These days, I’m much more willing to risk my life to get a rare shot—to tell a story.
Renan Ozturk has been called many things: high-stakes mountaineer, landscape artist, expedition filmmaker and DP… But perhaps the most apt and overriding hyphen is simply adventurer. He’s been called that, too, of course. In fact, National Geographic named the free-spirited 36-year-old “Adventurer of the Year” in 2012. Amongst the film community, Ozturk is most widely recognized for lensing such award-winning documentaries as Sherpa, about the aftermath of an ice slide that claimed 16 Sherpas on Mount Everest, and Meru, which chronicles the perilous game of Himalayan big wall climbing. Mountain is a new call to adventure, taking him—us—to Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, France, Greenland, Iceland, India, Italy, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Tibet, and the USA.
Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain—Ozturk’s breathtaking cinematography set to Willem Defoe’s commanding narration and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s expansive score—is visual and spoken poetry working in unison to get you close to the sublime of timeless mountains. Its pleasures and terrors, at once. The duality of mountains challenging our arrogance and restoring our wonder. Mountains that enchant, but also intimidate. It’s an uncontrollable force of nature.
Ozturk possesses a very specialized skillset in climbing and documenting experiences that are indescribable exceptionally well. In his world, work and play are impossibly tangled. So what is driving this man who once suffered a minor stroke on his climb towards Meru Peak and bled out from his head after nose-diving into jagged rocks, yet continues to court danger? What is this all-powerful longing for the unknown, knowing you could die at any moment with such risk-taking?
Mountain opens in select theaters on May 11.
Mountain opens with this bit of narration: “To those who are enthralled by mountains, they are wonders beyond all dispute. To those who are not, the allure is a kind of madness. What is this strange force that draws us upwards?” I would like to ask you that same question.
That’s the time-tested question all climbers get asked: “Why would you risk your life? What is this madness that makes you do it? Why in your right mind is it worth it?” That’s a big part of what drew me to filmmaking in the first place: being able to answer that question in an artistic way where people can feel it—moved to tears and laughter over the course of a narrative. I think that’s the beauty of filmmaking. By the end, you sort of understand it by seeing the rare bits of human emotions that are so pure. You’re pushed to the absolute edge in your quest for survival when your looking over the roof of the world and interacting with remote cultures that have existed for thousands of years. Having these lasting, meaningful memories brought together in the context of a feature documentary is really powerful. That’s something I’m really motivated to do, even more than standing on top of these mountains these days. I want to bring out those stories through film and Mountain is a big part of that.
You’ve had near-death experiences so you do what you do sometimes at the potential cost of your life. You’re unafraid to do things that would terrify most people. What scares you?
Honestly, I have all the same fears as anyone else—exactly what you’d imagine scares me. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of the rope breaking over a sharp edge. I’m scared of falling when I’m climbing. A big part of what keeps you alive and intelligent when interacting with mountains is a lifetime of shared and learned knowledge that helps you make better decisions. Having that healthy amount of fear and making smart decisions keep you alive and allow you to accomplish things that seem impossible at first. It’s a learned thing how you control that fear and knowing what you should be truly scared of in the moment. And a lot of those risks are perceived. They’re not actual risks. So while I’m scared of everything—the same things that you might imagine—there’s also a complex layer to it. I might step over the edge of a 30,000-foot cliff where my heart goes into my throat, but I do my checks. I look at my rope, I look at my gear, and I’ve done that so many times that I’m able to say to myself, “I’m not actually in any danger.” I keep the fear to heighten my sense of awareness and make sure not a single carabiner is clipped into the wrong place, which allows you to reason some of those normal fears out.
Are you more willing to take risks when you’re trying to get a specific shot?
It definitely used to be that I would take more risks to climb the mountain to have some sort of personal achievement. But these days, I’m much more willing to risk my life to get a rare shot—to tell a story. Standing on top of a mountain for a brilliant sunrise or a sunset often makes you push into the night and do things that are much more of a risk. These days, that’s truly what motivates me: bringing back images to tell stories that we can share with films like Mountain and support the changing ideology in how humans see mountains and understand them.
You started out sketching and painting before transitioning to photography and film so you saw your canvas evolve. I can see the practical reasons behind the progression: it’s easier to carry around a rolled-up, literal canvas as opposed to all of this heavy, expensive camera equipment. But what really prompted that change?
That decision just had to do with the realization that I could reach more people with storytelling through film. One of my first film festivals was Telluride Mountainfilm in Colorado. You’re sitting in the audience with a thousand people, laughing and crying, and walk away with a completely different understanding of the world. I recognized that film combined art with music, greater narrative structure, and characters—it’s this ultimate art form. Around the same time period in 2008, cameras all of a sudden got small enough that you could create cinematic film with something that you could essentially fit in your pocket. You could bring cameras to the ends of the Earth on these Himalayan expeditions and other adventures. So I started slowly learning how to shoot and tell these stories. At first, the landscape art naturally transitioned into time-lapse photography. I was also cutting up my paintings into layers and separating them into 3D space in these animation programs and flying a camera through them to create animated paintings, which were then used in these video stories. It all sort of evolved from there into continuing to use the best paintbrush—the best possible tool—for each adventure, whether that’s the next smallest camera or the next gyro-stabilized gimbal that you can put on an aerial device to see these landscapes in completely new ways. So in a way, it’s been a seamless transition. From time to time, I still do artwork and get a chance to go back to those roots, which is relaxing because there’s a lot more risk and stress in every way when you’re making a longer-form movie, collaborating with a lot of people, and investing a lot of money in all of that. But it’s been a fun process.
