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No Barriers Podcast Episode 99: Storytelling with Michael Brown



Erik and Dave sit down with friend and filmmaker, Michael Brown. The conversation covers the many adventures he has documented around the world and the challenges he’s endured along the way.

Michael Brown has excelled as both an adventure athlete and as a filmmaker. He has been to the summit of Mount Everest five times, each time with cameras rolling. His work as a director and cinematographer spans all seven continents and has won many film festivals and industry awards, including three national Emmy Awards. Michael is also a recipient of the International Alliance For Mountain Film’s ‘Grand Prix’ awards at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, the Explorers Festival’s Camera Extreme,’ and the Giant Screen Cinema Association (IMAX) ‘Outstanding Cinematography’ Award.

Michael’s lens has captured ice caves for NOVA, tornadoes for Discovery, science at the South Pole for National Geographic, avalanches for the BBC, and mountain climbing for four giant screen IMAX movies. Michael has made a habit of going to the world’s harshest, most dangerous environments and always comes back with incredible footage and compelling stories. Outside Magazine describes the cerebral filmmaker as a “swashbuckling librarian,” and Men’s Journal calls him “a master of gut-dropping action.”

Resources:

Follow Michael and his work on Facebook

Check out Serac Films and Michael’s impressive filmography

Adventure Film School

 

 

“You don’t really try to create it, but you know that if you’re doing something that’s really worthwhile, like climbing Mount Everest or kayaking the Grand Canyon, that just the nature of the activity is going to create drama and chaos. The key is, as a filmmaker or a storyteller is to be prepared when those things do, inevitably, happen and to not miss that moment.”

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Episode Transcript

Michael : You don't really try to create it, but you know that if you're doing something that's really worthwhile, like climbing Mount Everest or kayaking the Grand Canyon, that just the nature of the activity is going to create drama and chaos. The key is, as a filmmaker or a storyteller is to be prepared when those things do, inevitably, happen and to not miss that moment.

Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happened to be blind.

Erik : It's been a struggle to live what I call, a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

David : Today we meet Michael Brown, who has excelled as both an adventure athlete and as a filmmaker. He's been to the summit of Mount Everest five times, each time with cameras rolling. His work as a director and cinematographer spans all seven continents, and he has won many film festivals and industry awards, including three national Emmy awards.

David : Michael's lens has captured ice caves for Nova, tornadoes for Discovery, science at the South Pole for National Geographic, avalanches for the BBC, and mountain climbing for four giant screen IMAX movies. Outside Magazine describes the cerebral filmmaker as a swashbuckling librarian, and Men's Journal calls him a master of gut dropping action. Enjoy the conversation.

David : Well, Michael let's dive in. We're really excited to have you here, excited to learn about your approach to telling story and the challenges you faced too in making it as a cinematographer, which I know is not an easy business to survive in. But let's get started right away with Erik. You and Michael have known each other forever, so where did you guys first meet?

Erik : Oh, wow. I met you in the Himalayas. I thought in 2000, and really got to know you when I first went to the Himalayas, my very first trip to Ama Dablam. Is that correct?

Michael : Yeah. What happened is, my team and I were on Everest and you guys were on Ama Dablam, on your first attempt on Ama Dablam. And we had heard this rumor that there was a blind climber in the Khumbu region of Nepal and of course there's a little buzz about that in base camp at Everest because people were, kind of, trying to put the idea together of a blind climber.

Michael : I remember very well meeting you because I was a little bit taken aback. I didn't know what to say. As a filmmaker and making adventure films, I knew there was a chance you'd already be familiar with some of my work or something, but I didn't really know how to bring it up because you were the first blind person I ever met. And so, I was just, sort of, embarrassed to be able to even talk to you. I was like, how do you ask a blind person if they've seen one of your films? And, I think you, kind of, found that humorous as well. And I think he even joked about it at one point-

Erik : I usually smell films, Michael. I don't see them, I smell them. I imbibe them.

Michael : You imbibe the essence of the films through a zoom call?

Erik : Exactly. Yeah.

David : Michael, talk about just the logistics of bringing cameras to these rugged places like the South pole, like Greenland, like the summit of Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks. Probably people are... Or let's talk about the Grand Canyon where it's the opposite. It's incredibly hot and sand blowing everywhere. How logistically do you even handle that? How does the equipment handle it?

