Making a movie at sea level is hard enough, so for director Lucy Walker to complete Blindsight in the thin air of Mount Everest is doubly impressive. The documentary captures the attempted ascent of Everest by six blind Tibetan teenagers, led by blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer. With the film in the midst of a limited U.S. theatrical run, Walker took some time to speak with MM about the challenges posed by documentaries, high altitude and the Chinese government.

Andrew Gnerre (MM): With a project like this, it is certainly admirable to agree to direct such an ambitious film. When you were approached with the idea for the film, what were your initial feelings?

Lucy Walker (LW): Well I think making documentaries is very hard. I absolutely love it, but it is so challenging. To take real life and make it that interesting and work as a movie is really difficult. Someone once said, “Movies are life with the boring parts cut out.” You can’t script for that when you are working with boring, messy reality. So I think the best defense against that is just an amazing subject. This was clearly, from what I heard of what Erik and Sabriye [Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders] wanted to do, just the most amazing subject. So for me it was a no-brainer.

I am somebody that when I find that thing and fall in love with it, I’ll chop my toes off to make it happen. (laughs) I just completely neglect my own life and throw myself into it; I’d do anything to get an extra shot or a better interview response. I instantly rushed off and was trying to learn Tibetan and figure out how to climb Everest. It was crazy!

MM: Speaking about how difficult it is to craft a documentary, particularly something like Blindsight, where you have no idea how the climb is going to go, how do you try to plan for that? How much planning is there beforehand and how much of that gets thrown out while filming?

LW: In some sense, with the equipment and the crew and stuff like that, we had to plan everything because there was no room for error at all; I couldn’t change things as we went along. But I knew that the story was so good and these characters were so good that it was going to be interesting enough no matter what happened.

I then had to take certain steps, like I banked interviews with people at every stage, which was a lot of work. I wanted to be covered for every character no matter what eventuality. So, in case one of the kids had gotten sick earlier and turned around, I would have had enough material to cover that. So I did stuff like that. In terms of other planning, there was quite a lot in terms of shot lists and stuff like that. In fact we had to be super-planned because I had to present shot lists and day schedules to the Chinese authorities at the beginning of the three-month shoot.

MM: That was actually something I was going to ask about. How much did Chinese film restrictions affect the film?

LW: Well the big way it affected it was that the school operates in Tibet and in order not to jeopardize the work we had to agree to be non-political. Sabriye and Paul [Kronenberg], who run Braille Without Borders, had said that the only condition on which they’d make the movie was if the only politics in the movie were blind politics. So there was no possibility of us addressing or challenging the China-Tibet situation in the movie, and that was just sort of the agreement up front. Even now I can’t speak about Tibet issues in relation to the film, except maybe to describe that we had three policemen with us at all times. It was pretty restrictive. I kind of worked around it and we managed to get the shots that I wanted.

I’m always quite resourceful. I always think that if you’re creative enough you can find the bits and pieces that you need. (laughs) And we did find enough moments.

MM: I think to me, one of the most striking scenes in the film was that opening scene, which opens on a black screen only to reveal Erik crossing a ladder over a deep chasm. Can you speak a little about the idea for the scene and the intentions you had?

LW: I always wanted to open the movie with a black screen. I had a little notebook—one of my tricks while making the movie. (laughs) It was super lo-fi, but was just a tiny notebook with 10 different colored sections. It was very old school. I had a little section with my Tibetan phrases. I had a little section with my shot list. I had a little section with questions for each of the different characters and the different stories we were following. Everything was in my little notebook.

The first idea in the “Ideas” section was to open the movie in darkness because my first thought was, ‘What is it like to climb blind?’ I think one of the games we probably all play is shutting our eyes and trying to imagine what it’s like being blind. We did everything that we could do in the movie to try and get people to open up to this idea of ‘What would it be like if you couldn’t see?’

MM: While watching the film, it’s hard not think of the film crew traversing the mountain along with the climbers. How difficult was it to film on Everest? Did it restrict the shoot, in regards to your crew, equipment or anything else?

LW: Mostly you’re just up against human limitation. There are no trucks and you can’t have extra equipment because everything is being carried by yaks, but you’re not really close to the yaks, so if you want it to be anywhere near you it has to be carried by a person and people aren’t able to carry that much up there. And at that altitude even the simplest things become complicated. So you’re really up against human frailty magnified. (laughs) Everything becomes 10 times more difficult and heavy and exhausting. You have to be very tolerant of people’s limitations because you’re really in dangerous situations.

People get so excited about making a movie and you’re judgment is so impaired it’s very difficult how to know how to draw those lines. On the other hand you are always looking to get the best shots. Again my little notebook was hilarious, but that was the best thing. If I had an idea I had to write it down because I couldn’t even trust my own brain to remember or think clearly. You had to give yourself a little help with the notebook and stuff like that.

MM: What kind of effect do you think a film of this nature can have on audiences?

LW: For me being there, sometimes I had to stop myself from wanting to drop everything and open my own blind school. I saw the work that Sabriye and Paul were doing and what an amazing difference it made in these people’s lives. I was so inspired to want to make that direct difference in people’s lives that literally my friends had to talk me out of giving up film. I had to remind myself that maybe film is my way of doing this work.

Tashi, who is one of the young people in the movie, whose name translates as “Lucky” and, of course, whose story is the least lucky life story of anyone I’ve ever heard, came through it with such grace. He said to me that the best thing about him becoming blind is that it has forced him to look on the bright side of things and I find that that’s true of all of this experience of making the movie; you see how inspiring it is when people focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do. To not only succeed but actually become the most inspiring people you can imagine.

Tenzin says in the beginning of the movie, “Normal people’s hearts are blind.” I feel like I hope this movie opens up a few hearts and shows us that these kids have gained such wisdom and insight through the challenges they’ve faced. That for me is the most inspiring thing in the world. You aspire to their level of insight and I love that about the movie.