Recently I watched the movie Touching the Void the story of two British climbers who have a really wretched experience climbing a mountain in the Andes. A friend of mine, who is a climber, had told me that this was the climbing movie that gets climbing right. This statement intrigued me, because climbing is a technical skill and it’s easy to screw up the movie about a technical topic.
If you are directing a movie in which much of the dialogue is built on a complex understanding between skilled professionals, you have a real problem. You have to find a way to explain to your audience what’s going on without damaging the scene. You see different approaches to solving this problem. Sometimes, a naive character is introduced so that one of the professionals can explain the technical details. More often, though, the director simply chooses to have two skilled professionals address each other using explicit elementary language that would never occur in real life.
This kind of thing often shows up in movies about pilots. Consider: you are a pilot, and your plane is about to crash into a mountain. What do you say? On the one hand, anyone dealing with a plummeting airplane is, at some level, scared. On the other hand, pilots are trained to deal with terrifying situations. They have years of experience all built around the idea of emotionless, concentrated problem-solving right to the bitter end. No matter how much a director wants it said, a pilot will NEVER EVER look at another pilot and say “I’m so scared.”
It’s the same with climbers. So much goes unsaid. In real life you get “Hmmph” instead of “Hey Joe, don’t drop that rope, okay? ‘Cause if you do I’m going to drop 3000 feet onto those pointed rocks down there.” How can a director communicate what’s not being said? In “Touching the Void” the director approaches the movie almost entirely as a documentary. You see nearly silent actors on the mountain against a narration by the original real-life protagonists. It’s a powerful combination. It surfaces the hidden dialogue and also solves the second problem of movies about technical topics. If you let the geeks make movies about geeks, they will put the correct technical details into a movie devoid of any emotional spark. Making a movie like this is a balancing act, but sure enough, “Touching the Void” gets it right.
What is the illuminating but hidden dialogue that follows you around throughout the day? Maybe something like this: “Hey Joe, if you knew you were taking the last of the coffee, then why didn’t you make more for the rest of us? Now I have to throw you over a 3000 foot cliff onto those pointed rocks down there. Asshole.”