Cinematographer Mandy Walker has been scouting locations for the upcoming live-action Disney film, Mulan, but she’s currently in LA to discuss her latest film, The Mountain Between Us. She’s no stranger to unique challenges. last year, Walker worked on the NASA set film, Hidden Figures creating the 1960s atmosphere where a group of female scientists helped America win the space race.
For The Mountain Between Us, Walker worked with director Hany Abu-Assad to capture the danger and beauty of the mountains of British Columbia, the forbidding locale where a small plane crashes in treacherous conditions leaving its two passengers stranded (Kate Winslet and Idris Elba). Without using a green screen, Abu-Assad said he had wanted to create a poetic realism to the film, Walker explains the challenges she faced by working with snow to achieve that effect.
Read our conversation below as Walker describes how she worked with Abu-Assad and the cast for two days to film the five-minute crash scene in order to make it feel like the viewer was on the plane with the actors.
The last time we spoke we were talking about space in Hidden Figures and now, here we are talking about nature. How do you prepare when you have to work with the elements?
I had never shot a film in these circumstances before and Hany Abu-Assad said he wanted to shoot in the real locations and that he didn’t want to fake the background. He said he wanted to be there with the actors and have everyone feel the visceral nature of the experience. I was up for that challenge and we went up to 11,000 ft where it was minus 38 degrees one day.
The challenge for me was that he wanted to move the camera with the actors and he wanted to be tracking with them. He wanted it to be elegant, calling it “poetic realism” where he showed the danger of the situation and the beauty of where they were because it’s a love story and it’s not all gritty. There have to be some moments of great beauty and understanding where they actually are.
So, I had to figure out how to get a crane to the top of a mountain and how to move the camera. We had this idea that when we were down at 3,000 feet we had a backlot that was accessible by road. We had a technocrane on a tractor so we could track with the actors without making footprints. We’d drive that tractor through four feet of snow. We’d also have a camera dolly which we’d have on a sled and push it through the snow because we couldn’t lay a track and we’d have different versions of that.
We also shot the rehearsals because the actors trudging through the snow was difficult and once they’d made a path we’d have to move. I had all those logistical challenges which I found exciting and challenging to come up with those ideas.
There’s the shot of Idris Elba at the top of the mountain when he’s alone and you do a 360-degree shot.
That was one of the few times we used steadicam because the snow was packed down and we could. It’s funny because I have the still photograph from scouting that photograph and that shot. The shot we did is 100% what we planned. It was scary, but what we did was we sent a steadicam operator up with two grips and the focus puller. They did the walk with Idris from behind and then they circled him and it really was up there on the peak of the mountain. It was this 12-foot circular area that they were on navigating around.
We didn’t rehearse it. They shot it and we did a few takes and it worked. It really lets you experience what Idris was experiencing at the time and what he was going through at the time. You wouldn’t have got it any other way.
How did you work with Hany on that crash scene?
He wanted to create that feeling of us being the passenger and he wanted one continuous shot. He wanted the camera moving with the characters. He wanted us looking around as if we were experiencing it with them and so we designed it with one shot. We choreographed it like a dance and it took two days of rehearsing it.
The plane was on a gimbal, the camera was on an I-beam and we took part of the ceiling of the plane out so that the beam was running along the roof. The grip had to stand in the window to choreograph the movement of the camera and the camera operator was working it. The actors had to dodge at certain points and clear for it to come between them. It was quite a job of choreographing.
Some of the plane had to come out on a rail in order for us to show the wide shot so you could see past the pilot and as it came back, the nose of the plane pulled back into being shot. So, logistically it was an amazing effort and you get the emotion of the situation of this one. People don’t realize until they’re halfway through that we hadn’t cut yet.
Hany had us on that plane.
I’m glad to hear you say that because that was the idea. The whole plane was rocking and tipping and throwing everyone around, and you do feel it.
Talking about the landscape. I ended up shooting the interiors of the film on anamorphic 35mm film digital. The exteriors were shot on 65mm digital film and that gave us the intimacy of being close to the characters, just as you were talking about. The lenses were made so we could have a soft focus background and throw it way out of focus. When we wanted to show the epic grandeur, we’d swap to the wider lenses to show the vista of where they were. It was about the macro and micro, their situation, the environment, and the experiences.
What was it like for you? Because nature was either going to be your best friend of worst enemy?
We’d have four call sheets and we’d check in each morning to figure out what we were going to shoot. We were really well prepared, my crew was amazing and they stepped up. We were all just there for the movie and if there was adverse weather, we went with it.
It was difficult sometimes for the actors to do things twice sometimes. When Kate falls through the ice, in pre-production we spent hours talking about how to film it because we didn’t want to put her in the water fully clothed and then have her emerge in minus 30 degrees.
Hany talked to her about it and told her we were going to do it once and we also didn’t want her to snap freeze, but she came out after one take and said we could do it again. She did that scene three times. When Idris pulled her out, everyone was just so on board with it all.
That whole scene and leading up to it was my favorite. We fogged the whole valley with smoke and it stayed for three days because it was so cold. The planning for this was really different to some than I’ve done before.
There are very few female cinematographers I’ve spoken to. Talk about your field and what it’s like for you in a male-dominated field. How has it changed since you’ve started?
It’s changed a lot. We’re still a small percentage, almost 5%. There’s the American Society of Cinematographers with its diversity committee to encourage and have more masterclasses for diverse students to encourage women and everybody to get involved. The same with The Academy. They have their committee to ensure there’s diversity and more inclusive.
I mentor a lot of women students and diverse students to show that my job is a possibility and we are all trying. I think people are aware of the issue. I understand that people aren’t going to give everybody a job because they’re female, but I want more women to come up and realize that there is a possibility and to become a part of the group.
The Mountain Between Us is on general release