Cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS ASC infuses intimacy and scale for Director Hany Abu-Assad’s survival story The Mountain Between Us.
Love finds us in mysterious ways, and nothing can be closer to the truth than in The Mountain Between Us, a gripping, cinematic tale of romance between two complete strangers, who endure a life-and-death struggle after their charter plane crashes on a snow-covered mountain.
When an impending storm strands Alex (played by Academy-Award winner Kate Winslet) in an Idaho airport the night before her wedding, the tenacious photojournalist desperately tries to find a connecting flight to New York. She decides on soliciting the help of Walter (Beau Bridges) and his small Piper plane, offering accidental acquaintance, Ben Bass (Idris Elba), a children’s neurosurgeon traveling to Maryland, an open seat. Flying over northeastern Utah to Denver, their pilot suffers a stroke and dies when the aircraft violently smashes off radar. Alex and Ben wake injured, taking shelter inside the fuselage hoping to be rescued before rations run out. When days pass with no aid in sight they turn to each other to make it down to safety.
Adapted from Charles Martin’s book of the same name, from screenwriters Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe, the movie focuses on the harrowing circumstance and culminating bond between Alex and Ben. “Hany Abu-Assad wanted the film to be as realistic as possible,” says the film’s Cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS ASC, whose credits include Australia (2008) and Hidden Figures (2016), the latter receiving best motion picture of the year honours.
In their first collaboration – connected by production executives at Fox 2000 – the early discussions with the Dutch/Palestinian Director and two-time nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Paradise Now, Omar) had little to do with visuals. “We spoke about story. How this is really an emotional journey of the characters and the enormous obstacles they encounter,” says Walker. “You needed to feel the elegance and beauty of the environment but also the danger of the situation.” All of this is very much at the heart of the film as the two distinct yet deeply complementary protagonists trek their way through bottomless snow and the vast, brutal landscape high in the Unitas Wilderness (located in northeastern Utah) towards civilisation.
To capture the spectacular, pillow white surroundings and vivid blue sky, they wanted to shoot nature’s splendour on an epic digital Alexa 65mm widescreen canvas and reflect intimate moments with digital Alexa 35mm anamorphic. The circumstances the characters face in the film changes them both physically and emotionally. Walker continually asked herself “where are we at on this journey” to connect the audience to the page. “Abu-Assad wrote me slug lines for each scene in the movie describing what he was trying to say in terms of storytelling and journey of the characters,” she notes. “I always carried that in the back of my mind on shoot day to weigh how the camera should cover a scene and how you make the audience feel.”
The Mountain Between Us is an aesthetically emotional triumph but a logistical one as well. Abu-Assad did not look to green screen or fake landscapes to mimic mountainous terrain, but elected to find practical locations to build an authentic look. The Purcell Mountain range with peaks above 3,353m (11,000 ft) in British Columbia, Canada provided the picturesque vistas and rugged environment needed for exteriors.
Before heading to elevation, the terrifying plane crash was shot first on a Vancouver sound stage. A broken down fuselage without wings or tail section was mounted on top of a gimbal 4m above the ground to simulate the flying then falling aircraft. The gimbal was driven by a model version of itself, operated by the Special Effects team. To illustrate a sense of being trapped inside, the sequence was shot in one continuous take without cutting to exteriors. The four and a half minute scene demanded thorough coordination from the entire crew. Actors had to climb through a small side window of the plane and inside Walker mounted an ALEXA Mini on a Libra Mini stabilising remote head paired with a Panavision C-Series 55mm lens. Panavision’s Vice President of optical engineering Dan Sasaki brought the focus forward so it could focus close to the lens but didn’t focus past 5m, allowing the adjusted lens to sit close to the actors’ faces. The camera was then strung from an I-beam allowing it to move up and down the length of the aircraft on an XY axis and pan 360 degrees.
Positioned outside a window, Dolly Grip Ryan Monro was controlling the move of the camera from outside one of the windows and importantly kept the camera from bumping into the actors. “Abu-Assad wanted the audience to feel like they were in the plane. He didn’t want to manipulate the angles to what was happening and to shoot it in real time,” expresses the Cinematographer.
After two days of rehearsal, the one-er was shot twenty-four times over a single day. It’s a horrifying amusement park ride that takes viewers through the fuselage where crew timed the entire nose to breakaway letting the camera swing out to show the pilot before moving to the rear to see Alex and Ben clamouring for their lives. During the four and half minute scene (only one tiny hidden cut), the small aircraft crumples apart, skating to its messy end atop the remote mountain range. The crash was shot against a white background instead of green screen so the interior could be lit for 360 degrees and the plane would do 30 degree tilts. If we had green screen there would have been no place to hide lighting. Then visual effects layered the background into the white and pieced it all together over three months.
Shooting in the Purcell Mountains proved to be difficult with Walker recognising this early on during scouting. Temperatures can plummet to -40°C in the high altitude, pushing equipment to its limits. Safety was another big concern as production placed survival huts at every location.
Staging base camp nearby at Horsethief Creek, the area acted as an on-location back lot, allowing Abu-Assad to continue to shoot even if the mountain locations were inaccessible. With such adverse weather conditions, First Assistant Director Paul Barry needed to prep four different daily call sheets while Executive Producer Becki Cross Trujillo handled the logistics, consulting with helicopter pilots and Location Manager Robin Mounsey to determine if it would be safe to film. If favourable, Bell Helicopter would initially fly Abu-Assad, Walker, Mounsey, and Barry to ensure the actors, essential crew and safety teams made it to the top of the mountain.
