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Jennifer Peedom on making Mountain

BAFTA-nominated director Jennifer Peedom, best known for capturing adventurers in extreme circumstances, explains how she made her new film and why she returned to the mountains.

Jennifer Peedom has always felt at home among mountains.

Growing up in Canberra, she and her family always went on adventurous holidays. “I think I climbed Mount Kosciusko when I was seven years old,” she says.

But it was later on that she discovered her affinity for, and effortless compatability with, life up high.

“When I was in my 20s I was living in Tamarama (NSW) with a bunch of New Zealanders and I  knew how to operate a camera, so I ended up working as a ‘terrier’ on adventure races (mixed discipline races involving teamwork and nagivation). And that kind of led to the mountains,” she says.

“For me, when I first went to the mountains, it was kind of all over. I felt physically comfortable there, my body seemed to work really well at altitude. It felt very much like coming home.”

Working in the mountains, including on Everest as a climbing camera operator, introduced her to a community of individuals who thrived off the adrenaline rush of climbing ever higher and challenging themselves to do things nobody else had done before. As a filmmaker she understood this because, as she says, “you need to have an appetite for risk to be in this game.”

It was partly this that inspired her latest film Mountain, in cinemas 21 September.

“What Mountain explores… and the reason that I wanted to make it, was that I have had some insight into that world and I can see part of what is so alluring to those climbers and also what is so addictive about it. Because coming back to normal life after having those very heightened experiences can be quite difficult.”

In 2016 her feature documentary Sherpa screened at festivals around the world including Toronto and London, where it won the Grierson Award for best documentary film. It went on to gross $1.3M at the Australian box office, making it the fifth highest-ever grossing Australian documentary domestically.

Sherpa was solely Peedom’s creative vision, while Mountain is a true collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO).

In 2014 Richard Tognetti, Artistic Director of the ACO, approached Peedom after seeing her 2008 film Solo and asked her to collaborate with the ACO for a project about mountains. “Even though it was mountains – and I had done a lot of mountains before – to collaborate creatively in this way… it was an exciting opportunity to do something that I hadn’t done before.”

Mountain

Here, she elaborates on the creative process of making Mountain and her desire to explore the experiential film medium.

How did you decide what to film?

Renan (Ozturk)Mountain’s cinematographer – was the starting point. He had this library of footage that he had created from his own adventures. He might have shot a little three minute piece for The North Face, but there was 17 hours of footage from it. He and I spent a lot of time talking about this film when we were at base camp shooting Sherpa, because I already knew I was going to be involved in it. So it started with his library and the B-roll of other things I’d shot, and then it was a case of filling in the gaps in order to tell the story.

Renan would lead us to other cinematographers. He introduced me to Sherpas Cinema who are the other major cinematography collaborators.  

And he would also then ring me up and say, ‘this crazy tightrope walker is going to attempt this record breaking thing and do you want me to shoot it?’ and he’d just get the drone out and shoot it.

It was a two-year process so we had a long time to flesh things out. It was a real combination of different ways of collecting footage.  

Renan also worked with you on Sherpa.

Renan is an extraordinary climber in his own right – one of the best climbers in the world – but he just happens to also have an amazing eye. He was a painter before he was a cinematographer. He learnt to be a cinematographer through shooting his own expeditions for The North Face – they require a lot of their sponsored athletes now to shoot their expeditions.  

I will never understand how Renan manages to shoot it, but there’s this footage at the very beginning of the film with Alex Honnold free climbing. To think that Renan is there hanging above him on a rope filming, knowing that his friend could die at any moment if he puts a step wrong. There are very few people who Alex Honnold will let film him for that reason, but Renan knows the risks involved.

what came first – the images or the music? And where did the narration come in?

There’s no simple answer to that because it happened quite organically. I started with the imagery and the story. I really wanted to meet Robert McFarlane who’d written this amazing book Mountains of the Mind and I thought if anyone can help me nut out a narrative structure, when all I’ve got to work with is music and pictures, it has to be him. And luckily he said yes.

