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After 15 years of headscratching, filmmakers have finally found a way to make a film of the amazing story of two friends in a controversial mountaineering accident in remote Peru. A dramatised documentary can tell the true story in a way that a feature never could. They can say what was happening in the minds of the climbers in a direct way, but if it was simply a drama it would have been impossible without a narration. The result is a gripping, haunting movie about something more than mere adventure.

Touching The Void is based on the international bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by Joe Simpson. It tells the extraordinary true story of two mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who narrowly escaped death high in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 when Simpson fell and shattered his leg. 

Ultimately, their predicament forced Yates to save his own life by cutting the rope that bound him to Simpson. Simpson fell into a crevasse but managed to escape and crawl for three and a half days down the mountain to safety, without food or water and in an increasing state of physical and psychological deterioration. He arrived back at base camp just hours before Yates was due to leave forever. 

Their return to the UK was met with mixed reactions. Shocked that one of their own had broken the ultimate climbing taboo and cut the rope, the mountaineering community was highly critical of Yates and there was an attempt to blackball him from the Alpine Club. On one occasion, he was even physically attacked. It was this reaction that originally drove Simpson to publish his story and defend the actions of his friend. Joe believed there had been no other choice and that Yates’s action in cutting the rope had in fact saved both their lives.

"the real life survival story"

To take this story from the page to the screen was an enormous challenge. Over the past fifteen years numerous attempts had been made, but all to no avail. In the late nineties Actress Sally Field’s Fogwood Films acquired the option, intending to turn the story into a Hollywood feature film that was to star Tom Cruise. However, no feature film has been made. One major creative problem is that up until now writers have struggled as to how to bring Touching The Void to the screen, given that there are only two protagonists and they are separated for most of the story. 

This is the real life survival story of Simpson and Yates and, for both of them, it was crucial that the truth be told without dramatic falsification – particularly since the reason Simpson originally wrote his book was to explain what really happened and exonerate Yates. 

It was with this in mind that journalist and co-producer Sue Summers first contacted Simpson about Darlow Smithson producing the film. Summers was originally researching for Darlow Smithson ideas for a television series of modern escape stories but she was so taken by the power of Touching The Void that she immediately recognised the big screen potential for this film. “It is essentially a story of survival but it works on several levels which make it accessible to anyone, regardless of their interest in actual mountaineering. On one level it is about mountain climbing, on another it is about human endurance and overcoming a terrible situation against all odds. I think it’s very inspirational – so many people have found this story very powerful and inspiring in their own lives.”

Over years of attempts to turn this story into a film, Simpson realised the difficulties presented and warmed to the approach that Darlow Smithson were proposing. Simpson explains, “I thought drama documentary would be better than straight drama because it would be closer to a non fiction book, whereas if you had a movie with invented storylines to make things work, you would get a feeling that it’s just not true. Similarly, a lot of people have said about the book that if it had been written as a fiction it would have been regarded as laughable.” Sue Summers explains this reasoning further: “It occurred to us that a dramatised documentary could tell the true story in a way that a feature never could. We would actually be able to say what was happening in their minds in a direct way, whereas if it was simply a drama it would have been impossible without a narration.”

"new challenges"

Bringing documentary and drama together for mainstream cinema release presented new challenges to director Kevin Macdonald. Both Smithson and Summers had been impressed by Macdonald’s past work, including his documentary One Day In September which won him the Best Documentary Oscar for 2000. With actors playing the young Simpson and Yates, Macdonald was determined to avoid the stilted dramatisations and reconstructions that are so often associated with the documentary genre. “The problem with this unusual mix of documentary and feature film is the dilemma of whether your sympathy lies with the actor or with the real person. The dramatised sections in documentaries are usually played by faceless figures simply illustrating the actions and we really wanted to steer clear of that. What we decided to do was to try to go all out for drama so that you’re with the actor and with the real person too – it’s a fine balance but I think we found two excellent actors also with very good physical resemblance to Joe and Simon which is important.”

