A Long Way for a Short Film

Think adventure filmmaking sounds glamorous? Then watch THAYER WALKER get schooled on Kilimanjaro.

The author on Africa's highest peak    

Thayer Walker

The author on Africa's highest peak

From left, Emanuel Moshi, Josh Levine, and expedition leader Jeff Evans

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IN THEORY, THE TIME-LAPSE is one of the simplest shots in filmmaking: Mount the camera onto a tripod, frame the shot, press record, and wait. All a filmmaker has to do is set a watch and make sure the camera doesn't fall over. Shooting a time-lapse is like a coffee break. You could even read the paper. But at 5:30 on my third morning on Tanzania's Kilimanjaro, my handle on the process felt thinner than the air at our camp at 13,000 feet.

The only thing I do less than make films is climb mountains. Conventional wisdom would dictate that I tackle one before the other, but as a student in Serac Adventure Films' inaugural Adventure Film School, it was my task to make a ten-minute short about climbing 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro. Before the climb, I told Serac founder and Boulder, Colorado–based filmmaker Michael Brown that I didn't want to make an earnest cry-at-the-summit kind of film but rather a parody of an adventure film, with myself as a comical Bear Grylls–meets–Inspector Clou­seau character always running into trouble. Brown, 42, has made more than 50 movies and won three Emmys, and he just received a lifetime-achievement award from the International Alliance for Mountain Film. His projects tackle topics like cataract surgery in the Himalayas and autistic kids learning to surf, so when I told him of my satirical intentions, he replied soberly, "We try to take this seriously."

Naturally, our first day on Kilimanjaro, I filmed a segment in which I asked Brown in jest about his plans to summit wearing nothing but a Speedo and wool socks while on a pogo stick. He was a good sport. "I've been spoofed before," he said. The mountain was less eager to cooperate.

Our biggest challenge on Kilimanjaro, I discovered, was not the receding glaciers but the mountainwide dearth of tape stock. Brown allows his students a limited supply so they'll learn to use it wisely After three days around the mountain's gateway town of Arusha shooting action-packed B-roll of sleeping Cape buffalo, I had already burned through a lot of tape. I couldn't waste more during my time-lapse attempt, so as I filmed the pitch-black sky, waiting for the sun, I spent 40 minutes recording and rewinding. Just before sunrise, a cloud bank stalled in front of the mountain, obliterating my shot. Which turned out to be a blessing, because under the now-illuminated sky I could see that I had chosen the worst angle of Kilimanjaro. "Coppola don't climb," I muttered. I wanted to smash my $2,200 Sony HDV camcorder into expensive little pieces. I took a coffee break instead.

"I USED TO MAKE terrible films," Brown said as we hiked through rainforest on our first day up the mountain. "I'd go to beautiful places with incredible athletes, and then I'd record wall-to-wall narration. I'd make this film that was really painful to watch, and I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting into film festivals." He started his adventure-film school in hopes of saving neophyte directors—and their audiences—from his early mistakes.

Tall and lithe, with the strength of well-woven rope, Brown wears wonkish spectacles and a goofy grin that slides down the corner of his mouth. He looks like a swashbuckling librarian. He's filmed on Everest eight times, four of which were successful summit bids. During his most recent Everest trip he spent five and a half days above 26,000 feet, helped rescue two people, summited, and shot an Imax movie. Brown's best-known film is Farther Than the Eye Can See, about blind climber Erik Weihenmayer's Everest summit in 2001. "It's so difficult to film and climb," says nine-time Everest summiter and guide Dave Hahn. "Michael is among the best. He has a lot of patience."

Our film school—composed of Brown, 27-year-old Serac producer Ryan Ross, two other film students, and me—had three stages: three days of planning in Arusha, six days on the mountain, and three days of postproduction and editing in Boulder. In Tanzania, we met our guide, Jeff Evans, founder of the Boulder-based guide com­pany Mountain­Vision, and the five other climbers he would lead. Sitting in our hotel's restaurant on the first day, Brown told us that as members of the film school we had to work as a team and then asked us to outline our projects.

