Joe Simpson and Director Kevin Macdonald Discuss Scaling the Heights in “Touching the Void”
by Nick Dawson
Despite the massive praise he gained for the Oscar-winning “One Day in September,” documentarian Kevin Macdonald has reached a new level of accomplishment with his follow-up, “Touching the Void.” Based on mountaineer Joe Simpson’s stunning book of the same name, it tells Simpson’s remarkable story of cheating death in the Peruvian mountains, and is an early and very strong contender for the best doc of the year. Not since Errol Morris‘ “The Thin Blue Line” has a documentary used reconstruction to such brilliant and dramatic effect, with “dramatic” being the key word here.
“Touching the Void” is more tense, exciting, and thrilling than anything Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer will ever serve up. And, of course, every nail-biting moment happened in real life.
When the film screened at the London Film Festival, I had the chance to meet Simpson and Macdonald. They are something of an odd couple, Simpson being bullish and straight-talking, while Macdonald is measured and gentle. However, their respect for one another was unquestionable, this coming not only from the combined passion for the film, but the fact that, as they told me, making the film was another perilously difficult experience.
indieWIRE: How did “Touching the Void” come to be a film?
Kevin Macdonald: Several people had tried to make the book into a fiction film, including Tom Cruise, and Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg‘s producer — and Werner Herzog had wanted to get it as well. But nobody had managed it, because it’s an internal monologue, it’s about when two people are alone; there’s drama, but there’s no dramatic interaction.
Joe Simpson: I’ve sold the movie rights three times over the years, and we’ve always been trying to make the movie. We sold the rights to Sally Field‘s production company, and then to Tom Cruise’s production company, and Tom Cruise was going to play me. But that came to nothing. But then the production company Darlow Smithson, who made this, approached me when the option had expired for the Cruise film, and I thought that actually a drama/documentary might be the best way of making a good film of it. We’re still selling the theatrical rights for a movie, so a fiction film will probably still happen.
iW: How did you approach making the film?
Macdonald: I immediately thought this would make a great film, but not a dramatic feature, rather a combination of documentary and drama. You need the voices of the real people as the film’s backbone, but the only way you can visually represent what they went through is to use reconstruction. As a documentary maker, I’ve always been really against reconstruction — it’s a naff last resort, and is so clichéd and overused in documentaries today. So, it was a difficult decision for me to make, but I knew that was the only way it was going to work.
iW: What was it like working with an Oscar-winner?
Simpson: When they told me about Kevin, I was quite surprised, actually. I didn’t know you could get an Oscar for a documentary, I didn’t know there was that category! I’m a writer, not a filmmaker, so I was fascinated to see how they depicted certain things. I couldn’t understand how they would depict the delirium at the end. In real life, I was completely out of my head. Mad. Delirious. Stuffed, really. They used this dolly pan angle and all this weird stuff — and it wasn’t like that, but it really triggered something. I thought it really shouldn’t have upset me because it wasn’t like that, but it was very clever. I was fascinated how they used the medium of film to tell a story like I used the medium of words to tell a story. I still don’t have a bloody clue how they did it, actually.
iW: What was filming like?
Macdonald: We filmed in Peru, where it actually happened, and in the Alps. In Peru, we were three or four days from the nearest town — which was actually a tiny little village — and if something had happened up there at that altitude of nearly 20,000 feet, like mountain sickness, water on the lungs, water on the brain, or breaking an arm or leg, then you’re really in trouble, because it’s far too high to be rescued by a helicopter. It’s uncomfortable at high altitude: you feel nauseous, you don’t feel hungry but you’re wasting away so you need to eat, you need to drink all the time so you’re pissing all the time, your skin is dry and starts cracking up and bleeding, your nails start coming off — all that sort of stuff. So it’s unpleasant and hard to concentrate on working.
For the actors, they often didn’t have to act because they were actually in the real situations. When someone says, “Launch yourself off that slope and let yourself fly down a rope, but try to stop yourself falling,” you do it, you don’t have to act. Similarly, when you’re hanging off a rope at night in a snowstorm, you don’t have to act being cold and not having the proper grip. Because there’s not that much dialogue in the film, mainly just grunts and yells, we shot a lot of it in the silent movie technique. I would shout at the actors, and give them directions because there wasn’t an opportunity to rehearse. By the time everything was OK from the technical point of view, you had to just go for it.
iW: I believe the cold caused a lot of technical difficulties.
