Filmmaker Michael Brown has had a long and distinguished career in adventure film making. Since founding Serac Adventure Films in 1992, Brown has directed critically acclaimed documentaries such as; Farther Than the Eye Can See, 3 Peaks 3 Weeks, and Blindsight. In his newest film, High Ground, he follows 11 wounded veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as they climb the 20,000-foot Mt. Lobuche. Along with spectacular cinematography, the viewer gets to hear the veterans’ stories in their own words and follow them as they begin the healing process.
Recently, Brown conducted an interview via phone, where he was already working on his next project, with Defense Media Network’s Steven Hoarn.
Steven Hoarn: During your career you have done quite a few documentaries dealing with climbing in the Himalayas as well as films dealing with people overcoming various physical disabilities to achieve amazing athletic feats. What made High Ground different?
Michael Brown: When [producer] Don Hahn became a part of the film, we really went out of our way to make it extraordinary. We spent a lot more time, and careful thought went into the story. Typically, when you do an expeditionary documentary, you might go shoot it and do a few interviews and then try to make the story work with that. In this case, we did the expedition and then spent another eight months going to each one of the soldiers and spending a few days with them and really getting to know them, opening up their stories and trying to figure out a lot about them so we could build a strong background for each character, so that when they climb the mountain you really get a sense what their struggles are and what the stakes are, why they might be there, and why the climb is meaningful to them.
It’s often hard to get veterans to open up and tell their stories, how did you get them to open up to you?
That was part of the time and respect factor. When you climb a mountain with someone you form bonds, because you have gone through something together just like in war. Veterans stick together and I’m a civilian, so it took a long time and a lot of building of that trust. It helped that I had climbed Everest a few times [five times from two different countries] and been around things and had real life experience. They knew that enough to respect what I had been through, so that when we climbed the mountain together that started to build that friendship, that bond, and that trust.
When we came around to doing the movie, we did the interviews after the climb, which might be unusual in a documentary style, because a lot of the time you want to have the anticipation. In this case it wasn’t about the climb as much as it was about their own stories and what they were going through coming home, from war and really getting inside their heads about their feelings coming home.
Part of that opening up was because we had done something extraordinary together. We spent enough time together to form that respect. I think also our approach, … was not a typical over-the-top filmmaking approach, it’s more of really taking the time to sit down and listen and not impose our own system of values. We didn’t project any stories onto people. We allowed them to tell their own stories. That was what we tried to do, and in a lot of ways we are getting feedback that we succeeded in that.