‘To the Top’ Director Serge Hazanavicius on His Downhill Drama-Thriller

Maybe someday Hazanavicius will make a documentary, but the filmmaker talks about why 'To the Top,' needed to be fiction, shooting at high altitude and his friendship with Kev Adams

SAN SEBASTIAN — The bulk of programming for San Sebastián’s Savage Cinema program is traditionally composed of documentary films, full of highlight and interviews with many of the world’s top action-sports stars. Serge Hazanavicius’s “To the Top,” world preeming at the event, may then be indicative of an evolution in the action-sports genre, in that it is a work of fiction driven by a strong narrative and featuring the sports of big mountain skiing and snowboarding as characters in the film, rather than its only focus.

Produced by France’s My Family and Rouge International, sales are handled by Gaumont with French domestic distribution by UGC set for this December.

Hazanavicius, brother of “The Artist,” director Michel, has channeled a lifetime of big mountain skiing into this 90-minute love story about the sport. “To the Top” turns on a young social-media-star snowboarder named Scott, played by Kev Adams, one of France’s most recognizable comedic actors and his dream of becoming the first snowboarder to descend Everest’s lethal Hornbein Couloir.

Under terrible conditions at the top of the pinnacle Aiguille du Midi, Scott happens upon one of his idles and, against his better judgment, decides to follow Pierrick down the mountain. Impressed by his skills but discouraged by his recklessness, Pierrick admonishes Scott once they make it safely down.

Dejected, Scott decides that Pierrick was right, and hires the seasoned pro as a guide and tutor. A relationship blooms between the two as they continue to push each other to greater heights, with Pierrick eventually signing on to help Scott achieve his Everest dream.

Hazanavicius discussed with Variety his world-premiere film, why he chose fiction to tell the story and the logistics of filming the world’s highest slopes.

What was the origin of “To the Top?” You’ve got some big stars in Kev Adams and Bérénice Béjo.

There are two origins. The first is my passion for the mountains. I have been free riding since I was 20 years old, and I’ve been looking to tell this story for a long time. The other origin is my life as an actor. I’ve worked with Kev for nine years, but I think the other actors followed because I was so passionate about the subject. Also, Bérénice is my sister-in-law.

Can we talk about her character? It’s interesting because you could have used her being left behind while her partner risks his life as a source of conflict, but chose not to. Instead she pushes him to go do it.

There is no conflict between characters in this film, the conflict always comes from inside the characters. There is no bad guy, that wasn’t the point. The conflict is with the risk. But, Bérénice’s character is based on my wife. My friend Stéphane Dan, when we were writing the script, wanted to tell the story of a woman that every rider dreams of. She could just as easily be a wife of a helicopter pilot or a police officer that risk their lives. It’s an interesting character, a partner of someone who could go to work any day and die, but our character sees that her partner is unfulfilled and wants him to do what makes him happy.

Traditionally Savage Cinema shows documentaries, although sometimes with a careful narrative structure. Why the choice to do fiction?

I didn’t want to make a documentary. I do want to some day, but that’s another movie. I wanted to put this in fiction because I felt that with fiction the story is more important than the activities. There are some really good documentaries already, and my subject was about a young guy who was really passionate. The story is a metaphor of my life and meeting Kev. I met Kev when I was ready to settle into TV and work four or six months a year. So the film is my story with Kev pushing me, and my passion for the sport.

How much of the filming was done by you, did you use any special effects to get the images you wanted?

There is absolutely nothing done in the studio or with green-screen. Everything is real. I know the best guys and we shot a lot of different ways. I shot the normal scenes, in houses or on the street, as I did with the athletes. There is improv with skiers, and although my actors weren’t totally improvising I was always following them with the camera, letting them move where they wanted.

This story takes place all over the world. Can you talk about the locations you used?

Most of the locations in the Alps I knew well. After that I went to Nepal with the actors. We also went to Ladakh in the north of India, the southern ramp of the Himalayas. We were shooting at the base camp there and there were another few shots we did at the North Face. We didn’t take the actors to the North Face though. At 4,000 meters they were struggling enough so 6,000 meters on the North Face was not reasonable. They didn’t sign up for that. It’s different when you are reading a script in your room compared to being on the side of a mountain.

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