Unlike me, the other guys had clear goals. "I want to make a film that contrasts mountain climbing with what I see every day in New York," explained Emeka Ngwube about his project, "New Yorkers' Guide to Climbing Mountains." As an Ironman triathlete, the 40-year-old Frenchman, who works for Credit Suisse Group in Manhattan, was attracted to the physical demands of mountain climbing. He'd picked up film as a hobby in graduate school in France and had come to Tanzania with a bookful of notes.

Josh Levine, an independent film producer from Manhattan, had real cinematic experience. The 29-year-old's most recent project, 5 Up 2 Down, was a feature-length narrative about two friends on a five-day cocaine freebase binge who realize they know each other from a past life. Adventure filmmaking wasn't the obvious progression. "I wanted to step outside of what I was doing," Levine said.

Levine's Kili project was about climber Bill Barkeley, a 46-year-old with Usher syndrome, a condition that has left him legally deaf and blind. Doctors predict that Barkeley, director of marketing for a Michigan-based office-furniture company, will eventually lose his sight completely. He considers Kilimanjaro part of a transformative process in which he hopes to become an advocate for the deaf and blind. "When the caterpillar thinks it's going to die," the father of three told us on the mountain, "it becomes a butterfly."

All we had to do was catch that on tape.

A GOOD MOVIE, adventure or otherwise, has a "butterfly moment," in which the protagonist overcomes adversity to achieve a goal. In a mountain-adventure documentary it's one of the easier shots to get, since summiters are usually eager to celebrate for a rolling camera. Capturing the agonizing "caterpillar moment" presents a greater challenge. Brown has more experience with that than he'd like.

In 1999, Brown was filming an expedition up Tibet's 26,289-foot Shishapangma when an avalanche claimed the lives of his teammates, noted climbers Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges. Brown's first reaction after the accident was "not to film. But everyone agreed we might regret not getting everything. I had to search inside for a long time to come to terms with that." With the blessing of Lowe's widow, Jennifer, Brown eventually made Shishapangma: A Celebration of Life. "Film is a powerful medium," Brown said. "If you try to turn it into a spectacle to get an audience, it's a cheap shot toward these people's lives. But if you're respectful, you can tell a great story."

Though the stakes on our expedition were not nearly as high, we suffered plenty. On the second day, during the most technical part of the climb, Levine and I stood on a tricky 30-foot wall filming porters hauling 50-pound loads. Brown fired off instructions: "Look for good, tight shots of hands gripping the rock … Get the great face reactions … nerve-racked, concerned." It's difficult to ask a man climbing a steep wall with a sloshing portable toilet on his head to look into the camera so you can capture his pained expression. I missed the shot.

Brown peppered us with tips throughout the trip. In Arusha, he warned us not to cut our shots too short. "Hold them for ten seconds, and actually count to yourself. Make sure that you're getting shots long enough to use in the edit." He encouraged us to search for unique angles, establishing different foregrounds and backgrounds, and after my feeble attempt at the time-lapse, he offered guidance. "A four-minute time-lapse zoomed in on the most dramatic terrain you can find is the best,"?he said. "Wider shots tend not to develop fast enough, so you have to burn a lot of tape."

Later that third morning, as we climbed above 13,000 feet, Emeka became a reluctant passenger on a malady merry-go-round. What began as a headache had become acute renal shutdown—he couldn't urinate. A Gore-Tex-clad water balloon waiting to burst, he staggered into a shallow cave to retch. I pulled out my camera and, with it, a Faustian dilemma: Was I really going to film this? How would the postgame wrap go? "Emeka, you just vomited up your bladder—tell me, how awful do you feel?" He didn't wait for my resolution, and again I didn't get the shot. I still regret it.

The next day, our fourth on the mountain, as we climbed toward summit-night camp, I asked Ross to film me running uphill for my music montage. "Thayer, stop running!" Brown bellowed.

"I'm just trying to get the shot," I fired back. Extra exertion at this altitude, Brown explained, could cause acute mountain sickness and terminate my summit bid—fitting, perhaps, for an adventure parody, but not the ending I envisioned.

