When Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad was handed the script for “The Mountain Between Us” three years ago, he knew he wanted to shoot it at a real location.
In an era where practically anything can be created with the most realistic detail in a soundstage, Abu-Assad felt if he was going to put the audience in a harrowing situation like surviving an aeroplane crash, he would have to also put his cast and crew in that same kind of setting.
That meant shooting for a month on a mountain at an elevation of 11,000 feet.
Based on the 2011 book by Charles Martin, “The Mountain Between Us” (which opened Friday), was a script that had a few false starts before ending up with Abu-Assad. There was the time Michael Fassbender and Margot Robbie were attached, then Charlie Hunnam and Rosamund Pike. When Abu-Assad came around, Jessica Chastain was circling. But it’s easy to understand why stars might have been somewhat hesitant to go forward with the movie: It’s a love story set on a mountain after the two leads survive a plane crash.
In the story, Ben and Alex are strangers stranded at the Salt Lake City airport as a major storm grounds all flights. As both desperately need to get back to their homes for important events, Alex comes up with the idea of hiring a pilot with a small plane to fly them back home. Ben tags along. But over the snowy mountains of Utah, the pilot suffers a heart attack, leading to a dramatic crash landing. Ben, Alex, and the pilot’s dog all survive, but with little food they have to figure out quickly how to get rescued. Eventually, Ben and Alex’s journey to be rescued leads to a romance.
It’s not the kind of movie that’s an easy sell for a date night.
But Abu-Assad felt with the harrowing journey Ben and Alex have to endure to survive, a powerful love story could also be told.
“The idea was great between a survival tale and it turning out to be a love story, and what’s the difference between love and survival? Is there any difference between the two?” Abu-Assad said to Business Insider. “We fall in love, I think, because we want to survive. We want to bring kids to the world. So the theme is very interesting. There aren’t many movies being done with the combination of survival and love.”
Soon after signing on, Abu-Assad got a new version of the script following a rewrite by Chris Weitz, which he said was the best version he’d seen yet. With a locked script, Abu-Assad got it to Idris Elba, who was interested but knew the movie needed a strong female costar. Then at the 2015 British Film Academy Awards, Elba and Kate Winslet connected and the two decided they were up for the challenge of making “The Mountain Between Us.”
But even Abu-Assad admits, at times during shooting he wished he had done it all on a soundstage.
Following a month of pre-production in late 2016, production shot for a month on the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia (which doubled for the Utah mountain Ben and Alex are stuck on in the movie). Each day started with a helicopter trip up the mountain from the base camp. And not just the cast and crew, but all the equipment had to be flown up each day. Also, the helicopter would only take everyone up if if was a clear day and not a cloud in sight. As Abu-Assad learned the hard way one morning.
“I always flew up first with my DP, first AD, line producer, and location manager,” Abu-Assad said. “We go up and then suddenly we were rounding the mountain and there was this huge cloud on the other side of it. So the pilot had to turn around very fast — because if you go into that cloud you can’t see anything, you’d be flying blind — and we went back down the mountain very fast. It was a free fall. It was like a bungee jump. That was the worst day for me.”
Shooting days only lasted six hours because everyone had to get off the mountain by the time the sun went down. And the altitude was a constant battle. Abu-Assad said numerous people fainted, including Elba.
And the elements didn’t just take its toll on the cast and crew, but the equipment as well. With the cold at times getting to around 40 below, all the cameras had to run 24 hours a day because they learned if they turned them off, they would never start back up.
Abu-Assad tried to keep everyone in high spirits through the shoot, but there were bad days.
The movie, shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Australia,” “Hidden Figures”), has gorgeous wide shots of miles of untouched snow with huge mountain ranges for as far as the eye can see. To pull off the look of the characters being in the middle of nowhere, Abu-Assad said the production had to walk for a good mile, lugging all the equipment (which included cranes and dolly tracks), in deep snow. Often up hills. In one instance, the crew almost revolted.
“One day we had walked and set up the shot and were ready, but then I was like ‘This is not the right angle, we have to move the camera another half mile,’ because I wanted to get the mountains in the background,” he said. “You should have seen my crew shouting at me. ‘You can’t do this!’ I felt really guilty. The line producer was yelling at me, ‘Hany, you can’t do this!’ and I said, ‘We started already, let’s continue.’ We all had to work together to make it possible and they did it.”
So despite some days wishing he had a warm coffee in his hands inside a comfortable studio set, Abu-Assad looks back and believes the experience on the mountain was needed to make the movie.
“To be honest, this is what drives me to make movies,” Abu-Assad said. “I want to have a challenge. And an honest picture. Because if you do it in a studio with a green screen, you won’t be making honest decisions about your shots, lens, lighting. But when you are on location, every decision is an honest decision because you are hungry, you are cold, you are all in the same situation. The actors didn’t need to pretend. We couldn’t get food up there. Everyone had energy bars to chew on.”
But Abu-Assad isn’t crazy. Yes, he’d be willing to make a movie in these conditions again, just not the next one.
“The next movie is on a beach,” he said with a laugh. “Sun and beer and beautiful girls.”
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