Saturday, February 24, 2018
  • Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017
Hany Abu-Assad Gathers A Team To Climb Up "The Mountain Between Us"
Director Hany Abu-Asaad (photo by Kimberley French/courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
Director reflects on working relationship with DP Mandy Walker, editor Lee Percy, production designer Patrice Vermette
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For his first major studio feature, The Mountain Between Us (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.), director Hany Abu-Assad assembled a team of artisans he was to collaborate with for the first time--with the exception of his wife, associate producer Amira Diab who helped him on his prior smaller indie film work.

The Mountain Between Us tells the story of two strangers--photojournalist Alex Martin (portrayed by Kate Winslet) and nuerosurgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba)--who survive a charter plane crash only to end up stranded in the snowy Utah mountains. These strangers form a bond which eventually grows into something more than either could have foreseen.

In a sense akin to this tale is the connection that Abu-Assad--whose body of indie feature fare includes Paradise Now, Omar and The Idol--developed with filmmaking colleagues he didn’t know before, including cinematographer Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS, whose accolades include an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography on the strength of Shattered Glass, editor Lee Percy, a primetime Emmy winner for the HBO telefilm Taking Chance, and production designer Patrice Vermette, a two-time Oscar nominee for Arrival and The Young Victoria. All made major contributions to The Mountain Between Us.

“I knew Mandy from her work, a good amount of movies I admire, including Hidden Figures,” said Abu-Assad. “When I sat down with her, I realized she was up to the challenge of this film. She makes every frame a painting. For the story she wanted to give the actors the feeling that there was not a lot of crew following them. We had a technocrane on a snow mobile that can be very far from the actors with a camera capturing them. Sometimes she would put a camera on a sled. She was so inventive in every way.”

Abu-Assad and Walker depicted a harrowing plane crash that leaves Martin and Bass somehow alive in fuselage wreckage. Walker also has viewers feeling the freezing dangers that Martin and Bass face in the snowy wild without overly romanticizing the great outdoors. 

Lee Percy
Abu-Assad was drawn to editor Percy’s work hearkening back to Boys Don’t Cry, Single White Female and Kiss of Death. For The Mountain Between Us, Percy cut while Abu-Assad was shooting. “During the shoot I don’t watch edited scenes,” related Percy. “I watch dailies maybe a week later. I prefer to use my instincts of how to shoot the movie, rather than to watch a cut and feel I should do this or that. I like the feeling of mystery about what’s in the material, meaning I rely on my memories and instincts.”

Abu-Assad recalled enjoying the process of working with Percy upon seeing the editor’s initial cut. “He is excellent at improving the scene and structure of the film. Do we need this scene? How can we improve this scene? Every scene should lead to the next. He doesn’t dismiss any idea and I don’t dismiss any idea of his. Sometimes you don’t like an idea but then you see it and find that it’s working. There’s a mutual respect we have to try everything, to explore the possibilities.”

Percy told SHOOT that a prime challenge posed to him by The Mountain Between Us was that “you only have two characters through most of the film. For two-thirds of the film, you don’t have anywhere else to go. You need to build their story, their relationship and focus on that. There’s no parallel action to go to. We spent a lot of our time finessing the development of their relationship first as strangers, depending on each other to survive and then a love story slowly begins to develop.”

Percy noted that one key finding was that audiences got impatient during sequences when the two characters were separated. “Based on that, we shortened those sections, focusing more on when the two are in the same location together.”

Percy also felt a level of trust from the director. “He doesn’t like to get involved in the editing while shooting. He likes to have his head totally in shooting. We shared a similar view of cinema. We had deep discussions of how the material should be shaped and he let me do just that. After my first cut, we got together and spent the next six months editing the movie.”

Those six months, continued Percy, were marked by an open-minded approach. “Hany is always willing to listen, is open to trying new things. I’m the same. I think this film reinforced the importance of the film being malleable. Even if you explore an idea and don’t end up using it in the film, the process takes you down a road you might not have taken otherwise  and new turnoffs open up for you.”

Patrice Vermette
As for two-time Oscar nominee Vermette, Abu-Assad observed that the production designer brought artistic and practical sensibilities to The Mountain Between Us. On the latter score, the director cited Vermette’s practical design of the plane’s fuselage. “He built the airplane from the inside in such a way that we could remove elements, take out parts and bring the camera in to best capture the interaction between the actors.”

As for design, Abu-Assad pointed out that even though the movie is virtually all practical locations, Vermette had a fine design hand in every environment. “We’d go to a location and he’s observe that we needed more trees. He planted them. He wanted different colors of trees. Even for rocks, sometimes he felt their color was off. They were the wrong color in terms of the picture we were trying to paint. He would incorporate fake rocks of the right color to create the right palette for our film.”

As for lessons learned from his experience on The Mountain Between Us, being in the brutal cold on location, observed Abu-Assad, leads naturally to “honest choices. You are in the same situation as your characters. You’re living and eating in the cold, 11,000 feet  up. You can’t become pretentious when you’re all in the same situation. The framing isn’t pretentious and the storytelling becomes more honest.”