Then I listened to every single thing that the ACO had ever recorded and and I would mark things as favourite. Or listening to the music would trigger certain ideas and I’d think ‘oh that could work for this particular section’.

We placed it against the images in the rough cut and let Richard (Tognetti) respond. Then we had a whole lot of gaps that needed to be filled, and we filled those with original compositions.

do you feel that there was a natural alignment for you with this project? 

I took it on as a creative challenge. I knew it was going to be challenging and it was. It was very hard to make a film in this way. For me the triumph of it is that we got there – we overcame a lot of those hurdles.

I knew the orchestra quite well – my best friend’s husband is a cellist in the ACO and I’ve been to a lot of their concerts. So I knew they had done these interesting collaborations before with surf cinematographers.

Somebody said to me ‘what does that mean – a collaboration as a director?’– it was Phil Noyce actually – and I said ‘it means I am not the only boss, there are other opinions that really need to be listened to and brought on’. And lots of those ideas came from Richard.

did you feel like the music could push the visuals even further?

I tend to be more understated, probably because I’ve been in the mountains more and had those experiences, (so) that was partly Richard’s response to those images. When he first started doing those original compositions I’d say ‘it feels to me like a horror show!’ and he’d say ‘but it is! It’s terrifying! It’s horrific!’ and I’d say ‘but it’s beautiful’. I was going for something quite different. Where we ended up is that they do both those things. There’s moments of majesty and beauty, and other moments where the music really expresses Richard’s terror.

Willem Dafoe has such a distinctive voice. How did he get involved AS NARRATOR?

For whatever reason I knew that the voice needed to be special, and not just that but that the artist themselves that was contributing their voice – it needed to not feel tokenistic. To not just be a famous actor in order to get more marketing.

I held off for a long time because the right idea hadn’t popped into my head and one day my friend Bec Smith suggested Willem Dafoe and I just thought ‘that’s perfect’. You can imagine Willem Dafoe in those mountains. It feels utterly authentic to me. And then Willem Dafoe the artist also has this artistic integrity. He’s an artist and actor who takes a lot of risks, so that felt right as well. It just worked on a whole lot of levels.

Did you always envision Mountain as a live performance?

It was originally conceived as a live performance only (the film had its world premiere in June at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival, with live accompaniment by the ACO who later took it on tour). But I wanted to bring the theatrical to it – that was part of the challenge I set myself.

It is undeniably an amazing experience as a concert because it is an extraordinary orchestra – Richard’s performance, the orchestra’s performance, piano solos – I mean it really is incredibly special. But so far it seems to be working as the standalone (in cinemas). People are commenting that they see more in the film, because they’re less inclined to be looking at an orchestra. I think you get something different from both experiences. And for IMAX it’s a shorter version, it’s 4K, there’ll be 3D, so it’s going to be a totally different experience again.

That’s one of the things I’m proud of about this project is that it’s really reached from the orchestra-going audiences, to normal cinema-going audiences, to then IMAX, which will be kids in museums all around the world. They’re three totally different audiences seeing the same film in slightly different ways.

You were funded through Screen Australia’s Enterprise program to focus on making giant screen cinema and feature documentaries. Why are you interested in this area and how do you see it developing?

Mountain really was the catalyst for us looking into giant screen projects. I think part of it is looking at the market – and when I say the market I mean the whole world – and I think audiences are looking for something different. I think borders are breaking down. I’m interested in reaching international audiences and creating work that works on an international scale, not just in Australia. And so I think what we’re doing is trying to explore these global niches. And a film like Mountain is a very different experience to say Sherpa, which is a more traditional narrative feature documentary. Mountain, and a lot of what we’re looking to create, are very experiental films. There’s not that many of them around, and I think it just fell into our lap – we realised that it was a great opportunity and something that was worth exploring further.

Mountain releases in Australian cinemas on 21 September. Sherpa is available on Foxtel Now, Dendy Direct and more