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Documentaries: What Happened Next

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From Oscar-winning docs Hoop Dreams and Man On Wire to life-and-death dramas like Touching The Void and fan favourites such as King Of Kong, Spellbound and Dogtown And Z-Boys, the past decade has yielded some great documentaries. But what happened after the credits rolled? And what did the fates have in store for these memorable characters once the cameras packed up and left? Turning no leaf unturned to track them down and burning the midnight phonebill to speak to them, Empire found out. Here the stars of these six outstanding docs tell us what happened next.

The King Of KongChampion gamer Steve Wiebe on taming the gorilla

Then…

The Donkey Kong world record doesn't sound like the kind of issue to provoke two men to near-Biblical levels of animosity, but as 2007 documentary King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters records, that's exactly what came to pass. Some serious Old Testament shit. With a giant ape. Two gamers, reigning champion Billy Mitchell and challenger Steve Wiebe, compete for the crown of the arcade gaming world.

In Seth Gordon's documentary, the video game's ruling body rejects a record captured on a tape by Wiebe. Another record by Wiebe, set in public, only lasts for minutes before a tape sent by Mitchell reveals a new high score. The documentary portrays Wiebe as the good guy and Mitchell as the black hat in the story, using every available means to hold onto his record. In truth, that framing remains highly contentious within the gaming community. Wiebe is presented as the newcomer opposed by the established gamers. "I surely wasn't well-liked at the time," he remembers.

The King Of Kong

His adversary, on the other hand, found himself vilified by the documentary's audience. "When you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price," Mitchell, who set his first Donkey Kong record in the early '80s, asserted presciently in the movie.

When Empire reaches Steve Wiebe, he's in his car. He's returning home, although not from an arcade because his days of travelling the US breaking Donkey Kong records are long behind him. He still meets his rival Billy Mitchell at Donkey Kong tournaments from time to time. "There hasn't been a lot of conversation," he explains, "but we're not at each other's throats. We are very pleasant to each other and take photos."

Now…

The King Of Kong"I still play Donkey Kong very well and go to a tournament called Kong Offs each year. We all assemble in an arcade for two days and just play non-stop until whoever gets the highest score. The first year I came second. I was leading, but had leave to get on an airplane to go back to Washington. When I was in mid-air Hank Chen, who has the overall high-score in Donkey Kong now, broke my score and won the Kong Off. The second year I came third and then in the last one I was fifth.

There are a lot of players who have seen King Of Kong and got interested in playing Donkey Kong. So the scene is flourishing right now. A lot of players are getting over a million points now, whereas when I was playing only a couple of people had ever gotten near there. I haven't been able to really spend time on going for the record. I've been focusing on doing some of my personal music and school teaching.

There is controversy around the film, but overall it shows the past and the journey I went through. You could argue the fine details, but in the end I was going for the record, I got dismissed and I had to fight through and try to get the record. When the filming was done, I hadn't got the record. I knew there was going to be a movie about this. It felt weird, so I went home and started playing. It took me about a month, but I finally got the record. Since then, I've scored over a million four times in public.

It was really encouraging to get positive feedback from friends and even from celebrities. Tony Hawk signed a skateboard and sent it to my house together with a couple of video games. I got to meet him at a couple of events. Some fellow school teachers also found my email address and wrote to me. I know that Billy had some negative feedback and I feel bad that had to happen.

I show King Of Kong every year in my classroom near the winter break. It's a tradition I have. Like with every audience, there are always different reactions. Some kids get really into it, others are quiet and don't say anything. It's interesting how each class has their own personality, but for the most part they think it's really cool."

American TeenJake Tusing and Colin Clemens go back to school...

Then…

Teen years can be the best days of your lives for some, but a lonely and heartbreaking period for others. For every Ferris Bueller, there's a Cameron Frye. Add a camera to all that and the drama unfolds. American Teen follows five Breakfast Club types – the 'jock', 'princess', 'rebel', 'heartthrob' and the 'geek' – through their senior year at their Indiana high school in the mid-noughties, caught in between break-ups and doubts about the future.

