interview. And so, it wasn’t about jokes anymore. It wasn’t about soundbites anymore. It wasn’t about any of that, which is why and how I think we reacted to this story. We’re not even going to get one percent of what really happened. We’ll never understand all that kind of stuff, but if we can respectfully honor this incredible story in any possible way through what we do, that’s the intention.
KORMAKUR: One of the things we really also wanted to do was to reach 99.9 percent of the human race and hopefully [for them] to be able to see, if they want, and to feel Everest, because most of them will never go or shouldn’t go. We wanted to create a visceral feeling. I can understand what he was saying, because part of the need to tell this story is for me to experience this story. I agree. I can’t experience what it is to be on top of Everest. That’s hopeless. But you want to get as close to it as you possibly can. And that’s the way we choose, and I choose, to make the film this way, not make it easy on ourselves, try to find it and to find it in the elements. Part of it was I was really pleased when I was watching the movie seeing not only the mountain, because I realize that, but seeing the acting in IMAX. This kind of acting is not about making a big character that has a big arc, but being there as real as possible. Actually it plays brilliantly for me on a big screen because everything is true and the little moments become huge. I was really happy to see that.
Q: For the actors, when it comes to creating a character that’s based on a real person, how much of your process is informed by what’s in the script and how much is inspired by the real people?
CLARKE: It’s everything. I mean, it has to be. Maybe Balt will use it or won’t use it, or it will find its way into the script, but these are real people, and you’ve met them, and they have a daughter, and they’ve lived their lives, and they’ve opened up themselves to give you little bits to help you make it after holding onto it for 20 years. You do your homework. You come with everything you have, and eventually, you submit to the director and the film that he’s making. You fight to maintain the integrity of the person that you’ve gotten to know and understand, and you try and put the little things in there. That’s what makes this story interesting as well. There’s been so much thought on what happened. Who made what decision where? Lopsang’s (Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, an employee of the Scott Fischer team) dying in an avalanche and just changing his story right then as he saw Doug and Rob and Scott. He’s the last person and he says, “This is what I think happened. This is actually what happened now.” I think that’s what keeps you focused on this thing, that they are real people. They’re real events, and we really put a lot in there, as well as made a film, as well as following the story.
KORMAKUR: As much as the script is important, there’s a certain luxury to having all this information, all this stuff to go to, all these books, talking to the real people. So, maybe you lean a little less on the script and use it as a backbone, but allow the actors, allow everyone to bring the truth to the table.
GYLLENHAAL: Well also, there are all these choices you make when you’re trying to create a character, which is obviously their backstory and where they’re from and that it’s all written for you in a way. But also, it’s physically how they behave, how they look, and those sort of things. What’s interesting in particular with Scott Fischer was that I don’t really look like Scott, but the essence of who Scott was, was very important to capture, because in other stories about this expedition, Scott had sort of been made into the antagonist I think really for the purpose of trying to create tension. In any story, you need someone like that. Whatever was said about competition on the mountain, and this or that, between particularly Rob and Scott, what I discovered was that he was truly a free spirit and an incredibly positive, loving person. His children contacted me because they were worried. They didn’t know how he was going to be portrayed. Balt, and particularly also Jason, was very respectful of Scott as well. I mean, what was interesting too was it wasn’t just us specifically looking after ourselves. It was all of us looking after all the characters and people who were in this and on this expedition, and just double checking that nobody was put into a corner of cliché or caricature, and just finding the essence of who these people were. That was the most important thing because none of us are ever going to get who these people are. We’re not doing imitations. We’re trying to create the spirit of this adventure and that all came from Balt.
WATSON: I think one of the reasons that the whole movie and the sense of the characters works is because in real life details don’t always add up. They don’t add up to a nice equation of who somebody is. And because we had so many real details, I just felt like one of the principal factors in this film was chaos, and nothing quite made sense, and nothing quite added up. You just have to go with that. Working with Balt was an extremely chaotic experience.
KORMAKUR: I did say to the actors on the first day, “We’re going to work from chaos and create the scenes out of chaos.” It was a conscious choice. I didn’t want to stage this movie. I wanted to find it. And that was a very important part of it.
BROLIN: In the beginning, that sounds great conceptually, and then there’s the reality of it. And then there’s, “Okay, now I’m freezing.” “Now I haven’t felt my feet for three days and I’m kind of done with this whole idea.” That’s what he’s looking for. Not as an actor but as a director, he did amazing things with being able to keep us, and keep morale up, and keep it okay for month after month. Even when we came from the snow, we went to London. The snow doesn’t look correct, so we were using salt and throwing salt into 100 mph fans and getting a nice exfoliation that day. After a while, the romance of it is gone, and then you’re going, “Okay, I am feeling the irritation that I have a feeling and I hope will look good on film,” because it’s there, for sure, for you.
KORMAKUR: There’s nothing better for a director than an angry actor because then things become real. Seriously, a happy actor is not a good actor.