Michael : Oh yeah. That's probably one of the... As far as in the field, the kind of the biggest consideration you have, I mean, obviously the biggest consideration is yourself. You don't want to get yourself hurt. And I remember Dave Hahn who was, sort of, my mentor and guide on the first Everest trip. He said he'd seen so many camera people with frostbitten fingers and I took that to heart, because when you're working with cold metal objects and you need to have the TacTiles, you need to be able to use the controls of the camera. You can't really be wearing gloves all the time.

Michael : And so, I was incredibly careful with my fingers to have thin liner gloves, and I'd have like four or five pairs of heavier mittens and gloves in my pack because they invariably get wet and of course, below zero your fingers get wet, they're going to freeze. So just an amazing amount of attention paid to keeping your fingers warm.

Michael : And then as far as the cameras... Without a camera, you're, kind of, useless. There's really no purpose for you as a filmmaker to be in any place when your cameras aren't working. So I've always taken a lot of attention toward making sure that equipment is in good working order, batteries charged, keeping the moisture out, whatever it is that might cause a camera to malfunction.

Michael : I take a lot of effort to keep it from happening, but there's been some funny things there. We were in the jungles in South America once and afterwards the camera wasn't working so I sent it in to the manufacturer for repair and they sent it back saying they couldn't work on it because they found insects inside of the camera.

David : So, what about a place like the Grand Canyon Michael? Is that pretty? And that's the opposite of a hot, wet jungle. Sand blowing into the fans of the computer and I think you almost lost some footage on that Grand Canyon trip, right?

Michael : Well, we almost lost all of the footage on the Grand Canyon. At one point, what happened is that there was a big rainstorm and it caused these flash floods and the flash floods were this chocolate milk water, it was so full of sediment that the water was an uncanny chocolate color.

Michael : And that super muddy water would get on every surface, the rafts of the camera equipment, of the cases and Pelican cases that we use and that would dry and then you'd have this fine powdery dust. And while we're still about a week out at the end of the trip, and every time we turned on the hard drives that all of the footage was stored on, you could hear this grinding sound. It was like this...

Michael : And of course, when you hear that sound, you know that the drive is failing and you think all of our footage is about to be deleted essentially. So we're just taking this trip for the fun of it and doing all this work to film and we're not going to have anything to show for it. Just by luck, in a week, those drives sounded terrible and yet the footage was still there and intact when we got back.

David : Michael, I'm curious, how do you go about capturing these powerful poignant moments without interrupting the moment itself?

Michael : Well David, that's a very interesting topic of discussion because it's so often in filmmaking, the filmmaker is tempted to sort of drive the narrative and tell people what to think and what to do. And so, I think that the way that I try to get around that issue is I'm attracted to telling stories about events that are truly hard for the participants.

Michael : So, if it's Eric climbing Mount Everest, we're not really staging that. That's a real challenge, and it's a huge challenge. So, in a sense, the existence of the cameras becomes a secondary thing. And I think that's really important because I've been on productions where the director and the camera crew are really, sort of, driving the narrative. But, I really prefer to do a story where the challenge is so great that the cameras become almost unimportant. That's one of the really most important skills of a filmmaker.

Michael : You need to be paying attention to what's going on, and you need to be listening. If you are trying to tell your quote and quote, actors, what to do, or if you have an idea in your head of how things are going to go but you're not willing to be flexible in the moment, then you're going to end up truly being lost.

David : We've done so many expeditions together. We did an expedition in 2011 called High Ground and you made a beautiful film that featured the veterans that took part in our very first No Barriers Warriors program. We climbed the peak of Lobuche and you interviewed the whole team. And I remember you were interviewing a guy, we'll just call him Ike, right? First name, he's in the film, and you have the camera pointed on Ike and you ask him a question and he answers the question in a way, I'm sure he's been interviewed a hundred times, right? So he, kind of, gives the PR answer.

David : And I remember he started squirming. He was really squirming and like really nervous as he was answering this question, trying to get it over with, and you just kept the camera going. You kept lingering on this moment. And I remember even in my mind going turn the camera off Michael, he's done, he has nothing else to say and you left it going. And the guy pauses and then says the most poignant thing that I've ever heard in any film, talking about his experience, he had to cut through the PR answer to get to the real answer. How did you learn how to do that?

Michael : That is definitely a thing that you learn to do. As we were editing the film, we were struggling with Ike's character. And we were sitting in a restaurant having a meal and I was just honest with him. I said, "Ike, in this film, I kind of call you Vanilla Ike because you really don't come through with a powerful character, you, sort of, give us pat answers." And he retorted, he came back to me with, he says, "Well, I don't think you did a very good job interviewing me." And I was like, "Okay, well, I can take that. Let's try it again."

