Above the Line: Behind the Scenes on Everest

Photo illustration by Jordan Bonney

The grueling high-altitude filming of Everest, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

“He might as well be on the moon,” says Keira Knightley toward the end of Everest, Baltasar Kormákur’s film about the 1996 storm that left eight climbers dead on Mount Everest. Already the subject of several documentaries, and Jon Krakauer’s best seller Into Thin Air, the tragedy is ripe for Hollywood mistreatment: something chunky and heroic, starring the Rock and a CGI mountain. Instead, Kormákur has stripped his tale down to its elements and delivered something searing and grave. “I pushed as hard as I could to make the film in the most extreme conditions as I would be allowed,” says the director, whose Icelandic background helped prep him for the arduous shoots in Kathmandu, the Italian Dolomites, and on Everest, where the cast and crew reached 12,000 feet, with a few hours of shooting snatched at 16,000. (Risk of altitude sickness generally starts at around 8,000 feet.) His actors—Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes—carried their own equipment, huddled in electric-blanket-warmed tents, and checked one another constantly for frostbite. Filming was interrupted by avalanche warnings several times. Kormákur had a sign up that read No Acting Required. “It was minus 30 Celsius the first shooting day,” he recalls. “That’s all right for
an hour or two, but for 12-hour or 14-hour shooting days for five weeks...That gets the reality out of people.” The real star of the show, needless to say, is Everest. Two months before the shoot, Kormákur flew in a helicopter up to base camp, beyond which the helicopter blades would have lacked the air to proceed safely. “I’m not very sensitive—I live in the elements—but the immense volume of the mountains, especially Everest itself, was just so overwhelming. Just the beauty of it in its own wiId way. I immediately felt the responsibility of trying to deliver to people the mountain in all its might.” Everest opens on September 18.