Director Nanette Burstein scouted more than 100 schools before picking Warsaw Community High School for her documentary. "Warsaw is your typical Midwestern town", explained one of the film's protagonists of the 13,000-strong town. "It's mostly white, mostly Christian, red state all the way, middle class, but with some very wealthy families and some far-from-wealthy families."

The movie earned critical acclaim, winning the Sundance Documentary Directing Award, but attracted less favourable comments from some of the Warsaw students. "When the movie came out a lot of people hated it because they didn't have great experiences with the film crew at school during those ten months," remembers the 'jock', Colin Clemens. "Oftentimes cameramen would run into students as they were filming someone walking in the halls."

For the 'geek', Jake Tusing, the filming was a positive experience: "It made me feel important. In high school, I was constantly being ignored, this completely reversed it."

Now…

American Teen

As the star player of the Warsaw High School basketball team, Colin Clemens tried to put on his best performances throughout his senior year to get a basketball scholarship. He didn't make it to the NBA, but has kept his fascination for basketball, even though in high school he "allowed it to consume my life". Empire reached him in Warsaw, where he lives with his wife and newborn daughter.

American Teen Colin Clemens "American Teen made me semi-famous for a brief period. When the movie was officially released into theatres, we were in New York City at Times Square. We had press members interviewing us and taking photos on the red carpet. We would get recognised at local restaurants and shopping malls. It was a very unique experience. Now it's mainly just local recognition, but around here I'm widely known for the film and most people just don't talk about it anymore. It's just sort of 'known' that the movie was filmed here and I was a part of it. Nothing too special, it seems!

Being followed by cameras was very strange for me at first. I would often get scolded by the producers and director for looking into the camera. I'd say after about a month I forgot they were there. It became very natural for me. There would be times I would sit down and sit on the microphone box and forget that I even had a microphone on. I don't think I acted too different while being filmed. A lot of my filming was on the basketball court anyway and I really didn't pay attention to the cameras while playing.

When I look back at the documentary, I see a naive kid. I was so consumed with my future and what school I was going to play basketball for and attend that I often sacrificed the team. I would force shots when I otherwise wouldn't. It seems as though I became a little obsessed with the potential of playing in college that I forgot to enjoy the moment and be more selfless. If I could go back and change one thing about my high school playing career, it would be that.

I ended up playing all four years of college basketball. My team won two conference championships and went to two national tournaments. I finished college and graduated with a marketing degree. I've since worked for several companies in their marketing departments. I still play in several competitive basketball leagues around the area against former pro and college players. Also, two of my very good friends are playing in the NBA. So, even though I didn't end up making it to the NBA, I get to live the dream through them.”

American Teen

Jake Tusing*, labelled the "geek", finds himself on the quest to find a girlfriend in his senior year. Unlike the school's basketball and football players, his passion for computer games and his role in the school's marching band doesn't help win the girls' sympathy. "I'm still looking for my niche… and the right girl," reads his comment in the end credits of American Teen. Six years later, he tells Empire that he still hasn't found his big love...*

American Teen Jake Tusing "I've certainly become a lot more outgoing and less concerned about what strangers think of me. Now I can't figure out why I was concerned to begin with. I know I had some problems growing up, being myself and being judged by my peers. Being followed by a camera definitely helped with my confidence. I had a lot more interaction with girls that year than I had the previous years. It was probably because they wanted to be on camera, too.

I don't have a lot of desire to watch the documentary again unless I'm showing it to someone for the first time. I've seen it so many times during the promotional tour and leading up to it. I don't like watching it because it's reliving those high school years that half of us choose to forget and half of us choose to relive. As weird as it is, I don't really want to remember it. I try not to watch it. I honestly don't know how I truly feel about it.

After high school, I couldn't really find anything I liked at college. So I decided to join the Navy and got to know places around the world. I also met a number of girls, mostly through Facebook, and got married, but things only worked out for a couple of months.

In 2013, I got out of the Navy, so I had to pack all my things and say goodbye to Florida, where I was stationed, and a couple of people that were left over there. I moved close to Seattle, Washington, and I moved out here with my mum. It's really beneficial for her. I wanted to go into air conditioning and refrigeration repair and maintenance, but that hasn't panned out so far. I'm still working in retail for the same company I've been working with since 2007. It's just an off and on thing between jobs and locations.

