Shooting at 3,300 Meters: An interview with the creators of The Eight Mountains

Shooting at 3,300 Meters: An interview with the creators of The Eight Mountains
May 2nd 2023

The realities of making The Eight Mountains, an adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s celebrated novel, were not much different from the physical hardships its characters endure. The film follows the friendship of two men, Bruno and Pietro, from boyhood to adulthood, high in the Italian alps. Shooting over a period of six months, co-directors Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch doggedly pursued authenticity atop glaciers and on unforgiving mountain terrain. Alessandro Borghi, who plays Bruno, committed himself to the role, learning the rural mountain dialect of his character’s young onscreen counterpart. The film’s making seems to have been an adventure in itself, one filled with beauty and self-discovery.

The directors and star spoke with me about their intimate yet ambitious film, its parabolic narrative, the unique bond they formed with each other, and the mountains. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

Chris Shields: How did the project start, and what was the process of adapting the novel?

Felix Van Groeningen: The book was presented to me. And as I finished it, I very quickly realized that I wanted to do it.

This idea of really going and shooting out there in the mountains and spending time there and doing it in Italian, a language I didn't speak— It just all made sense to me, whereas a lot of people thought I was crazy.

Charlotte read the book and understood why it made sense for me and supported me. We were also looking for a project to do together. We had written together a version of Broken Circle Breakdown [2012] nine years before, and had been working on different projects, she as an actress and I as a director. To my surprise, she said that she wanted to be part of this project,

Charlotte Vandermeersch: It's not a very large novel, but it's dense. I thought it was so detailed—rich, in a very simple way. That's why I also thought it was very attractive to work on. Because there's so much to adapt, to have all of these layers in the film. You don't just want to tell the story of a friendship, you also want to tell about the triangle with the father, and the difficulties of farming and living in the way your ancestors did in the mountains. I thought that was something to defend, to take with us into the film.

CS: You started working on this during the pandemic and lockdown. I've seen other pandemic movies that people have made, and they're not ambitious like this. They're in an apartment. This is something very different.

FVG: We didn't necessarily want to make a pandemic movie. But after the second lockdown, there was this idea that people wanted to go outdoors, or move from the city, or quit work and—

CV: Slow down?

FVG: Yeah, slow down and [consider] what's essential about life. And it happened for us too, at a moment where we really needed it. We were in a crisis as a couple. We had become parents not so long before; we had a two-year-old son. And it was really beautiful. But also maybe we had lost touch with each other. Although we always look for connection, something was not really working. And so the fact that the world just stopped and we sat locked in our house and started working on this script just gave us the time to deal with it. To sometimes not talk about ourselves yet to interact really on a very deep level. To realize that we had so much in common also, and that so many things creatively were really working. So yeah, that's basically it. The world stopping was really— For us, it was a—

CV: Blessing.

CS: What was it like to meet Paolo Cognetti? Did he have any involvement with the project after your initial meeting?

FVG: He's an incredibly beautiful person, and he's very warm.

CV: And mysterious.

FVG: Very mysterious. He immediately invited us to his world and was really open. He was curious about the films that I had made and was very much open to me making this one. And so he was always there. We could always consult him, and we did a lot. It was really important for the whole creative process. Yet he kept his distance, which was also amazing.

CV: He's so emotionally attached to this story. He was already talking about it for four or five years at the time. It came out in 2016, 2017. So he had been talking about the book, the book, the book. It had been a great success, and he was also a bit tired of that. And so [he] was giving it to someone else to take it further.

FVG: He's a very friendship-oriented person .‌ . . This whole book and story is about friendship and connection, but it's really also important in his life. And so we very quickly became friends, and the actors too. He opened up to them and almost all of the actors involved go back to this place in the mountains to have their holidays there, to spend time with him.

CV: Even now, we just got a text. Alessandro already booked a stay: "Guys, are we meeting up in the mountains?"

CS: You learned Italian for the film.

FVG: It was a good excuse to learn Italian.

CV: At first you go like, Oh my God, how are you ever going to do this? And then suddenly you start saying your first sentences. It's very nerve-wracking to start directing in Italian when the shoot starts. But with the kids, we needed to. And the animals, they only spoke Italian. But we did it, we jumped in.

FVG: It was good to be two of us, too. I spoke less in Italian. I understood everything, but Charlotte was more courageous.

CS: I want to talk about the realities of shooting in the mountains, which, when I was watching the film, I thought about it the whole time. I saw Luca come up with the donkeys, with all the equipment, and I'm like, Oh, wait, they have to do that too.

FVG: Well, it was challenging, absolutely, but beautiful. It was physically demanding for everybody involved. But it became part of the whole story. Everything was hard: where we shot, the house that they're building, the peaks. In the village, not so much, but most of the other locations were really hard to reach. So everything's hard for the production, design department, for everybody.

We shot the movie over six months in five different blocks: the beginning of summer, ending of summer, then we went to Nepal and then two blocks in winter, which was amazing because it allowed us to learn from every block. We could learn what was working in the mountains, what was working less, what we had to focus more on. Things that we realized were working pushed us to make even bolder choices and to push the production to make it happen.

We slept at 3,300 meters with the whole crew in a very, very small mountain hut with 25 people. It was very smelly and people were snoring. And so we didn't sleep a lot, but it was really to get the light right. If you shoot outdoors and you want to make it beautiful, everything is decided by where the sun is and the weather.

