Infinite Storm Star Naomi Watts And Director Małgorzata Szumowska On Shooting In The Wilds Of Slovenia [Interview]

The harrowing real-life survival tale "Infinite Storm" is now playing in theaters everywhere. The movie, which stars Naomi Watts, Billy Howle, Denis O'Hare, and Parker Sawyers, tells the extraordinary story of search and rescue officer Pam Bales and her heroic rescue of a hiker from a mountaintop. We got the chance to speak with Watts, the real-life Pam Bales, and director Małgorzata Szumowska about the challenges of making the film, the real-life storm that drove them off a mountain, avoiding flashbacks, and more.

'The least you can do is portray it in the most authentic way'

The movie does an amazing job of depicting the selfless dedication of search and rescue workers like Pam. What was the most difficult aspect of getting that right on screen?

Watts: I wanted to know everything that happens before getting on that mountain, while on the mountain, after the mountain. I had multiple conversations with Pam — thankfully she made herself very accessible. She sent me a nice long video of how she packed her backpack. Now, I know I wasn't carrying that exact backpack all the time because, you know, I'm an actor and I don't have half the strength that Pam has. I also have a back injury, and we weren't dealing with the same elements exactly that she saw all the time. Wonderful cheats were taking place all the time, but it was important for me to know. I spent hours learning how to pack a backpack just for that crisis that may take place. So I learned lots about how to manage things off the screen and on the screen. It was it was incredibly helpful, too, because when you take on these stories of real life people and you want to honor their stories, usually it's a big story that took place in the worst times and they've endured a level of suffering. The least you can do is portray it in the most authentic way.

When you were shooting in the wilds of Slovenia, were you able to put yourself in Pam's snow-covered shoes?

Watts: Yeah, both literally and figuratively. It was important to try and really understand who that person was, at least for a portion of time. And yeah, we had some conditions that were pretty treacherous at times. We had a high-level electrical storm where we had to evacuate the mountain and it wasn't that easy to get down. The chairlift was not available because we had a power cut, and we thought we might have to spend the night there, so that was a little scary. Sometimes we were walking through — just to get to the point where we wanted to get that beautiful shot — waist-deep snow, and there were definitely moments that I have certainly never experienced in my lifetime before.

'It's those little nuances'

Not to put you on the spot, Pam, but how do you think Naomi did at portraying a SAR officer?

Bales: She did fantastic. I could tell by her mannerisms, by emotions that came out, that she had done her research. She sought out probably some of the best, and it may not always be big things that happen, but it's those little nuances. Like when John took a breath and her jump back, and then you get into it. It's clinical: You take care of the problem. That came across. And don't give up, she said!

'That's why the film happened, because of Covid'

When it came to Naomi, did the production revolve around her? Or was it more a sense of, you have this project that's ready to go and you need a name?

Szumowska: I always wanted to have Naomi. I met her a few years ago at the Venice Film Festival, and I was sure that she was perfect for the part. It's not so easy to cast an actress, let's say, in my age who is very natural plus very fit and kind of a physical actress. Is it not easy to find a very physical and very skilled actress with a super natural face. Not an easy combination. So actually, she was the only one of few which came to my mind, and I asked her. Because of the window due to Covid, she was able to do it. We needed someone who looked like Pam Bales.

You shot this in from around January and February of last year, right on the cusp of when the vaccines were about to come out. Just looking at the project, it seems ideal in terms of Covid restrictions because it was one or two actors in every scene and it's mostly outside.

Szumowska: That's why the film happened, because of Covid. Naomi is super busy, as you can imagine. Because of Covid, she got this window. When she heard "outside, mountain" everyone said, "Okay, it's easier." I remember being locked in the hotel in Ljubljana, which looked like a ghost city at that time.

I've actually known one of the producers, Jenny Halper, for a long time. What was your experience like with Jenny?

Szumowska: Very good! I met Jenny for the first time in New York, and she was the one who offered me that script. I was in New York for some other purpose, and we met, and in our first conversation I said to Jenny, "I would like to make this film, but I don't like to have flashbacks," because I remember the first version of Joshua's script was thousands of flashbacks of Pam's past life. I said no flashbacks, and Jenny said, "Okay, if you think like this, I'm in. No flashbacks." I was kind of surprised that came from an American producer. (laughs)

'I completely quit smoking'

When you're doing your shot lists or your storyboards or however you prepare, how do you keep the visuals alive in an environment that's mostly white and trees? Plus, it's either one or two of the same actors for most of the runtime.

Szumowska: It's actually very demanding, so my DP Michał Englert — who's also a kind of co-director — he said to me, "Oh my God, a film in snow, everything we try looks almost the same." He said it's gonna be super hard. We spent hours on location scouts, trying to not repeat a location, not to film a few scenes in one location, which would be much easier, but he definitely rejected that. Sometimes we'd been walking six miles or I don't know how long, almost dying to find a location which looks different, because there is a kind of stone or different perspective. It was complicated.

I remember years ago reading Paul Verhoeven saying that for any movie he does, he works out and gets his body prepared just because of the strenuousness of any film production. When you're doing a movie like this, where you're literally bringing your whole crew up a mountain like "Fitzcarraldo," how do you prepare yourself?

Szumowska: I'm a pretty fit person and I love sports, but I thought it would be easy and it wasn't easy. In the beginning, it was this walking constantly up, up, up, up, up ... I cut my breath out completely. After, I was in the best and am still in the best condition ever. I completely quit smoking. Sometimes I smoke, but after this experience? Not anymore.

That altitude is brutal.

Szumowska: Yeah, it was brutal in general working so high, and very often it was very strong wind, and we didn't have the base camp very nearby so you couldn't hide. I like it. Also, we got this idea that if we all feel it, also the audience will feel it. You know it. If you have a very big budget and you're doing things in the studio and only partly outside, it's not the case. We did this film almost like a documentary, so it makes everything probably more believable.

"Infinite Storm" is in theaters now.