There isn't a whole lot going on in my life. After the Navy and a whole bunch of failed relationships, I'm kind of back to square one because I still have a retail job that I'm not enthusiastic about. I'm thankful to have a job, but I don't think there's anybody who aspires to be a retail worker.

Once again, because of Facebook I've met yet another girl and things are working out pretty well. The only thing is she's the furthest away so far. She lives in Brazil. We've been talking for about a year now and she has been saving up money to get a plane ticket over here."

Dogtown And Z-BoysSkip Englom and Allen Sarlo on the ‘boarding saga

Then…

Dogtown And Z-Boys documents the humble beginnings of what has now become the multi-billion dollar business of professional skateboarding.

In the 1970s, a group of kids from a poor area in Santa Monica, known as Dogtown, set out to revolutionise skateboarding. Many of the local kids came from broken homes and spent their time surfing the perilous waves around the city's derelict pier. The best of them made it to what would become the famous Zephyr Team, aka 'Z-Boys', surfing in the morning and skateboarding in the afternoon. With their drive to look smooth on their boards, they replaced an old skateboarding style akin to ballet or ice-skating with their own aggressive and surfing-inspired interpretation of the sport. The Zephyr Team, founded by Skip Engblom and Jeff Ho, had its big breakthrough when a record drought in California forced many people to empty their pools. The skaters seized the opportunity, sneaked into backyards and invented pool riding.

A series of reports and photo stories, the Dogtown articles, made them famous in the skating world and created a legend around their bad-boy subculture. Soon after, the team split and the most successful Z-Boys went on to become the first skateboarding celebrities, sponsored by big skateboard producers. Stacy Peralta, the director of Dogtown And Z-Boys, was one of them.

Twenty-five years after the Dogtown articles, Peralta reunited the Z-Boys for his Sundance award-winning documentary. Despite the commercial success that came to some of the skaters, most of remain in Southern California. Their story also featured in the 2005 movie Lords Of Dogtown.

Now…

Dogtown And Z-Boys

*Skip Engblom is one of the founders of the Zephyr Team. After the Z-Boys broke apart, he continued to work on surfboards and skateboards. He's currently penning a book about how people get holes in their surfboards that he's interspersing with stories about the Z-Boys' glory days.*

Dogtown And Z-Boys Skip Engblo "Taking part in Dogtown And Z-Boys was a no-brainer for me. The whole thing started after a magazine article with interviews with a couple of us. All of sudden this fuelled some interest in our story. I guess the producers did their research and found that we were the people who started modern gravity-based sport, or whatever you want to call that lifestyle. When (Dogtown And Z-Boys' director) Stacy Peralta said that Hollywood was going to make a movie he proposed we should tell our story prior to that to get it on the record. That seemed like the right course of action. Most of us have been around Hollywood and understand how it works. We thought, 'Let's do this.'

There were so many people shooting 8mm footage at the time who then came forward with their archival stuff when the documentary was being put together. There was more than enough footage to do a really good job.

I think part of Dogtown And Z-Boys' success comes from how it's constructed. Now, everybody who makes a documentary tries to use it as a template. It just amazes me how many really bad imitations are being put forward. At the time, it was fresh. I got to the point where I was tired of watching it, but I saw it a while ago for the first time in about eight years and in terms of pacing and how everything flows together, it still holds up. It's still really good.

My wife had no idea who I was when the documentary came out. Realistically, I'm nobody. I'm just a person who followed his hobbies and made a living out of it. I didn't do anything but put together a skateboarding team that became really famous. We set out to do things and they just manifest themselves in ways that we never understood.

I never thought they would make the Hollywood movie. In a weird way, the documentary killed the film. I know this sounds very strange, but a lot of people told me they thought the documentary was so good that they wouldn't have to go and see the movie. However, it was a really good movie and there were many actors who went on to have careers afterwards: Heath Ledger, Nikki Reed, Emile Hirsch and Sofia Vergara."