Macdonald: We had a lot of problems with the cameras. In Peru it was only my cameraman and his assistant, and they had to look after a 35mm camera, a 16mm camera, and a video camera. We couldn’t recharge any batteries, so everything had to come with us and we soon realized that the batteries would only last 30 seconds because it was so cold. So, we had to sleep with the batteries in our sleeping bags, keep them on our person, but you also had to keep the film and the camera at the same temperature. We started finding that if the camera had been down in the ice in the crevasse for a few hours and was really cold, it would work fine. But when you got the film, which had been inside in a box overnight, and put it in the camera, the difference in temperature would cause condensation on the inside of the lens, and it took ages to work out why the fuck this was happening. Also, when we were shooting in storms, we had to have three cameras on the go because you could do one shot with a camera, and then it would be literally be completely covered in ice, and wouldn’t operate anymore. And then we’d have to take it into our igloo, thaw it out, and then get the next camera and do another shot with that one.
iW: Was going back to Peru cathartic for you?
Simpson: Writing the book wasn’t cathartic. I think catharsis is a very rare thing to find and I think people seek it too often. Revisiting a bad time won’t necessarily do you any good, but will remind you that you once had a really bad time. I’ve never understood this compulsion everybody seems to have which says that if you have a bad time you should have to learn some deep insight from it. The experience that I had gave and took away in equal measure. I found out that in some aspects I was stronger than I thought I was, and in others that I was much weaker than I thought I was.
When I actually went back to Peru 18 years later, and had to re-enact a lot of it on the glacier and on the rocks, it did my head in. I got diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when I got back. It was partly my fault, because I didn’t really think it through. I thought I was OK with it, but when I got there, it was such a familiar place and it was like a memory trigger. It was like it had happened yesterday, and all the stuff I had carefully put in a box all came out. Living it was a really horrible time, and writing about it and filming it was a really horrible time too.
iW: Were you much of a climber before this?
Macdonald: The highest thing I’d climbed before this was Ben Lomond [in New Zealand]. Doing this film was a big shock to the system. I rather halfheartedly tried to get fit beforehand, but walking to the base camp I thought “What the hell am I doing here? This is a big mistake, I’m not the person who should be doing this.” I thought I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew, and it took at least a week not just to acclimatize, but for my body to come out of its state of shock after the exertion. It’s a kind of crash fitness course, and after a month in Peru and five weeks in the Alps I was incredibly fit — I think as fit as I’ll ever be in my life. But if your body hasn’t been used to that it’s a big challenge.
iW: What are your feelings about the finished film?
Simpson: I’m the worst person to comment on the film because it was my story, and I see it differently from how you see it. I like the film a lot, but it’s not real. It’s like hearing your own voice. You can recognize it, but it doesn’t sound right. It’s depicting things very well, but I know how they really were. Things that upset me emotionally about the film do in a way that don’t affect you. I’m very uncomfortable with the crevasse scene and the end scene. I don’t think they’re bad, I just don’t like watching them because they trigger emotions and memories that I don’t want to have.
iW: How conscious were you that there was a lot of pressure on you following the Oscar success of “One Day in September”?
Macdonald: It’s intentionally very different from “One Day in September.” The similarities are far, far fewer than the differences, and stylistically it’s going in an opposite direction. Partly, that’s just because I get bored doing the same thing more than once. I look at all my films as experiments: I don’t know if they’re going to work. This was an experiment to see if you could mix documentary and drama — if you know you really might fall flat on your face, that gives you some proper stimulation.
iW: The line between fiction films and documentaries no longer really seems to exist.
Macdonald: There’s definitely something strange going on at the moment in the interaction between fiction and documentary, with “American Splendor,” which combines animation, documentary and drama, and Michael Winterbottom‘s “In This World,” which comes at documentaries from the drama point of view. For one reason or another, it’s a very rich seam at the moment.
iW: Has making this made you want to make a fiction film?
Macdonald: I want to carry on making documentaries, but I certainly got a taste for working with actors, and I’d like to try that again.
iW: Because it’s so remarkable, has anybody ever doubted the veracity of your story?
Simpson: Actually what happened was we got really drunk and I fell out of my hotel window and broke my leg and we just made it all up, and we’ve had to live with this story ever since. [laughs] No, no one has.