Moving Mountains: Director Hany Abu-Assad on ‘The Mountain Between Us’

After winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film for his 2005 drama Paradise Now—a controversial portrait of two Palestinian suicide bombers—Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad was clearly surprised. In an interview with The Guardian, he characterized his victory this way: “It was a joke that I was even nominated.” 

In 2017, the acclaimed director seems almost as shocked as he did then, now that his first bona fide Hollywood feature—the Kate Winslet–Idris Elba survival drama The Mountain Between Us—is in the can. “I feel it’s a miracle that a Hollywood studio did such a movie [as mine],” Abu-Assad told Boxoffice during a post-production break, “because they don’t do it anymore.” What the director means by “it” is a film not based on a preexisting franchise, starring two actors who are never once required to wear tights.

Abu-Assad’s entry into the Hollywood system has been a long time coming. Over two decades he has directed nine features, all of which have enjoyed some level of acclaim and two of which—Paradise Now and 2013’s Omar—were nominated for Foreign Language Oscars. His latest film, based on the 2011 novel by Charles Martin, stars Winslet and Elba as Alex Martin and Ben Bass, stranded travelers whose charter plane crashes in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness in the middle of winter.

In advance of the film’s October 6 release, Abu-Assad spoke about the difficulty of shooting in sub-zero temperatures, crafting the film’s blood-curdling plane crash scene, and why he’s not interested in playing the Hollywood franchise game. 

I know there were several iterations of the cast before you got them in place, but what made Kate Winslet and Idris Elba the right actors to play these roles?

The longest process, after developing the script, was the casting. Till we found Idris Elba. Why? Because you believe that you will survive with him. [Laughs] You believe that he’s a “man’s man” actor, in the sense that you believe that he’s going to survive. So you need that. You need the believability of the cast.

That week when I had a meeting with Idris, and we agreed we were going to do the film together, he went back to London, and during the BAFTAs he presented a film with Kate Winslet. And next day, all over—the two together. They were like all over. And the moment everybody—not just me—saw the pictures, they realized this combination is killing. So we approached Kate, and thank God she agreed.

This is probably, I would say, your biggest-scale movie to this point, and your biggest budget, I would imagine. How is the process different when you’re working on a film this size?

When you are dealing with a big budget, you are dealing with marketing, you are dealing with big producers that have enormous experience that you have to listen to, a studio, and you are dealing with actors also. I mean, Kate Winslet worked with the biggest directors in our time, believe me. So you can’t bullshit her. I’ve worked mostly with beginner actors, so you can bullshit them, you can say whatever you want, and they will accept it. Kate is different. The politics are different.

There’s a beautiful shot where Kate Winslet’s character falls through the ice, and you see her underwater, and that is actually her. How did you achieve that?

That shot everybody was against. There was a negotiation between the safety people and the insurance and the production and producers and us.

The difference between the temperature of the water and the outside, it can’t be more than 10 degrees Celsius. Because your body will be in a big shock if it goes from like, let’s say, 0 Celsius to minus 10 at once. This is too dangerous. We chose a day that the temperature was not bigger than 10 Celsius.

Well, Kate Winslet also has some experience working with ice, right? 

Yes. Of course I had to ask her: “Kate, this might be difficult for you.” And she said, “Hany … I did Titanic. This is nothing for me.”

What were some challenges you faced shooting out in the elements? 

The biggest challenge is that your body is almost collapsing, because if your whole day, can you imagine, try doing this [tenses his body] the whole day. And worse, because your eyes have water, when you close [them], they can stick. Every day, when you go back to your hotel, you feel like you have been beaten up.

I imagine Kate and Idris—and obviously the crew as well—have to be very hardy and brave individuals to shoot out in that climate, right? You need actors who are willing to go there.

Indeed, one of the reasons it took us so long to cast the movie was because some actors even said, “I love this movie, but I want to do it in Los Angeles.” Green screen and all these things. It’s like, “No, come on.” Green screen. This movie should be in real places.

The plane crash sequence is pretty harrowing. Can you talk about shooting it?

The production designer actually came up with the idea to do it in one take. So five minutes, five-and-a-half-minute scene, to do it in one take.

When there is no cut, as an audience member you feel like you are sitting [in the plane]. When you cut, you are a viewer. You cut and you realize there is a jump in time, or a jump in place. But when you are sitting there and you experience almost one continuous minute of that airplane going down, you are one of them. So I realized if you do that, you will hook your audience for the rest of the movie.

I heard that there were a few crew members on this production who had worked on The Revenant. Was it helpful to have people who had been through this kind of experience before?

They all will tell you that this was more dangerous. You can ask them. Because we went above the tree line. [Revenant director] Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu was below the tree line. Being below the tree line is always less dangerous and less challenging. And there is always car access to that place.

All the people who worked on The Revenant, we used their experience, for sure. This is why we took them. We took their advice. Because we didn’t want to make the same mistakes, end up shooting more days than necessary.

Their advice, everybody, was like, “Embrace the weather. Whatever it is, just shoot.” And I took it. This was also good for the movie, because your character has to embrace the weather. It’s not just you. No, no, no. It’s part of the storytelling, embrace the weather. So this will help the emotional involvement with your characters.

You were mentioning that one of the appeals of making this was that this is a character-driven, original concept. Hollywood right now is really dominated by franchise movies. I’m wondering if that’s a kind of filmmaking you’d ever be interested in doing. 

I am totally honest: I’m not interested in those movies. I feel it’s a miracle that a Hollywood studio did such a movie [as mine], because they don’t do it anymore. As an adult now, I have almost nothing that I want to see. Almost nothing. On the big screen. It’s really for kids. And I’m not against it. But still, why is it so immature? Still you can make exciting movies, very exciting movies, very entertaining movies, but [that] have more maturity. And also, kids like this stuff. Who says that kids don’t like maturity?

I really hope this movie will do well as an example that you should give more attention to these kinds of movies. That it’s entertaining, but also there is a beauty in it. There is cinema in it. There is content. There is something you have to say and you don’t need to say it in a vulgar way.

News Stories