“The Highest Pass” started at sea level — less than a mile, in fact, from the ocean in Marina del Rey. I had just finished a documentary called “The Back Nine” and was ready for another adventure.
Be careful what you wish for.
The most danger I faced on my last project was going down a steep hill in a golf cart going less than 20 mph. “The Highest Pass” was quite the opposite — this project would take me to the other side of the world, following seven motorcycle riders on the most dangerous roads on the planet, climbing to over 18,000 feet.
Adam Schomer came to me with a pretty straightforward pitch – A modern Indian yogi leading a group through the Himalayas, to the highest motorable road in the world, on motorcycles. But here’s the hook: The yogi was carrying a prophecy given to him at birth — that he would die in an accident, at the age of 27. And yes, he was 27.
That's all I needed. I was in.
Having practiced meditation on and off for years, I was intrigued by the idea of going to India to make a film. Our company tagline is to "enlighten through entertainment" and this project certainly fit that philosophy; also, the self-help/spiritual arena is the fastest-growing market sector. If we could shoot this on a tight budget, I felt like we had a good chance to make our money back. Selfishly, I also knew the journey had the potential to be a transformational experience.
Here are 10 key lessons I learned along the way:
1. Have a good reason for making the film.
I wanted to make engaging films with some social relevancy and audience impact. After talking through a rough story structure, I knew this project would incorporate powerful themes and hoped the project would prove inspirational. A spiritual adventure, done well, would attract a variety of demographics. Adam knew he wanted to explore the idea of fear and there would be plenty of it. Of course, riding motorcycles on dangerous roads would fit the obvious definition, but the word would take on new meaning for everyone involved. The riders brought their own personalities (and their own issues) to the party.
2. Be prepared for the elements.
When you know that it's going to be 80 degrees at the start of the journey, but that you will end up in the snow toward the end, you have to cover your bases. Shorts and T-shirts for day one. Jeans and a sweatshirt for day two and the layers pile on from there. Eventually, you will be in freezing temperatures and will need a good sleeping bag, warm gloves and hiking boots. Pack light, but with enough to not have to do laundry. And, of course, with escalating altitudes, have plenty of herbs and cases of water. Four big bottles per day, per person, was the average. We even packed oxygen.
3. Lower your standards.
Most of us are fortunate enough to have access to clean bathrooms, daily showers and reasonable dietary choices. In India, not all accommodations had showers. Toilets were often scarce and you never knew what food would be available. Yes, you have the pleasure of sampling some amazing home-cooked meals by the locals in the middle of nowhere, but plenty of power bars and trail mix came in handy. And don’t count on heaters in tents and remote accommodations. Heat packs in the sleeping bag did the trick.
4. Expect the unexpected.
This is a great example where Murphy’s Law meets Serendipity. When you’re in a foreign country and packing thousands of dollars of camera gear with $10,000 cash in your pocket, expect to get stopped at customs. Guards questioned me, but I stressed my “interest in photography…I was going to be in such a beautiful region.” Eventually, they let me through. But then my driver, who picked me up at 4am, had a car without a trunk, didn’t know where he was going and nearly crashed at least a dozen times. Talk about fear right out of the gate.
On the other side of the coin, we had the pleasure of kicking off production in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga. And just a few days later, wild horses greeted us at 15,000 feet. We met a distinguished oracle, witnessed spectacular cultural rituals in Ladakh and were treated to stunning geography for days on end.
5. Choose your team carefully.
In many films, you hire the actor who will help with distribution, regardless of their personality. Then you hire craftspeople with the best resume who you learn to tolerate for production days. But when you are in distant locations, spending countless hours on the road and sleeping in tight quarters, it’s even more important to have a strong connection with your principal team. I was fortunate that I really enjoyed the cast (the riders) and crew and most important, our DP Dean Mitchell. We were side-by-side in the production van for hours at a time, downloading footage into the wee hours of the night and planning the next day’s shoot.
