27 September 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
'The Summit' Director Nick Ryan talks to IFTN, Ahead of Irish Cinema Release this Friday 22nd November
20 Nov 2013 : By Kevin Cronin
Director Nick Ryan and the late Ger McDonnell.
Dublin director Nick Ryan - whose feature documentary ‘The Summit’ charts the final tragic expedition of Limerick mountain climber Ger McDonnell who died on K2 - spoke to IFTN ahead of its release in Irish cinemas this Friday 22nd November.

A powerful account of the disaster that claimed the lives of 11 experienced climbers in August 2008, ‘The Summit’ combines archive material with dramatic reconstructions to piece together McDonnell’s final hours and his heroic death in attempting to save others.

Critically-acclaimed on its theatrical release in the US and Canada, the documentary won two editing awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; ‘Best Adventure Film’ at the Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado; and was nominated for a prestigious Grierson BFI award last year.

In recreating such a complex story, Mr Ryan travelled both to Pakistan to capture aerial photography of the Himalayas and the Eiger in Switzerland where he filmed actors, doubling for the climbers, in front of portable green screens.

‘The Summit’ stands both as a significant Irish filmmaking accomplishment and also a fitting memorial to the bravery of Mr McDonnell, who refused to leave behind trapped Korean climbers and ultimately perished trying to rescue them.

Mr Ryan, thanks very much for meeting with IFTN. To begin with, did you feel a heavy responsibility to do justice to Ger McDonnell’s story in taking on such an ambitious project?
Start on an easy one, huh? It’s a good starting point! Yeah, it’s weird. I mean, without trying to sound pretentious about stuff like that, there is a huge moral responsibility on your shoulders. The actual production process of the film was four years, up until October 2012. And then we’ve had a year of promotion. Over the four-year process, you can kind of lose sight of some of the realities of the tragedy – that 11 people have died. You keep coming back to it, but I don’t think you can carry the weight of that burden on you for that amount of time. You find moments of levity amongst it and it’s not all sadness either - that’s the thing. There were many moments and hours of footage that show people enjoying themselves, in the prime of their lives, doing what they love. But when it comes down to it, what that responsibility also means is that you don’t have the luxury - as you do in narrative filmmaking - of making it work by rewriting it and making it more dramatic. Veracity is at the base of it all.

Prior to making ‘The Summit’, you produced and directed several shorts including ‘The German’ and ‘A Lonely Sky’. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I made films growing up as a kid on Cine film, which is really showing my age! I actually studied Design in Dun Laoghaire Art College and graduated in 1991. Film work in Ireland was very thin on the ground back then. But I was always a huge fan of Ridley Scott, because of ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien’, and he worked for the BBC as a graphic designer before moving into doing commercials, and there are many things that design will teach you.

In making ‘The Summit’, how did you manage to strike a balance between using archive footage and staging dramatic reconstructions?
All the aerial shots of the mountain are of K2 itself. 18% of the film is reconstructions. Even before I’d seen all the archive material, there were two things that had run through my mind. I knew there were going to be holes in the story because when shit started happening and things started to go really wrong, people were busy surviving - not interested in getting out their cameras and filming it, like characters do in films. Secondly, I thought maybe in the earlier stages that somebody might have captured footage of Dren the Serbian climber, who was the first to fall, or the high altitude porter sliding to his death. But nobody had and, in a way, that answered a problem for me, because I remember thinking that if somebody had filmed that, I’m not sure if I would have included it anyway. Just for the nature of what it was. So thankfully I didn’t have to make that decision.

Werner Herzog encountered a similar situation, in a sense, when making his documentary ‘Grizzly Man’ in that he had footage of Timothy Treadwell’s death but chose not to show it.
Yeah, I was having that discussion with somebody recently and ‘Grizzly Man’ is an amazing film. I love it. I was just in Canada so everyone was asking, ‘have you seen Grizzly Man?’ because they have bears everywhere. But when Herzog shows that footage to Treadwell’s partner, it’s a little pushing the ethical boundaries. No better man for pushing the boundaries than Werner. But when you look at Fredrick [Sträng, the Swedish climber on K2], he could have but never filmed the body. I have been questioned on the ethics of doing reconstructions of deaths. For some documentary purists, ‘reconstruction’ is a dirty word. When I find myself talking about this, I sometimes sound defensive - but I’m not being defensive in the slightest. My justification for reconstructions is this is a complex story. Show, don't tell. I had photographs, so I could see where people were, and had descriptions of where they were, so it was easy to piece together. When we did the reconstructions, Pemba [Sherpa Pemba Gyalje, who was on K2 with Ger McDonnell] was our technical adviser. He had a very clear mind of what happened on that day. Sometimes when we were filming, Pemba’s presence made it more difficult because we’d set up the cameras and he’d say no, no, no! When Dren fell, Ger was there and Marco [Confortola] was here, and so on. But I also had to slightly educate him in the process of filmmaking which isn’t linear or always logical.

What was it like collaborating with Robbie Ryan as your director of photography on ‘The Summit’?
Robbie happens to be my cousin, which helps! But that makes it more difficult at times, believe it or not, because you have a short-hand between you. You can have rows! But Robbie is a star. He’s amazing. We’d worked together before on some of my short films and I’d shot commercials with him over the years. ‘The German’ was one of them. So it was great to work with Robbie on this film. He’s super talented. Most of our crew are Irish, but a lot of the grip team were English because Robbie’s been working in England for a long time. The heaviest component of the film was grip in terms of bringing cameras up and down a mountain. It was a pretty small crew and just an incredible group of people. It was really, really hard work!

