When director Hany Abu-Asad took on the adaptation of The Mountain Between Us as his next film, he wanted it to be as realistic as possible. That meant finding the perfect location for a plane to crash and have its two survivors played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba figure out how to get out alive after being stranded 11,000 feet above sea level with no food, and no method of communicating with anyone.
The director explains why he didn’t use green screen to shoot the film’s five-minute plane crash, but rather a white screen. He also explains the challenges of shooting in temperatures below zero that if miscalculated could have resulted in someone freezing to death.
The Mountain Between Us isn’t just a plane crash survival film, it’s also a story about two strangers forced together in a life or death situation. It’s about perseverance and determination and at the heart of it all, a beautiful love story emerges between the two as Abu-Asad combines the two themes.
I caught up with him recently in LA to talk about his first Hollywood feature film.
The crash scene is quite an immersive scene because we’re watching this plane go down and you don’t cut at all giving us that feeling of being on that plane with Kate and Idris.
The idea started because we wanted to make a movie that was poetic on one hand and on the other hand realistic. We had Patrice Vermette who was the production designer and Mandy Walker, the cinematographer and we had a lot of talks and references and theories. When it came to that scene we realized the best way to do it was to shoot a five-minute scene in one shot. Why? We wanted you to feel like a passenger and if you cut away, you shift the point of view whether we go from Kate to Idris or the pilot. Or you do a time jump and you lose your connection with the scene as a whole. So, that decision was to do it as one take and let the audience feel that they were stuck there with no way out and they had to watch with the camera as a human being and you were watching that crash without any manipulation.
So, how did you achieve all that?
We had to build the plane on a gimbal and around that we built a huge white screen. We didn’t use a green screen because it reflects green light on the actors. We lit it white and replaced the white with the actual flight. We had a lot of rehearsals around the gimbal camera movement making sure no one was going to get injured and that took two days of coordinating. It was interesting seeing how the coordination between technology, crew and the cast came together to create one scene that allowed audiences to feel involved.
Sitting in the theater gave us that experience but after that crash, you take us down into the broken plane and create the feeling of claustrophobia when they’re stranded in that tube.
With the dogs and those two characters, it gets very crowded in there. The moment Kate’s character leaves that place becomes big when Idris is suddenly alone in there and we wanted to express that. All the shots were designed to let you feel that claustrophobia and you can’t even look or feel that there is no way out. Any movement that the other one makes, the other feels it, even the dog. The shots you see are all close up to imply that it’s a claustrophobic place. When you see the wide shots you see the whole place and this is where cinematography helps to tell that story.
An image can express a universal meaning and each time you design that shot you try to create a simple image with a universal message, and that’s what we tried to do inside the plane. We used a 55mm lens to create a forced intimacy, not a forced intimacy. It was a wider lens but still close enough to create that. It’s a tool of cinematography you can use to create the story and feeling.
Talk about the location and the working on those mountains at the mercy of mother nature.
That location helped us a lot with character. You have just two characters who are strangers and nature became the third character. In most dramas, you need three dramas to create any drama and tension. In this case, we had two characters and we couldn’t have a good and bad character. Nature fell between being the good and bad, and beauty and ugly. It was this ambiguous third character who created tension between the man and the woman. In order to express that in cinematography, we decided on using very wide shots combined with very tight shots so you can feel the detail, so you could feel the intimacy and the dangers. If the characters were together in a normal place, they’d be safe and intimate, so if you saw them in a closeup they could be anywhere, but if you capture a wide shot, you see how small they are against that background of the beauty, which also represents the danger that they’re in.
How were you able to keep the snow fresh without creating crew tracks?
Two things, many of the shots were one take. With CGI we can erase the tracks of the crew members, but it’s harder to erase the tracks of the actors. So, if we had to do another take, we needed to change the location, you can’t use the previous walk they’d just done because we had designed it in a way that the direction of the sun was accounted for, the light and a lot of other factors. We didn’t want to keep moving the actors to do the scene, so we tried as often as possible to get the shot in one take.
The crew tracks we’d erase with CGI, but we actually didn’t do that much because we ended up using a technocrane up in the mountains. I used that because wanted minimum movement of the camera so we didn’t use much of handheld or Steadicam shots because I wanted to contribute to the poetic language of the film.
Even if we had a handheld, the cameraman wouldn’t be able to have a steady shot when walking in snow. Your steps are so varied in the snow and you couldn’t really walk, so we flew a huge technocrane that could follow the actors for a distance and it wouldn’t make steps in the snow. It was just the arm working and getting those close shots.
What were the logistics and challenges of shooting the scene when Kate falls into the water?
We built a water tank before it started snowing and filled it with water. The problem wasn’t the water temperature itself as such, the problem was the outside temperature and the water temperature.
If the gap was too big, your actor would freeze in a second. The difference couldn’t be more than ten Celsius so we had to make sure that the outdoor temperature was not freezing. We waited until it was -4, which wasn’t extremely cold. Kate insisted on doing the scene and I didn’t want a stunt double so we had to wait for the weather to be at the right temperature otherwise she’d turn into a block of ice.
The film is purely two actors, you don’t have a cutaway to anyone else except for the pilot scene and much later, so talk about that experience for you and what you learned from that?
We knew in advance that if you weren’t mesmerized by the cast the film would fall apart because there was no choice but to follow them. The casting helped, it’s impossible not to want to look at both Kate and Idris and follow their characters. They’re mesmerizing.
Their chemistry is just so great and they’re so attractive to watch because they’re so charismatic in their cinematography. It was amazing how charismatic they were. They put so much into this and invested a lot into this by accepting to be in the cold and up in the mountains. They’d wait around while we were shooting up in the snow without trailers and they didn’t have hot meals, they accepted those conditions and invested emotionally in these characters.