One of the greatest challenges to the crew however, especially on a limited budget, was the physical terrain in which most of the film would need to be made. The film was shot in three distinct sections. Firstly, Simpson and Yates were interviewed in a London studio straight to camera. These interviews were long and demanding, especially as each had to relive the events of that fateful journey in the most minute detail. This was crucial as the footage from these interviews and subsequent voiceover material form the main narrative spine of the film to which the drama and visuals are attached. 

The second stage of film took place around the actual Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes where the real events had happened. The crew visit was made during a narrow window of good Andean weather in the month of June. Darlow Smithson took on the expertise of Brian Hall, one of the top climbers in the UK, who runs a company called High Exposure which specialises in filming in extreme and adventurous locations. Hall had previously worked with the crews of Shackleton in Antarctica and the James Bond film Die Another Day in Iceland, so was well placed to lead the mountaineering film shoot. Siula Grande is extremely isolated and there are no real roads to this 21,000 foot giant. The base camp is at a higher altitude than Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, so the thinness of the air alone was an enormous challenge for the crew. After the road ran out, the team of twenty had to trek for three days through the foothills to reach the base camp. The location was so high and isolated that it was impossible even to use helicopters so equipment and supplies were carried on the backs of 80 donkeys.

"sheer scale"

The sheer scale of the climb and the remote and dangerous terrain made a full film shoot impossible so the crew focused on filming visuals of the Siula Grande mountain and recording Simpson and Yates’ reactions as they revisited the fateful mountain together for the first time. This latter element led to a new challenge that neither the crew nor Simpson and Yates had expected. Joe in particular was overwhelmed with the emotional reactions he experienced upon arriving at Siula Grande again. Simpson offers his own insight into this: “I thought that I would just be able to deal with it but what I found was that things really affected me strongly in ways I had never expected. I got to the base camp, which had been recreated, but it didn’t mean anything to me. Then I asked Simon where he found me. He walked about a hundred yards away and pointed at this rock and I remembered it all and started having a freak-out in my head. I wasn’t shaking but I felt like I was. It was like someone walking over your grave. I had forgotten just how appalling it was being reduced to almost nothing.”

For director Macdonald, this introduced a whole new dimension to the film shoot – an extremely delicate balance had to be managed between capturing these highly emotional reactions on camera, and simply respecting the intensely personal trauma that Simpson and Yates were going through. Macdonald had originally not wanted to film them revisiting the scene: “We were telling the story of the book – I envisaged this to be a different film to any film about them going back there. But their reactions when we got there made me realise just how alive their story still is to both of them in their daily lives. In a way they can’t ever escape it.”

But the greatest challenges came with the third and final phase of filming, which took place in the Alps in October. It was here that most of the drama was filmed amidst treacherous terrain and temperatures which sometimes dropped to -20. Producer John Smithson explains how difficult this was: “We were in really extreme conditions. The air was thin, dehydration was a constant issue and hypothermia remained a threat day and night. We all had basic training about where to walk, where not to walk, when to wear crampons, always wearing a harness, always being roped together. You would be lowered into a crevasse, break through the snow and realise that there was actually a huge cathedral like space underneath it that you could have fallen into. The physical and mental efforts demanded of the crew were far greater than your average film shoot.”


The twenty-two day shoot was made more arduous by the lack of any contingency days and some of the worst snowstorms of the decade in the Alps. “It was terribly difficult,” says Macdonald. “The camera freezing up, the lenses fogging over, the actors and ourselves getting pulled aside by the safety guys because they said it was too cold and we were going to get frostbitten. We had to go in and out half an hour at a time. And it’s a lot of action with no dialogue so it’s not like you can just resort to dialogue scenes, you’ve got to be very physical non-stop. Every day was a fight just to get things done, just to get even some of it covered and that was exhausting.”

Nevertheless, Macdonald is very happy with the results, believing that filming in real mountains and snowstorms far exceeds anything that would be generated artificially. “I think seeing an actor in 18 mile an hour winds with snow crusted around his face is so real it pays off.”

Published June 24, 2004

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