By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 4, 2013 at 2:05PM
MM: Ger (McDonnell, the first Irishman to make the climb) became a focus very early even though it was initially Pemba and the sherpas. Nick interviewed Pemba first. He held long interviews with everyone; some of the interviews happened very quickly after the incident. We interviewed some people subsequent times.
AT: You would be the one who said, we really need to get this person? Are you functioning as a researcher/detective, journalist/reporter?
MM: To a certain degree. What you do basically is you get an interview and you get a transcript and you begin mining it for material so you can ask other people.
AT: That’s what a journalist does.
MM: This is why I love documentaries--they’re all about individual truths. You’re asking people about an event and they’re telling you their truth, the way they know it, the experience they have. And most of the time there’s some divergence in the story--we’re human, that’s the way it works. In this story it was widely divergent.
AT: Very much so: "Rashomon."
MM: Yeah, "Rashomon."That was attractive to us--it made it more mysterious and tragic in a way. You have a handful of people on a mountain experiencing the same thing and all of them have wildly different views of what happened and none of them have the whole picture. And that whole picture, we knew, was unattainable. So it’s kind of a movie about stories. About the way these events shape your life going forward. So once we did all the interviews I went to Dublin for a week and spent exhaustive hours with Nick, reading the transcripts to each other--especially the transcripts of the sherpa--trying to timeline and figure out the important pieces and find out what happened to Ger. By then we had gotten to Ger.
AT: Who is so charismatic. So part of it was finding the footage. Who had the movie camera?
MM: And we got to review the footage. Well, there were several on the mountain. Wilco had one. Streng, the Swedish guy who turns around early, went there, I think, primarily to shoot a documentary and not to summit.
AT: Which is why he saved his own life.
MM: Probably. On some level, that’s my take on it. But you really have to be 100 percent in to get to the summit, and I think he was divided by his want to make a documentary or shoot footage of it. So that week, we discovered a few things, particularly from the photographs and the pictures. The fact that the sherpas in the photographs, from their clothing, you could tell one of them was a rescuer and one was someone who needed to be rescued. Knowing that was a huge key. It’s complicated to explain but he couldn’t have gotten from there to over here unless some helped him do it. And the only person we could see, logically, that could have helped him do it, was Ger.
AT: As a writer, are you the one who says, 'OK, we’re going to give this piece of information as a video, we’re going to give this piece of information as a narration, we’re going to give this on the screen as a map?' You and the director and editor?
MM: We figure it out together. The way it works is that once we did that, I began writing the film, we had an editor on board, and we began working on scenes of the film. I work on paper, my own little format that I use, and it’s very much just structuring scenes. This person says this here, this person says that here, let’s show the map here, here’s a piece of information. And that’s interpreted by an editor and by Nick and it’s picked apart. I’m like the guy with the machete and there’s the fresh jungle--I’m just cutting the first path. It doesn’t mean that’s the road we’re going to take, but I’m just the one making the first decisions, based on a plan that the director and I have already agreed on.
AT: So in this scenario, it would be different if you were a writer-director, you would be doing this yourself. But you’re working with directors who in effect are not writers.
MM: True. On “The Summit" Nick wrote the recreation scenes as a screenplay himself, based on our discussions. What I would do is I would pull out all the relevant transcripts about a particular scene that happened, everything that everyone said about it. I would give it to Nick and tell him how I think it played out, and he would write in Final Draft, like a screenplay, the recreation. And he did all of those himself because as a director, he needs to know exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. For him to create those, I think, was the best way for him to do it. And then Pemba was there and it would change as we were doing it. He would say, 'Ger was there, Ger was not there, Ger was here.' Nick wrote those recreations.
AT: Where did they shoot them?
MM: In the Swiss Alps. He had fifty-by-fifty-foot green screens up 4000 meters on a mountain. It was insane. In fact, it was part of our struggle, because he does all the CGI himself and there’s a load of shots in there. It’s time consuming. We had a cut of the film that we thought was pretty strong but it was loaded with green-screen shots, so when you show it to an executive, they’re like, 'mmmmm, I don’t know,' and we’re sitting there going, 'no, it’s going to work!'
AT: How did you get to do “Sound City”?
MM: That’s one you can never say no to. I got a call through Paul Crowder, my partner at Diamond, who was a touring musician for 15 years and started out life as an audio engineer in a recording studio. Through Behind the Music from years ago, someone knew that Paul had done the Peralta films, so management for Dave contacted Paul and we had a late night drink with Dave Grohl, and in five minutes we knew what he wanted. He wanted a movie that inspires people to play music together. He had this wild story and it was personal. People say, Dave Grohl, first-time filmmaker, but Dave Grohl is a long-time storyteller.
AT: He’s made music videos.
MM: That's what I mean. Through a different art form. It’s a little bit like Louie with “The Cove”--Louie was a National Geographic photographer. Both Dave and Louie are very competent human beings, who are decisive, they know what they want, they’re encyclopedic about this story they want to tell. No, they may not know what to do next or how to structure a scene, but if you show them stuff, they’re like, 'yes' or 'no, I don’t like that, it needs to go more like this.' So it came together quick. We started editing in maybe March, and at the same time Dave was doing the part of the film that was recording live music with these people who lived the history of the recording studio. So while we’re making the film, I’m giving Dave questions for people to make sure certain things are covered. I interviewed Dave, which is a joy and an amazing experience, several times. And then he would be doing the recording sessions while we were cutting the history.
AT: With "Chasing Ice" you’re not only relying on the iceberg calving footage and the extraordinary difficulties of achieving that footage, but this passionate man, James Balog, at the heart of it, which takes it to a whole other level.
MM: I’m so proud of that film, primarily because it’s a young man, Jeff Orlowski, who made it. This is a guy who was maybe 26 when he started making that film. I agreed to do it, probably against my better judgment at first, because I flew to Boulder to work with Jeff, and the first day he took me into the basement of his high school friend’s mom’s house--we got fed mac and cheese, there were Van Halen posters on the wall--and I was like, 'what am I doing here?' But the footage was incredible. When you meet James Balog, it takes about five seconds to know what he’s about.
AT: He’s a hero. That shot where he goes flying out down over that ravine, and his knee is busted!
MM: He is. In a large way, though, you let not just James’s pictures but Jeff’s pictures tell the story for that film. We went through a few incarnations on that film for many reasons, and the only guy who may have as much perseverance as James Balog is Jeff Orlowski. That kid just kept at it and kept at it for four plus years to get it to Sundance.
AT: And the Oscar shortlist.
MM: Yeah, which was again just incredible. Some of these films, from where you begin them to where they end up... I knew we had a lot going for us but it was a complete overhaul from a year ago, and just to get in you think, 'oh my gosh!'