Dogtown And Z-Boys

Allen Sarlo is one of the original Z-Boys. He has never lost his passion for surfing and still regularly rides the waves of Venice, now with his two daughters, he tells Empire. According to Sarlo, the Z-Boys are still famous in the area. He works in real estate and is sure that he made a couple of sales only because people recognised him...

Dogtown And Z-Boys Allen Sarlo "When we were skateboarding at Jeff Ho's Zephyr shop every day after school and surfing on the weekends, we knew that something was happening. We were at the forefront of skating pools and pushed the limits of skateboarding; it just came naturally to us. We didn't know what direction it was going to go, but we knew that all this group of talented skaters, surfers and artists together just had to evolve into something really unique.

I thought the documentary was a great idea and worth doing because of all the interesting characters. It was good to relive the experience and everybody around me really enjoyed it. They thought it was really creative. We were creative surfers and skaters. Everybody worked at developing their own smooth skating style. We had to work hard to get the results and we were a team. You had to be accountable and show up on time every day.

We always had a couple of photographers around. I think they were motivated to film us because they had never seen anything like that. We didn't tell them to bring cameras but the photographers knew that this was something totally different and they wanted to shoot us. At first we just thought it was cool but after a while we definitely liked the filming and photos. I think none of us was camera-savvy until later on when we realised we could make money out of it.

We could really express ourselves skating. It kept us out of trouble. The whole Zephyr team came from broken homes and we all hung out at the Zephyr skate shop. We just found skating and we were so grateful for that. I think it was really helpful in raising us."

Man On WirePhilippe Petit revisits his high-wire hit

Then…

Even 40 years after high-wire artist Philippe Petit pulled off his most astonishing performance, most New Yorkers still remember and recognise him, he says. On August 7, 1974, the Frenchman rigged a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and spent 45 minutes walking back and forth, even laying down on the cable and kneeling to salute the people watching his performance.

Man On Wire, a 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, shows the months of meticulous research and planning that went into the illegal coup. Petit had executed similar performances between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and on Sydney Harbour Bridge, but the World Trade Center walk was his masterpiece, later dubbed 'the artistic crime of the century'. Director James Marsh had access to photos and videos Petit and his team recorded while scouting opportunities to smuggle their heavy equipment into the newly-built towers.

Man Of Wire

After his walk, Petit was arrested. His sentence? To perform at a free children's show in Central Park. He continued to work as a high-wire artist and street juggler and says he has several performances that he holds close to his heart, not just the World Trade Center walk.

Now…

Philippe Petit's latest performance celebrated the 40th anniversary of his World Trade Center walk. This time, he walked only a couple of metres above the ground in a garden in New York, the city he has lived in since his most famous performance. "I wanted the people to be able to see my face and my choreography as opposed to having been a dot in the sky between the Twin Towers," he tells Empire. "I still remember everything about my walk in 1974..."

Man Of Wire"The most frightening moment of the World Trade Center walk was before I set foot on the wire. The rigging wasn't great because of plenty of reasons and the wire wasn't tight. It's very frightening to walk on a wire that isn't well set, but once I set my foot on the wire, I was very happy and not frightened at all.

Right after the walk I understood that my friend who was taking pictures on the North tower couldn't get to the movie camera that I had rented and that was ready to shoot because the police came to his roof. I was furious and really frustrated; I wanted to have some film footage of me, at least on the first walk. And then after the years kept passing, I thought it wasn't bad not to have a movie. It makes the walk more mysterious and magical. And now, 40 years later, I think it's a blessing that there is no footage. We live in a world where everything is documented in film and video and I think in a way it adds to the magic of the story not to have any footage.

I said no to all film offers before Man On Wire either because they weren't interesting to me or they weren't welcoming my artistic participation. I had planned to make my own film about that adventure but that didn't go anywhere. At some point I met somebody who wanted to make a film and it was James Marsh. Again, I said the film couldn't happen without my full collaboration. He said he would be a fool to try a make a film about this event without my full collaboration. So we shook hands on that and started to make the movie. I had kept all my archive and now there was a use for it.