In talking about choosing moments as it relates to filming, how much do you pre-plan before heading up the mountains? You could conceivably point in any direction and get something beautiful and worthwhile in that kind of environment. How do you cut up the sameness?
That’s a good question. I think you plan as much as you can and any good director will recognize what the major themes of the story might be going into it, like mentorship or a character might have a specific struggle or a journey that they’re trying to overcome. And while you can never predict the environment or when those shots are going to come, I really enjoy just trying to be as aware as I can with the camera to catch those raw, real moments. For example, with Sherpa when we were at base camp and an avalanche got loose and killed 16 people, we never could’ve expected that. The entire story changed with life at base camp and it became very political. We found ourselves in a lot of situations where you had to react with split-second decisions. But those decisions are informed by some of those early discussions. As far as the greater shots are concerned and pointing the camera in any direction, that really comes with years of learned experience, not only in holding a camera and knowing what light works but more so on these alpine adventures, which comes with spending a lot of time in the mountains and knowing how to move in the mountains and what the light does in the mountains and wanting to share the snippets of their beauty that you’ve been accustomed to look for.
What about something as specific as the prayer wheel? When do you decide to introduce that as a narrative thread and why is that significant to you?
The first time I went to Nepal, I went through a language study program to learn as much as I could about the people and the culture because I knew that I would want to climb there in the future. I was driven by the mountains. The more time I spent there, the more I appreciated the culture and the Sherpa people—everyone—just as much as the mountains. The wheel is a really important prayer device in their lives and it’s symbolic of a lot of different things. There are a lot of beautiful emotions attached to it as well. I think it’s really obvious that 95% of people who go to film Nepal has at least a detailed shot of a prayer wheel. That’s a no-brainer in a lot of ways. There’s a film called Into the Mind and the same shots of the prayer wheel is used as in Mountain, featuring one of our friends who we’ve known for close to ten years now. He’s one of the oldest Sherpas in the Everest region. Spending a week with him at his house every day where he spins his prayer wheel, getting to know the lighting in his traditional Sherpa home, and being able to take the time to really get to know him—that type of shot comes out of years of learned respect for the culture. So while the prayer wheel is a good example of something that is an obvious shot to include for many filmmakers, it’s meaningful to me personally because then you also practice it and respect it for what it is. Nobody really knows that exact backstory I just shared with you, but you learn to create something in the future with it that’s much deeper. The shot where the old man is spinning the wheel is maybe what inspired your question in the first place.
You’re right about that, actually.
So when you see that shot, it stirs something in you. It sticks with you because it’s not just a detailed shot of a prayer wheel that everyone has. It’s the emotion that comes out of commiserating with the incredible friend of ours who we’ve known for so long. It’s really about being in the right place at the right time through years of trying to learn about it.
What observations have you made about high mountain culture and the approach to life people take living at altitude that we could apply to our own lives for general betterment?
One thing you notice about people living at altitude such as the Sherpas is a spirit of hospitality and collaboration in the face of all odds. You walk into someone’s home who has next to nothing and you walk out with a full stomach and a bottomless cup of tea or homemade rice beer. You’re showered with kindness. That’s something you don’t see in city life. Sometimes that gets lost in the context of bigger global communities. I know it’s a tall task to apply that globally in the face of these giant economies and all the connectivity that we have now in our interactions with a hundred people a day through your phones and social media and the Internet, but I would hope that we can carry forward that spirit of hospitality and collaboration and kindness in the same way that they do.
Have you toyed with virtual reality to get your audience even closer to your explorations?
I’ve done quite a lot of work in virtual reality, especially with Camp 4 Collective, my production company. We’ve done virtual reality for a lot of different mountain sports. We’ve used most of the camera systems—the simple ones up until the ones that cost a hundred thousand dollars—flying them on drones for the first time and doing a lot of experimental work. I see technology as really important in pushing the envelope of storytelling. I know there’s a balance there. Most people will tell you that storytelling has to be about the story and it doesn’t matter what camera you have, like if you capture the moment on the iPhone, that’s enough. But for me, I have a quest to blend the two and I’ll purposely make things a lot harder for myself. I constantly do that and get scolded a little bit and get made fun of just because I’m making it so hard on myself carrying a RED camera up to altitude or shooting on a heavier camera just because I think it has a beautiful lens. People will ask, “Why wouldn’t you just use a small lens and a lightweight kit where you know you’re not going to run out of battery?” That’s because I love to bring back a little bit of artistry in the moments that are captured. Technology is really powerful when it’s blended with the right story and the right moment. It’s more traditionally used for commercial reasons or high-end Hollywood films, but I like to see how I can push it with that technology high up in the mountains.
This plays into your other question about risk-taking. My risk goes into using those kind of systems on documentary jobs. That’s a big risk that not a lot of people would take. I’m also risking my life while putting those cameras in places and situations, like when Alex [Honnold] is free solo climbing on the cliff ropeless below me or when you’re fighting to stay alive because your body is essentially being killed by the level of altitude. So why would I make it harder for myself? It’s the same question of “Why would you climb?” which you opened this interview with. Now you can kind of see through all of your really well-crafted questions how it comes together: the technology and the decision to tell these stories in the moment and the love for the mountain and using fear as a benefit and making the right decisions and taking a lot of risks but in these calculated ways where you’re pushing right to the edge to bring back these things for people to see and enjoy. All of that.
When people think about extreme alpinism, they often don’t go beyond the concept of climbing Mount Everest. What’s the Holy Grail to you with expedition filmmaking?
For me, Mount Everest is more of an industry of climbing. For me, the Holy Grail is combining creativity with first ascent climbing in small teams where you’re using a life-long list of skills to get to the peak with a close group of friends.