Life of a film
Is a docudrama film based on a book of the same name by the climber John Simpson and documents Simpson's and Simon Yates' disastrous and near fatal attempt to climb the 20,813 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The film combines footage of interviews conducted with Simpson, Yates and Richard Hawkins with a reenactment performed by actors. The film was directed by Kevin MacDonald.
As mentioned in the synopsis Touching The Void was first a novel of the same name by the climber John Simpson and the initial idea for the film came from producer John Smithson, managing director of independent production company, Darlow Smithson. However the route to a theatrical release was not straightforward as Smithson says "By the time the filming started, we felt we had already climbed a mountain of our own."
Because of the success of the book (which having sold slowly, managed to sell 500,000 copies before the films release after it won the NCR award and beat Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Tim in 1989 four years after it’s initial publication) the rights to a movie had been bought up by a big hollywood producer as Smithson explains “More than 50 producers were going for the story, and the rights were locked up in Hollywood” however despite rumours of Tom Cruise and even Steven Spielberg potentially making it with scripts having been written up to 2003 a film hadn’t yet to be made of it. Luckily Smithson was not as interested in making a feature film and was able to obtain the documentary rights instead as his production company specialises in factual documentary and he first pitched an idea for a TV documentary to Channel 4 commissioning editor Charles Furneaux and Paul Sowerbutts, managing director of Channel 4 International.
Having received backing from channel 4 the project now had a budget of £400,000 but making the documentary on that budget would have been almost impossible due to the expense of filming on location in the high altitude locations in Peru. Smithson went to the US in search of more funding having previously secured financial backing from US producers with his independent production company such as its breakthrough documentary Black Box. The film was first turned down by the Discovery-owned TLC but he was able to increase the films budget to just under £1m after making a deal with PBS.
The project then grew in size after oscar-winning director Kevin Mcdonald (who would go on to direct The Last King Of Scotland) took interest in the project.
“I first heard about it from reading Joe's book which I recommend to you all. I sat up and read the book in one sitting overnight about three years ago and was completely dumb-struck by it. I found it so exciting and terrifying. It was like being transported to a totally different world - so alien does the world of high altitude and mountaineering seem to me.”
Helped by the involvment of a well respected figure in the british filmmaking industry FilmFour and then The UK Film Council got involved attracted by the unusual nature of creating a big screen drama documentary this pushed the Budget to £1.7m and the idea of a theatrical release was suddenly likely.
"Suddenly we had grown from a conventional British TV documentary into something far bigger and more ambitious”. Smithson later said.
There was a major threat to the production of the film just a couple of weeks before filming was set to begin in Peru when FilmFour was suddenly reabsorbed into channel 4 and the chief executive of film4 Paul Webster who had been so influential in securing the film4 backing for the film, quit with film4 also experiencing major budget cuts and the closing down of its distribution and international sales arm. Luckily channel 4 remained involved as a production company which meant filming could go ahead as planned with the same budget.
Director Kevin MacDonald explains the filming process
“I interviewed both Joe and Simon (the climbers) for two days each and then we filmed the reconstructions for a month in Peru in the actual spot, yes, where the adventure took place. Then a month in the Alps, shooting close-ups and other bits of reconstruction”.
Filming in such awkward conditions however wasn’t easy as Macdonald describes some of the difficulties in an interview
“We filmed with 35mm Aaton cameras in Peru and in the Alps we filmed with 16mm Arri cameras. Often the batteries ran down extremely quickly due to the cold and we learned to sleep with the batteries in our sleeping bags at night to keep them warm. We also suffered a great deal from condensation on the lenses because if one part of the equipment was even slightly warmer than the rest it would cause condensation, which would ruin the shot. A lot of times we had two cameras going, one being kept warm so that we could replace the one that was freezing up with ice on it every hour or so.”
Also when they took the two climbers back to mountain to film them together again back at the base camp they hadn’t been since the incident in 1986 it went very badly. “ The trauma of what had happened all those years ago came back to them and they began to find it more and more difficult to take part in our filming. It was a very emotional experience for both of them.” Recalls Macdonald. Simpson had suffered with post traumatic stress syndrome on returning and Joe Yates left early after getting angry with the Director.
