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The stars and filmmakers of Vertical Limit find that climbing the fearsome K2 is only a symbol for the moral questions of what’s right and wrong – and the dynamics of our urge to survive. Another big issue is relationships, and the story could even be set on flat land, says New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell.

Vertical Limit chronicles a damaged yet loving brother-sister relationship against the backdrop of an intensely dangerous mountain rescue. The dynamics of the human urge for survival are played out on the chilling might of K2, the world's second highest and most challenging mountain.

For director Martin Campbell, the mountain environment is the added dimension- not the core- of the film. It is a film about relationships, not a mountain movie or a film about climbing. "Forget the mountain, forget the snow, forget the conditions- Vertical Limit is a drama that could be played out on flat land, and it would still be a fantastic movie about love, family and courage."

"a drama set against a mountain"

Producer Lloyd Phillips says, "This is first and foremost a drama- but it's a drama set against a mountain. It's a story of people- of personalities- and the dramas that take place within and between these characters." Chris O'Donnell was called upon to essay the role of the foremost of these characters, Peter Garrett. Garrett's life is devastated after a climbing accident in which he was forced to cut the rope holding his father in order to save his sister and himself. His sister hasn't forgiven him, and when they meet after three years of estrangement, he must climb K2, the world's most feared mountain, to rescue her.

"There is no doubt in his mind about what he has to do," explains O’Donnell of Garrett's mission. "There's not a chance that he's not going after her and giving it his all. If it kills him in the process that's fine, because the idea of living without having tried would be harder for him. His only concern is to get her out."

O’Donnell was attracted to the role and intrigued by the project. He also wanted to work with director Martin Campbell. "Martin's amazing. I felt really comfortable working with him. He was so prepared. In his head he'd already cut the whole movie, so he knew exactly what he wanted. That's the way I like to work, " says O’Donnell. "He really pays attention to every little nuance. It's been great because we've really been able to pick out little points and beats to make a scene special."

Fellow Chicagoan Robin Tunney joined the cast as Peter's sister, Annie. "I've actually known Robin for a while because she's from Chicago, and we had the same agent 10 or 12 years ago," says O’Donnell. "It was the strangest feeling to be making this film in New Zealand with this girl I knew when we were making television commercials back in Chicago. She's really talented. A lot of our scenes are pretty emotional because of what our characters have gone through, and it's been great working with her."

"the emotional heart"

Tunney was attracted to the character of Annie because "she's incredibly individual. A lot of times when you're looking for roles in film as a woman, you're the girlfriend, or the wife, or the daughter, or the appendage. This woman is very independent, and that's hard to come by."

Annie's relationship with her brother is the emotional heart of the film. Tunney explains how the siblings withdrew from each other in the complicated aftermath of their father's passing: "In the three years since their father's death, Peter's thrown himself into photography and has been incredibly isolated. My character has thrown herself into climbing, the sport that her father loved and she also loves. That's her way of grieving."

Tunney was also fascinated by the questions Annie must face once she is trapped in the ice cave with Elliot Vaughn, whose philosophy on surviving the catastrophe is diametrically opposed to hers. "She'd rather give her life to save somebody else's, and he is more 'survival of the fittest,' out for himself," says Tunney. "I don't think that's right or wrong. I think everybody can say ideally how they would react in a life or death situation. But we don't really know unless we've been in that circumstance, and I think that's one of the interesting things in the movie."

Like O’Donnell, director Martin Campbell was a major factor in Tunney’s accepting the role of Annie. "He's amazing. He's incredibly good at the technical aspect of filmmaking, but he really pays attention to the actors, and he'll keep going until you get it right. He knows exactly the film he wants to make in his mind- every single second of it.

"There's also the fact that he put together such a good group of people. Everybody in the cast was so nice, and there was always somebody to make you smile. It was easy to be on set because nobody pulled any strange attitude about how uncomfortable they were or how important they are."


Like many of the other actors, Tunney relished the opportunity to learn to climb and quickly became adept on the mountain. "Even though we were only at 10,000 feet, and we are supposed to be at 26,000 feet in the movie, it was challenging. This was a very extreme way to make a movie."

Bill Paxton came aboard to portray wealthy, self -centered entrepreneur Elliot Vaughn, whom some might consider the villain in the movie. "He makes no bones about it- he's a self-made man," says Paxton. "He believes that when you're up on a mountain you have to take responsibility for yourself, and that self-preservation is the nobler pursuit.

"Does that make him a villain?" asks the actor. That is for audiences to judge.

Like Tunney, Paxton was fascinated by the moral questions the film poses. "In this movie, the mountain represents different things to different people. For my character, he's going to go up the mountain just to look at the view and look at his own domain. He pushes these people into a very dangerous situation through his own blind ambition. He has no qualms about leaving anybody up there... .we're all adults, and we've made the choice to be up there. Now, that's a cold point of view, but that's a realistic point of view."

Paxton also looked forward to learning the art and science of climbing, especially from Vertical Limit's expert consultants. "It's always fun to learn respect for a different profession," says Paxton. "Some of the stories that these guys have are amazing. They have been in truly life and death situations."

Published 21/12/2000

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