Seven Years in Tibet: About The Production

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Heinrich Harrer's memoir of his sojourn in a faraway land about which so little is known has never been out of print since it was written in 1953. The story appealed immensely to acclaimed French producer-director Jean-Jacques Annaud. It was only after executive producer Michael Besman introduced Annaud to screenwriter Becky Johnston, however, that the project moved into active pre-production.

Annaud remembers: "After reading the script that Becky Johnston had written, I knew it was a must. You fall in love with a screenplay and there is no other."

While most perceive Annaud's films to be quite different from one another, the director sees it otherwise. "For me, my movies are so similar, I am almost ashamed," he declares. "My movies are about apprenticeship. That theme is always at the center of my films. Quest For Fire is the story of a young man from a primitive tribe who learns about another culture through contact with a woman. The Lover is a story about a young woman from Europe who is modified by her contact with another culture."

Seven Years in Tibet would seem to carry that theme a bit further. This time, the protagonist is Austrian and his life is indeed changed by his immersion into another culture. In this instance though, Harrer's transformation is on a more personal level.

"Harrer has everything he wants," Annaud says. "He's good looking and very successful, but he's unhappy. It was important to understand that money and success meant nothing compared to self respect. It is self-respect that is difficult to obtain."

To Annaud, that quest for self-respect and inner peace is the whole story of the film. "Harrer is a man who leaves his country very famous, with lots of possessions, but very unhappy. He returns with no possessions but himself. And he is very happy."

The themes of redemption and self-discovery so dramatically portrayed in Seven Years in Tibet are the cornerstones of Annaud's filmmaking philosophy. "I want my images to carry an emotion you can hardly describe with words," he states. "They ring a secret bell in your heart, and those are the bells I love to ring."

The locations...

Right from the start, Annaud and his crew were challenged with finding the right locations for their massive production. Originally, filming was to take place in India, as near to Tibet as possible. However, filming permit difficulties and scheduling problems ­p; mainly the impossibility of shooting in the treacherous Himalayas from September onward ­p; forced the filmmakers to find a suitable alternative to the majestic Asian terrain.

The foothills of the Andes, on the Argentina-Chile border, and specifically the town of Uspallata, Argentina, offered landscape reminiscent of Tibet and, of equal importance, the infrastructure essential to support the filmmaking process. In addition, the altitude in Argentina would be considerably lower than in the Himalayas. The crew would be less likely to suffer altitude sickness. Communications would be relatively sophisticated and conditions, on the whole, perfectly acceptable.

"We had the advantage of having total freedom," says Jean-Jacques Annaud. "So we were not hampered by being under the scrutiny of the Indian or Chinese governments. It was a real film set -- safe, convenient, good roads and telecommunications. We created our world there."

One aspect of working in the mountains that the cast and crew never became acclimated to was the dust which swirled across the plains every day at noon. It got everywhere, clogging up expensive equipment, turning eyes red and insuring a steady line at the set doctor's office for treatment for ear, nose and throat infections.

Uspallata became home for the film for nearly three months, its population increased by almost fifty percent. Every available bed in the town was booked by the production, the three restaurant were filled to capacity on a regular basis, and every cabana was occupied. A group of almost 700 individuals and the addition of nearly 200 vehicles turned a sleepy pit stop on the way to Chile into a place of constant activity.

One problem the filmmakers didn't anticipate was the lack of yaks, a beast not indigenous to South America. Executive producers Richard Goodwin and David Nichols quickly became experts in the transportation of livestock from one side of the globe to the other, as scores of yaks had to be flown in from a herd in Montana, each animal needing a passport and photo. The yaks remained in Argentina after filming, appropriated by local zoos.

Three months of filming in Uspallata were followed by weeks in the bustling city of Mendoza, two hours down the road from Uspallata in the heart of Argentina's wine country, and quite a change from the comparative serenity of the Andes mountain location. It was a major shock for the crew as everyone adjusted to being kept awake at night by city noise which normally continued until dawn.

The company's final Argentinean location was Buenos Aires, where the railway station at nearby La Plata was dressed to represent the Graz station in Austria.

The opening scenes of the movie, which take place on Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, necessitated a moved to an area northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia, for three tough weeks confronting the elements and where Pitt and Thewlis were finally able to put their mountaineering schooling to the test.

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