Michael : He agreed. And so, we got the cameras and we got in the car and we drove to a nice location and we set up the cameras. And then, I don't know how many of your listeners are going to remember the film Jerry Maguire, but in that Jerry Maguire film, they train the athletes to always say, "I just want to be a part of the team and I just want to give it my best shot." And it's a pat answer that's rehearsed and it doesn't sound real at all. And in that case, I gave that answer-

David : More of a pat answer.

Michael : He gave the total pat answer. I just sat there looking at him. I think the silence was uncomfortable for long enough, that something inside of him sort of gave way and he started to give us the real answer. And I was stunned. I'm just sitting there, kind of, listening. But it's so critical, don't interrupt, just listen. And so that's what I did. And of course, I always tell whoever's operating the camera, don't shut the camera off. Just keep rolling because the good stuff rarely happens as a result of the question.

Michael : It's usually the question, the answer comes up but then the interviewee says something great. So you just keep it going, keep it going. Don't change anything. It was uncomfortable pauses, that's where the good stuff comes out. And that's what I tell the students in the workshops is, it's so critical as an interviewer, you have to listen because if you're not listening, or if you're looking at notes you made on a piece of paper, you're not present and to be present is so critical.

David : And in Ike's case, I don't want to give it away, but he started talking about this dream, this... He was a veteran in Afghanistan and went through some horrendous stuff and he started talking about a dream that has plagued his entire life, right? This horrific dream that he relives every night. And I'm so glad you kept the camera running because that was an important story for him to tell. Have you ever had situations where you're just not connecting with the team? There's like a tug of war between the film and the team, or is that maybe always the case?

Michael : I would say it's always the case. There's always conflict. And I think, as painful it is when there is conflict and chaos, you don't really try to create it, but you know that if you're doing something that's really worthwhile, like climbing Mount Everest or kayaking the Grand Canyon, that just the nature of the activity is going to create drama and chaos, and then just different people with different ideas about how it's going to work. So that the key is as a filmmaker, a storyteller is to be prepared when those things do inevitably happen and to not miss that moment. And so you're just, you're always on, and you're always trying to be ready for the next thing that comes along.

David : All right, and then just because we have to cover this. It's like breaking news Michael, that chaos a little bit happened as we were reaching the summit of Everest in 2001 together. Do you want to come clean with the world in terms of what happened on the summit of Mount Everest?

Michael : Well, what didn't happen on the summit of Mount Everest that day? No, but I'll never leave that down because a few things happened-

David : But then again, I'm not trying to embarrass you because I think this is like... The cameras are 25 pounds and you're at 29,000 feet. So it's almost... I give huge respect to you Michael, but things don't always go as planned, right?

Michael : No, they don't. And the cameras are actually 35 pounds, but luckily the Sherpa were carrying the camera for me and knowing what happens when you're oxygen deprived, we actually, you and I, had rehearsed what we were going to do on the summit and what it was supposed to be is the year before, when I'd been up there, it was a big flat kind of area.

Michael : And so my plan was that I was going to walk around you with the camera showing so it could show the whole background because other films have gotten summit shots where they neglected to show the background. And so, people always question if it was real, but we needed to make sure that this is absolutely real. But when we got to the summit, it was like a little pointy ice cream cone. There was no way I was going to walk around you, but going back a step, it was worse than that.

Michael : In fact, I was well behind you and you got to the summit first. And then to add to that, the Sherpa carrying the camera was actually exhausted and had just decided to sit down beside the trail about 50 yards from the summit. And so I was there and yes, I was crying as you stepped onto the summit and the camera was behind me, farther down the mountain. And I'm just beside myself, because all of that work and all of that energy and effort was just evaporating before my eyes. And so I actually trotted downhill a little ways and got the camera and trotted back up the hill and that little bit of trotting, I paid the price for that because when I got down on one knee and set the settings on the camera and make sure it was operating properly and focus and all that kind of stuff.

Michael : And as I tried to stand up again to do my shot on the summit, I couldn't stand up. There wasn't enough oxygen left in my muscles and my blood to even carry out a simple act of standing up with a camera on my shoulder. And so the team, your team, gathered around me and actually lifted me back to my feet so that I could do the summit shot, which will always be sort of a... I still get tears in my eyes when I hear actually the base camp respected the cam shot of your saying, "we're on the summit, I can't believe it or we're on the top, I can't believe it." It was a beautiful moment just because so much had gone into that.