BROLIN: It’s true. When you see the film, you’re like, “Thank you so much.”
WATSON: I remember the last day of rehearsal thinking, “I’m in a room full of silverbacks. This is going to be interesting.”
HAWKES: It’s an extra weight of responsibility, for sure, to the person you’re portraying and their memory and to do right by them and their family and loved ones. It’s a big deal for me and I think for everyone. As nervous as that makes you going in, I think that it gives you a needed kick in the ass to just go the extra mile to try to really find as much essence of truth as you can find about the person you’re playing. So it’s helpful on some level.
KELLY: I pretty much agree with that. What Jon wrote, in my opinion, it’s my favorite book about what happened. Although I didn’t get to talk to Jon, I learned as much as I could about him. I wanted to portray him, and like Jake said, to bring the spirit of that guy and to put that on film. All you can hope to do is portray him as honestly as you can, but I think like John Hawkes said, really we are serving the story. You try to get your characters as well as you can, but all of us are just little pieces that make up the story. That’s the main character up there.
KORMAKUR: I just want to say, and also what Jake said, for me it was more about finding the essence of the characters than imitate them or make them look exactly the same. Obviously, Michael (Kelly) has a little less hair than Krakauer and we put a wig on him, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s the same reason why it didn’t bother me that Jake didn’t look exactly like Scott. He was a bit taller than Jake and he was a little blonder. For me, that’s not the interesting part. It’s trying to find the essence and the energy of the character much rather than imitate them.
Q: This film does an excellent job of getting you to believe in the reality of it. There must have been conversations about how none of the studios believe in thrilling action that is actually believable in a realistic sense? Even your two films, “Two Guns” and “Contraband,” were promoted like good guy movies.
KORMAKUR: Yes, I totally agree. But then, I’ve made a lot of other movies in Iceland like “The Deep” which have these kind of elements. “Jar City” is more in that frame. And I wanted that. Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough in the beginning when this project was brought to me, I was like, “Now I can actually make a big scale movie in the same kind of way I’ve been making my Iceland movies.” You’re totally right. This is not the bread and butter of Hollywood to make those kind of films. I think it took more than 10 years to get this film on the screen. I wasn’t a part of it until 2011. The financing fell apart twice in the middle of the prep. Jason called me and said, “Do you think they’re really going to make the film or should I take another film?” I was like, “No, we will make this film.” As hard as it was to make the film, it was also hard to get it going. But once we got it going… Yes, I’m sure people would want a more heroic ending for the film, but that’s not the film. I was never going to give into that. And Tim Bevan, the producer from Working Title Films, was next to me the whole time. We were very clear that we were not going for that. He said to me in the beginning, “I have the final cut because I couldn’t possibly get that through the studio, and that means you will have it by my word.” He stood by that word and there’s nothing in the film that I didn’t want to be there. It’s rare to get that possibility in Hollywood. I mean, I was offered to do “Fast & Furious 7” and I chose to do “Everest.” That’s kind of the exaggerations of where you can go. Obviously, I had to believe that this would pull through.
Q: I have a friend who is a mountain climber and has a wife, and I asked her, “Aren’t you concerned?” She said, “Well, better that he cheat on me with the mountain than cheat on me with another woman.” Can you talk about the idea of leaving your family to pursue your dream?
BROLIN: I don’t like that quote about screwing around on the wife and how she’d rather have it be the mountain. I don’t personally like that. I get it as a joke, but I don’t understand it. It’s an incredibly selfish thing though. I get it. I’ve always had a family. I graduated high school and then I had kids. So, I don’t know what life is like without having a family. My whole life has been saturated with it. I’ve made decisions that I don’t know if I regret, but I started skydiving when I was 21, and then within the year I was doing it five to six times a day. So, I have that thing apparently. It wasn’t until I told my wife at that moment, “What if I jumped with my year-and-a-half-old and she was like, ‘You have to stop now.’” So, whatever head space you’re in – and I don’t think I meant it – but the thing is I think it’s very selfish and people climb or do other things for different reasons. Beck very specifically talks about a depression that he was running from. That was the one thing that he could do that was productive. “I can step that extra step when most people can’t. Therefore, I can touch the extraordinary. And if I feel like I’m one of the exclusives that can touch the extraordinary, then that propels me to live further. It gives my life more meaning.” So, it can run as deep or as cosmetic as you want. I do think it’s a selfish act. I think our lives are a selfish act on different levels. And then, it’s up to you how you want to live it. I have a very good friend, Dean Potter, who is one of the reasons why I did this movie and who turned me onto climbing and all of that. He was a very safe, incredible human being that lost his life a few months ago. It happens. So, is it bad that he lost his life? I don’t know. He lived a pretty incredible life. So, that was his choice. Are people sad and suffering because of it? Absolutely. But isn’t that part of life too?
