“Making a Film is Like Climbing a Mountain”: Director Nick Ryan on the Staggering Logistics of Making K2 Documentary The Summit
Plenty of documentaries share stories worth telling, and play just fine resting on the strengths of those stories, incorporating requisite elements like talking-head interviews, news headlines, and archival footage. Filmmaker Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which meticulously explores the 2008 K2 disaster that claimed 11 lives, has all of these elements. But what it also has is a stunning abundance of visceral reenactments, which placed Ryan and his crew on an actual mountainside, where the intimate (and tragic) moments that the climbers’ own cameras missed were recreated. A veteran director of short films like The German and A Lonely Sky, for which he also served as writer and visual effects artist, Ryan devoted a considerable chunk of his life to doing this incredible story justice, and employed every tool at his disposal. With a team of fellow filmmakers, actors, and actual survivors of the disaster (like Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, who served as an advisor), Ryan hit the slopes and faced the elements, and that was only part one of a very layered filmmaking process.
Without ever trivializing the gravity of what occurred five years back, Ryan is keen to acknowledge the parallels that exist between embarking to climb a mountain and embarking to make an uncommonly immersive film about climbing a mountain. Speaking with me recently, the director, producer, writer, editor, and forever-changed witness of the “scary” greatness of K2 went into detail about how he re-envisioned the climbers’ tumultuous journey, and how he too got caught up in the “obsession” K2 elicits from those who face it.
Filmmaker: Watching the film, I didn’t know it was going to be this pastiche of the climbers’ footage and filmed reenactments. I went in cold, so to speak, and was surprised that, initially, at least, I didn’t notice the seams. Can you briefly describe your process of going through the footage, and when you knew you wanted to incorporate reenactments?
Ryan: In terms of the reenactments, I knew, even before I saw the footage, that it was going to be the way I was going to go on it. Because even though I hadn’t seen all the footage, from the very early interviews I’d done with Pemba and Wilco [van Rooljen], I knew that cameras, in very key sequences, were not going to be present. When things start to go terribly, terribly wrong, climbers are busy surviving. They’re not filming anything, you know? Also, if there was footage of people falling, I don’t think I would have been that comfortable necessarily showing it. You have the question of ethics of recreating tragedy as well. And I knew from the complexity of the story, and how many interweaving stories there were, that the best way to try and tell the story from an audience perspective would be to take the audience along for the journey, and almost put them in the boots of the climbers. We wanted to make you feel like you’re there, so we could hold your attention, which is required to kind of get through the whole film and make sense of it all.
Filmmaker: Where were the reenactments shot?
Ryan: On the realms of safety on the Eiger, and the Jungfrau, which are mountains in Switzerland—the Swiss Alps.
Filmmaker: What did you shoot on? What equipment were you using?
Ryan: The reenactments were shot on Red Mysterium-X. And we just had a set of lenses, a colleague and myself. Robbie Ryan, the cinematographer, is a great cinematographer. We shot there for about 16 days.
Filmmaker: And were you aiming to match the climbers’ footage as much as possible?
Ryan: Well, here’s the thing: it’s come up time and time again—the seamless nature of it. And it’s obviously there. But from a filmmaking perspective, I chose anamorphic for a reason—to actually differentiate. Because the best camera [the climbers] had was a [Sony] EX1, which Fredrik Strang, the Swedish climber, had. It’s a remarkably good hi-def camera. But, you know, different climbers had different levels of cameras, and invariably they’re really wide, and everyone shoots wide. So you get these massive wides. But even 35 on anamorphic is, like, 50 on a normal lens, so I thought it was very different. And obviously, it’s framed differently, and it’s staged differently. I think because we were very careful to make sure that the players in the reenactments were dressed in identical gear made a difference. I did a lot of green screen work too. We brought a portable green screen for certain scenes.
Filmmaker: What about matching the locale?
Ryan: Robbie, the cinematographer, would look at the Alps, and I’d say, “What’s wrong with those mountains?” and he’d say, “They’re not right.” They’re amazing, incredible mountains, but they’re not the Karakoram, the region where K2 is. And I thought that if we’re going to do this, we’re going to make it look so much like you’re on K2 that you’re never taken out of it. The reenactments [comprise] only 20 percent of the film. The next 50 percent, not counting the talking-head interviews or the 1954 footage [featuring original, veteran K2 climber Walter Bonatti], is the archival footage [from the climbers]. And you see the mountain. And believe it or not, I think your brain subliminally starts to take in that environment. So when you see [K2’s] Broad Peak, and then you cut to a mountain that’s not that mountain, whether you know it or not, you’re probably taken out of the picture slightly. Or maybe I’m just anal-retentive about that part. [Laughs] But I felt it was really, really important to be immersive, and to make you feel like you’re there.
Filmmaker: So what size crew are we talking about here? I know you had actual climbers along as advisors. Was it like an actual climbing expedition?
Ryan: Ehh, not really. I mean, we never went very far. We filmed there because of accessibility. And we had Pemba as our lead technical advisor, along with three other Sherpas who were there in 2008. Actor-wise, none of them were really climbers. In fact, Garrett Phillips, the man who played Wilco, was actually terrified of heights. So maybe he looks terrified in the film because he actually was. I mean, they’re all roped in when we’re filming. Everything is really safety-conscious. Even incredible climbers like Pemba—everybody had to be roped in. We couldn’t just let people wander. A fall of 10 feet will kill you as quick as a fall of 1,000, you know?
