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The film Everest, about the alpine tragedy that claimed the lives of New Zealanders Rob Hall and Andy Harris and six others, is poised to take the world by storm. Des Sampson and Russell Baillie went behind the scenes.

Tonight, it would appear everyone is feeling on top of the world. Inside the Adventure Consultants company mess tent at Mt Everest's Base Camp, 5365m up, guides and clients are playing cards and swapping yarns. There's an eeriness to the evening, too. The group's conversation is punctuated by sounds of rumbling, cracking ice from higher up.

Tomorrow, those in the tent will climb to the three camps above, then push to the summit at 8848m. And some will never return.

Right now though, the scene is jovial, the air is surprisingly warm and oxygenated. That's because the tent isn't at cruising altitude but within London's Pinewood studios. It's day 39 of Everest, a film about how and why New Zealand guides Rob Hall and Andy Harris, American guide Scott Fischer and others perished on that overcrowded storm-lashed mountain on May 11, 1996.


Hall, played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, is holding court in the tent scene, which also includes Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Harris (Martin Henderson), Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and John Hawkes (Doug Hansen).

Amid the banter, Kelly's Krakauer - the man who wrote Into Thin Air, the definitive account of the tragedy - feels the need to play journalist. He asks the whole group why they need to climb the world's tallest peak.

There's a pause. A grinning Hall and the rest shout: "Because it's there!" The famous line belongs to climber George Mallory, whose frozen body has lain on the mountain for 90 years.

Today's shoot might look a little too comfortable to be true. But the cast and crew have already been to Nepal, where altitude sickness was a problem and the camera gear came in by yak. In the Italian alps the production was buffeted by storms and had to deal with minus-30C temperatures and the risk of avalanche.

"Because they had been through those two things before we got anywhere near a sound stage, they knew what it felt like," New Zealand-born, English producer Tim Bevan tells the Herald later. "It was their research."

"In some ways, that also made the acting easier," says Clarke on set. "Because when you walk on set and it's a mountain 5500m up, you're battling the elements and you're physically stuffed. There's not really a whole lot of acting required at that point."

Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall's wife, Jan Arnold. Photo / Supplied
Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall's wife, Jan Arnold. Photo / Supplied

The film has endured some other storms itself since Bevan, one of the founders of British film giant, Working Title Pictures, initiated the project having finished reading Into Thin Air in a weekend in the early noughties.

Since then, Everest has gone through false starts, ditched scripts and financial backing falling through for the eventual US$65 million ($99 million) budget.


But based on its selection as the opening night screening for the influential Venice Film Festival and a Herald viewing of the finished film, it looks like Everest has "major hit" written all over it.

Though it traverses much of the same territory, Everest isn't an adaptation of Into Thin Air. Krakauer's book was made into a quickly forgotten television movie in 1997.

Instead, the script is based, in part, on Left For Dead by one of Hall's clients, Beck Weathers, which Universal Studios had purchased. The studio - which owns Working Title - also grabbed the rights to transcripts of the radio traffic on that day, which included the satellite-phone-to-radio conversation between Hall and his wife, Jan Arnold, at home in Christchurch as he lay dying near the summit ...