By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In 1996, a small group of mountaineers endeavored to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Each had personal reasons for aspiring to achieve this difficult feat. Some of them paid for this risky adventure with their lives.
“Everest,” directed and produced by Baltasar Kormakur (“2 Guns,” “Contraband”), documents the journey of two different expeditions challenged beyond the limits by one of the fiercest blizzards ever encountered by climbers. The action adventure boasts an all-star cast that includes Oscar nominees Josh Brolin (“Milk”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”). The screenplay, co-written by William Nicholson and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy, was partially inspired by “Into Thin Air,” a book written by Jon Krakauer, a journalist who was on one of the expeditions that May.
Brolin plays Beck Weathers, a Texas pathologist, who despite the known risks of climbing Everest, leaves his family at home to embark on the once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, a veteran expedition leader, who finds himself in trouble as he and his team near the summit.
The two actors hail from Hollywood dynasties—Brolin is the son of actor James Brolin and the stepson of actress Barbra Streisand; Gyllenhaal is the son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and his producer/writer wife Naomi Foner—and understand what it means to pursue a dream that is both risky and challenging but also can be rewarding.
Q: What interested you about this film?
Brolin: I knew the story and I knew the book. I had a massive reaction to the book. Before I met Balt (Kormakur, the director), I had another director come over to my office and sell a film to me that said, “We’re going to do a film, and it’s not going to be any of that Hollywood bull****. It’s going to be real,” and I thought, “Oh, who is this kook?” And then Baltasar came to meet me after that and I thought, “Oh, I need to work with this guy,” because there was none of that. It was real; it was him. He was 100 percent organic, and the fact that I thought he was perfect to direct something this powerful, a story as powerful as this and as sensitive as this, it really made me think. And it really it turned out well.
Gyllenhaal: I loved the book when I read it. I was aware of the situation when it happened. To me, what was so moving was the idea of the inevitable in a movie, which felt like reality to me—a massive, entertaining movie where Mother Nature wins. In the end, the inevitable happens. These characters, particularly Rob (played by Jason Clarke) and Scott, were not necessarily afraid of the adventure into the idea of life and death. I like that idea. I like the movie was dealing with something that felt very honest. A tangent of that is that the experience was like that too. Balt told us we would be in the elements. We were going to make a movie where we would legitimately be cold and legitimately be scared, and I think that’s fun for someone like me. That’s what we’re looking for—something that’s reflective. We get to learn something about our lives as well as do the work that we love. That’s what Balt promised us, and I just wanted to be a part of it in whatever way.
Q: Do you feel you kind of share a little bit of that mountaineering spirit that the climbers had? Do you have that sense of adventure in which you are willing to put it all on the line to do what you want to do, which is act?
Gyllenhaal: I find it hard to compare acting to anything in the real world in the sense that what we do or what we’re trying to do is mimic what these guys did—and continue to do—which is legitimately risk their lives. I mean we had maybe 25 percent, at times, when it was the harshest for us (on location in South Tyrol in the Italian Alps, which doubled for Nepal) what they experienced in reality. There is nothing more fun than putting myself in a situation that feels as real as possible. It’s fun for me to think of an audience watching (the film) and feeling those feelings as well. I believe the subconscious experience of a movie is more powerful as the conscious experience of it, so that is all in there, all over the frame and all over everybody who’s in the movie.
Brolin: I think we’re trying to be as respectful as we possibly can, given what we do. We fake it. We simulate it. We’re not mountaineers. We joke around, and try to make little moments that you can write about, and all the true stuff, but it’s much deeper than that for us why we choose to do the film. We’re not even going to get one percent of what really happened. We’ll never understand (what the actual climbers were thinking). But if we can respectfully honor their story in any possible way through what we do, that’s the intention.
Q: Do you approach a role differently when you’re portraying a real person?
Gyllenhaal: There are all these choices you make when you’re trying to create a character, which is obviously their back story and where they’re from. That’s all written for you in a way. But also, physically, you have to figure out how they behave, how they look, those types of things. I don’t really look like Scott Fischer, but I tried to capture the essence of who Scott was. That was important to capture because in other stories about this expedition Scott was made sort of the antagonist. For the purpose of trying to create tension in any story, you need someone like that. Whatever the setting of the competition on the mountain, particularly between Rob and Scott (the leaders of two rival expeditions), what I discovered was he was truly a free spirit and an incredibly positive, loving person.
His children contacted me because they were worried; they didn’t know how he was going to be portrayed. Balt and Jason (who plays another climbing team leader Rob Hall) were very respectful of Scott.
What was interesting, too, was it wasn’t just us looking after our characters. It was all of us looking after all the characters and people that were on this expedition, and double-checking that nobody was put into a corner of cliche or caricature. We were just finding the essence of who these people were. That was the most important thing because none of us are ever going to understand completely who these people are. We’re not doing imitations; we’re trying to create the spirit of this adventure, and that all came from Balt.
Q: When you see that you’re going to be on location shooting these scenes in the elements, does that excite you?
Brolin: In the beginning it sounds great, conceptually, and then there’s the reality of it. There’s the, “Okay, now I’m freezing. Now I haven’t felt my feet for three days and I’m kind of done with this whole idea.” That’s what (Kormakur) is looking for. As a director, you do amazing things to keep morale up, and keep it okay for month after month after month. Even when we went to London (to film some of the action), they’re using salt for snow, and throwing salt in 100 mile per hour fans, and you’re getting a nice exfoliation. After a while, the romance of it is gone and you’re going, “Okay, I am feeling an irritation but I hope will look good on film.” It’s there, for sure, for you as an actor. Then you see the film and you’re like, “Thank you so much; I really appreciate that.”
Q: I know someone whose husband is a mountain climber, and she says, “Better he cheat on me with a mountain than another woman.” Do you think it’s okay to leave your family behind to pursue a dream like climbing to the summit of Everest?
Brolin: I don’t like that quote, “Screw around with the wife and I’d rather it be with a mountain.” I get it as a joke, but I don’t like it. It’s an incredibly selfish thing. I’ve always had a family. I graduated high school and then I had kids. So I don’t know what life is like without having a family. My whole life has been saturated with it. I’ve made decisions—I don’t know if I regret them—but I’ve made decisions. I started skydiving when I was 21 and then, within the year, I was doing it five to six times a day. So I have that (adrenaline rush) thing, apparently, and it wasn’t until I told my wife, “What if I jump with my year-and-a-half old?” and she was like, “You have to stop. Now!” So whatever headspace you’re in—and I don’t think I meant it—it’s very selfish.
People climb or do other (risky activities) for different reasons, but Beck (in his book “Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest”) talks about a depression he was running from. (Climbing Everest) was the one thing he could do that was productive. He wrote something like, “I can step that extra step when most people can’t, therefore I can touch the extraordinary, and if I feel like I’m one of the exclusives that can touch the extraordinary that propels me to live for, it gives my life more meaning,” or whatever. So it can run as deep or as cosmetic as you want.
I do think it’s a selfish act. Our lives are a selfish act on different levels. It’s up to you how you want to live it. I have a very good friend, Dean Potter, who was one of the reasons I did this movie. He turned me on to climbing, and all that. He was a very, very safe incredible human being who lost his life a few months ago. Is it bad that he lost his life? I don’t know. He lived a pretty incredible life, so that was his choice. Were people sad because of it? Suffering because of it? Absolutely. But, isn’t that part of life, too?