Palestinian director soars to new heights with big-budget thriller

With the Canadian Rockies as a backdrop, Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘The Mountain Between Us’ portrays ‘normal people caught in an extreme situation’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

For Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, making “The Mountain Between Us,” his first major studio feature film starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, wasn’t that much off topic.

“My movies are always about people,” said Abu-Assad, whose previous films “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013) both received Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and were about Palestinians in trying circumstances.

“They’re always about normal people caught in an extreme situation,” said Abu-Assad, 56, who is currently back home in Nazareth, the Arab town in Israel where he was born and raised. “It’s about how you behave and how you escape your pattern.”

Abu-Assad does just that by setting his film in a place that is about as far as possible from his usual comfort zone — the snowy Canadian Rockies.

Idris Elba (left) and Kate Winslet star in ‘The Mountain Between Us,’ an adventure love story directed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (Courtesy ‘The Mountain Between Us’ Facebook page)

“The Mountain Between Us” is about two strangers, Alex (Winslet) and Ben (Elba), who charter a tiny passenger plane. Alex is getting married the next day and Ben has to perform brain surgery on a ten-year-old boy. Their pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke and dies, sending their plane crashing into a snow-covered ridge in what’s known as the High Uintas Wilderness in northern Utah. The two have to rely on each other to survive, creating a physical and emotional bond.

“I saw immediately that the snow would be a canvas for the actors, and when it’s just two actors, you know the performance has to be very strong, and you have to rely on big actors, otherwise they can’t carry the story,” said Abu-Assad, who was sent the script by his agent.

That was far different than his most recent films, 2015’s “The Idol,” or “Omar” in 2013, that relayed the real challenges of Palestinian life and have starred mostly unknown Palestinian actors.

Abu-Assad knew from the get-go that he wanted to shoot the film in real mountains to transport that very real sense of isolation and survival.

That’s where having a big budget changed things for Abu-Assad, who previously had to gather his own funding for his films.

Director Hany Abu-Assad at the opening of ‘The Mountain Between Us,” his latest film, a major studio picture starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba (Courtesy ‘The Mountain Between Us’ Facebook page)

“If you’re a small budget movie, it’s impossible to film in the mountains,” said Abu-Assad. “You have to fly there every day with helicopters.”

The director made “Omar” with a $2 million budget, raised only from Palestinian sources and working with only Palestinian actors and crew members.

This time, however, Abu-Assad said he felt like he could focus on being a director.

“In the past, I always had to deal with permissions and locations, and you’re dealing with so many things that have nothing to do with directing, you even end up cleaning, sometimes,” he said. “Here you just worry about your vision and it’s great. During the shoot, they leave you alone and I was so happy to be alone in making decisions in the execution and visualization.

For Abu-Assad, that meant thinking about themes and his actors, and their relationship with the camera.

A Variety review of the film relayed the details of one early shot in the film, when Abu-Assad “moves fore and aft in the tiny plane, rotating 180 degrees a couple times before taking his place in the cockpit, from which things go handheld as the pilot’s heart gives out, the tail rips off and the plane begins its terrifying descent.”

That was the fun part, at least for Abu-Assad. There were other challenges, of course, like working with top actors Winslet and Elba, as opposed to relative unknowns, as he has in his previous films.

“Your job is to inspire all these talents around you. You can’t bullshit Kate Winslet, you can’t use your tricks with her,” said Abu-Assad. “‘Don’t bullshit me,’ she said, ‘I was married to a director.’”

“She was with Woody Allen before she came to my set,” he marveled. “But the advantage, the enormous advantage is that they are great actors and it’s a joy to see them have a chemistry and create characters. I was amazed by that talent.”

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet get a sense of each other in the tiny confines of the plane that eventually crashes (Courtesy ‘The Mountain Between Us’ Facebook page)

Abu-Assad left Nazareth years ago to study engineering in Europe, only becoming a filmmaker when he returned to Israel and met a Gazan filmmaker. He now lives between Nazareth and Los Angeles, with his filmmaker wife, Amira Diab, who associate produced “The Mountain Between Us.”

“Life is bigger than you,” commented Abu-Assad, who said he is currently fielding other film offers. “Now I’m a sellout to Hollywood, I have to think about my $30 million budget film, I have to please so many people, but it’s not necessarily negative. You can’t just show your talent to your fellow directors, you have to connect to regular people.”

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