To film his latest docudrama, Touching the Void, British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald spent a month high in the Peruvian Andes with a "tiny crew and 70 donkeys," re-creating the adventures of mountaineers Simon Yates and Joe Simpson. It wasn't the first time he headed to a far-flung destination in search of a story. For One Day in September, his 2000 feature documentary about terrorism at the 1974 Olympic Games in Munich—for which he won an Emmy and an Academy Award for Best Documentary—he traveled throughout the Middle East, spending time in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Tunisia. He shows no interest in slowing down, either. We caught up with him in his London home shortly after he returned from a "reckie trip" (reconnaissance, or research, trip) to Africa, scouting the location for his next project, and shortly before he left for Los Angeles to promote Touching the Void (in theaters January 23). Here, he talks about what he loves about making movies, how he was affected by high altitude, and why he'll never climb another mountain again.
1. What attracted you to this particular project (Touching the Void )?
I read Joe Simpson's autobiographical book Touching the Void, and I thought it would make an incredible film. Even though I'm more of a town-y [city] person, I thought it would be amazing to go to this place he described and try to re-create his experience. I really bit off a bit more than I could chew, though. I didn't realize what hard work it would be, going to a place like that. I joined a gym and tried rather half-heartedly to get fit beforehand. But walking up to the base camp in the Andes I had so many regrets. By the end of the second day I was absolutely dead, just huffing and puffing away. They wanted me to get on a mule, I was looking so ill. But I wouldn't—it was just a matter of pride.
2. You spent a month in the Peruvian Andes—including a week at an elevation of 19,000 feet—to shoot the film. Did the altitude affect you?
Extreme elevation wrecks your body: your skin is dry and cracked, your lips are bleeding, your nails are coming out, you can't sleep, and you're always cold. In such thin air, there's always the threat of high-altitude mountain sickness, which can be fatal—especially when you're so isolated. But being so vulnerable made me appreciate the scale of the universe. It also made me wonder why the hell people ever go mountain climbing.
3. How did you pack for the trip?
The donkeys carried our heavy stuff, but we each carried a daypack that contained additional layers for warmth, two liters of water, iodine pills for sterilizing the water, goggles, a penknife, a whistle in case we got lost, and sunblock (especially important on the glaciers, where the ice reflects back up at you).
4. Did you face any unexpected challenges?
For one thing, everyone is roped together the whole time, wearing crampons. You can imagine the confusion. The camera man goes "Oh, I want to move over here," and everyone has to rearrange themselves, and before you know it you're all tangled up. And your batteries go down in about 30 seconds because it's so cold. So the whole crew ended up sleeping with huge camera batteries in their sleeping bags.
5. Had anyone on your crew done any mountain climbing before?
None of us had any experience. We had no idea what to do with crampons and harnesses and strange, breathable underwear. It was a bit like going to the moon, really. Thankfully, the famous British climber Brian Hall was our chief guide, and we did a lot of the learning on the job. We had to be taught everything: how to cross a glacier; what happens if you fall into a crevasse; how to walk uphill in crampons.
6. Do you think your lack of climbing experience shaped the final product?
Our fresh perspective was why the project worked. We weren't jaded. When we saw something amazing, we tried to capture it. Also, because we hadn't done it before, we didn't know what was impossible. When I said I wanted to film in a storm, the guides thought I was crazy. But then they made it happen. We shot in minus-40-degree weather and 100-mile-an-hour winds. So that's how we got such amazing storm sequences. We wanted to have it all look very real. And it was—we really were freezing our asses off.
7. What's your next project?
I'd like to film a contemporary thriller in Angola. The country is still trying to find its feet after a civil war—the longest running civil war in the world, 30-something years. It just ended last year. The city is frozen in the year 1975, because that's when the Portugeuse colonialists left. No one has done anything to fix anything—they've only tried to make do. Everything is held together with elastic bands and paper clips. But the place is beautiful: all fading colors and Portuguese architecture—a cross between Havana and Rio, with a bit of Sarajevo thrown in.
8. What do you like best about making movies?
Getting to be really nosy, entering into someone else's world, and getting paid for it. And not feeling bad about being so nosy. Also, I love filming places people haven't seen before. In Touching the Void, we filmed inside a crevasse. If you're filming in New York, you're thinking How on earth can I make this look different? Inside a crevasse you don't even have to try.
9. What did you learn during your time in the Andes?
Always be prepared to listen to the experts. I learned that going into wild nature makes you feel really insignificant. Spending time in a place like that gives you a clearer sense of your place in the world. Also, I gained a lot of respect for Joe and Simon, and for other climbers—the danger, the altitude, the physical difficulty. I do still think they're crazy, though—why would anyone do this for pleasure? It's so unpleasant.
10. So, that's the end of you and mountain climbing?You're not interested in doing it again?
I would like to do some climbing on nice warm rocks in the sun. But proper mountaineering, going up into the mountains, no—you've got to be a very special person to be able to do it and also to enjoy it. You've got to be into self-flagellation, to an extent.