From Simpson’s recollection it appears that neither got on very well with director.
“I didn’t enjoy the experience and Simon didn’t like the director. Simon got within an ace of head butting him because he felt Kevin MacDonald wasn’t treating the crew safely. He thought that because he wasn’t employed by the film company he could stand up to them but he just did it a bit too aggressively. Simon was judging Kevin MacDonald by climbing standards, which is very unfair because Kevin MacDonald is a film director with a Hugh Grant hairstyle from London. The only ice he had seen in his life was in a Gin and Tonic, suddenly he is staggering around at 18,000ft trying to make a film. I was saying to Simon, just respect him for that, you couldn’t make a film mate, so don’t criticise him because he is doing his best.”
Their visit back to the mountain was excluded from the final cut but made into a short documentary called The Return to Siula Grande which features on the DVD extras
Production year: 2002
Production budget: £1.7m (approx)
Because Film4 was no longer able to distribute the film, Pathé stepped in to distribute and market the film for a UK theatrical release. With IFC Films distributing the film in America. And various other companies distributing to other countries.
List of Distributers
• Pathé Distribution (2003) (UK) (theatrical)
• A-Film Distribution (2004) (Netherlands) (theatrical)
• Asmik Ace Entertainment (2005) (Japan) (theatrical)
• Diaphana Films (2004) (France) (theatrical)
• Hopscotch Productions (2004) (Australia) (theatrical)
• IFC Films (2004) (USA) (theatrical)
• Kinowelt Filmverleih (2004) (Germany) (theatrical)
• Monopole-Pathé (2004) (Switzerland) (theatrical)
• United International Pictures (UIP) (2004) (Spain) (theatrical)
• Fandango (2005) (Italy) (all media)
• Four Films (2006) (Chile) (all media)
• Kinowelt Home Entertainment (Germany) (DVD)
• MGM Home Entertainment (2004) (USA) (video)
• Paramount Home Entertainment (2005) (Brazil) VHS) (DVD)
• Paramount (2004) (Sweden) (DVD)
• With Cinema (Korea)
Yleisradio (YLE) (2007) (Finland) (TV)
Theatrical Release dates
Had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on the 5th September 2003 and its UK premiere at the London Film festival 27th October 2003. Its UK theatrical release date was 12th December 2003 and was then released in cinemas in New York on 23rd January 2004. Later it was exhibited in south America (Argentina 12 March 2004 Mar del Plata Film Festival), had cinema releases in Asia and Australasia (Hong Kong 15 April 2004 and Australia 24 June 2004) as well as numerous cinema releases in numerous European countries. see link
Total Lifetime Grosses
Domestic: $4,616,440 33.1%
+ Foreign: $9,315,046 66.9%
= Worldwide: $13,885,802
Was in cinemas for 6 weeks (42 days) and 20 weeks in America (140 days )
Widest release: 50 screens (in America 137 screens)
Release date: 12 /12/2004
Closing date: 8/02/2004
American opening weekend box office takings
(#45 rank, 5 theaters, $19,394 average, 25 January 2004)
2.1 % of Total Gross:
UK opening weekend
(14 December 2003) (29 Screens)
The film first aired on PBS in America on Sunday, November 21, 2004 because the television company helped to produce the film and this is a form of vertical integration with 1 of the companies involved in the production process also exhibiting the film.
The film was first released on DVD on 5th April 2004 in the UK by Film4 who also funded the film and this is therefore also a form of vertical integration and later in the Canada and the US (region 1) on 15th June the same year by MGM with the film also available in Video format. For a dvd release in America to be successful you need to use a large distributer and that is what MGM is as a part of Sony. Although i could not find any statistics for DVD sales it is likely to have had some financial success in America because of the size of the distributer, in the UK it is likely to have recorded far fewer DVD sales as film4 does not have the resources to widely distribute its DVD releases.
For a documentary Touching the void has achieved phenomenal financial and critical success. It is the most financially succesful british documentary film of all time and has won numerous awards including a BAFTA in 2004 for Best British Film and two BIFA's for best Documentary and Best technical achievement.