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For ‘Everest’ director, a philosophy, and life, of extremes

Baltasar Kormakur, pictured in the L.A. Times photo studio at this month's Toronto International Film Festival, is the director of "Everest."

Baltasar Kormakur, pictured in the L.A. Times photo studio at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, is the director of “Everest.”

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Baltasar Kormakur recalls many an outdoor excursion in his native Iceland where matters looked bleak. He would go out with a small group, put all the supplies he could in a few bags and set out with nothing else but horses and an instinctive feel for the outdoors.

“You pack everything you’re taking with you on the horses. And then you lose the horses in the fog or the river the first day, and you’re sleeping outside and you’re in trouble in a place very far from anyone,” he recalled.

Those experiences didn’t necessarily mirror the events of “Everest,” the new mountain-climbing drama Kormakur directed. But they did put the filmmaker in a frame of mind that allowed him to capture what climbers were feeling as they faced one outdoor hurdle after another during an intense storm on the epic mountain in 1996.

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“Everest,” which opens this weekend, follows a group of fact-based climbers — mailman Doug (John Hawkes), brash Texan Beck (Josh Brolin), surfer-cool veteran Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal) and prudent expedition leader Rob (Jason Clarke), among others, as they make their way up the treacherous mountain. (You can read Kenneth Turan’s review of the film here.)

As documented in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” (he was on the trek and is played by Michael Kelly in the film) and other sources, a mix of miscalculation and sheer bad luck spelled a tragic fate for some and badly hurt others.

That makes for dramatic stakes, not to mention some eye-popping scenery from Nepal and the Alps, where the movie was shot, presented in Imax 3-D. It also allows the film to explore more human questions that effects can’t convey.

“You have everything in this, really: hubris, humanity, courage, fear,” Kormakur said, adding, “The last thing we wanted to do was cook this into a conventional Hollywood blockbuster.”

Kormakur is in a Toronto restaurant, the latest stop on a barnstorming promotional tour that has included Venice, Italy (where the film opened that city’s late-summer festival), France’s Deauville, Los Angeles and various points in Asia. This is not to be confused with a horse trip he recently took with his family to Denmark from the Icelandic town where they spend much of their time; that excursion was less of the PR variety.

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The director also has come to Toronto to promote “Trapped,” an Icelandic TV series debuting here which uses the rather clever concept of trapping a small group of people on an island with one of them as an unrevealed murderer -- Agatha Christie by way of Erik the Red. Remake rights are in play.

Kormakur, who in the U.S. is best known for English-language thrillers such as “2 Guns” and “Contraband,” actually has a history making outdoor movies, notably directing the Icelandic film “The Deep” about a deadly nautical accident and its aftermath. He is known for using natural setting in extreme locales -- he refused to buld a water tank on “The Deep,” instead shooting in the open seas, forcing him at several points to swim in the water with his actors, at one moment rescuing the film’s star.

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He had hoped to shoot much of this movie on Everest, but bonding companies and studio executives tend to get nervous about locations that helicopters can’t reach. Still, he shot outdoors in the elements as much as possible, even if not every cast and crew member might have had the same enthusiasm for the prospect of working in subzero temperatures for weeks at a time.

“Acting is reaction, and when you make a story that’s man versus nature, you want a genuine reaction, not one to something that was created,” he said.

“Everest” goes light on the exposition, not getting into back stories in a way that explains why many of the men and women took on the challenge in the first place. For viewers accustomed to a bit more motivation in their films, that can be jarring, and some pundits have called out the movie for it. But Kormakur says that he was simply staying true to the experiences of climbers.

“I read somewhere that characters are underdeveloped, and I totally disagree,” he said. “It’s an ensemble film, for one thing. But also, a real mountaineer can’t give you an answer on why he does it. People aren’t their own psychiatrists on the mountain. It’s almost existential — why do we choose to live and not to die? There is no answer.”

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He said his goal was to capture the moment as it happened. “It’s a little like a Chekhov play. All these characters have their moments, and then it builds into something.”

Indeed, while those who see the grueling conditions portrayed in “Everest” may wonder why climbers embrace the challenge -- Hawkes’ Doug explains that it’s the inability to resist the possibility of observing such beauty -- Kormakur says there’s something more fundamental about extreme outdoor behavior.

“Yes, you’re tired and hungry and physically suffering,” he said. “But you become a truer version of who you are. The more we’re advanced technically, the more we need this to understand that. The people who look strong, on trips like these are often weak. The people you thought are weak were strong. Sometimes people freak out. But they all become more human. The mud doesn’t bother you, and the dirt doesn’t bother you, and the pain doesn’t bother you. All the ... falls away and life becomes real.”

@ZeitchikLAT

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