Dutch-Palestinian film director Hany Abu-Assad has received two Academy Award nominations – in 2006 for Paradise Now, and again in 2013 for Omar. He also shot the 2015 drama The Idol. His first large-scale Western production is the romantic adventure-drama The Mountain Between Us, based on the successful novel by Charles Martin. Kate Winslet stars as Alex, Idris Elba as Ben, two strangers who are stranded in the high mountains of Utah following a plane crash. Together, they must navigate a path to safety…
Q. There is quite a contrast between these two characters – Alex is instinctual and impulsive, while Ben is more logical and restrained…
HANY ABU-ASSAD: It is a presentation of the differences in human beings. I once read an article that if you put people on a small boat in the middle of the ocean you will have one of two reactions. One is that some people will think it’s so big and beautiful out there and they will be very open to the idea. The other is that a person might collapse into themselves and not want to look outside the boat. So the reaction of the two characters is a representation of what we are as human beings and the differences between us.
What were the challenges of shooting in such a cold and remote environment up in Canada?
We had so many challenges with this movie that you could almost end up being like an old lady complaining about life! It was super cold. You cannot imagine! Sometimes your eyes would freeze, as would the muscles around them. Then you’d have to think about how to keep your cameras working because they would freeze. We had to carry special equipment with us all the time to keep the cameras working. We had a dog, and you cannot expect a dog to behave as you’d want it to in normal conditions. When you are up that high there is less oxygen so when you walk one metre it feels like you’ve walked a kilometre. Also, it’s dangerous. One wrong step and you might be in big trouble. I don’t want to say any more; it’s too much (laughs)!
Which scenes or shots were the hardest to achieve? Were they out on the mountain or was it something like the one-shot plane crash which you did in the studio?
The mountain was the biggest challenge. It was a great experience to make this one-shot five-minute scene with the plane crash. It required enormous co-ordination between crew, actors and machines but it was in a studio. Up in the mountains was harder. And working with big actors like Kate and Idris, you can’t bullshit them. You have to be very aware of that when you are arguing and discussing things with them.
Have you experienced a life-threatening situation, personally?
When I did Paradise Now, the whole crew and myself we went through an experience where we could lose our lives every second. And that went on and on. No one wants that and some crewmembers left because they didn’t want to risk their lives. And then some, like me and the cameraman and others, we stayed. You don’t want to feel like a coward. We put our lives at risk to make that movie and it was a lot of trauma. For six years afterwards I could not make another movie. I had to take a sabbatical.
Can you think of a situation where a stranger has helped you?
Many. In my original country, Palestine, we lived in a very dangerous place. Once, I was stuck with seven other passengers in a small bus in a very dangerous area. It had broken down and we had to walk together, and though none of us knew each other, we felt very bonded and wanted to help each other. This is a very human thing. When you are in danger, you lose your [sense of] self for the group in order to survive.
Finally, where do you hope Ben and Alex will be ten years from now?
The best way to make a movie is make it a mirror and allow the audiences to reflect their wishes, and what they want from the actors. I am very romantic, though, so I want Ben and Alex to be together, with a big family, living on a farm and still in love.
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• The Mountain Between Us is available on Blu-ray and DVD January 10th