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The 10 Things You Must Do When Shooting a Movie at 18,000 Feet

By Jon Fitzgerald | Indiewire April 27, 2012 at 9:00AM

“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.
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Anand in The Highest Pass
From Jon Fitzgerald's 'The Highest Pass.'

“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.