Mountains of the mind: an interview with Robert Macfarlane

A unique cinematic and musical collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and BAFTA-nominated director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa), MOUNTAIN is an epic odyssey through the Earth’s most awesome landscapes, showing the spellbinding force of high places – and their ongoing power to shape our lives and our dreams.

In this dizzying and spectacular documentary, Willem Dafoe narrates a script written by British author Robert Macfarlane, adapted from one of his best-selling books, Mountains of the Mind - a cultural history of human engagement with these natural giants. Ahead of the film's release and a very special event to launch the brand new Curzon Oxford on 1 December, Irene from the Curzon Marketing team spoke to Robert Macfarlane.

Curzon: How did you practically collaborate with Jennifer Peedom and the filmmakers on the project and how much of your book “Mountains of the Mind” is contained in Mountain?

Robert Macfarlane: Jen approached me out of the blue, at an inauspicious point where I'd just vowed to take on Absolutely No New Projects for a year or so. But having watched her film Sherpa (a minor classic, I think), and intrigued by what Jen had in mind, we set up a meeting and she came to see me in Cambridge. We talked for about three hours non-stop, and she laid out her vision for the film, and explained the importance of my book "Mountains of the Mind" to her. When I understood how experimental the film that she had in mind was intended to be - a true image-music-text collaboration, with a minimal, exposed, almost prose-poem of a script - and when I had a glimpse of the firepower she had on board in terms of Richard Tognetti, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Renan Ozturk, well, it didn't take long to break my vow. At the very end of our meeting, in response to a question from me, Jen very modestly revealed that she had been within 400 metres of the summit of Everest, and climbed one of the world's 14 8000-metre peaks. No fuss, no bother. Just fact. Well, that was the clincher: this remarkable person inspired me to join her team. 

In terms of the making of it - I made it clear early on that I couldn't travel at all for the film. A young family and my commitments as a teacher and a writer here keep me heavily anchored. I didn't even get to the world premiere of the film at the Sydney Opera House! So everything was done intercontinentally, trans-hemispherically, by Skype (late night/early morning), WeTransfer and e-mail. I kind of loved the weird remoteness of all this, and I think it shielded me from the intensities involved in making a film of this scale. I was deeply grateful to Jen for accommodating my time-paranoias as generously as she did.

Willem Dafoe in the studio to record the narration for Mountain © Mark Rogers

Curzon: Your script for Mountain is brilliantly delivered by Willem Dafoe - an inspired casting choice as he’s a spellbinding actor, able to embody both great menace and great allure (much like the mountains that are in the film!). Were you involved in the casting at all and did you get to work with him in person?  We're also super curious to know: if you were able to choose any actors to narrate your work,who would be on your wish list and what qualities about them make them your dream voices? 

RM: I felt - when the news that Willem was not only going to voice the script, but already knew and liked my books - that I'd reached pretty much the pinnacle of my writing life. All downhill from there. Willem Dafoe! I couldn't believe it. He did an extraordinary job, too; that man has the craggiest of voices; carries granite in his gizzard. He seemed to speak with the age and ruggedness of our subject, and, as you say, an admixture of menace and allure. The recording was done in Italy, and - again - work kept me from joining Jen and Willem, though plenty of photos got sent... For a while we'd thought of approaching Tilda Swinton: if anyone's voice can do ice as well as love, it's hers. And I liked the counter-intuitive idea of a female narrator. But in the end it was Willem, and there couldn't have been a better fit. 

A still from Mountain - © Jon Griffiths

Curzon: Mountain traces the history of our relationship with mountains from mysterious, magical places of awe, peril and danger, to an unstoppable attraction that drives people to the point of mad obsession. The film shows the birth of the ‘ascent industry’ and points out its problematic aspects - commercialisation by big brands, capitalist exploitation of local guides, individualistic derring-do for adrenaline junkies. Ultimately, it suggests a need for humanity to return to seeing mountains as wilderness and appreciate them as such. How do you see the balance of human interaction with nature: are we always, inevitably, conquering, exploiting and appropriating beyond our measure when we travel and explore nature - whether for ourselves, or as filmmakers, artists,conservationists, sportspeople, etc - or are there any positive aspects to the fact that very little on Earth is still really wild? 

