Everest (2015): Kormákur’s Epic Journey from Nepal to Pinewood, via the Italian Alps

The epic adventure Everest serves as the opening night of the 2015 Venice Film Fest.

Film shoots are always challenging, but work on Everest surpassed the exhaustions of most, as the cast and crew boarded an epic production that became an expedition of its own.  With unit shoots in locations as far afield as Nepal, the Italian Alps, Cinecittà Studios in Rome and Pinewood Studios in the U.K., the challenges of filming this epic-adventure exceeded all expectations.

Most audiences are familiar with Mount Everest through documentaries, so it was critical for Kormákur that he steer clear of that cinéma vérité feel.  The director knew that he wanted Everest be authentically and cinematically shot so that the cast and crew, as well as the audience, would comprehend the immensity of the mountain and be emotionally invested in the stories of these actual people.  To that end, he would never ask his team to do anything he wouldn’t and tends to direct adjacent to camera—as close to the actors as possible—as opposed to sitting back in a tent at video village.

Kormákur collaborated with cinematographer Salvatore Totino, director Ron Howard’s collaborator on such blockbusters as The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, as well as the filmmaker’s more intimate work such as Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man.  Together, they were committed to lensing this sweeping epic in a manner that showed off the majesty of the mountain…and the danger that was around every turn.

Because of the Herculean task of moving this much equipment during production, Totino did have some issues getting his equipment into various locations.  As well, there was the conundrum of keeping the camera from freezing.  Fortunately, warming tents for the ALEXA were readily available.

The film’s schedule was ambitious, beginning on January 14, 2014, with a reduced unit starting principal photography in Kathmandu.  Scenes were shot at altitudes of 16,000 ft., giving the cast an acute sense of the challenges of life at high altitudes.  “The altitude really hits you,” relays Clarke.  “You hike in, and it gets you ready; acclimatization starts at Base Camp.  As actors, we were blessed, traveling in and around the Himalayas, and we became a tight bunch.”  Despite being more used to five-star hotels and luxury trailers, the Everest cast—and crew for that matter—quickly grasped the reality of life on the mountain as they trekked through the foothills.

Kormákur lists some of their issues: “The water was freezing; we didn’t have any heating in our accommodations.  We slept with electric blankets.  We could hardly get out of the bed to take a piss because it was so cold.  The cast didn’t have assistants or help with much. They had to walk to set and carry all their own gear.”

Brolin recalls those trying times: “Balt wanted it as real as possible.  We worked whatever hours they needed us to work so the conventional filming day—when you get a call time, go to a trailer to get your makeup done and so on—just didn’t exist.  I remember lying in bed exhaling massive clouds of breath, not believing quite how cold I felt.  But that lent to everything.  As much as we complained, we liked it and it brought us together as a core group.”

Breashears, who has spent his life filming in unforgiving places with extreme environments, notes: “We all came together not having worked together before and were immediately thrown into this maelstrom of activity, out of the chaos of Kathmandu into the foothills of Everest.  We had to deal with the challenges of a crew, many of whom had never been 15,000 ft. and higher.  We didn’t have the luxury of slowing down as a trekking or climbing group does, as we were under tremendous pressure to get a lot of work done in a day.

“We had a minimum of 190 to 200 individual landings in the approach to Mount Everest, moving crew and huge sling loads of gear to remote mountain perches,” he continues.  “Because we were doing that and not travelling on foot as much, it was more difficult to acclimatize.  It totally eclipsed any other logistical effort with which I’ve been involved in the Himalayas.”

Producer Kentish Barnes sums up the crew’s experience: “It was brutal but a fantastic bonding experience for the team.”

From Nepal, the unit relocated to Val Senales in northern Italy to shoot exclusively on the Senales Glacier, with approximately 180 crew members from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Italy, the U.S., Iceland and Nepal forming the unit.  A challenging shoot was made even more difficult when the production was hit with one of the heaviest snowfalls in recorded history, which at times buried the set in meters of white powder.

Explains production designer Gary Freeman: “We would be erecting tents up a mountain, which were very difficult to access on 45-degree slopes.  As Balt likes his extreme locations, we would come back two days later and the tents would be gone, buried underneath thick snow.  My team did an amazing job just continuously digging the set out and rebuilding it.”

Due to fears of avalanches, which played havoc with the production schedule, the Senales Glacier was also closed for days at a time.  When the glacier was open, cast, crew and equipment alike were transported by a combination of snowcat, snow quad, snowmobile and helicopter up the slopes, with some people choosing to go up in cable cars and chairlifts.

