On screen in Aspen: Filmmaker, others follow in Mallory’s footsteps
December 23, 2009
ASPEN – During his stint with the BBC, Anthony Geffen made films in war-torn Lebanon. He has visited remote jungles and shadowed Yasser Arafat for a year in which the Palestinian leader survived multiple assassination attempts. He even witnessed first-hand the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989.
It took a trip to 26,000 feet on the world’s tallest mountain for the British filmmaker to fully comprehend his own vulnerability.
“I wasn’t going to get a bullet in my back, but it might have gone way beyond what I could control,” Geffen said recently in a telephone interview from London. “You might have an avalanche. You might not be able to get from one place to the next before you [get caught in a storm and] freeze on the mountain.
“One situation is not particularly more dangerous than another … but I think this probably, in a way, was most extreme.”
But Geffen was not willing to compromise. Not when he endeavored to accurately and realistically portray famed climber George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 expedition on 29,029-foot Mount Everest. The British climber and partner Sandy Irvine disappeared on June 8, some 800 feet from the summit.
The tale forms the basis of Geffen’s new film “The Wildest Dream,” which shows at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Harris Hall as part of Aspen’s Academy Screenings. The project is the first theatrical release for Geffen, who served as both director and producer.
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Geffen remembers being riveted by the tale of adventure and mystery as a young boy.
“A guy in a tweed jacket and hobnail boots climbing up Everest, then disappears – as a kid, that has everything you want,” he said.
That intrigue was further stoked during his time spent working in Los Angeles under movie mogul Frank Wells, who climbed six of the world’s seven tallest peaks. Only Everest eluded him.
The seed for a project a lifetime in the making was planted in 1999, when American mountaineer Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s remains on Everest’s Northeast Ridge.
“I didn’t want to make a film just about Everest, or just about Mallory,” Geffen said. “When Conrad found the body, I realized how that film should be made, a parallel version of going back in the footsteps of Mallory. I like the idea of living in two worlds. It’s an interesting thing to play around, and something a drama documentary can do uniquely.”
Geffen initially set out to tackle one fundamental question: Were Mallory and Irvine the first to reach the top of the world? Mallory’s body was discovered with clothing and other equipment intact. The only thing missing was a picture of his wife – a photo he promised his beloved Ruth he would leave on the summit.
In his attempt to uncover an answer, Geffen enlisted the help of Anker, a man whose life in many ways mirrors Mallory’s. What emerges is a story about both retracing history and delving into the lives of two climbers torn by their devotion to both their families and to high peaks. Two men whose paths crossed after 75 years.
The drama, which took three years to organize, played out during three grueling months of filming on Everest in spring 2007.
“Why shoot on Everest? You realize you can’t shoot anywhere else,” Geffen said. “Up there is a world you can only capture by filming it. … That’s why authenticity came in. We wanted it to be a view and experience of Everest like never seen before, above what is a great story.”
In the wake of successful expeditions to the North and South poles, Everest represented the last great conquest in the 1920s, Geffen said. He went to great lengths to replicate conditions during Mallory’s quest.
He had Anker and climbing partner Leo Houlding wear era clothing for portions of the climb. Certain dramatic recreations were also filmed on-site.
“Full make-up and wardrobe in a blizzard at 27,000 feet,” Geffen joked. “The highest costume drama that has ever been shot.”
Also, a ladder on the famed Second Step, a 90-foot section of steep rock near the summit that was Mallory’s and Irvine’s last and arguably most daunting obstacle, was removed.
That set the stage for the compelling climax to Geffen’s film. On Anker’s initial attempt to scale the step, he slipped.
Geffen saw the scene unfold about 1,000 feet below.
“It was really nerve-wracking because I couldn’t do anything. It was really odd,” he recalled. “It was a very strange experience. … It was kind of symbolic in a way of did [Mallory] or did [Mallory] not make it. Is Conrad going to make it?”
The scene was captured by two cameramen hanging precariously above Anker. Interestingly, the two men were novices who stepped in at the last minute after one of the original crew members left to be at his ill mother’s side and another developed bronchitis.
Geffen, who made it as high as 26,000 feet, watched high altitude and bitter cold take their toll. He recalls trying to hold a camera with “hands frozen straight,” badly burning his skin, the exhaustion and constant concerns about falling through a hidden crevasse.
“It’s tough mentally. People get weird up there, people are constantly out of character,” he said. “Your memory goes a bit. It took four or five months to adjust back to a normal way of life. … You come down and a lot of the problems you thought you had every day around you suddenly become insignificant.”
He continued: “While we were up there, about six people [on different expeditions] died. I counted about 40 bodies. It is a rough place. When you’re up there, you’re slightly in another world. Nothing is unusual anymore.
“It’s amazing we pulled it off.”
Anker regained his footing. After several minutes spent composing himself, he tempted fate on the Second Step once more. This time, he emerged victorious. Houlding followed soon after.
Later, cameras captured footage of the two men embracing on the summit.
Geffen shared in their triumph.
“I felt after climbing the Second Step that it was totally possible [Mallory and Irvine] could’ve made it. I think that is what is interesting to me,” Geffen said. “We’ll never know. … That’s a mystery I really didn’t want to change.”
Geffen emerged from Everest with a renewed respect for Mallory – and for himself.
“It makes you realize you can do things you didn’t think you could really do, and how far you can go to get them,” he said. “But I’m not planning on going to Antarctica to make a film.”
What’s next for Geffen? What is his wildest dream?
He talks about plans to explore remote rivers across the world. Currently, he’s working on a film chronicling the discovery of dinosaurs in outer Mongolia.
Admittedly, he admits his trip to Everest will be hard to top.
“There’s a bit of all of us that pushes ourselves in different ways to the edge,” he said. “This is about a man who has a dream he can do something that no one else can do. That’s human nature at its best.”