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Aussie Director Jennifer Peedom Discusses Her Latest High-Altitude Doc ‘Mountain’

"Mountain," chronicles the history of mountaineering, and compulsion to climb

‘Mountain’ isn’t a film about just one mountain, but a feast of them. The film launches into vistas of panoramic beauty and dizzying views of peaks, big walls, ice climbs and canyons throughout the world. It is a film that has only been possible to make in the last few years with the use of drones and highly portable equipment – to sit through this must be the closest  feeling to being a high-altitude eagle that has yet come to the screen.

Director Jennifer Peedom has created far more than just a mountain spectacle. Along with her money shots, she has incorporated commentary, written by academic and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane and narrated with a gruff authority by Willem Dafoe, and collaborated with the Australian Chamber Orchestra under Richard Tognetti.

In doing so, the film sets out to explain the draw of the mountains and the mentality of the mountain climber. It moves through the changing fashions and attractions of the extreme sportsman where risk and competition has become an end in itself. It’s when you see queuing mountaineers on Everest, the exploitation of the sherpas for commercial gain and the congestion of the ski resorts that you hear Peedom ‘s dismay come through.

The film is not a documentary, so much as a showcase of how we increasingly use the mountains as a playground. Some of the best spectacle is dramatic footage of extreme sports with its inevitable inclusion of spills, falls, avalanches and helicopters.

With little in the way of explanation, and a deliberate avoidance of the individual human stories behind these clips, the film’s attention always reverts to the impersonal and imperturbable beauty and presence of the mountains themselves.

Peedom discussed her latest homage to the rocky formations with Variety.

How was the music chosen? Why start with the orchestra tuning and the narrator getting in place?

The film was originally a commission from the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), and so it was always a collaboration between myself and the artistic director of the orchestra, Richard Tognetti. The project was designed to work as a live concert with the ACO, as well as a film, so for the film version, we decided to include the orchestra in the pre-title, so the audience would have the sense that they were going to a concert.

Given the nature of the collaboration with the ACO, we were always going to include some big classical works. Richard Tognetti and I worked together with the editor to select certain pieces that worked for the scenes we had created. Other times, the music drove the scene, and we edited around it, such as Vivaldi’s ’Summer’. Most adventure films don’t have classical soundtracks.

The narration was written by Robert MacFarlane. What was the nature of your collaboration with him?

In my twenties, Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’ was a pivotal book for me. When I was approached to work with the ACO on this project, I thought of that book straight away. Robert was an amazing collaborator, and our process was very organic. We worked together to structure the ideas, and I’d send him ideas, and concepts from the book that he would compress into the sparse narration. Other times, he would respond to images and write something.

His wonderful line, “those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion,” just seemed the perfect fit for the insanity that we are seeing at that point in the film, but I think it still applies equally to mountaineering.

How did you go about assembling the shots you needed?

In making this film I wanted to assemble the best mountain cinematography that was available in the world today. So, as well as shooting new material, that meant raiding the library of my Sherpa cinematographer, Renan Ozturk and Canadian outfit, Sherpas Cinema. They both came on as collaborators and executive producers on the film, giving us access to some incredible footage, a lot of which had never been seen before. We also sourced footage from other suppliers to fill the gaps in the story. I was guided by Renan as to who was doing the best work around the world in this field.

What audience are you aiming at?

We hope the film will appeal to a broader audience of people interested in the natural world. Certainly in Australia where the film has just been released, the audience has been extremely broad: from school kids to older audiences. The film is already the third highest Australian documentary in box office history, bumping my last film, “Sherpa” off that spot.

Why keep the mountains and climbers anonymous?

We weren’t particuarly interested in the geographic location of the mountains, but rather, how the humans were interacting with them. In some scenes, we might cross 3 continents, but the focus was always on how people were reacting in that environment,.

There are so many daredevil climbers and extreme sportsmen in this film that one has to ask, whether anyone was actually killed while it was being made?

In order to demonstrate the powerful allure of mountains, and just how far some people will go to pit themselves against them, it was important to show the danger, the suffering – the stakes.  I do regret not putting a disclaimer at the beginning or end of the film to say that no one was killed in any of our shots, as this has been raised before! People did die in the avalanche on Everest, but not anyone in that particular shot. Several of the athletes who appear in the film have since died. Uli Steck, the famous Swiss mountaineer who appears in the film also died this year on Everest. But no, we do not show anyone dying in the film.

Is ‘Mountain’ the second film of a Trilogy? If so what’s next?

I guess you could say that! If so, “Sherpa” was the first. I’m in the early stages of developing a feature film about the life of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who was the first to climb Everest (with Edmund Hillary) in 1953. After that, I’m drawing a line under mountains for a while. I’ve got some great non-adventure projects lined up too.

Jamie Lang contributed to this article

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