Two hours later, we finally arrived at camp, a scrap of flat ground at 15,859 feet. It was a desolate purgatory, with little sign of life save the fiery-orange lichen clinging to the rocks. Emeka's condition continued to worsen—he didn't know it yet, but he was developing a mild case of pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs—and I had a headache that felt as if a nail-studded timing belt was cinched around my skull. Levine was exhausted, staggering like a zombie. In his tent, Brown reflected on the beleaguered state of his students. "Today I was thinking, I wonder if climbing Kilimanjaro isn't a little bit stiff for film school," he said. "But it's adventure-film school. Might as well do something that's hard enough for the students to understand what it's like to work in these conditions."

OUR SUMMIT BID, which began around midnight, did not unfold elegantly. With a turgid GI tract, Emeka was sloshing his way up the mountain when, at 16,800 feet, he quietly divulged that his stomach was "bubbling." Concerned with his health, he hadn't filmed much and was keeping a slow pace.

When I peeled away to catch up with Levine and Barkeley, who had left camp a half-hour earlier, Brown admonished me again: "Go slowly." A half tab of Diamox had helped ease my crushing headache, but after I pushed to reach Levine and Barkeley, it roared back. Levine wasn't feeling any better, and his motivation to film was "not there at all."

At sunrise, everything hurt. Wind blasted across Gilman's Point, 90 minutes and 700 vertical feet from the summit. I had no motivation to shoot either. Brown knew the quandary well. "I have lent cameras to three people climbing Everest, and none of them filmed at the summit," he had warned. While this wasn't Everest, the air atop Kilimanjaro contains about half the oxygen of that at sea level. "You'll be tired, and you won't be thinking clearly, so plan out how you're going to shoot the summit ahead of time," Brown had advised. "Somehow find something inside of you that forces you to get that camera out and make a shot." Sharing images with applauding audiences motivates Brown; pain prompted me. From suffering would spring something beautiful—or at least mildly entertaining.

I shot the new day. Barkeley, guided by Evans, trucked up the mountain as if he had an outboard motor strapped to his back. Levine staggered behind. He was going to miss Barkeley reaching the top—the butterfly moment. I was nearby. Levine yelled to Ross, who screamed to me, "Thayer, will you please shoot Bill at the summit?" The painful para­dox of shooting a film in rarefied air hit me like 1,000 pounds of feathers. The first rule of climbing Kilimanjaro: Don't rush. The first rule of adventure filmmaking: Sometimes you have to rush. With caterpillars pupating all over the mountain, I staggered to the top and let the camera roll.

Barkeley, standing before a ten-story-high glacier he could hardly see, embraced Evans, crying. Then Levine finally reached the top. He was disappointed he hadn't gotten the summit shot, but with Brown, Ross, and me all filming, he'd have plenty of footage. As Brown had told us, "Part of being a director is that you have to ask other people for help."

STILL, I DIDN'T have my ending. How does one end a farcical adventure documentary? "Let's go down to the glacier," Brown said. We scampered through the ice field, where he pulled off a five-foot-long icicle and yelled, "I keep telling you how to do things, and you don't do them the way I said. What's the matter with you?" I took his cue and grabbed my own ice saber while Ross rolled tape. "I've had it with your slave-driving filmmaking program," I cried. "Die! Die!!!" As mock adversaries heavily swaddled in fleece and down, we hardly resembled samurai in a Kurosawa battle scene. But the clash served a purpose, as all great fight scenes do. I had my ending.

All that was left, after descending, would be three days of postproduction in Boulder. I had considered this an afterthought, but the 15-hour days locked in a dark edit studio learning Final Cut Pro would prove otherwise. Back home, it would take me longer to format my 12-minute movie onto a DVD than it had to climb the mountain.

Atop Kilimanjaro, however, all of that frustration was still a pleasant abstraction. Forty minutes below the summit, we found Emeka clawing up the trail. He was pushing through ungodly pain. This is great! I thought, with film-school schadenfreude. Audiences love suffering!

By now I knew that Emeka, as a filmmaker, would want me to shoot, so I pulled out my camera and followed him back up. "It's been a long, long day," he wheezed as he reached the summit. Earlier, a number of people had shoved their way to the summit, but now we stood alone atop Africa. No amount of planning could have created this moment. In the end, the mountain writes its own drama.

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