Breashears recalls those complex days: “It was a prime environment for the actors to learn what it’s like to be in a high, cold, windy environment.  They were outside for eight or nine hours a day, sometimes 10, and occasionally we worked into the dark.”

The South Tyrol area of the Italian Alps provided a fantastic, dramatic landscape to double for Everest, though it did present the cast and crew with many challenges, including working at a high altitude with wind chill temperatures as low as -30°C.

Gyllenhaal walks us through this time: “Watching crew 12,000 ft. up on the mountain in a snowstorm moving equipment, Sherpas carrying huge fans on their backs, helicopters dropping pieces of camera, and all of us carrying things up there—setting lines 15 minutes before a take and bringing cameras up to different angles on different rocks—the organization of all that, along with the intensity of making this movie, was extraordinary.”

To contribute to the authenticity, production cast 11 real climbing Sherpas in the film.  Indeed, they left their home country of Nepal for the first time to travel to the Italian Alps, and eventually to the Cinecittà and Pinewood studios.  Breashears describes their reaction to Base Camp on the studio back lot: “They were just awestruck.  That the Sherpas felt they were at Base Camp says everything about how good the work was.”

Producer Bevan reflects upon the Sherpas’ contribution to the production: “If the mountain belongs to anybody, it belongs to them.  They are very much part of the mythology of Everest and, indeed, the climbing of Everest.  They’re also our unsung heroes because they did the heavy lifts.”

The Sherpas helped to complete the design of the set by arranging the kitchen as they would at the actual Base Camp.  They even went in there to make their own meals when the production worked late and they had grown weary of craft services.  It was not uncommon to find them cooking dal bot, a lentil stew with rice, a typical Sherpa dish.

From there, the production moved to Pinewood Studios in London, where the design team had re-created many familiar sights from the face of Everest, including the Khumbu Icefall, the South Col. and the summit, on the famous 007 Stage.  Shooting these segments in a controlled environment was essential, allowing Kormákur to achieve the shots he wanted without placing any of the actors or crew in danger.

Creating costumes for the cast wasn’t as simple as a trip to the nearest outdoor-gear store.  The events of the story had occurred nearly 20 years ago, and technology has moved swiftly in the field of mountaineering clothing.

Costume designer Guy Speranza describes three levels: a casual outfit; one that would have been worn from Base Camp to Camp Three (24,500 ft./7,468m); and gear for the summit, which involved thick down suits.  “That was our biggest challenge,” notes Speranza.  “We had to find period down suits that were available in many multiples, because we have so many stunts and stages, and just so many individual characters.”

Another consideration was warmth, or rather, overheating.  While many scenes were shot on location and at altitude, the 007 Stage and Pinewood Studios served as stand-ins for the scenes with higher altitudes (i.e., higher up on the Khumbu Icefall, the South Col. and the summit).  Down suits meant for 29,000 ft. would have been far too warm for the actors to use practically on the room-temperature soundstage.  “In the end, we pretty much created the suits ourselves,” says Speranza.  “We gave each actor their own color, so we could instantly recognize who we’re looking at, even when they’re wearing oxygen masks, goggles and hats.”


The 2014 climbing season on Everest kicked off as the film neared completion. But on April 18, tragedy struck again when 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche.  A massive piece of glacier sheared away from the mountain along a treacherous section of constantly shifting ice and crevasses known as the Khumbu Icefall, forcing an unprecedented shutdown of the world’s highest peak.

The avalanche became the deadliest disaster in history on the world’s highest mountain.  At the time, there was a second unit crew at Everest Base Camp that was acclimatizing in preparation for their ascent to shoot plates for the film.  Fortunately, none of these crew members were injured.  This latest tragedy underscored the potential for loss and devastation faced by those who attempt to understand this mountain…and just how at her mercy we truly are.


Universal Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures present—in association with Walden Media—a Working Title production, in association with RVK Studios and Free State Pictures: a Baltasar Kormákur film: Everest, starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal.  The casting is by Fiona Weir, and the music is by Dario Marianelli.  Everest’s costume designer is Guy Speranza, and its hair and makeup designer is Jan Sewell.  The epic action-adventure’s editor is Mick Audsley, and its production designer is Gary Freeman.  The film’s director of photography is Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC, and its co-producers are David Breashears, David Nichols.  The film’s executive producers are Angela Morrison, Liza Chasin, Evan Hayes, Randall Emmett, Peter Mallouk, Mark Mallouk, Lauren Selig.  Everest is produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson.  The screenplay is by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, and the film is directed by Baltasar Kormákur.