When cinematographer Mandy Walker met with the director for Fox 2000’s “The Mountain Between Us,” Hany Abu-Assad’s directives were simple. “It has to be beautiful, but dangerous,” said the Oscar-nominated director of “Paradise Now” and “Omar.” “You must feel the danger they are up against.”
Specifically, Abu-Assad planned to direct stars Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on top of the 11,000-foot Purcell Mountains in British Columbia. “It really was minus 38 degrees, working in the snow,” said Walker. “I had not done that before, above the tree line.”
Like any veteran cinematographer, Walker is familiar with trying circumstances. For Baz Luhrmann’s epic “Australia,” she supervised three units with action and horses. She shot John Curran’s stunning outback adventure “Tracks” in heat of 122 degrees.
However, the Purcell mountain range meant a very different set of challenges. She brought her crew two to three times into each of five high-altitude locations for scouting, with safety guides checking for crevasses. “The extra challenge was that Hany wanted the camera to be elegant and epic, with a crane on top of the mountain, and moving with the characters as they work their way down,” Walker said. “We put a crane on top, slung in a basket from a helicopter. It took three days for the grips to build it at 11,000 feet, where you can’t lay tracks in four feet of snow.”
On top of the mountain, where they couldn’t take any lighting equipment, they shot with digital 65mm Alexa cameras for epic grandeur. “We had to have more definition and detail on the white snow and skin and blue sky,” she said. (Walker learned how to light dark skin hues with 35 mm film on “Hidden Figures.”)
Logistically, the cameras had to follow the characters without making footprints in the snow; that meant always shooting the rehearsal. “We had three dollies on little snowboards with remote heads,” said Walker, “a bigger one that could work in deep snow, and a low one on a sled to do shots looking up. At 3,000 feet, we had a 50-foot Technocrat on a Taurus tractor that could drive through four feet of snow and track with the actors without making footprints.”
Physically, the athletic Elba’s toughest shot was dragging Winslet on a sled through four feet of snow. Mentally? He had to walk out to a 12-foot-wide peak that overlooks the entire range, as three Steadicam cameramen wearing white painter suits circled him for a 360-degree view. “You feel it and see it,” said Walker. “The experience of that character and the depth of 65mm field.”
On top of the mountain, it was so cold you couldn’t see anyone’s breath. Cameras had to run 24 hours a day or they’d freeze. They kept batteries in coolers with heating pads. Everything had to be recalibrated for different temperatures. (“I love technical challenges,” Walker said.)
Walker had to figure out how to shoot Winslet plunging through a hole in the ice into freezing water. Then, with Winslet in heavy, soaking-wet clothes, she’s pulled out by a straining Elba into minus 20-degree weather. They opted to shoot it on location at 3,000 feet, with three cameras and a sheer eight-by-eight tank of heated water built with a false plexiglass top. “You could snap-freeze and get hypothermia,” Walker said. But Winslet was game: She went in and came out three times, warmed by heated blankets.