Mountain survival movies usually end with someone eating someone else to stay alive. The Mountain Between Us features the usual mountain survival tropes — there’s a plane crash, a showdown with a cougar and broken bones — but luckily for fans of stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet cannibalism is not on the menu.
“The combination between survival and romance is why I wanted to do this movie,” says director Hany Abu-Assad. “It is very original. I could make a different survival movie which is on the surface is about survival but deep in its heart it is about love and the spirit of human beings. On the other hand it is an opportunity to make an entertaining movie. It is an entertaining but also sophisticated movie that tells the meaning of life.”
Elba and Winslet play strangers who must bond after a devastating plane crash leaves them badly injured and stranded. They are onscreen for 99 per cent of the film so the casting of the two leads was the first major hurtle for director Abu-Assad.
“This is a very risky movie because it depends on just two characters and if the actors are not good, you’re f—ed,” he laughs. “The process was very long and thoughtful. At the end we came up with Idris and Kate after we saw them at the BAFTAs together. They were presenting. We were throwing all kinds of names around. I don’t want to say who but we wanted to be sure you would want to look at them for an hour and a half and still not get enough. The moment I saw Idris and Kate together on the stage, immediately I thought, this is the movie I want to see. There is fire between these two that made us realize these were the actors we wanted.”
Shot in Western Canada, the vistas of ice and snow — imagine Lawrence of Arabia with snow instead of sand — were real and brought a sense of authenticity to the production.
“All the snow is real, pristine but this comes with a price,” Abu-Assad says. “For example you can’t shoot long days, just six hours a day. Otherwise you will be beaten up from the cold. People from Chicago or Montreal tell me they’re used to the cold. They are used to going 10 minutes from the house to the car or for a five-minute walk in the cold but six hours? That takes a toll. The equipment won’t work so we had to leave the cameras on 24 hours. The moment we stopped them it took hours to warm them up again. Some equipment froze in a way that we couldn’t even move it or touch it.”
Abu-Assad says the elements challenged the cast, crew and him during the shoot, but that it was worth it.
“It makes you hyper-vigilant,” he says, “because you can’t afford to make a mistake. Some scenes are just one take because it is a pristine snow and you can’t go back. It’s very tiring but not frustrating because your adrenaline is pumping. It was beautiful to watch. Things happened in a way that felt so genuine. It was like an orgasm to watch these shots being made.”