Leanne Pooley returns to the director’s chair this week with her brand new film Beyond The Edge: a movie that tells the story of Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay becoming the first men to climb Mount Everest.
Beyond The Edge mixes new live action footage with terrific clips and images from the archives, as Pooley blends a whole host of different elements to tell this terrific true story.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the movie, what sparked her interest in this story, and what lies ahead.
- Beyond The Edge is about to be released, so can you tell me just a bit about the movie?
Beyond The Edge is the story of the first ascent of Mount Everest. It is made in New Zealand, and so it focuses on Ed Hillary: he is our national hero. When I took on the gig, my daughter said: ‘you’d better not screw this up, as the man is on the money’ (laughs).
I hope that it is a journey, which is why we chose to do it in 3D. Everyone knows how it ends, but I just want people to feel like they were in the Himalaya for a little while and part of this expedition.
- You are in the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for your? What was it about this story that really sparked your interest?
To be honest, I was approached by the producer. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the ascent, so there was date issue that we were navigating: we wanted to make it for the sixtieth anniversary.
I was approached by the producer, who had an idea to make it in this way: using the old material and mixing it with new material and creating a new blended kind of genre. He had seen some of my previous work, and felt that I could do something with it.
- When you tell a story like this there comes a huge amount of responsibility. How did you find coping with that responsibility?
I had tried to just concentrate on telling the story and believe that the story would do Ed justice. Without question, I felt that sense of responsibility: it was definitely there.
As a director, I just had to believe that if the story is good, then you can get your audience to go along with you. I just tried to concentrate on that, and not the fact that the man is on the money (laughs).
- Ed Hillary is an iconic figure and a national hero in New Zealand, but was there any element of the story that you didn’t know about? I didn’t know that they were the second team to head for the summit.
Exactly, I didn’t know any of it. Like most people, I knew that they got to the top: Ed and Tenzing got to the top, but I knew very little about the details. However the whole political context and the fact that there was a race on intrigued me: if this expedition hadn’t have succeeded, there were other countries waiting in the wings.
I didn’t know that Ed and Tensing were not the first time: if Charles Evans and Tom Borurdillom had got to the top, no one would have heard about Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. They would just have been a dot in history.
- Was there any particular angle about this feat that you wanted to explore with his new film?
The shine has gone off Mount Everest, and that every one-eyed, one-legged grandmother can triumph: there is a sense that it is not that hard because people do it all of the time. However, it was a very different time. One of the big issues was they didn’t know it could be done: that was the big thing.
They didn’t know if they could get up to that altitude and how the brain would react to those conditions: people really didn’t know if it was possible. One of the interesting things is, I interviewed Jim Whitaker, who was the first America to summit in 1963, and he said to me that that made all of the difference.
When he stood at the bottom of the Hillary Step - which is a very steep part at twenty nine thousand feet - even though it looked hard, he knew that it could be done. That changes everything. However, for Ed and Tenzing, every time they went up a hill or round a rock, they didn’t know what was going to be next. That whole notion of going into the unknown I found fascinating.
- Beyond The Edge is a mix of recreations with actors and using original footage as well as interviews and stills. So how early in the production was the decision made to shoot the film this way? And how did you find balancing all of these different elements?
The decision was made early on, as we couldn’t have afforded to shoot the whole thing dramatically. Therefore, we knew early on that it was going to be a combination of elements. Having all of that archive material and the extraordinary stills is just a gift for a filmmaker.
We had so much wonderful footage as well as interviews with the people who had taken part. I had a great researcher, who just did a wonderful job in tracking it all down: if there is an interview with Ed Hillary out there that I haven’t heard, I would be astounded.
The fact that there was all of this wonderful material to work with was one of the joys. I have made nine films with the editor that I work with - we have become a bit of a team in that time - I know that if I can bring him a whole bunch of beautiful material, I trust that he is going to weave some magic for me.
- How difficult was it incorporating the 3D format?