And eight years ago Robert Zemeckis called to try to convince me to say yes to a feature film. We agreed to work together and I was going to play my own character but throughout the years the movie went through different phases, like many movies do. Now in the latest phase (called The Walk), which was shot a couple of months ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays me. I trained him on the wire and that helped Robert Zemeckis a lot because at the beginning he told me he wouldn't have the actor try to walk on the wire, he would have a double. When I visited to consult in the last week of the shoot, I realised that the actor was almost working more than the double."

SpellboundDictionary protégés Neil Kadakia, Emily Stagg
and George Thampy on their Bee movie

Then…

Did you know how to spell "tergiversate", "encephalon" and "kookaburra"? The surprise effect of seeing kids getting these words right with ease and without a spell checker might explain the success of a 2002 documentary.

In Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz follows eight contestants through the 1999 National Spelling Bee, the yearly showdown of the best spellers in the United States. Each year, the 'Bee' finals attract a TV audience of millions, listening with excitement to every letter.

The eight main characters in Spellbound come from different backgrounds and from across the US. What unites them is their meticulous preparation for an event where one wrong letter means elimination. They study thousands of words a day, have private tutors and train hard with their parents. "However, if a kid doesn't want to do it, there is no way a parent can make them," says Emily Stagg, who finished sixth in the competition.

Neil Kadakia, another contestant, describes the Spelling Bee as "rollercoaster time". "I just kept winning and winning", he remembers, "asking myself: 'How far can I push myself?', 'How far can I get?'"

More than ten years after the release of Spellbound, Empire tracked down some of its most successful spellers, who have all moved on to bigger and better things.

Now…

Spellbound

Aged only 12, Neil Kadakia was one of the youngest contestants in the 1999 Spelling Bee. However, he managed to finish ninth. "Through competing at the Spelling Bee, I managed to tackle my stuttering,” says Neil. Empire reaches him in California, where he works as a real estate agent.

Spellbound Neil Kadakia ""At the time of the filming, we really had no expectations at all. There were these two guys straight out of college who wanted to shoot a documentary. Three and a half years later, we had put it in the back of our minds. Then suddenly we had to see the footage and it ended up being a big hit.

Spellbound was still playing when I was a freshman at Berkeley and my entire dorm floor dragged me down to the theatre to watch it. The experience was really overwhelming. I went from being this obscure kid to a campus celebrity. People recognised me on a daily basis as a freshman and sophomore.

For me personally, the Spelling Bee was a way to get comfortable with speaking in front of an audience and competing in a high-stress environment. It was a deeply personal experience because I had grown up with a speech impediment and stuttered a lot as a child. The Spelling Bee and other things like Model United Nations and mock trials were my way to overcome the impediment.

I think the Spelling Bee is definitely one of the most unique things a person at that age can do. Most of the kids are out playing; no one takes something and goes all the way to the top. This was my vehicle to compete in a really big environment. Being able to see how far you can take a skill was eye-opening to me. If I could do something that significant as a kid, I can definitely go far with my career or with whatever my goals are as an adult.

I think the makers of Spellbound did a really good job at capturing the background of each family. We're still good friends with them and they contact us once every couple of years to say “hi”. Nonetheless, I think that I'm portrayed a little bit as a machine and my father as a task master. I think they did a very good job of building a story around us but it's portrayed a little bit more negative than it ended up being.

The moment I'll always remember is going to the final stage. It was nerve-wrecking. I had to spell an Indian word, 'Darjeeling'. I was born and raised in America and so I'm this Indian kid spelling this Indian word. It was really embarrassing because I had no idea. I just gave it a shot and I got lucky."

Spellbound

*Emily Stagg took part in the Spelling Bee three times, coming sixth in her last attempt in 1999. She went on to write an op-ed about the competition for the New York Times. "When I watch the movie now, there is always a bit of 'Oh dear'", she tells Empire…*

Spellbound Emily Stagg "After finishing school, I went to college to become a nurse practitioner. I worked as a psychiatric nurse and now I help kids with depression and ADHD. In the Spelling Bee, my ability to memorise and to be able to stand up and speak clearly helped me a lot. I think those skills still help me in my job, allow me to talk to families when they are upset or in crisis and got me through pharmacology classes in graduate school.

