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High Drama Behind the Making of 'Everest'

Movies: O.C. filmmaker Greg MacGillivray's work-in-progress chronicles his crew's rescue efforts in the face of a killer blizzard.

September 27, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ferocious blizzard that claimed the lives of eight climbers on Mt. Everest last year has been the subject of TV news-magazine segments, a slew of newspaper and magazine articles and a best-selling book, Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air."

On Monday, an Irvine audience of several hundred will get the first glimpse of a film designed to make them feel as if they are on the mountain during the deadliest season since Everest was first conquered in 1953.

Laguna Beach filmmaker Greg MacGillivray knew his team would face unprecedented hardships in bringing back the first Imax images from the world's highest peak, on the Nepal-Tibet border.

He never dreamed they'd be cast in the role of rescuers.

The May 10, 1996, tragedy--and the film team's efforts to save climbers from other expeditions--provides the emotional core of "Everest," a $6-million work-in-progress that will be shown at a benefit screening for the Laguna Canyon Foundation at the Edwards Imax Theatre in the Irvine Spectrum.

"We have a sequence on the tragedy and how it affects our climbers," said MacGillivray. "It's a very emotional time in the film because our climbers had extremely close friends who were killed."

The 40-minute print shown Monday will have temporary music and narration. The results of an audience questionnaire prepared by MacGillivray may influence final editing of the film, which will reach theaters in March.

Tickets to the benefit preview, which includes a post-screening reception with MacGillivray, are $50, $100 and $200. The high-end ticket also buys entry to a pre-screening cocktail party with the filmmaker, center seating, valet parking and an autographed copy of "Everest: Mountain Without Mercy," a National Geographic book chronicling the film expedition by "Everest" film advisor Broughton Coburn.

Meanwhile, a National Geographic magazine article by "Everest" film team leader David Breashears appears in this month's issue. And a behind-the-scenes documentary produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films will be broadcast on cable television in February or March.

Public interest in the tragedy has prompted an unprecedented marketing campaign from the production company whose credits include "The Living Sea."

"We're putting more than $1 million into advertising and promotion and releasing the film in about 50 Imax theaters all at once," said MacGillivray. "This has never been tried in the Imax world before."

MacGillivray had wanted to do the Mt. Everest project for 10 years. He and co-director Breashears enlisted a 32-member team including a dozen or so Sherpas, Tibetans who live on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. Among the 10 who made it to the summit during the filming was Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Edmund Hillary to the top in 1953.

Because a standard, 80-pound Imax camera would have been an impossible burden in the oxygen-depleted environment, the filmmakers first had to design a 35-pound version capable of operating in extreme subzero temperatures.

Once they arrived at base camp, the climbers spent more than a month ascending and descending the slope to acclimate to the altitude and stockpile oxygen canisters and food at various camps for the final ascent to the top of the 29,028-foot mountain.

"We've done skiing movies before where you're up at 11,000 feet, but on Everest, base camp is at 18,000 feet," said MacGillivray. "Everyone has shortness of breath and headaches and nausea a lot of the time. The body just doesn't like to function without oxygen."

"Everest" is about man's will to climb the mountain and what it means, MacGillivray said.

"To some people it's a spiritual goal. To others, it's a personal test. . . . Self-reliance is a big thing on the mountain. You're putting yourself right on the edge.That's a bold move and it's something that these climbers get a real rush out of doing. It gives them a sense of being alive."

But death, as it turned out, was just around the corner.

MacGillivray, who kept in contact with the base camp from Laguna Beach via a satellite phone patch, spoke to Breashears the morning of May 9, 1996. The team had planned to climb to the highest camp that day. "But David said he didn't like the way the mountain looked. It looked too stormy and windy and he was going to stay put," MacGillivray said.

That decision kept the film team out of harm's way. But when the blizzard hit, they risked their lives anyway. "Our folks climbed up these radical parts of the mountain--these almost sheer ice forms-- to reach the higher camp," MacGillivray said.

There, they helped climber Seaborn Beck Weathers of Dallas, who was near death, back down to the middle camp, where a heroic Nepalese helicopter pilot flew into the storm to airlift him out.

The film team climbers also radioed others whom they could not reach, including New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall.

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