Written also for TurnerClassicMovies.com
“The climbing world has been very ill served by Hollywood,” says Joe Simpson, climber, author, and subject of IFC Films’ new docudrama, Touching the Void.
Simpson and Simon Yates were traveling in Peru in 1985. They wanted to climb the west face of Siula Grande, which had never been climbed before. Both are interviewed in the movie, so we know they both survived. But they speak ominously about being underprepared and overconfident, and about the tools and traits needed to survive while climbing.
If you’ve read Simpson’s book (also called “Touching the Void”), you already know what an amazing ordeal they went through. If not, you’re in for a nail-biting treat. I won’t repeat their story here because the movie tells it so much better.
The movie tells it so well, in fact, that it’s getting worldwide acclaim and box office success. “What’s happened in Britain is amazing. It’s now the second-most successful documentary film ever, it’s just behind [Bowling for] Columbine and we’re catching up. And it got nominated for a BAFTA [British Academy Award] last week, and not as a documentary; it got nominated as the outstanding film of the year alongside Cold Mountain and Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
The Hollywood Version
But this non-Hollywood, independent docudrama version of Touching the Void almost didn’t come into being. As Simpson explains, Hollywood owned the rights for a while.
“Prior to this being made I had offers from all sorts of people wanting to make the movie, and I sold the rights quite a few times, most famously to Tom Cruise. He was gonna play me; I don’t know why because he’s short and ugly,” says Simpson, between deadpan and serious.
“Hollywood has produced some absolute stinkers. The worst of which was Vertical Limit, which is the biggest load of bollocks I’ve ever seen in my life. They schmaltz it like K2, they just make it a joke like Cliffhanger, or Vertical Limit — you have to be brain-dead to think that’s a realistic film. But I signed knowing that Hollywood would do this.
“When [production company] Darlow Smithson came up after the Cruise deal had fallen through and said ‘We’d like to make a drama documentary,’ I thought actually this might be the way to make a good, faithful, powerful film. And when they brought Kevin MacDonald on board, who’s an Oscar-winning documentary director, I thought ‘Good God, these guys are serious.’”
This is Real
Their approach to telling the story is an effective blend of dramatic re-enactment footage and documentary interviews with the real Simpson and Yates. It works better than a feature film would have. In that type of movie, Simpson explains, “Even though someone says it’s a true story, very quickly you forget it.
“What happens with this [the mix of interviews and reenactments] is you’re constantly flipping back to the real person saying ‘This is what happened’ and you’re thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, this is real, this is real.’ You’re never allowed to forget it and that becomes shocking.”
With the movie’s drama assured, Simpson and his friend Brian Hall, who headed the safety crew, worked to make the movie authentic. “When we saw the first screening I was with Brian and I was amazed that it was so faithful, and then I said to Brian, ‘What do you think?’ He said ‘It’s very good, but the climbing is crap.’ I said ‘Yeah, it looks like we’re climbing snow slopes, doesn’t it?’ So we just said to them, ‘Go back and do it again.’”
Climbers Look Up
“They went back to the Alps and put these poor actors on vertical ice falls. The mountaineers who’ve seen this have said it’s authentic, not just because we used 1980s gear — we’re using straight-handle ice axes, foot-fang crampons which are totally out of date now, we’re using old jackets and old clothing — we got it all right, and this is what climbers are really pernickety about. That was a lot to do with our input as climbers to tell them what to do.”
Indeed climbers seem to like the movie. After a preview screening in Denver (which has a big climbing community), a group of climbers praised Touching the Void as being the first climbing movie they didn’t look down on. They noticed that all the details were right, down to the ice bolts and overhand, figure-8 knots. In short, they agreed with Simpson, that Hollywood had never done justice to the climbing world. It took an independently-produced film from the U.K. to finally give climbers a movie they could look up to.