Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
When director Stephen Judson, 61, decided to follow John Harlin III up the Eiger for the stunning new Imax film The Alps (opening in March), he enlisted the best in alpine filmmaking, putting Farther Than the Eye Can See director Michael Brown behind the camera and Everest director Greg MacGillivray in the producer’s seat. ANTHONY CERRETANI recently spoke with Judson to get the lowdown on fighting fierce weather and broken ropes while capturing Harlin’s story for the big, big screen.
OUTSIDE: How does John Harlin’s climb factor into your broader story of the Alps?
JUDSON: It’s right at the core of it. There have been so many wonderful climbing films made, that kind of pure climbing film. This film has much more context to it. John’s dad, his death on the Eiger, is such an important thing for John. It is not so much climbing as sport but as an examination of what it can mean to the climber and his family.
The footage is amazing. How technically difficult was this?
As far as getting the shots, it was a huge challenge. You can’t hand–hold the Imax camera, so you have to have a secure base. It’s hard to set up a tripod on a mountain that steep. We had the [helicopter–mounted] SpaceCam doing aerials.
What about the elements?
The weather was totally changing. We would go to bed with three different production plans for the following morning. We’d have the blue–sky plan, a gray–sky plan, and a storm plan. Then we’d set out. It’s a blue sky and we’d think, It’s going to hold. Then all of a sudden, the wind has kicked up and you’ve got to haul your crews off the mountain.
Any scary moments?
Before the climb, the guides had put up a fixed rope for the camera team. Then they went back to look at it. A rock had cut it. When John’s dad died, it was a broken rope. So, just two or three days before the climb, to have the guides come back with this broken rope was not a great omen.
What was the biggest challenge?
To make it as real on film as it really was. What John did was face his own demons. It’s an inspirational thing. Here’s a guy who took the thing that was the most frightening for him and didn’t run away from it and handled it in a very graceful way. We can’t get that across unless we can make it real.