Beyond the Edge is the first feature length documentary about the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953 since The Conquest of Everest released the year after the event. The film was directed by Leanne Pooley, who speaks to us here about working with Peter Jackson’s 3D experts, filming in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and good old fashioned heroism.
The stupendous effort to climb to the top of Mount Everest for the very first time is one of the most compelling adventure stories, not to mention tales of human endeavour, of the Twentieth Century. Canadian-New Zealander Pooley used all the resources at a documentarist’s disposal to convey the sheer slog involved in getting to the top, including 3D reconstructions, interviewing mountaineering experts and sifting through mountains of archival footage. The result conveys quite what an achievement the mission was and does justice to the heroism of those involved.
The Film Review: You’ve made documentaries about the Antarctic as well, what do you hope to bring to your films of these stories?
Leanne Pooley: For both Beyond the Edge and Shackleton’s Captain my protagonists go on arduous journeys, which require them to dig deep into themselves for the strength to go on. It is my hope that my films allow the audience to go on the journey with them, experiencing a little of what our heroes go through. By gaining a better understanding of how difficult the conditions are (both physical and emotional) the extraordinary nature of their accomplishment is amplified. And of course I hope it’s a rollicking and exciting tale.
TFR: Is yours the first film about the expedition? (After an Internet search I couldn’t find any others).
Leanne Pooley: Beyond the Edge is I believe the first feature film about the expedition since the release in 1954 of The Conquest of Everest, which is the film that provided me so much wonderful archive. (There have been TV docos).
TFR: Why do you think no one else decided to make one?
Leanne Pooley: I’m not sure to be honest. It is such a wonderful story it seems a no brainer. Maybe the notion (challenges and expense) of filming on Everest put people off.
TFR: What do you think it is about Ed Hilary that makes him such a compelling and well-loved character?
Leanne Pooley: Sir Ed had a fascinating, contradictory personality. He was humble and unassuming while at the same time driven and ambitious. He was a man who “got on with it”. It’s possible this appeals in a modern context where there’s so much “look at me, look what I did” around. Ed is an old fashioned hero, who worked as part of a team, to achieve something bigger than himself. I find that admirable and perhaps that’s what has endeared him to those who know his story.
TFR: How was it filming in the Southern Alps of New Zealand? Any hairy moments?
Leanne Pooley: It was glorious and I felt lucky every day to be working in such a beautiful environment. It was also challenging. Altitude, weather, safety; there were a number of significant issues to deal with. Simply getting the crew to location everyday took hours and many chopper runs. It was a dangerous place to work; we were sometimes shooting next to sheer cliffs or amongst crevasses so we had to be harnessed to each other and the mountain. We couldn’t leave any gear on location as we never knew what the weather would do and thus whether or not we’d be able to get back on the mountain the following morning, so we had to set up and pack up each day. This meant the shoot days were unpredictable and condensed.
There weren’t any real “hairy” moments just many spectacular ones (although Chad would probably say dangling down a 1000ft crevasse was pretty hairy).
TFR: Did filming in 3D mean you had to make different decisions to normal 2D film?
Leanne Pooley: Story is key so I didn’t want the technology to dictate how I told the story but I did want to get as much as I could from the 3D. My goal was to make the film experiential, I wanted the audience to feel they had gone on the journey with Ed and Tenzing. At the end I wanted them to feel they’d got as close to standing on the summit of Everest as is possible without going there. Technically getting the most from the 3D meant constructing the shots to include depth cues; structures of some kind in the foreground, mid-ground and background (there’s no point shooting against a flat background) so the scale of the environment came through.
TFR: Did the format (3D that is) live up to your expectations?
Leanne Pooley: Yes it did. Our 3D is reasonably subtle; I didn’t want to hurl things at the audience like some sort of carnival ride. Instead I wanted to draw the audience into the environment, to envelope them in a way. The Himalaya is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world and I wanted the audience to feel like they’d been there. I like to think we achieved this.
TFR: Would you say NZ’s superior 3D capabilities are the lucky result of having Sir Peter Jackson being a Kiwi and making his films in the country?
Leanne Pooley: My entire camera department came straight off The Hobbit so I’d have to say I owe Peter a great debt. As this was my first 3D movie it was VERY reassuring to have such a wonderful experienced crew around me (particularly Richard Bluck my DOP who’d been 2nd Unit DP on all the Rings and Hobbit films).
TFR: How did you sort and organise the heaps of archive material about the expedition?
Leanne Pooley: First off I have an incredible researcher named Keiran McGee. Keiran gathered material from all over the world. If there’s an interview out there with Ed Hillary (or any of the other members of the expedition) I haven’t heard I’d be shocked! Then I go into the edit with Tim Woodhouse, my wonderful editor with whom I’ve made 9 films. Tim and I work closely together, “knitting” all the material into a film. We hunt for the best moments, nicest pieces of interview or most spectacular shots. We cull, cut, nip and tuck for months. With this film there was so much wonderful material to choose from it was hard to decide what to leave out. That is a great problem to have!
TFR: Are you looking forward to the upcoming Everest film (about the ill-fated 1996 expeditions), not to mention a mooted George Mallory film (possibly with Benedict Cumberbatch)?
Leanne Pooley: To be honest I don’t know much about them, but I’m a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan, so yes.
TFR: Do you think Everest has lost some of its mystique, not to mention become something of a rubbish tip, now that so many expeditions are heading up the mountain?
Leanne Pooley: It was one of the things I was most conscious of. It seems these days that everyone has climbed Everest, which makes it easy to forget just what an incredible feet it was in 1953. I hope my film does something to rectify this. The key in 1953 was that they really didn’t know if it could be done, if it was physically possible and that’s a HUGE difference. In 1953 they didn’t know if the human body could cope at that altitude, brain haemorrhage was a real concern. Every time Tenzing and Ed went over a cliff face, or around a hummock they didn’t know what would be in front of them. Unlike today there were no fixed ropes, no established route. These things really changed the nature of the challenge; just knowing it can be done has a psychological impact. It’s also worth remembering however, that many people still die on Everest, it’s a very dangerous place, and hopefully the scale of some of the shots in my film will make that apparent.
TFR: What are you up to next?
Leanne Pooley: I’m doing another film with Matthew Metcalfe (producer of Beyond the Edge); this one is about the Gallipoli landings in WW1.
Read our review of Beyond the Edge here.
Watch the Making of Beyond the Edge documentary here: