Director Hany Abu-assad does things the hard way in The Mountain Between Us
HAVING A STORY with just two characters should make a director’s job easy. No extras; fewer angles to shoot; very short queues for the catering truck. But Hany Abu-assad, director of The Mountain Between Us, decided to put the kibosh on an easy life. How? By filming his tiny ensemble piece in the freezing conditions of Alberta, on Canada’s snowy peaks.
Based on the novel of the same name by American writer Charles Martin, this is the saga of two strangers, a doctor, Ben Bass (Idris Elba), and Alex Martin, a soon-to-be-married photojournalist (Kate Winslet), chartering a plane home after their commercial flight is cancelled. Neither can afford to wait a day. Delays become the least of their worries when their plane crashes in the mountains, killing the pilot and leaving two people who met mere hours ago relying on each other to stay alive. It’s a bit like Alive meets Homeward Bound, but with less cannibalism and just the one dog (more on him later).
“I don’t like to make things easy,” laughs Abu-assad, who has been Oscar-nominated twice for Best Foreign Language Film, for Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013). “I never shoot my films anywhere comfortable,” he says, “because I make films about people in difficult circumstances.” The director shared his tiny cast’s hardships. “There was very little oxygen up there and we’d get home at the end of every day feeling like we’d been beaten up. Really.”
Even more daunting than the sub-zero temperatures was the challenge of keeping a film with just two characters cinematic. “It’s very different in a book, where you can use description and the characters’ inner voices,” says Abu-assad. “Conflict is what keeps the story interesting and trying to create that with two characters is something we had to do a lot of work on.”
Part of the solution came from casting Elba and Winslet — “both are actors who are automatically intriguing”; part came from eking out secrets about the pair as the film progresses; and part came from adding another cast member, whom the leads happen upon: a dog named Riley.
“That dog made my life so hard!” says Abu-assad. “The dog is cold! The dog is tired! But he gives the movie a great feel. He’s the comic relief, which a movie this tense needs. You need to release the tension sometimes in order to build it up again, and that’s what the dog does.”
When everything else is frozen, you can rely on a dog to warm the heart.
THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US IS IN CINEMAS FROM 12 OCTOBER
Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) and Dr Ben Bass (Idris Elba) get the drift. Below: Ice-cold Alex?