Q: One of things I enjoyed about the movie is how rich all the characters are and how they all have different reasons for being up there. Could you talk a little about that?
CLARKE: I think that’s Baltasar. Balt, who is also an actor, is just so good to work with. It takes a very strong director to say, “You know what? I don’t know what, but I’m going to find it here.” Or, “We’ve just lost cam 3.” You can’t rehearse with 50 people on a mountain in minus 30 degrees. You don’t want the footprints in and everything else on top of it. It takes a lot to just grab you and then to be up there on the Hillary Step with me. I felt like Balt was there with Rob and me. It felt like a threesome. He’s in there with you trying to work it out and go through it with you and find it with you. And it comes right down to with the cameras rolling. Everybody put in this room found it. I think it was Balt’s choice.
KORMAKUR: I do strongly believe, and that’s why when we’re on the set, it’s not that I didn’t want to do my homework. It’s because I’m a true believer that, especially in the elements, that’s where you find it. You can prep all you want at home, and that’s great, but the reality of it is going to happen in the moment. If you can maintain the spontaneity, the reality of it, you can find it there. You have to trust the moment to be able to do that. You have to have great actors and great people with you so the action can deliver in that moment. That’s when the magic happens for me. It’s not in the rehearsal room. For me, the rehearsal room is just to motivate. It’s just to have motivations, to talk about it, so that we are on the same page. It’s not to try the moment so much. I don’t like that. It’s that we’re coming from the same angle when we hit it.
Q: Why were these the best actors to bring this story to life?
KORMAKUR: I wanted a group of people who had a certain quality. Also, I wanted to make sure that they were ready for the adventure, for the difficulties. It’s an instinct. It’s based on an instinct by watching these people. I’ve seen all of them for a long time. I’ve admired Emily Watson since “Breaking the Waves.” That movie just killed me. There are just certain people that can transform and you believe them on the screen in that moment. There are other people for other kinds of movies that are great – some more elevated or more fun rides or whatever it is — and it’s very different. But, in this case, I was very particular. I also wanted to have it kind of balanced as much as I possibly could. Of course, we needed to have name recognition and all that in the movie with this size of a budget. But then, it becomes tricky to find those people who have name recognition but are also the greatest actors on the planet. I do believe that I was extremely lucky to get that kind of a group together. You’ve got to realize that you have actors like Brolin and Jake and all of the others who are A-list stars and they’re standing on a hill in minus 30 for a whole day without a line. You’ve got to swallow your ego a couple of times. And it’s not given that these people are ready to do this for you and with you. So, I was extremely lucky.
Q: When you’re portraying real-life people, you can read books or you can watch a documentary. But, as far as getting into the role and the physicality of it, which obviously was very grueling, how did you prepare?
CLARKE: I climbed. But that was one of the things that was great. Universal was going to write me a check and give me some helicopters and some amazing guides. We got very lucky at the end of rehearsals at Christmas in London, and Marty Henderson who plays Andy Harris with me, my young guide, there was a massive big storm that weekend so we got on a plane. We got a guide up on Ben Nevis, which is the biggest, gnarliest peak in that part of the world, and we did some ice climbing in the dark and all day in a massive storm, the biggest storm in 20 years. So it was nice just to touch the weather, to be rappelling off the North Face in 100 mph winds in the dark with lights and snow and a guide that really knew what he was doing as well to help us out. And then, in January, I went to the Tasman Glacier with Marty again with Guy Cotter’s company, and we went up to Rob’s old stomping grounds, Mount Cook, which is 22,000 feet, to the Hostetler Glacier which is 14, 15 and did a lot of serious rappelling off ice, down crevasses, and out in a whiteout to just kind of feel certain things. I’m not going to get into the altitude. We had a simulator for that. But just to touch 120 kph winds and get out there for 15 minutes. You tether up on a rope and just take it. It feels like winds are coming from 24 different directions. That was great. Crampons can be dangerous. They’re very simple and all that, but if somebody falls and you get into a stab. It’s little things like that. Everyone worked hard. Josh went up Shasta. Josh and I were trying to coordinate climbs. It was when the U.S. government wasn’t paying the National Park Services so you couldn’t get into a park. You didn’t have anybody to take you in. Then Josh got up Shasta. There’s lots of funny stories. His actual guide got frostbite and had to turn around.
BROLIN: No. My guide was just fat. He didn’t like climbing.
CLARKE: But, to go with Guy Cotter in that, who started out with Rob and was there for the two years previous to 1996, who Sam Worthington played in the film, and just to learn from him the difference between climbing and guiding as well. There’s a huge difference.
KORMAKUR: We were lucky we had those people, David Breashears and Guy Cotter, with us the whole time to technically advise and train the people. My preparation basically happened when I was going to school, when I was a kid in Iceland, just walking to the school. Truly.
“Everest” will be released in IMAX 3D on September 18th and everywhere on September 25th.