Again, I was very lucky (laughs). My crew had all come off The Hobbit: so thank you Peter Jackson (laughs). I was really nervous at the beginning, as it was outside of my comfort zone. However, I think filmmaking is about ensuring that you are surrounded by wonderful, creative, intelligent, lovely people: and I absolutely was.
There are some things that you do have to consider when you are shooting 3D, in order to get the best from it. You think about stacking the shot - there is no point shooting against a flat background, because that will just look flat. Therefore, you are always looking for angles and depth in the shot itself.
I didn’t have to worry too much about the technical side of things, because I had wonderful people who knew what they were doing (laughs). I was learning as I went along. It wasn’t as difficult as I was expecting, if I am honest. In fact, shooting in the mountains was a much bigger obstacle and created more challenges than the fact that it was in 3D.
- That actually leads me into my next question. You shot the recreations in New Zealand and on Everest itself, so can you talk about that experience? What were the major challenges that you faced?
Any time you see an actor in shot, that was shot in the mountains in New Zealand: it is just not practical to lug actors, costumes and makeup up the side of a mountain. Having said that, we were shooting at four thousand meters.
There are many things to take into account when you are shooting at altitude: the weather is a big player, there is the fact that you have to chopper people in every day, you can’t leave anything behind, and so you have to do a full pack up every day.
There are just really practical obstacles that make shooting in the mountains slow: your days are much shorter. That was the tough thing. If you wind picks up or the clouds set in, you have to bail. The safety thing is also a big issue: I was harnessed to a mountain man for much of the time (laughs).
They were really concerned after the first day of shooting, that I would be distracted by working and fall off the side of the mountain (laughs). So I was harnessed to a mountain climbing person for much of the time. The crew’s safety was also a big issue and we had a wonderful safety team.
When we were shooting on Everest, we had a wonderful guy called Mark - he is like a mountain goat with a camera - and he summated for us. So, in the film, we intercut between the stuff that I shot in New Zealand, and the material that he brought back from Mount Everest.
When you look off a cliff, it has to be Mount Everest: it just wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t have been there. He brought back some really beautiful material.
- Can you talk a little bit about the casting process - Chad Moffitt has quite a resemblance to Hillary himself?
You can imagine how my heart skipped a beat when he walked into the audition: I did a little rain dance and prayed that he could act. We did a national call: in the media, we just posted a message ‘we are looking for Ed, do you think it could be you?’ We had people from all walks of life come forward. I think some people came to the audition just to say that they had been part of it, because it is a Kiwi thing.
What I loved about Chad - aside from the fact that he looked so much like Ed - he also embodied other things… Ed Hillary was a slightly awkward and self-conscious guy and Chad has that awkwardness, that self-effacing thing, mixed with ambition and focus. That really attracted me.
I was down in the Mount Cook National Park doing a recce and Sonam Sherpa - who plays Tenzing - was working in the restaurant. There is a small Sherpa community that lives down there. I looked across at him and was like ’oh my god, he looks just like Tenzing Norgay’. I did feel like the stars aligned.
- The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, how did you find your festival experience?
I loved the Toronto Film Festival, as a film of mine won there a few years ago: I have a very fond relationship with the Toronto Film Festival. We were second runner up for the Audience Award this time around, which was just so lovely.
Toronto is a big festival, - you are in screenings with a couple of thousand people - and it is just so lovely to see them go on the journey: that is why the film is in 3D, to try and take people on a journey. It was fantastic; I love the Toronto Film Festival.
- Overall, how have you found the response to the film so far?
It has only been released in New Zealand so far, where we got some really great reviews. People responded positively, which is good: I would have had to leave the country, without question (laughs). So that was good.
Now it is starting to roll out in the rest of the world. It is about to open here (UK), and it will be opening in Japan around about the same time. That will be interesting, as the Japanese have a thing about Mount Everest. The roll out is happening now.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I am actually making a war film: I am actually in London at the moment working on this next project. I will be working with the same producer, which is nice. I have done a film about the Shackleton story, Beyond The Edge, and now a war film: I am destined not to work with women (laughs). This new project is going to be another unusual combination again.
Beyond the Edge is released 23rd May.