It was completely bizarre when the movie came out. To be honest, I thought that no one watched documentaries. My family and I watched it, we knew they had done a good job but we didn't realise that many people would see it. Every time someone came up to me it was a surprise and a pleasant shock – 'Oh really, you recognise me?'. It was always very surreal.

From my point of view, it's always a bit embarrassing to watch it. I don't think there was anything disingenuous about the way they portrayed me, but it's still a bit cringeworthy to see yourself as a fourteen year-old. At the same time, it is very nice to have that memento saved for people to watch and for me to remember.

I still remember when the film crew visited me at home and at school. I was in 8th grade and I was a word-nerd, I wasn't the most popular kid in the grade and all of sudden they came to my school and they filmed for a day. That did a lot for my popularity. I felt like a queen for a day with all the attention I got."

Spellbound

"I hardly misspell any words, but I'm awful at typing," says George Thampy, who had a tiny role in Spellbound. He finished third in the Spelling Bee that year but went on to win the competition one year later. He says he's happy the documentary wasn't shot the year he won because he wants to be recognised for his achievements in his professional life and not for having been the best speller.

Spellbound George Thampy "I still go back to the National Spelling Bee every year as a judge. I don't only administer the competition rules, but also perform a number of functions as an ambassador. I give speeches or might talk to kids about their next steps. It's odd to me how many kids enter in a college application crisis. I'm always shocked about that. I never thought about those things when I was that age, but the vast majority of the kids now do. I always tell them: 'Let's just put one foot in front of the other.'

I don't think it's surprising that a lot of the competitors do very well in their careers. These are kids who have initially achieved academically at a very superior level. It's like saying people who run faster are generally good at soccer.

After the Spelling Bee, I went to high school in St. Louis, to Harvard for my undergraduate studies and worked in investment banking for a couple of years. Now I work at a hospital in my hometown St. Louis and this fall I'm planning to start business school in Stanford. Right now I'm in my twenties and I have a vision to lead a major organisation.

Looking back at the Spelling Bee, it was a very special time for me. Of course, I learned a lot, but I think even more meaningful was that I connected people who were interested in learning for the learning's sake. They helped shape me in being who I am today. I certainly developed a lot in language and words, but also the way that those words influence people. I think I first started to pay attention to words – not just how they are spelt, but also what they mean and evoke in the listener – as a result of the Bee.

During the competition itself, I didn't really notice the film crew that much. The stress that they might have added was marginal at best because they were incredibly respectful. As a joke, I like to tell the little anecdote that they gave a dollar to all my friends in Sunday school for signing the release form, but I never signed that release, I never got that dollar. I didn't get a dime off it."

Touching The VoidJoe Simpson and Simon Yates recall their mountaineering disaster movie

Then…

The story of mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates' survival when disaster struck in the Peruvian Andes has become a legend. In 1985, the two young climbers – "completely inexperienced in big mountains", as Yates recalls – set out to climb the dangerous west face of the Siula Grande in Peru for the first time. Despite a fierce storm and treacherous powder snow, Simpson and Yates reached the 21,000ft peak on the third day of their ascent.

On the way down, bad luck hit when Simpson broke his right leg in a fall. His climbing partner decided to let him down on a rope, but in the midst of a storm he inadvertently lowered him off a sheer cliff. Yates was left no choice but to cut the rope. Simpson fell about 150ft into a crevasse. He survived, but when he regained consciousness he was sure he would die.

Touching The Void

Simpson quickly realised he was on his own, abseiled further into the crevasse and eventually found a steep snow slope to climb out of it. However, he was still miles away from the base camp. Unable to walk, he crawled mile after mile across the glacier, delirious and dehydrated. Incredibly, he made it back the night before Yates had planned to leave.

Their extraordinary story has reached millions of people with Simpson's bestselling book, Touching The Void, and 20 years later with Kevin Macdonald's documentary of the same name. "A lot of people talked about making a film out of it and big film production companies had held options to either make documentaries or feature films. In a way, I was surprised it actually really happened in the end,” says Yates.

