Cinescape, July/August 2000

High Anxiety

Chris O'Donnell and Bill Paxton face ever-mounting peril in The Vertical Limit

by J. Rentilly

Bill Paxton has made a career of sharing the screen with giant gorillas, gargantuan boats, deadly aliens and shrieking tornadoes, so the actor has no illusions about what audiences will really want to see when they watch his upcoming mountaineering adventure The Vertical Limit: "The star of this movie is the mountain," Paxton admits. "The rest of us are just here to back that up."

In The Vertical Limit, the summit in question is the Himalayan behemoth K2, the world's second-highest mountain. Paxton (Twister, Mighty Joe Young) plays an impetuous Texas billionaire who gets trapped with a young woman (Robin Tunney, the devil's paramour in End of Days) and a wounded climbing guide (Nicholas Lea, The X-Files' Alex Krycek) atop the snow-covered peak. Sent to the rescue are the young woman's estranged younger brother (Chris O'Donnell) and a troupe of top-flight international climbers, including a mountaineering expert played by veteran character actor Scott Glenn (Silence of the Lambs, The Right Stuff). Perilous helicopter drops, avalanches, explosions and pulmonary edemas all ensue in an attempt to leave audiences as breathless as the stranded climbers.

"This is huge action. Terrifying action," Glenn says. "This movie won't leave you alone for a minute." Paxton - who describes the film as cross between Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's best-selling account of an ill-fated Mount Everest expedition, and H. G. Clouzot's suspenseful 1952 film classic The Wages of Fear - is equally enthusiastic. "This is a cinematic tour de force," Paxton promises. "Most movies like this have five set pieces. This one has 10, easily."

The film's title refers to the altitude at which the oxygen- deprived human brain begin to deteriorate and lose its ability to make reliable judgments. "The vertical limit is 24,000 feet," Paxton explains. "When you get there, you're starting to die. You can stave it off for a little while, but you're a goner." But because K2 rises to more than 28,000 feet above sea level and is considered to be even more treacherous to climb than the mighty Everest, the filmmakers needed to find a safer location for filming. Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro) and his team of technical advisors eventually settled for New Zealand's Mount Cook, a peak that is proportionate to its Himalayan cousin in every way with one notable exception - Cook's summit tops out at just over 12,000 feet, quite safely half the height of K2.

Nonetheless, 12,000 feet was, according to Glenn, "high enough." He and the rest of the film's cast and crew had to endure six weeks of intense pre-production conditioning with world-class mountaineers who gave them a crash course in climbing technique, rope craft and survival skills.

"It got to a point where I was wondering if I was making a movie or having an outward-bound experience," Glenn says. "[But] don't get me wrong - this was in many ways the greatest adventure I've ever had making a movie."

To make matters worse, most of the steep locales used in the eight-month shoot were only accessible via helicopter. "Every day we went to shoot, we had to have sleeping bags and food with us because there was always a chance that weather would strand us at the top overnight. There was always that threat," recalls Glenn, who developed a passion for mountaineering during the making of the movie. "It never happened and, in a way, I was kind of disappointed."

Even after shooting wrapped for the day, Glenn and his castmates didn't get the chance to take it easy: Campbell would run the actors through late-night rehearsals of up to five scenes, any of which could have ended up on the following day's filming schedule depending on the weather. But despite the demanding shoot, which routinely found actors dangling mid-air over 2,000 foot drops for seven hours at a time, everyone involved with the movie is excited with the final results, which will hit theaters in December.

"You don't necessarily expect it from a film like this, but this is one of the most complicated, mysterious characters I've ever played," Glenn says.

"This is a real character-driven piece," Paxton concurs. "God almighty, it's intense. Martin's been this journeyman director for a long time. This is the one he's really gonna nail to the barn door." In fact, the actor says he's looking forward to screening The Vertical Limit for his old Titanic and Aliens director, a guy who knows a thing or two about large-scale moviemaking. "We can't wait to show it to Jim Cameron once it's done," he says eagerly.

In the end, it sounds as if the movie's biggest attraction - that enormous, snow-capped mountain - turned out to be an illustrious co-star. "You just look at it and you know there's something more to the world," says Glenn. "It's the ultimate symbol," Paxton adds. "Every man has thought about climbing a mountain. You don't do it to challenge yourself. You're affirming life in a death-defying setting."

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