Can you give explain the timeline of the four-year production process?
We started in 2008, right after the actual tragedy. And then the filming of the reconstructions took place over a 16 day period over the month of March. I did a test in 2010 as proof of concept on the Eiger, a formidable North face peak in the Alps, to see whether we could do what we were trying to do. You might remember there was a very famous Clint Eastwood film called ‘The Eiger Sanction’. There’s a train that runs right through a tunnel, built in the Victorian folly days, which comes out at the top of the mountain, to what they call the top of Europe - 3,700 metres high. It’s the highest train station in Europe, if not the world. That allowed us to bring camera equipment to the top of the mountain, so we were guaranteed snow, ice and glaciers and amazing views - but not views that were suitable necessarily for K2. So we ended up using a lot of green screen and visual effects work to replace those backgrounds.

Can you elaborate on how you achieved those green-screen shots?
We brought these portable green screens up the mountain in Switzerland, and Robbie would point to the mountains behind us and ask ‘what’s wrong with those ones?’ But I knew that people would be able to tell the difference between those and K2. So the edit was fun because we had all this footage of climbers standing in front of this green background - which funders were looking at, asking what the hell was going on here. My background is in visual effects so I did something like 260 VFX shots - mostly 2D composites. There were no real tricksy things. I just replaced the backgrounds with photographs that I had taken later on at K2 and also photographs that climbers had taken from higher up on the mountain. So when you’re watching the film and you go from real footage into this, it’s seamless in that all around you the mountains themselves are the same. They don’t just suddenly shift. The light doesn’t shift. Everything looks very accurate.

Did you storyboard the reconstruction scenes beforehand?
I was probably massively under-prepared for this film given the amount of time I had to prepare for it. I was so caught up in the day-to-day tasks of getting it made that it kind of caught up with me. Not the best thing to do at 3,700 metres when your brain isn’t working very clearly! Mark [Monroe] was writer but I wrote the reconstruction sections myself in a 35 page screenplay format. So the film crew were working off that and we’d strike off scenes as we’d film them. Some scenes took three days to film. Others we were knocking off in 40 minutes, which was amazing. That’s my favourite part of making films. I love shooting. But it was really hard. It was challenging for the crew just working in that environment.

Did you get to meet with Ger McDonnell’s family and consult with them during the making of the film?
I showed them the film before we played it in London last year. I brought a copy of the film down to their house. Initially they didn’t want anything to do with the film for the first year or so, but once they could see what I was trying to do with it they came fully onboard to help. I had to keep them at arm’s distance, however, for impartiality - which was so important. They were giving me all this footage and information about Ger, so that was amazing. Ger is the only person who is represented by other people onscreen because the others were there to talk about their own experiences. Every time another survivor of the film gets to see it, your heart is in your mouth because you’re waiting to find out what they think - so it goes right back to your opening question about that moral responsibility that’s on your shoulders.

How has the international reaction been to the film?
It’s been really good. If there’s been any criticism it always comes down to something along the lines of the fact that it doesn’t answer the question of why people climb the mountain. But I never set out to make a film that tried to answer that. When I started out, I wanted to know why but I realised very quickly that there is no answer to why. Hopefully when people watch the film they will get an inkling of why. I’m sure I asked every single one of them why they climb the mountain and they just look at you blankly, as if to ask back ‘why do you do what you do? It’s not something that can be easily answered.

Do you have any extra footage that might end up in a Director’s Cut?
When we went to Pakistan to shoot the aerial footage, that in itself was a film because we drove through the heart of Pakistan six weeks after Bin Laden had been shot. So we were Westerners with military grade equipment going to fly with the Pakistan military, drill holes in their helicopter, and do something that nobody else had done. That was an incredible journey and we’ve been working on bits and pieces with that. There were so many stories on the mountain and certain scenes we had to cut.

How does it feel for the film to finally open in Ireland?
We opened in the US there at the beginning of October, so we’re just back from America and Canada, and are delighted to be opening here in Ireland. It’s a great honour to have your first film play in cinemas here. For how long, I don’t know. So audiences, please go! A film like ‘Gravity’ will stay in the cinema for weeks and weeks. Unfortunately, our small Irish films get about one week unless people spread the word. This is an important story that needs to be seen. I’m very happy with the end result of the film. I can stand over it. I just hope it takes people on a journey. The film isn’t anything to do with me, but in the process of making it I had this journey of discovery. I couldn’t have made the film without the support of RTÉ and the Irish Film Board and everybody in Ireland. And the likes of Mark Monroe, my writer; Ben Stark, my editor in the UK; and Steven O’Reilly who brought the film to me in the first place, did the interviews with me, came to K2 with me. You can’t do this on your own.

Any plans at the moment for your next feature?
A romantic comedy, I keep saying to everybody!

‘The Summit’ - distributed by Wildcard and produced by Dublin’s Image Now Films & Kerry’s Pat Falvey Productions - is released in Irish cinemas this Friday 22nd November.

The trailer can be viewed below:

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