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Film: Cliffhanger

Touching the Void director Kevin Macdonald re-creates the cold, dark fear of death

By Steve Rosen · March 17th, 2004 · Movies
Director Kevin Macdonald followed the footsteps of his mountain climber subects to make Touching the Void.
Director Kevin Macdonald followed the footsteps of his mountain climber subects to make Touching the Void.

Hell is most definitely a place on earth, and it is very, very cold. Joe Simpson discovered this in 1985 while climbing the west face of Siula Grande in Peru's Andes Mountain range. He and his partner, Simon Yates, both experienced British climbers, reached the top, the first ever to do so.

Their fortunes changed drastically on the descent. Having broken several bones in his leg in a fall, Simpson relied on Yates to lower him to safety by rope, 300 feet at a time. A mishap sent Simpson sliding off a cliff edge, and Yates was forced to cut the rope so Simpson wouldn't pull him off, too. Simpson fell through the air in the dark -- presumably to his death.

Simpson didn't hurtle to a crushing death, but rather fell down into a dark crevasse. And he survived the fall -- barely. Yates, himself struggling to survive, didn't think to explore the crevasse while escaping from the mountain the next day.

Simpson had little to do, or so he at first thought, other than await a slow expiration. He had traveled into a kind of void -- through a portal -- where hell was all too real. Simpson did find a way out, which he ultimately wrote about in his 1988 best-selling book, Touching the Void. It told how he found a hidden exit out and, incredibly, crawled down the mountainside and back to base camp.

Now, Kevin Macdonald has made a film from that book, also called Touching the Void. Macdonald is the British filmmaker whose won an Oscar for his documentary about Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day in September.

To use a term Macdonald dislikes, Touching the Void is a "docudrama." Simpson and Yates both recount events during on-camera interviews, while actors and climbers reenact events for a small crew filming during adverse conditions in the Andes and the Alps.

"I remember when I read the book that an image came to my mind about the thematic element," Macdonald says, during a recent interview at a Beverly Hills hotel suite. "It reminded me of the nightmare I used to have where you're a spaceman working on your spaceship and somebody cuts loose the thing that holds you. You drift off into the void, into the nothingness. You're a tiny blip, this little heartbeat, going off. It's terrifying.

"It's a great adventure story," he says. "Joe was so alone in such a dire, awful situation, a situation where most of us would give up. Yet he kept going. What made him keep going?"

Relaxed and good-humored, with shaggy brown hair and a tendency to laugh, Macdonald's appearance belies the intensity he brought to this difficult, wrenching project. He and Simpson are doing publicity for the film, but a still-shaken Yates did not want to be involved in promotional efforts. Both climbers returned to Peru, together for the first time since 1985, for filming. Both men receive production credits as collaborators.

Told this story will appear in a Cincinnati newspaper, Macdonald especially perks up. One of his other movies, a documentary for British television, was about the sculptor George Rickey, who has a major outdoor kinetic piece, "Two Rectangles Vertical Gyratory II, Variation IV," on the plaza at Fifth and Main streets in downtown Cincinnati.

Simpson had previously investigated having his book made into a film. But efforts had come to naught. "People had tried to make it as straightforward drama," Macdonald says. "I think the reason they had never managed is because nobody ever came up with good enough script. What's interesting about the story is what's going on inside their heads. And also, they're both alone for much of the story.

"I thought I'm going to go back to the original people and get them to tell me the story," he continues. "What I said to my financiers is, 'I'm not sure it's going to work, but I need to do the interviews first.' I felt, if they did work, then I would do the reconstructions.

"And I decided to do the reconstructions in as real a way as possible -- to make you feel you're a voyeur who was there when they were climbing, to not make it too movie-like."

In the Andes, where the most difficult climbing scenes were shot, Macdonald used a crew of about a half-dozen, plus an equal amount of experienced mountaineers. In the Alps, the number was slightly greater. The actors who played the two men in the reenactments (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron) appear in scenes shot in the Alps.

British mountaineers and others familiar with the tale long have debated an almost unanswerable question: Should Yates have cut that rope? And what would they have done in a similar situation? Both Simpson and Macdonald believe Yates had no recourse and shouldn't feel guilty about it.

But another question is why Yates, on his way back, didn't lower himself into the crevasse to see if Simpson might somehow still be alive. Simpson again absolves Yates of guilt. Macdonald is not quite so consoling.

"I think cutting the rope is a desperate situation where you don't even think about it, really," Macdonald says. "It came into his head, and he did it. Then he lay there that night and started going over it in his head and thought, 'My God, what have I done?'

"The next day, there's the interesting decision of why did he not go to look," Macdonald continues. "My own supposition is he thought Joe might be alive down there and if so, he'd be really beaten up worse than before. 'Do I want to see that? I want to get out of here; it'd be too awful.'

"So he went down the hill, but he's thinking all the time, 'Maybe he's alive, maybe I'm leaving him.' When he's back at camp the reason he doesn't leave for three or four days is that something is telling him that maybe (Joe) is still alive in there. I think that's a very difficult thing for him to live with. For me, I can see in his face a certain degree of pain when he's telling the story. It's not something that's resolved."

One thing that's resolved, however, for Macdonald is the appeal of climbing. Making Touching the Void hasn't made him want to become a mountaineer.

"I think they're even more crazy than I had thought, to be honest," he says. ©



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