Two ALEXA 65s and Panavision Sphero 65 lenses captured the grandeur of the Purcell scenery. “Once you get over 11,000 feet there isn’t much atmosphere and it’s very high contrast,” says Walker. “I did some testing in Vancouver and the ALEXA 65 gave much more detail because of the size of the image you’re shooting. It allowed greater scope for skin tones between our actors and added more detail in the shadows and highlights between the white snow and Elba’s face.” The Cinematographer also preferred the artefacts of the older glass. “Abu-Assad explained to me about the effect he wanted to make between macro and micro within each scene. He wanted it to be grand in scale, yet intimate in the detail.”
Cold conditions didn’t make anything easy as cameras had to be switched on 24 hours a day or they would freeze and batteries had to be packed in heaters. The custom made Panavision 2700mm, which was used for super-long shots on the mountain, experienced trouble in the brisk weather. “The lens couldn’t focus up to infinity. So on a Sunday we took it to a ski repair shop in Vancouver and the ski engineer somehow shimmed 2mm off the lens so it would focus to infinity,” says Walker.
The crew needed to find a way to film without adding footprints to the fresh powder as the actors had to appear in an untouched, pristine environment. “Abu-Assad desired a moving camera on the actors as they ventured down the mountain to be travelling with them, so we designed camera moves to accentuate the emotional beats of each scene,” explains Walker. The snow was too deep to lay dolly track. Cameras were instead fixed to a Libra remote head and built on a sled dolly built on snow boards for use in deeper snow and a smaller one for when the snow was more packed down. A modular crane was also flown up in parts over three days and assembled by the grip department to stay on location for the eight-day shooting schedule on top of the mountain. There, they were limited to six hours of daylight each day, due to safety concerns.
While the majority of post-crash interior scenes were shot on stage, an area only 3.5m on the mountain staged the action for when Ben reaches the top of the mountain peak, this shot was done on steadicam. The fuselage, including part of a wing and the engine, was carried by helicopter to the top with the tail section, which was torn away in the crash, being placed at another location. Because we shot the interiors first and it would be impossible to match the lighting of the set and the exterior mountain location, Walker and Production Designer Patrice Vermette decided the windows of the aircraft should be frosted so no direct sun would shine in. They also tilted the aircraft so the windows on the south side would be buried in the snow. “We made it so the windows would glow but never receive direct sunlight. This way when we cut between both you don’t have changes in the continuity of the light.”
Walker physically couldn’t bring big lighting equipment nor did she use special filters on the mountain, but used flare and a white, 4×4 and 8×8 bounces close to the actors for close ups to bring out the eyes. Grips wore white suits to act as reflectors too sometimes on difficult locations. “By having the Alexa 65, the right lenses and Leon Rivers-Moore, a very good Digital Intermediate, I feel like we got the look we wanted in difficult lighting situations,” says Walker. “The most difficult thing was maintaining enough light on Elba and detail in the snow. We managed to do that using a very precise exposure when the light was going up and down.”
Rehearsals were non-existent as well, though they didn’t want the film to look like a documentary but rather elegant and composed. Roughly half the shots were planned with one in particular being when Ben walks out of the crashed plane in the morning. The Cinematographer wanted it to be like “a little mouse coming out of his hole for the first time seeing the great big wide world.” The tandem only storyboarded four scenes; a cougar encounter where Alex fires at the animal with a flare gun, Ben falling down the mountainside, an underwater scene where Winslet herself plunges into frigid waters, and the aforementioned plane crash. “We didn’t stop working and didn’t break for lunch when we were up there,” says Walker. “The elements would change so we would change on the fly in response to the talent’s natural performances and the conditions at hand.”
As Alex and Ben make it to the lower elevations the journey intensifies and the camera pushes in and moves faster with the characters. When they reach below the tree line, the camera crew used a Technocrane attached to a Taurus tractor that could drive through the 1.5m thick snow for tracking shots so as not to create footprints.
Production was able to find or build many of these locations all within a half-hour from its home base, including the stump-root shelter and entrance to the snow dome cave. The largest build is the desolate cabin where Alex and Ben take shelter. It was constructed on the same Vancouver stage as the fuselage and transported to Horsethief Creek in December, a full month before shooting to make it look like it was part of the landscape. A single Alexa SXT (Super Xtended Technology) and Panavision C-Series lenses grabbed the reins in the lower altitudes and interiors. “We had two cameras running up in the mountains for time more than anything else as we only had six hours on the mountain of day light, but only one below because Abu-Assad wanted the actors to only have to be aware of one camera angle at a time,” says Walker.
While the Visual Effects team performed footstep clean-up on the mountain and other areas, only the fuselage and cabin scenes played VFX-heavy for Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Hahn and Visual Effects Producer Korey Jame Cauchon. “It’s very important to create a close relationship with those guys early on and talk about the visual language of the movie so we are all on the same page to well serve the story,” explains Walker. “Involving them on set, especially if it could possibly have VFX in it, is crucial and we did that during production.”
For Walker, the film was about what was going on emotionally for the characters at the time. “There are so many ways to shoot a scene – the lighting, the composition – it’s about deciding how you want to make the audience feel and being technical about it and working out how to achieve that, comes afterwards. Everyone on the crew did a remarkable job from start to finish supporting our incredible vision and story.”
Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.