We speak to veteran producer John Smithson about his latest movie, the spectacular and deeply moving documentary, SHERPA
If your Facebook has ever blown up with pictures/funding requests/self-congratulatory statuses from someone who has got to base camp (or higher) on Mount Everest, you might have been duly impressed and even fancied giving it a go yourself. Well, after seeing Jennifer Peedom’s new theatrical documentary, SHERPA, you may think twice before making climbing Everest your New Year’s resolution. Having won the Documentary Competition prize at the BFI’s London Film Festival Awards, we were expecting big things from the piece, and it didn’t disappoint.
Taking a previously untrodden route into the well-worn subject of the world’s tallest mountain, SHERPA examines Everest from (unsurprisingly given the film’s title) the perspective of the Sherpa who service and facilitate the “Everest Industry”. By closely following a few Sherpa, as well as an expedition company owner, the film gives these all too often maligned and forgotten people a much-needed voice. When we see and hear that huge groups of Sherpa (whose annual income is earned mainly in the summer climbing period) are required to navigate Everest’s dangerous Khumbu Icefall to take the baggage and camping equipment needed for Westerners to climb, the immense – and arguably unnecessary – risks these men undertake becomes ominously clear. Sure enough, halfway through the film the worst occurs, leaving 16 Sherpa dead on one of Everest’s “darkest days”.
The social and political aftermath of the tragedy is a gripping and deeply moving watch that transcends the bounds of its genre. The picture’s lush visuals and jaw-dropping cinematography should come as no surprise to anyone given the director’s previous work and the sheer beauty of Everest itself, but SHERPA has a much wider appeal: at heart it’s an incredible and often harrowing story, something not lost on the film’s producer, John Smithson (127 Hours and Touching the Void), who we were lucky enough to interview about his role in making SHERPA a reality.
What attracted you to the project?
I thought it was a really interesting approach to Everest. There’s been lots of things done about Everest but I thought this was a different approach and that it was an untold story to do it from the point of view of the Sherpa: this angle that we all rather take them for granted as more and more stuff is taken up the mountain for all the Westerners who go there. The Sherpas have got to lug all the stuff up and this puts them under great risk. So I thought it was a really interesting story and I really liked the director and thought she was very talented.
So that’s why I did it, but obviously we didn’t know the story would be quite the one we got because of that day in April 2014 when over 16 Sherpas died. We knew we had a very different film but we also knew we had a more powerful film. Following the aftermath of the avalanche gave the film a much stronger and more powerful storyline: a structural spine.
You weren’t expecting that to happen, so how did it pan out and what how did you decide upon the direction the piece took?
I remember meeting before filming in Australia for a big planning session about the film we were hoping to do and thinking, ‘this might be completely redundant’, because it’s Everest and anything can happen. We thought there might be an emergency or some terrible storm or maybe an accident (because it’s a dangerous place), but we never in a million years imagined that the worst day in Everest was going to occur. And it was going to be directly relevant to our story – because one of our stories was about the dangers of the ice wall. We knew we couldn’t make one film and we didn’t know what material we would have to make the new film. When the Avalanche happened we had no idea what was going to on in the mountain, we just kept filming.
After the clash of the cultures that occurred when the emotion of the Sherpas transformed into anger and a real sense of injustice and a desire to seize back control of the mountain, we knew we had a different story and a much more powerful one on which to hang the things we had originally wanted to discuss.
You also worked on Touching the Void and 127 Hours, what is it that makes you want to produce films that focus on human endeavor and challenge?
You’ve sort of answered the question there when you talk about “human endeavor”. I’m fascinated when people are pushed to the limit, and beyond. It may be the incredible challenge of climbing a mountain, it may be the incredible survival skills shown by Jeff Simpson (the guy from Touching the Void) or Aaron Ralston – the real life man portrayed in 127 Hours). At the end of the day I regard myself as a storyteller; it’s about amazing stories. There is an intense human interest because it’s all about the human condition. SHERPA was a different film in some respects but it was about the most incredible clash of the cultures and a huge tragedy with devastating personal consequences in the most dramatic and iconic of places: the tallest mountain in the world. I’m not really interested in the standard extreme sports films, I want fantastic stories.
What are the specifics of your role in the piece?
Jen, the director, approached me because she had seen Touching the Void and because I was experienced in doing Theatrical Documentary. Producing can mean many things, and in this case I was more of a Creative Producer. Theatrical Documentaries are very different from say, TV ones. It’s got to work on a big screen and feel like a big documentary. The whole point of theatrical is that you’re filling a movie theatre. So the director wanted support on that and secondly, you’ve got to raise finance so I was involved in bringing on Universal.
Are you ever tempted to undertake these challenges!
I don’t actually enjoy heights which is the funny thing! I’ve been to some extreme places but I’m not a climber or a mountaineer – though I do love being in the mountains. I’m not an extreme sportsman I just find it a fascinating story area – Scott and Shackleton or Mallory have always fascinated me. My interest is always as a storyteller.