“Beyond the Edge” was a special project for New Zealand in many ways. The story of the conquest of Mount Everest by New Zealand’s most famous man required specially developed technology to re-create events of 60 years ago, a high degree of support by the country’s film agencies and needed the cameraman to climb the world’s highest mountain.
The 3D film, directed by Leanne Pooley, premiered in Toronto and went on local release last month. Aptly, it is represented at AFM by Altitude Film Sales.
“Edge” was initiated by Matthew Metcalfe of General Film Corp. and was intended to coincide with 60th anniversary of the historic climb by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the top of the world.
Metcalfe took the project to Pooley, whose previous directorial effort had been “The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls,” a documentary feature about yodeling lesbians and also to the New Zealand Film Commission and Auckland-based special effects company Digipost (“Evil Dead,” TV’s “Spartacus”).
Although the early 1950s were turbulent times for Britain and the Commonwealth countries and there were many fascinating aspects to Hillary’s life, Metcalfe and Pooley’s idea for the film was to focus only on the historical climb, rather than to do a biopic of Hillary. They chose to do so using a mixture of still photo-graphy, audio and actual footage taken at the time, both mixed with recreations of specific sections that were to be shot in studio and at altitude. The whole was to be presented in 3D.
“We are just calling it a movie. What I hope works is the way that old and the new knit together and the audience will go with it, they won’t care if it is documentary or drama,” Pooley said. “Like the movie ‘Senna,’ we don’t ever cut to the interviews. We stay on the mountain. Voices are telling the story, but we stay in the world of the environment of
Pooley was able to draw on film “Conquest of Everest,” shot by the Everest climbing team at the time, some 3,000 stills from the Royal Geographical Society in London and audio and written material supplied by the families. To finance the research at that stage, GFC was able to use its previously granted devolved development fund from the New Zealand Film Commission.
“They worked with Digipost from the get-go on how to convert this material,” said Graham Mason, chief executive of the NZFC. “They got me and the Film Commission up to Auckland to see the test that they had done to show that it was feasible and that it looked great. At that point the Film Commission’s Board invested in the film. That unlocked the other grants.”
The NZFC’s direct investment makes it the core investor in the film, which was then able to trigger the semi-automatic Screen Production Incentive Fund by shooting partly in the country. The SPIF cash is government money, but it is considered as the producer’s equity.
Having listened to hundreds of hours of audio tapes, and sifting through the stills she wanted for the film, she put together the bones of the picture with an animatic. That enabled her to make very precise decisions about what to shoot in the New Zealand Alps and what the lone cameraman would shoot on Everest.
“He went off with a 40-page book of storyboards, such as ‘Hillary’s Step,’ a shot looking down a particular face or along the ridge at the top. He also knew that if there was an avalanche that would be useful too,” Pooley said. There was.
Timing was crucial. The New Zealand shooting took place in March, shortly before the Himalayas crew sought out the seven-week window in which the weather allows Everest to be climbable.
Even the New Zealand South Island shoot was treacherous. Filming took place at 4,000 meters and because crew and equipment could not be left overnight, two helicopters ferried them up and down the mountain for five weeks.
The Everest footage was shot in 2D and later converted to 3D, while the locally shot material was originated in the 3D format.
“I was incredibly lucky to have the whole camera crew from ‘The Hobbit.’ So my lack of experience in 3D was abated by the crew who absolutely knew what they were doing,” Pooley said. “If you are going to try to make a 3D movie on top of a mountain you really want people who know what they are doing.”
The film took almost exactly a year to make after its August 2012 start, and Pooley took the newly finished DCP to Toronto in her luggage.
Pooley said the decision to complicate things with 3D was “to make the film as experiential as possible, create a sense of being there.”
“Everyone knows how the story ends, so I wanted to give it something special, a reason to go to the cinema. The best reason I came up with is that the vast majority of us won’t stand on the summit of Mount Everest. And the environment is a character in the film,” she said. “It is all about these little people against this extraordinary place.”