RM: You summarise the film's drift, or dream, very well. Sherpa was a film energised by injustice as well as awe, and by the embedded structural inequalities of, as it were, trophy-mountaineering. Though Mountain is a much less explicitly political film than Sherpa, we were set on it being, as it were, an ethical film, which argued for a re-balancing of our attitudes to mountains. In his extraordinary 'Wilderness Letter' of 1960, Wallace Stegner coins a phrase I've never forgotten: 'the geography of hope'. 'We need wild places available to us', he writes there, 'even if we do nothing other than drive to their edge and look in. They are a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures; a part of the geography of hope.' I think Stegner chooses that word 'creatures' carefully; mountains, at their most powerful, humble us - remind us that we are creatures among others on this planet, however much we aggrandise ourselves otherwise. 

A still from Mountain © Jon Griffiths

Curzon: The breathtaking, vertiginous images in Mountain succeed in showing us all the different aspects of mountains that your script highlights: sites of incomparable beauty, abominable terror, and personal as well as existential challenge. In that sense it truly is a film that visually embraces the concept of the ‘sublime’. The invention of the sublime in visual art and literature is mentioned at the beginning of the film as the key turning point in human fascination with mountains. How do you see the relationship between the camera and the natural world, and are there similarities for you between the work of the ‘nature filmmaker’ (something which can range from documentary to fiction) and the work of the ‘nature writer’? 

RM: These are *sharp* questions! Thanks for them. I'm resistant these days to the term 'nature writer', which feels both confining and tautologous. 'Writer' seems to me better, simpler, truer. That said, I'm fascinated by collaboration, and by ways of not being a writer, as it were, but sustaining an interest in landscape and place. The last few years I've made two or three documentary films for television, written the libretto to a jazz opera set in an abandoned nuclear storage facility, written 'spells' for The Lost Words, which are presently being set by a variety of musicians, and I'm beginning work on a videogame that will probably take three years to make... So I guess shifts of form excite me with their possibilities in terms of vision and affect, and I'm going to keep adventuring within form as long as I can find collaborators to work with!

A still from Mountain © Jon Griffiths

Curzon: Music is a very substantial component of Mountain with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing a vast array of classical and contemporary pieces to accompany the images. Did you have any involvement with this aspect of the film? How do you think the choice of music complements your writing in this film, and do you ever write with specific music in mind to accompany your (beautiful!) prose? 

Richard Tognetti [the composer who created the score for Mountain] and I never worked directly together; Jen was always the pivot-point. I would respond at times to the music as I saw it in the many versions of the film we worked with/through; but more often I was writing to the image, or out of my own mind. As to the more general question about music; The Old Ways in particular was written with music in mind, in both senses, and the acknowledgements to that book list many of the musical tracks that accompanied my own walking/climbing/track-making, from Arvo Pärt to the Pixies by way of Johnny Flynn, PJ Harvey and Richard Skelton. I've also written liner notes for musicians as various as Bonobo, Grasscut and the Welsh classical guitarist Toby Hay.

Curzon: Are you planning to write more for film? (The Curzon petition for a series based The Lost Words with animations and wildlife footage starts here!)

RM: Ha! Thanks. Well, strange you should say that, but there are quiet plans to make a series of shorts arising out of The Lost Words spells, each set by a different musician. As to film: well I'd love to, and am always open to ideas. But I also know I've been as fortunate as it gets to work with Jen, Richard Tognetti, Renan Ozturk and Willem Dafoe for my first full-length feature film. So maybe I should just leave it right there...


[With thanks to Dogwoof and Robert Macfarlane.]


Robert Macfarlane is the author of internationally prize-winning and bestselling books including Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012), Holloway (2013, with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards) and Landmarks (2015).

His most recent book, The Lost Words is a collaboration with artist Jackie Morris

He is particularly known for his writing about landscape, nature, wilderness and the environment. He tweets here.

All of his books are available to purchase from our partner bookshop Blackwell's in Oxford and online.