David : That's a total team process, isn't it? The team helping you to your feet so that you can film us reaching the top. I mean, we talk at No Barriers about a rope team, how it takes a team and you got to build your team and Michael, that's amazing.

Michael : I still look back on that as one of the most remarkable teams I've ever been a part of. And I'm still so proud of all of the people involved in that today, 20 years later. Just remarkable group of people and all of them have gone on to do amazing things with their lives since that day.

Erik : Michael, I'm really curious, it strikes me that your job is incredibly stressful. So, you spend years, months preparing for this whole shoot, whether it's the Grand Canyon, the Everest, High Ground, all these different films that you've made. You go collect hundreds of hours of footage. You don't know going into it, what the story is going to be. You hope there's going to be a story and then you get back from these expeditions with, I would imagine literally hundreds of hours of footage and somehow you've got to create film out of it. So when you get back from something like this, what happens next? When you're just sitting with all this footage, where do you start?

Michael : Well, there's a giant topic and it's a lot of footage. It may not be hundreds of hours, but it's usually 60 or 70 hours. And that's still, even if you just sit down and watch all of that, it's going to take a lot of days. How do you deal with all this footage? Well, you start out by finding those really important decisions and moments where a character is actually undergoing a subtle shift in who they are, because if you can, sort of, hang the story on that moment and then build backwards and forwards from there, the narrative will fall into place. And that's what we, as filmmakers, you try to train yourself to recognize these, these critical story moments.

Michael : On Everest, there was a big storm the night we were going for the summit and a lot of the team were saying, "Let's go back down again." And we didn't have it on film, but I remember one of the team members, Sherman Bull said, "If you want good weather, go to Central Park in June." And he was on his way. But we, kind of, recreated all of those moments in that story, because that's so important it's not necessarily this big action climax. It's more about the subtle shift in what's going on for the central character.

David : Michael, when you do these big rugged adventures, we talked about things don't always play out perfectly, but you've actually experienced a fair share of tragedy. And some of the stories that you've gone to film in particular, one of my heroes Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker, two famous climbers you went to film them on Shishapangma. Can you talk about that story? Because I know that that's really hard, it's an important thing for people to know.

Michael : Yeah, that's a big subject and there's another film coming out very soon. Max Lowe is telling the story of his life, living in the shadow of those events. We go to the mountains with the knowledge, beforehand, that they're dangerous and it's part of the beauty of it. And the sacredness of it is that danger and so, we lose friends in the mountains a lot and you and I both know even tomorrow are going to be virtually attending a Memorial service for one of our friends who we climbed with, Matt Nyman from High Ground.

Michael : Every time any one of us goes into the mountains, we understand that risk and I think we find that to be vastly preferable to some of the other ways that your life might end. Although when it's cut short that is truly tragic, especially when you have a family.

David : So in 1999 on that film, Michael, you went to Shishapangma with Alex and Conrad. And just so people know, I mean, because it's documented in your films that an avalanche came down and killed Alex and David, right?

Michael : Yeah. They were out scouting for... They were looking for a way to get up through a band of seracs and the avalanche started, more than a vertical mile above them. It was way, way up at the top of a ridgeline and as the avalanche cascaded down, it got bigger and bigger and bigger and once they realized it was going to hit them, Alex and David started running away from the avalanche down the slope. I think they were hoping to jump into a crevasse or something and have the avalanche pass over them.

Michael : Conrad, on the other hand, had run in David and Alex's tracks, but he went to the side and he was badly injured. I had gone back down to the base camp to pick up another camera and when I saw him, the injuries that he had, I couldn't believe that he could survive them, but it's just a stunning thing when you hear that news, that two of the team are gone.

Michael : And of course, it can't deny who's another cinematographer on the trip. We immediately went up to continue searching and we called out their names, Dave and we were just like Dave, Alex. And it's such a hopeless feeling because your boots don't even make tracks anymore. The avalanche debris is set up. It becomes like concrete because in sliding down the slope, it generates enough energy to partially melt and so it refreezes into this solid ice thing. And so, we're out there we're actually using our ice tools to probe the snow, because it can't just... Standards like probe pole won't even penetrate into this ice, but we're just out there, we're looking in all these places, but it's a vast area. The whole character, the slope has changed where all this avalanche debris is ended up and we know they're under there somewhere. And it's just this hopeless feeling. And I'd never experienced anything like that up until that point.

