Hany Abu-Assad, parting clouds, finding humanity in The Mountain Between Us.
With films by Hany Abu-Assad, there’s no avoiding the story about the story. Paradise Now (2005) won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes for its story of two young men preparing for a suicide bombing mission but it became known as the first Palestinian Oscar nominee. And Assad became known as the director who risked his life to make it, shooting in a landscape of live fire, real tanks, and actual army helicopters. The Idol (2016) was the first feature to be shot in Gaza in 20 years, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, and in seeking to tell an uplifting story of the “Arab Idol” contestant, faced strict guidelines on location from both the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
For his latest, The Mountain Between Us, about two very different human beings trapped in one very extreme emergency, a new set of hurdles emerged: cold weather, wild animals, megastars. Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are the leads, in a screenplay adapted from the novel by Charles Martin. I had a short time to speak with Abu-Assad, and had only been screened select clips of the film beforehand. But the brave, candid and affable director made the most of it.
What goes into choosing to do a project like this—for you?
Actually, it’s simple. On the one side, I feel the story should have a high concept. It’s important to entertain in the sense that people won’t lose their attention. Especially for the (let’s say) “ordinary” people. I believe cinema is the art form for the working class. Some artists try to do it as an elitist. But it’s not elitist. It doesn’t mean that you have to make just entertainment.
Why did I choose this project? It’s a high concept, so it can be entertaining, but also a platform to explore meaningful questions. Like what is important in our life? Is it surviving? Is it serving? Is it communication? Is it understanding? You can ask questions in an appealing story for a bigger audience.
It occurs to me that so many other of your projects could have had this same title.
If you look back through my work, it’s always about two normal people caught in abnormal situations. Then you can explore a lot of things. You can dig deep into our feelings, our fears, our love, our giving, our forgiving. This case is not different than all my other movies.
Technical challenges are very apparent here. What prepared you to take those on? What was most surprising about filming in this weather, at these heights, at this scale?
The biggest challenge was organizing 200 people coming into the wilderness in very harsh weather. We had a very, very complicated schedule. If you can’t fly up above the tree lines [that day, because of the weather] then what do we do? The crew and the actors never knew what we were going to do the next day. We couldn’t prepare until the day itself when we knew the weather for that day. It’s not easy because, as a crew, you have to be prepared for six kinds of scenarios, and the actors, too. Kate wants to know in advance what she’s doing. It was tough. It’s cold. The weather is changing, so you can’t have a normal environment to work, also you can’t have a normal schedule to work.
The cougar: How did you transport that animal? How many people were involved in handling it?
And don’t forget the dog. For the dog, you have two trainers and one from animal protection. The dog, the owner and two trainers and a monitor. The cougar came from Montana to Canada. Just the paperwork crossing us to Canada for the cougar was almost a month of work. This is the first time I was a real director (and others did that work for me). In my other movies, I was the catering guy, the cleaning person, the nanny.
I saw your earlier films, Ford Transit, Paradise Now. There were tons of challenges to the creation of that latter film. Can you picture making a film like that right now in that region? What would it be?
I think I would have the same movie. That movie, Paradise Now, really I did not look to it from the moment of politics but from the human point of view. From the human point of view, it’s still not changed, because we are all humans that can become evil or can become good. What kind of circumstances we have to face, how can we protect ourselves from these circumstances, has not changed, it’s still the same. I think Paradise Now is still working.
What about challenges of filming on location there?
It’s similar now, but it’s very sad what’s going on there. It’s so depressing that I prefer to talk about The Mountain Between Us. The violence has escalated in a way that is unstoppable.
It’s hard to ask questions about the themes of this film without thinking of the purpose of making films, of communicating to people about essential issues. As a filmmaker do you feel this art form offers audiences a way to solve our problems in the world. Is there hope for humanity? Do you feel you are adding to that hope?
I agree with you that pop culture in general is fake culture that doesn’t help people realize who they are. What is culture? It’s anything that can help people spread consciousness, self-consciousness. There is a form—books, cinema—that can add to that process of awareness. Pop culture unfortunately has that simulation of wanting to enlighten you, but in the end it is to distract you from what really matters in this world. It doesn’t mean you have to leave pop culture to fake culture. What I want to do is use cinema as pop culture, not to distract from real issues, but to let [audiences] face their humanity. Through the whole history, you have art and fake art. Art and kitsch. I want to use popular media to spread awareness about the positive side of human beings and how they can make a difference, and have a choice.