6. Learn to embrace fear.
I knew going in that we would be on some dangerous roads, in difficult filming conditions, but I was not prepared for many of the other risks. One of the realities of the passes of India is the constant flow of huge trucks. These monsters come screaming around corners on one-lane roads. Our driver was honking every other minute, and I was peeking out of the corner of my eye as we missed that truck by a matter of inches, all day long. You see the rusted metal of cars on the bottom of cliffs below and there are no rails. At some point, a few days into the madness, I had no choice but to relinquish the fear. If it was my time to go, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. On the first day of the journey, one of the riders was clipped by a truck and we were in the ER. Fortunately, no broken bones. Same thing on day two. The riders had to learn to ride on these roads and in the rain, through streams and over ice. So they had their own fears to conquer, but the crew was stuck in the iron cage and we had to learn to embrace it.
Note: A few months after production, one of our drivers was killed in a car accident.
7. Be a diplomat.
When you are filming riders focused on their survival and on their own personal journeys, it’s hard to ask them to stop and “do it again.” But this was a shoot without a scout and the production vans could not always keep up. We would pull around a corner and see the perfect shot, but the riders would be miles ahead by then. You have to be selective about your shots and know you only have so many chips to play. And most film crews are familiar with standard meal breaks and overnight turnaround time. This wasn’t happening on “The Highest Pass.” We were chasing the light or trying to get to a destination before fatigue became dangerous for the riders. As the director, you are in the middle and have to understand the art of the give and take. You need the subjects to respect you, but don’t want the crew bitterly going through the motions because they are feeling resentful.
Show your appreciation. Find the compromises for both sides. And then you have the locals. They don’t care if you’re making a movie, unless George Clooney is one of the riders. You are the outsider and have to play by their rules. From accommodations to local police, diplomacy really helps the cause.
8. Back up the footage.
Regardless of how tired you are after your 15-hour day, you have to download all the cards (movie files) onto G-Raids and LaCie drives. This can take a few hours and you typically want more than one copy whenever possible. In our case, we had three cameras filming all day long so there was a lot of footage to download. It’s important to force yourself to make this happen. Even if you are operating on 4-5 hours sleep a night, at least your cameras can start fresh the next day and you have the insurance of footage back-up. In most cases, there are no reshoots on this type of project.
9. Have an open mind.
If you are shooting a narrative feature, you have the luxury of a script. If you are shooting a documentary, chances are, you just have a treatment, outline or general structure in mind before you roll cameras. In our case, we started with our riders, a goal of reaching the highest pass and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as a road map. As the adventure unfolded, Adam and I shifted gears. We singled out Adam as a rider (who had just learned how to ride a motorcycle a few weeks before the trip) and made him the hero, with Anand as his mentor. It may seem obvious, but it’s often difficult for directors to be open to modifying a pre-existing structure. Many of the best documentaries ever made changed plans during shooting. Hoop Dreams, for example, was initially going to be a 30-minute documentary for PBS. They realized they were onto something special and tracked the players much longer than anticipated and ended up with what Roger Ebert called "the best film of the decade."
10. Enjoy the ride!
It may seem clichéd, but filmmaking is an amazing opportunity, an incredible journey. How blessed we are to share stories for a living — from the inception of the idea, through reaching your audience, to the feedback and the effects. Each stage has its peaks and valleys. When we agreed to make “The Highest Pass,” we were not sure what the movie would be, but we had high hopes for an engaging project. With some festival experience, I had a good feeling this film would work on that circuit, but we didn’t expect a theatrical release.
We bucked tradition and had our world premiere at a smaller event, the Topanga Film Festival. What an amazing experience, to see it on the screen with the right audience, overflowing in the aisles. Then it won a top prize, won a few more awards on the circuit and is being theatrically released by Cinema Libre Studio on April 27. Everyone at the studio truly supports socially relevant films and they are working hard to give the film a fair shot. Our team has had a remarkable experience and look forward to bringing the movie to audiences in a variety of platforms.
Our initial goal stands. We hope people are engaged and inspired to look deeper into themselves and the world around them.
"The Highest Pass" opens today in Los Angeles. In the fall of 2011, Fitzgerald launched CineCause, a company that connects socially relevant films, celebrities and news to related causes. Prior to that, he directed three feature documentaries: “The Back Nine,” “The Highest Pass” and “Dance of Liberation.” From 2003-2007, Fitzgerald provided consulting services to many film festivals and indie filmmakers, via Right Angle Studios. He was a co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 and was the festival director at the American Film Institute and the Santa Barbara and Abu Dhabi International Film Festivals.