Touching the Void is ‘a damn good tale about life and death’
- Credit: Archant
Bridget Galton talks to Kevin Macdonald about his iconic movie ahead of Touching The Void Live at Barbican Hall
Touching The Void wasn’t only a career breakthrough for its director and composer, but the first drama-documentary to enjoy huge cinema success.
Kevin Macdonald followed the BAFTA-winning tale of a near fatal mountain climb in the Andes with The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, while composer Alex Heffe now writes for Hollywood movies and big budget TV.
The pair reunite at the Barbican on Sunday for a Q&A and screening of the 2003 movie with 60 piece orchestra conducted by Heffe.
The Dartmouth Park director, whose film was inspired by Joe Simpson’s 1988 book says: “Fifteen years ago, a feature documentary that was an entertaining and emotional night out at the cinema was something new. It works because it’s a damn good story, a profound tale about life and death. People really connected with the theme of how you look into yourself to find reserves of energy and the will to go on when things seem hopeless.”
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Macdonald admits he “wasn’t entirely sure the film was going to work” when he began lengthy interviews with Simpson and fellow climber Simon Yates, trying to make two decade-old events seem “fresh and emotional.”
“The purity of the story is recovering this amazing oral history. It’s based on their recollections but by the 20th time you tell an anecdote it loses freshness. The first few hours were just Joe telling the anecdote. Then he started to really remember and think about it. Documentaries can be like being in the therapists’ chair, you can go quite deep into people’s psyches.”
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When Simpson broke his leg during a storm, Yates faced the terrible decision to cut the rope that joined them - returning to base camp believing his friend was dead.
“Movies which work often create watercooler discussions,” says Macdonald. “This had two big ‘What Would I Do’s’. Why do people put themselves into harms way for pleasure. Is it to feel more alive? The second was, ‘would I cut the rope?’”
Simpson and Yates had a “very English” bluff rapport that was “very stiff upper lip”
“They hadn’t really talked about it emotionally. I don’t think Joe ever blamed Simon for cutting the rope, it was either one or both of them die. My reading is Simon did feel guilt, but hadn’t really come to terms with it. I wanted the audience to interpret that themselves rather than telling them what to think.”
Currently working on an authorised biography of Whitney Houston, Macdonald admits he’s “easily bored” and switches between docs and movies to stay inspired.
“We’re trying to treat her seriously as an artist and interpreter of songs. It’s hard because the tabloid stories overwhelm our perception of her. She had the greatest voice of the 20th Century and when she sang The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Superbowl it changed the way African Americans felt about their national anthem.”
Macdonald adds: “Music is very important in my films, the bit I most enjoy is working with the composer to take the film to a whole new depth. Music adds emotional impact, it speaks for the character’s inner lives. Alex did a fantastic score for Touching The Void that was imitated and used in ads. To have it played live will be amazing.”
Heffe, who has worked on many of Macdonald’s films, describes him as a “real auteur with an independent vision”. “As a composer that’s was you look for.”
He recalls being struck “by the grandeur of the scenery” and wanting to reflect that in his score. “I wrote something big for the opening but Kevin said ‘start off small, you need to earn it’. We built a sense of anticipation and dread. You only get the full theme at the end.”
He adds: “Touching the Void created a genre, no-one had really done recreations in documentary before or knew whether an audience would accept seeing actors intercut with real people, but they were riveted. I remember people queuing outside the Phoenix in East Finchley and thinking: ‘This is a documentary! It caught a wave. People still remember it.” Asked why music is vital in film he says: “You never have the unfortunate experience of having to watch a film without music. Most are so boring! Music breathes life into the Pinochio with that bit of magic, I don’t know how it works but it does.”
Touching The Void Live is at Barbican Hall on June 18 starting with a Q&A at 6pm