He"s tall, lanky, just a little bit nerdy, but with the relaxed, nearly unconscious swagger of an expert mountain climber and one of the world"s foremost camera cowboys. David Breashears, director of the IMAX film Kilamanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, has been making films about mountains for decades, including the highly acclaimed IMAX film Everest. He appeared in Indianapolis for the premiere of Kilimanjaro, which will be running at the IMAX Theater through November.
Breashears grew up in the outdoors of Wyoming, knowing for most of his youth exactly what he wanted to do. "It"s the same way some people know they want to be a policeman or a doctor or a fireman. I wanted to be a climber." In his early 20s he took up work as a film crewman, hauling film and equipment for other filmmakers, mostly as a means to subsidize his own climbing habit. In the midst of his climbing career he braved the toughest peaks in the world, including several trips up Mt. Everest.
Eventually he took up directing, inspired by the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and other great historical films ("widescreen epics in a vast array of man and nature and how it changes people," he notes). He made 25 films about mountains before taking up the challenge of the 70mm giant-format IMAX film with Everest in 1998 and Kilimanjaro in 2002.
Now a resident of Boston, he still looks to the old film epics for inspiration, and reads a great deal, mostly nature writing and nonfiction. "I like tough, honest prose, not a lot of flourishes or embellishments. The life you lead should be enough."
One of the film"s great attractions is its handpicked team of climbers, several of whom had never climbed a mountain before, whose interaction and warmth add a human element to the grand story.
"The people I saw climbing were reaching as deeply, climbing as hard, learning as much as anyone who"s ever climbed Mt. Everest," Breashears says. "We"re born with innate fortitude, and we"re getting away from learning what that is. You can endure minor discomfort. You can go without a telephone or a car or electricity. The thrill, more than reaching the top of a mountain, is finding out what it takes. And the amazing thing is, you all have what it takes."
The IMAX cameras and equipment themselves are enormous. The cameras are 42 pounds, with 80 pound lenses and a 76 pound tripod. Not to mention the film reels, 10 pounds each, with each reel holding only 90 seconds of film. The massive cameras were a bit intimidating to the climb team at first, Breashears says, particularly since most of them had never been filmed before.
"At first I think it interrupted their rhythm, and that"s not good. Climbing a mountain is about finding a rhythm and a pace," Breashears says. "But after a while they got used to it. I think they were glad to have the breaks every so often (for interviews). It was a chance to wind down. And a lot of the time we were far ahead of them, setting up for a shot on the mountain ahead."
He notes that Kilimanjaro"s very size made the shoot trickier than he"d imagined.
"It"s hard to believe, but this was a much harder film to make than Everest. I"d climbed Everest before. I knew every place I was going to put the camera before I left Boston. It was very easy to make Everest fill that screen and impress people. [On Kilimanjaro] the slopes are more gentle. That makes it very much harder to make it look spectacular."
Breashears and his crew climbed the mountain four times to get all the shots they needed, with misty weather ruining most of their shooting days. Kilimanjaro"s slopes have five distinct ecosystems, from lush jungles to freezing peaks. Breashears reveled in the chance to portray the mountain"s various moods, to the point that in the editing process, he downplays the reaching of the summit itself in favor of the majesty of the differing levels.
"The summit is only the top," he says. "The pleasure of that mountain is everything in between the base and the top."