CV: You have setbacks, but you also get all these presents. The crew might have to take all their stuff and move 200 meters. It's high and everyone is bummed, but then something happens. The sun comes above the mountains and everyone's like, Oh. And it’s like, what a privilege to be here.

FVG: Then you have to be creative. We really wanted bad weather when Pietro walks up with the donkeys. And actually at that moment we only had good weather and then we made the wind with the helicopter.

CV: For me, that looked ridiculous. Because then some trees would be moving and then others wouldn't. And I was like, “How is this ever going to work?” But somehow .‌ . .

FVG: Ruben [Impens, the cinematographer] got this from a Béla Tarr movie. So he was like, "OK, let's do it."

CS: What was the experience of directing as a team?

FVG: We didn't know upfront. I had never done it. But I trusted that it was going to work out because of the writing. We really elevated each other. I think Charlotte’s a good director because she really has a very strong compass. If she knows where she wants to go, she will not let go.

CV: What's great for me is that Felix takes me seriously and brings the ideas into action. Because I would think, Oh, maybe it’s only me thinking this. I would make it smaller and be like, I really think this, but how do I communicate it? And then Felix goes like, basically—

FVG: “Just say it.”

CV: Yeah, “Just say it.” That really helped me get over myself.

FVG: We always had to value the opinion of the other. I think it was incredibly beautiful as a couple to be able to share that. Because making a movie is so totally encompassing that to be able to share that whole ride with the person you love the most is just incredibly beautiful.

Chris Shields: Alessandro, what was the relationship between you and your co-star, Luca [Marinelli]?

Alessandro Borghi: Luca and I had shared a beautiful moment seven years ago with Don't Be Bad [2015]. After that, obviously, we are brothers. But it was so difficult to find another opportunity to be together in front of a camera again. Luca was already involved in this project, and they were trying to understand which character was the best for him.

It was a three-hour audition [with both of us], and something magic happened. We all decided that Luca was going to be Pietro and I was going to be Bruno. I really fell in love with the character. I realized that the love that Bruno had for Pietro was really, really similar to the love that I have for Luca as a brother.

We didn't rehearse for a minute. We didn't rehearse anything. Everything was following the flow.

CS: It seems like it would be a physically difficult shoot. What was it like shooting in the mountains?

AB: We were so lucky because Mario and Lorenzo from Wild Side allowed us and Felix and Charlotte to do everything for real. And that was incredible because a lot of movies that I've seen—great blockbusters with millions of dollars—are full of green screens, and you can see that. You can feel that as an actor, because obviously if you look outside of the window and you see a green screen, you're going to force something. You're going to struggle with the idea of imagining something. But when you really open the window and in front of you is a mountain 3,000 meters high, it's really a great gift. It’s at that moment when you realize that your real life and the acting are in the same line.

CS: Can you talk about interpreting the character of Bruno from the novel?

AB: There is one thing that I really love about the character of Bruno. When you read a book, when one character is in the mountains far away from people, you tend to imagine that character as a closed person, a dark person. I love the fact that Bruno has a lot of power inside him. But when he wants to, he loves to talk with people.

CS: You bring such a warmth to the character, and it was very unexpected. The turn in that scene where Pietro brings his friends to the mountain for the first time, and you come down with a bottle of wine .‌ . .

AB: That is the key, really. I thought a lot about that scene because the idea that I had was about a person that's going to be stoic and combative. And it was not like that. It was smiling. It was enjoying that moment. It’s understanding that he's also able to be with people.

CS: Felix and Charlotte told me that everyone is trying to get back together in the mountains and go visit.

AB: I go back every year, maybe twice a year. And I went back there with my fiancé, with my best friends, with a lot of people that I really love.

CS: For Bruno's accent, did you have to study a mountain dialect?

AB: I started studying the accent from Valdosta. It's very particular in that it’s kind of mixed with part of France. But Christiano [Sassella], the guy who played the young Bruno, has an accent. It’s not exactly Valdosta, it's just a little bit more on the east, kind of close to the Bergamo accent. And so we thought that there is just one clever thing to do: it was not asking Christiano to learn another accent, but just asking me to speak like Christiano.

So I changed my target, and it was great because my dialogue coach in that sense is Christiano's father, Alex. I'm sure that 50% of the character that I delivered was influenced by that man. He is really a sweet, kind, and very pure man. But a cowboy, a real cowboy. But every time I asked him, “Can you do a recording of this line?” he used to do the recordings, putting some ideas behind each line. And in those ideas, I found the gold really every time.

CS: I watched Il Primo re [2019] last night. It's a big, dramatic action movie. And this film after that one. This very intimate performance. Was that a big transition for you?

AB: Obviously I love my characters, but I'm mostly worried about the story. I'm not reading just my lines, I'm not reading just my character. I'm really into the whole movie, into the mechanism of the movie. So every time I have to leave a character, it's just like, "All right, see you again."

You really have to be sure that you are not taking it so seriously. In Italian we say “recitare” as in to act, but in America and English, you say "play," as in play a part. But for us play is giocare, that is to really play. It is having fun, and that's what it means to me. It's really having the opportunity to play, to have fun, to do experiments with the characters and the story. So it's just a process. It begins, it ends in some way. So I think it's good. I'm really happy to leave a character.

The Eight Mountains is now playing in New York City.