Michael : Since then, I've experienced it way too much. But at that time, back in 1999, I was relatively new to these things and so it was just processing it in my brain was really challenging. And then, I didn't know about things like post-traumatic stress. And I came back from that expedition and all of the emotion and intensity of that and went right into the editing room to edit a film about it. And if I'd known what I know now, I I would have given myself some space from it, but instead I just went right to work on it. And I remember just a lot of tears. I'd been through a lot of stuff right then because my brother who I'm really close to just survived cancer and then I'd gone to, well, actually right after that, I went to South America and lost four other friends on another mountain, and I was the first to arrive at the scene of where they'd fallen off the mountain.

Michael : And so there was some really intense growing up that happened right in that period of time. And interestingly, that was just the year before I met you. So those intense experiences, I think they added a certain sense of the gravity and the realness of those situations. Because I think until you've experienced something like that, you may not really be totally, I don't know how to put this, whether you're ready to tell stories about really intense things until you really know the stakes. Because I think for a lot of people that death in the mountains is an abstract concept, but when you see it up close and personal, it becomes absolutely real. And it kind of informs the way that you think about things in the way that you approach being safe and keeping your team safe.

Erik : I'd love to go back to this process that you go through as you're... You've been on an expedition, you've captured the footage, you've returned, you're telling, you're figuring out the storyline, you're figuring out those poignant moments. You put this all together, this takes months of time, if not longer and then you get to this point where you have to show the film in a theater to people who've never seen it, you've spent the better part of could be years, months with your whole energy into this. That strikes me as a point that must be really like nerve wracking and scary almost as opposed as well as exciting because you've been in it. And now you got to see how people respond to it. Can you talk about that challenge and what that's like?

Michael : The premiere of a film is one of the most intense experiences you can have because you're right. You put so much of yourself over literally years of time and you get so close to it and you're trying to achieve something because you're certainly... Filmmaking it is kind of a manipulation. You're manipulating people's emotions and how they're feeling. And it's certainly a craft and you try to set it up in such a way that people feel, ultimately they feel satisfied after seeing the film.

Michael : And, I have to say that it's an aspect of many filmmakers, but I'm a perfectionist and I'm also really down on the process. So, at the moment that I'm about to premiere a film, invariably, I'll really hate the film. And I'm thinking that this film is terrible and the audiences are going to hate it. And you know, all this effort and all these people that have put in trust in you with their money and everything that you've let them down.

Michael : And even for Eric I let him down, I didn't tell the story in a way that's going to be effective. And then I remember for The Weight of Water, for example, we premiered at the Banff Festival Mountainfilm and it was like a giant weight lifted because the audience loved it. And I was just like, "Oh, okay." All this time wondering, is it too long? Did we put the right things in there? Did they understand things? And really for me, that was a highlight of my career because a week later and sadly Eric had already flown back to the States, but we were there at the Banff Festival and so we're backstage and when they announced the grand prize, of course, that was like the highlight of my entire career because that festival I have been going for 30 years and that's, kind of, the one that I really care about.

Michael : I know there are bigger festivals in the world, but that's the one that's the most near and dear and to get the grand prize in Banff was the highlight of my entire film career. And I still glow about it today, and of course, then the film went on to... It keeps doing really well. And it afforded us a chance to travel and meet so many amazing people. And it's just been so much fun to take on the journey with Eric on this film and so I'm very, very happy about it.

Erik : Well, Michael, thank you so much for your time today and for your words of wisdom. Thanks, most of all, for the incredible films that you have made that make us laugh and cry. And for those listeners who have not seen the films that we've been mentioning, we'll put these in our show notes so that you can check them out. They are truly remarkable stories that you should all go and watch. If you enjoyed this conversation, please share it with someone else. That's the best way to grow. Our No Barriers community is to share things that inspire you and move you with someone else that you know. We hope you do that as always, thanks for listening and thank you Michael for joining us.

Michael : It's so fun. Thank you so much guys.

Erik : Thanks Michael. Thanks Dave. No Barriers.

David : We would like to thank our generous sponsors that make our no barriers podcast possible. Wells Fargo, Prudential, CoBank, Aero Electronics, and Winnebago. Thank you so much for your support. It means everything to us. The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Schaffer, sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman and marketing support by Heather Zoccali, Stevie DiNardo, Erica Howey, and Alex Schaffer. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.


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