Now…

Touching The Void

After his odyssey, it took Joe Simpson several operations to recover. He took up climbing again, but his injuries forced him to quit in 2009, he tells Empire.

Touching The Void Joe Simpson "My injuries started to haunt me and giving up mountaineering became inevitable. I knew I would have to stop climbing, but it's very difficult to give up something you've done all your life and that defines you as a person. I still regard myself as a mountaineer even though I don't do it anymore. I took up playing poker and fly-fishing, but you can't replace a passion like climbing. I've written several books, I've made TV programmes and I work as a motivational speaker, telling people about what happened in 1985.

A lot of people who don't climb think we're some sort of adrenaline junkies who just want to get a thrill. In reality, it's the skills that are addictive: serious mountaineers need to know their strengths and weaknesses, understand the mountains, weather and conditions. From a mountaineering point of view, the accident in Peru wasn't that significant. Nobody died, okay? In 20 years of climbing, over 20 friends of mine died. That's significant. All that happened is that we had a bad accident. The truth is I should have died, probably both of us should have.

I never intended to write about mountaineering; I'm not in the fame game. I only wrote Touching The Void because Simon was getting criticised and nobody seemed to understand what had really happened. I always regarded myself as a mountaineer and to be famous because of the book and documentary when friends were much better climbers than me felt weird and wrong.

I'm always quite amazed by the impact our story has on people. I sometimes forget that it's actually real because it happened to me 29 years ago. The story in itself is very powerful, so I'm not surprised that Kevin Macdonald ended up making a film that was virtually exactly the same as the book. Making the film had its downsides: the process is boring, slow, tedious and mind-screwing. If you are a mountaineer, you expect to do things and be active. Making films involves standing around and watching a bunch of cameramen and a director talking for hours on end. After about three weeks, you want to beat them all to death with a camera.

The hardest part for me was the reconstructions: I had agreed to dress up in the old clothes and crawl around the glacier. I hadn't been back to Peru and I didn't really want to go back. I thought it would be ok, but when I was recreating it where it actually happened, I found it very disturbing. It was quite a weird experience.

The general public might think this is a big mountaineering story, but a lot of climbers have had worse experiences. I don't mean to talk what happened down, but the consequences of people who push things are naturally higher. Serious climbers know that and have accepted the risk of dying."

Touching The Void

Empire tracks Simon Yates down to his home in Cumbria, where the mobile phone signal is "probably worse than on Mount Everest". Taking a break from prepping for his next mountaineering trip – this time to Greenland – he shares his memories of that fateful expedition. "The truth is, we should have died", he reflects, "but we made it because we tried hard, made the right decisions and had good fortune..."

Touching The Void Simon Yates "For a long time, for 30 years, I've been a professional mountaineer, doing three or four mountaineering expeditions a year. In the last ten years, I'm increasingly drawn to remote mountain wilderness. Climbing is still my passion. There is an element of danger involved, so I wouldn't do if it didn't love it anymore or wasn't in wonder of the mountains anymore.

When we went to the Peruvian Andes in 1985, it was our first time in big mountains. We both still had an awful lot to learn. Over the years, you build up a tactical knowledge of how to get yourself and other people to the top of mountains, when to push and when to back away. All those things become a lot easier once you've done them many times.

When we made the documentary, people in the climbing world knew the story very well anyway. I think the reason why it was relatively successful is simply that the documentary captured what it is like to climb mountains, without being ridiculous like many mainstream productions.

The story was always going to work better as some sort of documentary than as a feature film. Feature films rely on interaction and dialogue between people. Obviously in the most interesting part of Touching The Void the main protagonists are apart from each other and the story is going on in their heads rather than verbally.

I've had very little to do with Joe after I left Sheffield, where we both used to live. I've had lots of climbing partnerships over the years. Climbing with someone is almost like having a professional relationship, certainly for people who climb mountains a lot.

To be honest, the last time I watched Touching The Void was probably five or six years ago. I haven't watched it until the end many times, I must admit, I know the story and I know how it ends anyway."

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