'The Summit'
'The Summit'

A day of peaks and valleys (mostly peaks), oddly bookended by two encounters with screenwriter/directors: one glamorous, famous, handsome, self-assured, garlanded with accolades and awards, including, yes, the Oscar; the other, an indie guy, quiet, subdued, self-deprecating, even apologetic.

The day began at 10 a.m. with the first of the festival’s three consecutive Coffee Talks, whose free admission included, yes, free coffee, today from Starbucks. But the main attraction was Stephen Gaghan, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” and Oscar-nominated writer-director “Syriana.” Casually dressed and boyish despite a headful of graying hair, Gaghan held his audience in the palm of his hand during a fast-moving hour of assured and amusing anecdotes that touched on his Emmy-winning apprenticeship with David Milch on “NYPD Blue,” – Gaghan lay down on the stage to show how Milch, a bad-back sufferer, would read, reject, and ball up 48 pages of Gaghan’s 50-page script – and how he arrived at transforming a single-character drug war script for director Ed Zwick into the multi-arced, multi-character “Traffic,” produced by Zwick and directed by Soderbergh. 

The relentlessly interesting Gaghan (in Los Angeles they would call him “good in the room”), who happens to be married to Standard Oil heiress and designer Minnie Mortimer, great-niece of Sun Valley founder Averell Harriman, said that he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was 7. To which his mother responded “Oh no, you’ll live in misery and go – and by go I mean die – teaching other people’s children, badly.”  (Thanks, mom!) Nowadays Mom gives Gaghan notes on his scripts, which so impressed current collaborator Malcolm Gladwell that he inquired if she’d do the same for his new manuscript.

Ensorcelled, I scribbled six dense pages of notes, regretting that my tireless colleague Michael Guillen was not there with his trusty recorder to capture every word and transcribe the hour for his The Evening Class blog. I hadn’t been quite so captivated since catching John Waters’ lecture/standup act.

Invigorated, I dashed out to try to catch one of Ketchum’s free buses to the Sun Valley Opera House a mile away, and was emboldened to run out into the street to make the one I’d just missed stop for me. “I stopped because there’s no one around,” the indulgent driver said, “but don’t do that again.” 

Thanks to him, I entered the Opera House for the 11:20 a.m. screening of “The Summit” just as the room went dark. I was gripped and moved by the powerful story of the famous and horrendous August 2008 descent down K2, the second-highest peak in the world, which claimed 11 lives.  The multi-national cast of characters, filmed both during their climb and descent and the survivors and family of the deceased subsequent to the disaster, were well-delineated and charismatic. Some of the astonishing footage was shot during the expedition and some was “convincing reconstructions.”