This episode of InConversation features Nick Ryan, a producer and writer/director, whose work includes the award-winning documentary The Summit. Nick is currently working on 6 Days of the Rising, based on the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.
Nick Ryan’s gripping Irish Film and Television Award (IFTA) nominated film The Summit is available to buy nationwide on DVD this Friday 4th April, with over an hour of exclusive never-seen-before bonus material included on DVD.
The film, which has been nominated in the Best Feature Documentary category, chronicles one of the deadliest days in modern mountain history when 11 climbers, including Limerick man Ger McDonnell, lost their lives on the most dangerous mountain on Earth, K2. Audiences will get a chance to watch fascinating never-seen-before footage of the crews’ perilous journey to film K2 and the process of shooting the re-enactments on the DVD’s bonus materials.
The Sundance winning documentary that wowed cinema audiences last November and December is also up for another IFTA as Crowded House musician Nick Seymour has been nominated in the Best Original Score category for his work on the film.
The annual Irish Film and Television Awards Ceremony will be held on Saturday, 5th April at the DoubleTree Hilton on Burlington Road and will be broadcast primetime on RTÉ ONE.
Wildcard Distribution is releasing The Summit on DVD in Irish stores including HMV, Tower Records, Golden Discs, Tesco and The Great Outdoors as well as through the Wildcard Distribution website and Amazon.co.uk on Friday 4th April.
Irish director Nick Ryan’s award-winning film The Summit will screen on RTÉ One next Monday, January 6th, from 9.35pm.
The gripping film chronicles one of the deadliest days in modern mountain history when 11 climbers, including Limerick man Ger McDonnell, lost their lives on the most dangerous mountain on Earth, K2. The film is from the producers of BAFTA winning Touching The Void, and the writer of Oscar winning The Cove.
DIR: Nick Ryan • WRI: Mark Monroe • PRO: Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Ben Stark • MUS: Nick Seymour • CAST: Christine Barnes, Hoselito Bite, Marco Confortola, Pat Falvey
The summit in question is K2, the second highest peak in the world. In August 2008, eleven climbers perished at its top. Since the ending is clear from the start, the challenge the filmmakers face is to make the telling interesting. They succeed.
Mountaineering poses obvious risks. The adventurers are aware that one in four people have died in the attempt to reach K2’s summit. They hope to complete their quest before the end of July, as most accidents occur in August, when the weather changes. They describe the area above 8,000 metres as the “death zone”. Experienced Irish mountaineer Pat Falvey describes in detail how the altitude and extreme weather conditions affect the body. The expertise that each of the mountaineers displays is impressive, but their respect for nature, the daunting task and the inherent dangers also comes through.
The film includes archival commentary from Walter Bonatti, who was part of the first team that successfully reached K2’s summit in 1954. “Only the mountain attains perfection,” he says. He describes the “exotic timeless landscape”, as Nick Seymour’s music swells on the soundtrack. You need to be a spirited adventurer to attempt such a dangerous feat. The mountaineers seem to find it difficult to put into words why they strive to reach the top. When you reach the top, says Alberto Zerain, “You live it fully then … I had won it.”
In July 2008, about 70 climbers from different teams, of different nationalities and climbing experience, prepared to reach the mountain’s summit. Financed by the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTÉ and the BBC, the film focuses on Ger McDonnell, the first Irish person to reach the top of K2. His team included Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen. Ger and Wilco had previously attempted to climb K2 together in 2006. Though he reached the top, sadly, Ger perished this time.
Nick Ryan, making his feature film debut, assembled interviews with the survivors and combines these with actuality footage, newspaper cuttings and impressive reconstructions. The numbers involved in the expedition might have presented problems for storytelling. Recollections differ, but Ryan and writer Mark Monroe (who scripted the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove) weave a balanced tale as they attempt to unravel what happened during those fateful 48 hours.
“You have to save yourself on K2; it is the only way”, says Bonatti. One of the principles that guides the mountaineers, as Bonatti and others make clear, is that you cannot risk your own life to save others. The film focuses on the last stretch of the climb, from camp four through a narrow pass known as the Bottleneck, beneath a serac, an icy overhang 100 metres high that could crack at any time, and then on to the summit. “If you make one step wrong, you’re history,” says Fredrik Strang.
Sadly, there were missteps and problems. The circumstances surrounding Ger’s death are unclear, and the filmmakers attempt to piece together what happened from those who survived. As the film progresses, the scale of the tragedy becomes more apparent as yet another adventurer falls victim to the mountain’s extremities. The altitude induces a condition known as “summit fever”, in which damage to brain cells makes it difficult to think logically. It also means that those who lived to tell the tale cannot remember everything that occurred. As Ger McDonnell himself said, “If you weren’t there, you won’t know. Only the mountain knows.”
Beautifully shot, The Summit makes for compelling, if grim, viewing.
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.
Nick Ryan’s gripping film chronicles one of the deadliest days in modern mountain history when 11 climbers, including Limerick man Ger McDonnell, lost their lives on the most dangerous mountain on Earth, K2. The film was produced by Image Now Films and Pat Falvey Productions and written by Mark Monroe, the writer of Oscar winning The Cove.
Nick spoke to Film Ireland: “I am thrilled to have The Summit play in the Opera house at the Cork film festival. As an Irish production it means a lot to be able to show the film in cinemas to audiences here. We set out to make a film that would bring the truth of what happened on K2 in 2008 to the world, and this enables people to talk and discuss the events.
“Whilst the story is an international one, I feel that to me, Ger McDonnell as the moral centre of the story is one that should especially interest Irish audiences. Amongst the shocking events in the film, he stands out as a true modern day hero.”
Electric Picnin ’06: The Documentary, presented by POD Concerts and Aiken Promotions and directed by Nick Ryan, will premiere on Thursday 23rd August, 10.30 pm at the IFI.
Songs covered in full form the backbone of the film, but it is also a ‘people-watching extravaganza,’ which features live performances from Davendra Bernhart, New Order, Alabama 3, Broken Social Scene and Basement Jaxx.
Tickets are limited, to book tickets please visit the IFI website.