Ahead of the theatrical release HeyUGuys had the opportunity to speak with Leanne about her reasons for tackling this story now, the challenges of bringing Beyond the Edge to the screen, and creating a geographical and historical journey for her audience. She also shared with us her thoughts on both her identity as a filmmaker as well as the pursuit and realisation of stories within the documentary genre.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Well I’ve been making films for a long time. When I talk about being a filmmaker it sounds negative but it’s not. It’s almost like a disease; it’s as though I don’t have a choice is how I see it. Filmmaking is like the other arts – if you’re a writer you need to write, and if you’re a painter you need to paint. I do feel that telling stories in this way is intrinsic to who I am, and it’s not easy for me to read something that I find interesting in the newspaper and to not start seeing how that story might play out in a film. In the end it’s something that comes from inside of you, and because it’s such a hard industry to work in, if it’s not like that then I don’t think it’s worth doing. It is like all the other arts in that it has to come from somewhere inside you – it is what you need to be doing. I am very lucky that I have been able to treat the disease with some success, and I have been supported by having work come to me. In the end I have been able to exercise that muscle.
Glancing through your filmography it appears you are drawn to documentaries and documenting stories that have played out as real life events.
It’s partly that sometimes you end up on a path, and I’ve just happened to fall into telling stories that are real. But to be honest with you I just love telling stories, and so I would not object if someone came to me with a script for a drama. It’s just that I’ve always found stories in my head, and this is how I’ve seen them realised.
Whilst there is a divide between narrative and documentary filmmaking, documentaries still set out to create a narrative, but just with a different tilt to narrative fiction filmmaking. What are your thoughts on this perceived divide between the two?
I argue that there’s very little difference because good documentary has all the same elements that good fiction filmmaking has. You have characters that people want to engage with, the high points and the low points, and hopefully you have a little bit of humour. I don’t like to be too descriptive but you have a sort of first act turning point and a climax. All of those things that apply to narrative fiction filmmaking apply to good documentary filmmaking. It’s just that we are muted in the real.
Speaking with documentarians there appears to be a divide between those who perceive it is a golden age for the documentary and those who are less optimistic. What are your thoughts on the health of the documentary in the here and now?
Documentaries are being recognised in a way that they were previously not. People now pay attention to what wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and as well as some of the incredible work, the technology is allowing filmmakers to explore the genre in new ways. I’ve been very lucky, and as I’m working all of the time it would be trite of me to complain about anything. I do believe there is a slight problem in that the reality TV side of things has confused what people comprehend to be documentary. Pointing the camera and hoping that something will happen is not a documentary, although observational filmmaking is. So the reality world has muddied things slightly, but nonetheless there is a lot of incredible documentary filmmaking out there.
Why this particular story and why now?
In New Zealand Edmund Hillary is a god like figure; he’s a national hero. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the ascent, and it seemed extraordinary to me considering his importance that outside of television projects nobody had done a feature film about him. Whilst people know that Ed and Tenzing [Norgay] made it to the summit, they do not know either what the journey was like or why it was significant. Even I discovered that I didn’t know any of the details, and so I was excited to tackle a story that people think they know, but in fact don’t. At the end of the day I’m a filmmaker who looks for a good story, and I didn’t think you’d find one any better than this.
It is a powerful and moving story that harks back to a time when we were trying to conquer our known world. Do you think there is a distinct difference between then and now in terms of how we both embrace and explore our world?
There’s a feeling now that we need to go into space in order to conquer new ground. Back then the South Pole had been conquered, and because Everest was the last untamed piece of ground they called it the Third Pole.
You could be right, but there was that sense of adventure, and back then big adventures were popular. When in 1951-52 they advertised that they were looking for people to take part, they received letters from all over the world from people who wanted to be a part of the expedition. People were willing to do whatever it took, because it was perceived to be a huge opportunity to be a part of it. But now we tend to concentrate on individual accomplishments.
Even though Ed and Tenzing are the two who have become historically famous, at the time it was very much about the group expedition, and doing it as a team. Ed certainly didn’t do it in any way shape or form on his own, and I didn’t know the details of that part of the story. I didn’t know other people helped to carry the gear the twenty nine thousand feet for example. It was very much part of that team effort, and I thought what they accomplished was very special. It’s similar to when you hear soldiers talk about that they’re in it together. In the end most soldiers will say they are fighting for the team or the man next to them. I don’t believe they felt they were at war with the mountain, but it was almost a military feeling within the team that they were all moving together. But I do believe that there has been a shift in the way that we do things now.
