The Summit tells the true story of the tragic deaths of 11 mountain climbers, including Limerick man Ger McDonnell, in the worst K2 climbing disaster in history. Matt Micucci chats to director Nick Ryan about the Irish feature-length documentary that is released in cinemas today.
How did you come across the story?
It was a huge international story at the time and I was aware of it. A friend of Ger McDonnell, the Irish climber that had died on the mountain, came up to me and told me what had happened up there and that there was more than what originally thought or reported. From that we did a couple of interviews with Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, who was at the centre of the story, the Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen. They were very interesting, so I instantly thought ‘there’s a story here’.
The film makes use of archive footage actually shot during the climb. What was your process of selection when you were choosing what to use and what not to use?
The majority of the footage that exists is probably uninteresting. Climbing on a mountain like that is usually very slow. As much as we’d like that, it’s not like Vertical Limit. Even when we were doing the reconstructions, and we were at about 4,000 metres, we were still moving quite slow because at that altitude, five steps and you could be dead. Even before I looked at the footage I had made a decision that if there had been footage of the deaths I wouldn’t have used it. Thankfully, we weren’t even given the opportunity to.
Why wouldn’t you have used that footage?
I think it would have turned the film into a sort of a snuff film. There’s even an ethical question about recreating those scenes, which is what we did. But in that scene with the Pakistani climber sliding to his death is the actual audio, because one of the cameras was rolling in his pocket.
You were also able to get some very personal and intimate interviews.
The most challenging part of this film was not shooting on mountains. It was talking to people and asking them to re-live the most difficult and darkest days of their lives. It was very difficult to ask Cecilie Skog to describe the death of her husband. It had been two and a half years and for the longest time I thought that she wasn’t going to want to talk about it, so I didn’t even try to approach her. But when I did call her and I spoke to her, she said she would think about it and we flew over. But it’s not easy.
The Summit also comes across as the film that comes up with an important truth about what happened on that controversial K2 climb. Did you feel the weight of that responsibility on your shoulder?
Everytime you talk about someone’s life there are huge moral responsibilities on your shoulder. You’re always aware of that. My background is dramatic work so it’s easy there because when something doesn’t work you can always re-write but you can’t do that with documentary. And as far as the controversies are concerned, they may be not earth shattering controversies but they are personal ones that have to do with families. But we wanted to truth out there. Even when we were travelling the world shooting this film, people would come up to us and ask us what we were making the film about and when we told them they would be like ‘oh, I remember that’. So, I would ask them what they remembered and ask them what their memory of it was. And, it was amazing how the wrong the majority of the times their version of the story was and part of the reason why that was – that was because a lot of the reports of the media were wrong. And at this point, nearly every climber who was involved has seen the film and they said that this is exactly what happened.
As well as the realism and the exposure of the truth, you obviously had to make this film exciting and entertaining for a wider audience. So, how do you do that?
You see, ‘entertaining’ is a hard word. How do you make eleven deaths entertaining. Engaging is the word I would use. But of course, if I want to get people to pay a tenner at the cinema, you need to give them an experience and you want people to almost feel like they were there. Because, here is the thing. Documentaries have the power to educate but hopefully do it in a way that you don’t feel like you’re being preached to. In fact, nobody wants to be educated or feel like they are learning something. So, you have to impart that information in a way that people will feel like they are watching a film. So, I knew that to get this film I would also have to make the film very accessible and this is absolutely not a film for mountaineers – I didn’t want to make a niche film.
The story of Irish climber Ger McDonnell is very touching.
To me Ger McDonnell is the moral centre of the story but of course the fact that he is Irish is completely coincidental. In fact, one of the starting points was Pempa’s story. And it was only when Pemba told us what happened on the mountain that it became apparent that he had done something extraordinary. But also there is the important factor that it was the people who knew Ger personally that brought the initial thought that it would be an interesting story to talk about.
You have made fictional films before and with The Summit you took on the documentary genre. Do you find an increased interest in documentary?
Absolutely. First of all, anything you do has to engage the audiences. Film is so hard and you have to have a passion to make one. So, when you make a documentary you have to find a subject matter that interests you. Personally, I ended up watching a lot of documentaries in the last while and I think that documentaries have been the most interesting films to see. But I don’t see a clear split between documentary and narrative fictional films. The important thing for me as a filmmaker is that the film I am making will interest me and drive me.
Was it hard to make the film come together?
Yes. I mean, so much that comes out of Hollywood has become so standardised, so very derivative like the superhero film. So when you pitch a great and original ideas, producers will shake their heads because the problem is that everybody wants to see what everybody has seen before – but just a little bit different. So, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make something that is completely different. And believe me, trying to raise finance to make a documentary – that was fun…! It almost didn’t happen.
It almost didn’t happen? Even though it was such a big story?
Oh yeah. It took two years to convince people to do it. Two years working for nothing and then the money runs out and it takes another year working for nothing to finish it.