Sir Ed: Peak performance

By Helen Barlow

Kiwi superhero Sir Edmund Hillary's greatest achievement has now been brought to life in 3D on the big screen, writes Helen Barlow.

When director Leanne Pooley showed Beyond the Edge - a 3D film about Sir Edmund Hillary's conquering of Mt Everest - at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend she was nervous.

The Canadian-born Kiwi was most concerned about the reaction of the Nepalese people in the audience. Sir Ed's son Peter Hillary had already seen the film, which seamlessly combines archival footage, extensive voice-over from Hillary and other mountaineers on the expedition, as well as dramatised scenes. But Norbu Tenzing Norgay, the son of the sherpa who shared Sir Ed's trek to the world's highest peak, was seeing it for the first time.

"With the Nepalese, the Indians and Tibetans, Tenzing is very, very famous," explains Pooley, whose Topp Twins documentary Untouchable Girls won the audience award at the Toronto festival in 2009.

"It's easy to forget that they might have a different perspective on the first Everest climb in 1953. There was a bit of argy-bargy about who got there first - and I really didn't want that to be the focus of the film.

I was terrified Norbu might have been unhappy, but he was deeply moved.

"It's a scary thing to premiere your film. We'd only finished it 10 days before so I had never seen it properly in a cinema."

Pooley says Norgay, who died in 1986 aged 72, probably should have received a knighthood like Hillary, and he shares the glory in her film.

Yet although it may come across like New Zealand's very own superhero movie, Pooley likes to think of it as the opposite.

"I wanted people to identify with them as ordinary people. Hillary was a real person with lots of insecurities and that's what's interesting. He was a lonely child and used to get thrashed by his dad in the woodshed, those kinds of things." As an adult, Hillary's insecurities were tempered by his huge drive, two disparate facets of the man Pooley was keen to explore.

"In New Zealand we tend to see him as this really humble, self-effacing guy, something he made into a religion, but he was actually incredibly driven and ambitious.

"He also had his demons to deal with. He felt physically unattractive and was completely hopeless with women. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a way to get that in the movie, but he actually had his mother-in-law propose to his wife on his behalf because he was too shy to do it himself."

In the film Hillary is played by Nelson actor and keen mountaineer Chad Moffitt who has an uncanny likeness to Sir Ed from the time when he famously "knocked the bastard off".

As with the details of Hillary's life, Pooley became intrigued by the minutiae of the environment Hillary had dedicated his life to exploring.

During the dramatisations her camera deftly captures the pair navigating the snow, ice and treacherous crevices in a 3D format audiences will have never seen before.

"I didn't want it to feel like a ride," she says.

"Rather than hurl the world at them I wanted to bring people into this extraordinary world, into one of the most extreme environments. The mountains and the environment are characters in the film, so I wanted them to be present all the time."

Certainly, Winnipeg-born Pooley, who has lived in New Zealand with her husband of 27 years, television sports director Dean Pooley, knows all about the cold.

"In Winnipeg in winter it's cold on a level most people can't even imagine - 40C below. If you walk outside in the wrong clothes you can die within minutes. So I have an understanding of the cold and how people feel and move."

When it came to the Everest expedition, like most of us, Pooley says she was under the impression that Hillary and Tenzing just "sauntered up the mountain".

Yet Beyond the Edge shows how it was like a military undertaking with the full force of the post-war British Government behind it.

Former Colonel John Hunt was in charge - and 30 British companies were involved in designing the shoes alone.

"The Brits knew they might not get another chance," she explains.

"They'd lost the South Pole and were a bit gutted so weren't taking any chances here. They were still rationing in England and there was the sense that the Empire was on the wane, so they needed to feel proud.

"The news of the men reaching the summit came to England on the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. When they got back Ed was first person she knighted. So they had a connection - I don't know if he called her Liz! But there was a lot of historical significance. They were calling it the Last Pole."

Peter Hillary, who grew up in the shadow of Everest, both physically and mentally, and is also good friends with Norbu ("I'm very proud both families have stayed so closely in contact"), is carrying on his father's legacy.

Like his old man, he is not one to keep still and even though "it is a very special event for the family" he won't be able to make the film's New Zealand premiere in Wellington on October 22. "I'll be at Everest Base Camp at 5000m. I am taking a trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, but I will try to call in to the event by phone."

Like his dad, he has travelled the world scaling the greatest peaks and trekked in Antarctica. But, he beams: "Nothing compares to the Himalayas. It dwarfs everything else. If you had the European Alps there, and the Andes along there and Kilimanjaro in Africa there, if you put all of them together you wouldn't even notice them in the shadow of the Himalayas. It's just an incomparable place."

And he loves Pooley's film. "Leanne is not of a mountaineering background so she was on a steep learning curve. [But] she was very good at analysing the whole story and telling [it] so a wide variety of viewers could understand it and enjoy it.

"From [the Hillary family's] perspective we are delighted with the results she's come up with. I'm delighted this story is coming to the big screen."

What: Beyond the Edge, a 3D film following Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mt Everest
In cinemas: October 24
Who: Director Leanne Pooley (Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls), and Peter Hillary, son of Sir Ed

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