The title Beyond the Edge is a powerful use of language that captures the spirit of the film.
One of the things I was interested in was this notion that people didn’t know it could be done. There’s a big shift once you know something can be done. It changes the approach, and back then they didn’t know if they’d have a brain haemorrhage on the summit, what was around the next bend or over the next cliff – they just didn’t know. I interviewed Dan Whittaker who was the first American to reach the summit, and his voice is in the film. He said to me, “When I stood at the bottom of Hillary’s Step and I looked up, I thought oh my God that looks hard. But I knew Ed had done it, and so I knew it could be done.” So that knowledge then changes what he goes on to do. It’s going beyond what is understood to be possible or known. That for me was fascinating, and it was one of the reasons we went with the title Beyond the Edge.
One of the challenges Beyond the Edge represents is the marriage of the archival footage with the newly shot scenes that fill in the gaps of the journey. Can you talk about the challenges and creative choices of interweaving the new with the old?
This film was a gift for me because it came along with all the archival material from 1953. When we first started to go through the stills photographs and the moving material from the expedition it was exciting to realise what we had. The challenge was that we had too much material, which was a good problem to have.
After the South Col they weren’t taking photographs anymore, and so we knew that in order to tell the story all the way to the summit there was no other way but to recreate parts of their journey. Then it was just a matter of making sure that those elements were woven together so that they did not interrupt the audience’s journey.
What I didn’t want people to do was to sit there asking what is new and what is old? I wanted them to just go on the journey, and so it needed to be as seamless as possible. Also the reason why I didn’t go to the talking heads in the interviews was because I didn’t want to take people off the mountain, but instead leave them in the environment.
The choice to make it in 3D came about because most of us are not going to stand on the top of Mount Everest any time soon. When watching the film I wanted people to feel that they got as close as they are going to get to standing on the summit.
Shooting the film in such inhospitable environments must have presented an ordinate amount of challenges that were an obstacle to realising the film, and bringing the story of this expedition to the screen.
People ask me about the 3D, but to be honest with you the 3D was simple compared to the challenges of being in a dangerous mountain and alpine environment. Safety along with the weather was of course an issue. It was not like you could drive to the location – we had to chopper everybody up. Any time you saw an actor on screen that was shot in the New Zealand Alps, whilst the material where you see big expansive vistas or shots looking down the sides of cliffs was shot by our wonderful mountain climbing cameraman. So there were two sides of the shoot. But even shooting in the mountains in New Zealand, we were at 4000 feet. It was a serious endeavour, and because I get a bit distracted when I’m working I was harnessed to a safety guy for much of the time. I’m sure they were convinced I was going to fall off the side of the mountain, and they ended up harnessing me to someone. So I was on a leash [laughs]. It was challenging and extraordinarily wonderful, and it would be difficult to be choppered to the top of a mountain every day and not think okay this isn’t a bad day at the office.
The Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand where we were shot was very Himalayan in the way the snow and the rock lays, and so it was easy to intercut it with the material we shot in the Himalayas. But it was difficult because there are crevasses everywhere, and at one point I was standing next to a 2000 metre drop. So it definitely comes with challenges, but we were very fortunate. The weather treated us kindly and I had the most extraordinary safety team. Also my whole camera crew had just come off The Hobbit, and so they were a well-oiled machine that was well into 3D land. It was one of those times where it felt as if the stars had aligned.
From before to after, how has the experience of making Beyond the Edge impacted your view of these extraordinary events?
Well it’s funny because people have asked where it has made me want to take up mountain climbing, but it’s quite the opposite effect. It’s made me realise how hard and how dangerous it is, as well as just how extraordinary the achievement of these chaps was, and the sacrifice required.
My favourite shot in the movie is when you pull back and you see this incey wincey tent in this expansive environment. Everything in my soul said, that doesn’t look like nice camping spot. For me part of it is just coming to appreciate how tough you need to be to want to take on something like that.
Prior to Beyond the Edge you directed Shackleton’s Captain. Within your oeuvre the two complement one another and would make for an interesting double feature.
It was great doing the Shackleton film first because it was good training for me to get my head around this kind of storytelling. It is funny because I’ve just come from a festival in Istanbul where they played the two of them back to back. Both stories have a lot in common – incredible self-sacrifice and drive that is required in those environments. It was an awful lot of fun, and I feel spoiled to have been allowed to tell both of those stories.
Beyond the Edge is released on May 23rd, and you can read our review here.