Filmmaker: How high up do you think you went when shooting on the Alps?
Ryan: We filmed at about 3,700 meters, so that’s about 12,000 feet. Actually, maybe more—14 or 15,000 feet.
Filmmaker: Did you do any kind of physical training in preparation for this?
Ryan: Personally, I did a little bit of rock-climbing, just to learn about ropes and things. But it was more just to get an experience of how everybody climbs. And I’ll tell ya, it certainly gives you a newfound respect. You think, “Hey, how hard could it be to get yourself on a rope and and go up a mountain? It’s easy, isn’t it?” It’s certainly not easy. And then you factor in ice, and snow, and altitude. Even at 3,700 meters, when we were filming there, if you weren’t planning every shot ahead, I swear, when you’d turn around, you’d just want to go to sleep. And given the altitude we were at, just to put it in perspective—base camp [for the subjects of the film] was about 2,000 meters above that altitude. That’s another 6,000 feet higher.
Filmmaker: In relation to whatever strenuousness you and your crew experienced here, the film addresses the psychology behind the drive to do things like climb K2, and how there are so many more reasons to turn back than to keep going. In your case, the stakes are clearly lower, but did you ever identify with that inner conflict?
Ryan: I think the closest I ever matched to any of the themes of the film had to do with the obsessive nature [of climbing]. K2, to me, is like a siren. It calls out that obsessive nature in certain people. Some of the climbers go back a second time, or a third time. And I found myself drawn into that as well. Two years into the process I felt like I couldn’t make this film without physically seeing the mountain, or shooting the mountain. So we embarked on a shoot that would take us there, at 7,400 meters, with a Cineflex camera, which I operated. And it was amazing. But I did think, when I started this film: “Oh, this is going to be lots of work, but I won’t have to go there.” But I needed to go there myself in the end.
Filmmaker: I thought the fact that you had the climbers’ summit footage was really priceless. It seemed like something that could never be reenacted. There’s that epic, indelible shot of the shadow of the mountain on the horizon.
Ryan: It’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s such an incredible image. I can only imagine what it would be like to physically look at that shadow over China. I remember when I first saw that image. I felt like it was, not claustrophobia, but a sense of panic. Because it’s like an absence of life. You see this big, sharp, perfect line. It scares me every time I see it.
Filmmaker: The remark about climbing down being the true survival story got me thinking about post-production, and how you had to fit all of these pieces together once you had them. How much material did you have?
Ryan: With climbers’ footage, I think it was about 200 hours total, including all the sources. Which, the majority of that you can disregard anyway, because it’s just pure climbing. To me, the crucial parts were what Pemba and Wilco filmed underneath the [pivotal region of] The Bottleneck that day, and the summit footage that Wilco shot was crucial to what we were doing. But really, the important thing was the base camp stuff, and showing base camp life. I didn’t want it to all just be about, “Oh, killer mountain; so many people died.” A lot of films kind of start out that way. We wanted to start with the joy these climbers felt going in. I mean this is what they love doing. This is what they want to do. And we wanted to portray that, obviously with certain trepidations of how dangerous it is.
Filmmaker: It seemed like there were definitely some special effects added as well. You’d mentioned green screen, but it seemed like there were some weather effects, and, of course, avalanche effects incorporated.
Ryan: Well, with the avalanche scene, yes, we added some visual effects with that. We also used the “movie” effects of snowblowers to blow some snow and ice around Pemba and Marco, but obviously, the avalanche had to be done with visual effects. But other than that, it was kept to an absolute minimum. It’s just basic, green screen compositing work of putting in the background images, which were either photographs, video, or things from the climb—photographs the climbers took. And photographs that I took, too, when I went to K2 in 2011.
Filmmaker: So you said there were 16 days of shooting in Switzerland. How long did the entire process take you, from research to finished cut?
Ryan: Five years. We started the first interview six weeks after the events.
Filmmaker: Wow. And how do you feel now?
Ryan: Oh, boy. Yeah, it’s almost a career in itself, isn’t it? The fact that we’re getting a theatrical release in the United States is great, and then the rest of the world to follow is just astounding. It’s just an incredible honor and we’re just so happy to get it out there. It was such a difficult process. Making a film is like climbing a mountain, and climbing a mountain is like making a film. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Yeah, well, the movie likens climbing to re-learning what you learned intuitively as a child, and I was wondering if that idea was reflected at all in your experience of making this—the idea of re-learning what you know about what you do as a filmmaker.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s interesting. In a weird kind of way, I wore many hats. Because I produced as well. So I had to go through the process of, first of all, working at what the film was, and then taking that and trying to actually raise some finances—which, believe me, in 2008 and 2009, was not an easy thing to do. And then I had to put that aside to direct. And then I had to put that aside to work on the whole editing process. And then there’s the aspect of the [promotion] I’m doing now. So, it’s been a huge, huge learning experience. But isn’t it true that, as children, we’re all artists as well? We all draw. Then some of us get to the age of seven or eight and we kind of think it’s childish. You don’t want to draw anymore and you move on to something else. So everyone has these raw abilities that many grow out of. Filmmaking, if you look at it out of context, is kind of ridiculous, but to be able to actually make something, which hopefully has a meaning and a message, I think that’s wonderful. It’s a privilege.