Naomi Watts survives "Infinite Storm," a harrowing mountain-climbing tale based on a true story

"Everything on the project was beautiful and brutal," director Malgorzata Szumowska told Salon

By Gary M. Kramer

Published April 12, 2022 4:00PM (EDT)

Naomi Watts in "Infinite Storm" (Bleeker Street)
Naomi Watts in "Infinite Storm" (Bleeker Street)

Based on a true story, the compelling, life-affirming drama, "Infinite Storm," recounts Pam Bales (Naomi Watts) unexpectedly rescuing a young man she calls "John" (Billy Howle), on a mountain in New Hampshire on one extremely cold November day. Director Malgorzata Szumowska captures this inspiring triumph of the human spirit tale with aplomb, focusing on the isolation, the beauty and brutality of nature, and often uses silence and ambient sound to convey emotion.

The film is very different from Szumowska's previous features, which include, "The Other Lamb" with Michiel Huisman as a messiah-like cult leader, and "Elles" which had a journalist (Juliet Binoche) investigating a student prostitution ring. Szumowska also has made some fantastic films in her native Poland, such as "In the Name Of," about a gay priest, and "Never Gonna Snow Again," a satire about a masseur who invades a gated community.

Szumowska finds a common humanity with her characters and depicts their stories with a real sensitivity. Pam may be haunted by a tragedy from her past — it is what drives her to go up the mountain on a day when severe weather makes climbing risky. And Watts gives a gutsy performance, straining to crawl out of a hole when Pam makes a misstep or determined to keep John — who makes some errors in judgment — alive at all costs. Howle's character is more of an enigma, but the bond these two strangers share ultimately changes their lives. 

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Szumowska spoke with Salon about her new film.

I'm amused you followed "Never Gonna Snow Again," with "Infinite Storm." This film is very different from your previous work in terms of content — in that it's an "action picture" — but it is a character study as well.  What was the appeal of making "Infinite Storm"?

You're absolutely right; it's very new and different. The key thing is not the story, which, yes, is more adventure and genre-driven, but that I didn't write the script. I had a desire for a long time to try something like this — in a different language and in a different cinematic language. The balance, the temperature, everything is different, but now I'd like to go do my own film, written by me, in Polish, and then do another film like this.

Are you into mountain climbing? What are your experiences with outdoor activity? 

I am very much into sports, and I am very hardcore. I am a surfer. I do CrossFit, indoor climbing, swimming. The hiking was very integral for me to make a film like this, We spent hours hiking for pre-production and for the shoot. It was very physical experience. I like it. That's why I wanted to make this film to have this physical experience on a high mountain super close to nature. 

I really liked the line about nature providing wilderness, refuge, escape and hope. I like the use of silence in the film, and the ambient sound. What can you say about shooting on location?

Everything on the project was beautiful and brutal. We had 24 shooting days, and 10 on the high mountain. We were limited with everything, including the budget. I'm going to put Naomi and Billy into the real situation and real environment, so they are going to have to survive; otherwise, we would not achieve that spectacular effort. Naomi said she was ready, but on the first day, it was hard for her. Then he's naked, and it was minus-10 degrees out. Each day we would wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and travel to the high mountains, so we faced the sunrise. It was a tough, physical experience. But I think Naomi found freedom being with us. We Eastern Europeans have a different history, and culture-wise, it was interesting for her. It is the nature of people from that part of Europe; there is brutality in us. We had recent war experiences – in Poland there was the communist regime, and Croatia and Slovenia also had wars. We are very different and warriors. We were fighting to make this film and give life to all of these scenes.

Can you talk about your approach to telling this story visually? 

I worked closely with my cinematographer and cowriter/codirector Michel Englert. Our collaboration was super effective; we don't need words to communicate. The visuals are super important, so he was like: How do we make white snow interesting? You can't recognize one place from another, but Michel never wanted to shoot twice in the same location. He never used the same camera setup. We worked hours on the prep, hiking through crazy mountains. I lost a lot of weight which was good, and I completely quit smoking. We tried to find the right visual and angles and lens. Then we decided to use handheld camera and be close to the characters to give this feeling that you are breathing with them and the cold, and their struggle. 

How did you work with the actors on the physicality of their roles? Both Watts and Howle gave muscular performances, and they are very internal having very little dialogue. Can you talk about that?

In the script, there was much more dialogue. When Michel and I saw it, we were, "No! How can they say all those lines in those weather conditions?!" It wouldn't work. We reduced the dialogue. Naomi wondered why we are taking out all her lines. But they would have to scream their lines because of the wind! We wouldn't hear any of their words. She said, "Yes, you're right." We tried to express everything through their face, and with no dialogue, through the physicality. I presented the film to a friend, and he said this film is super physical. When I was thinking of who could play Pam, it had to be an actress of a certain age, who is very fit and able to be believable. Naomi is super fit, and I like that she is a very physical actress.

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John's character is stubborn, reckless, and hurting. Pam is grieving but determined. We come to know her story, but he is more enigmatic. What observations do you have about these people?

It was the biggest question mark of the story was his character. He is a mystery. He is a real person, and it is a true story. We were limited by that fact. We couldn't invent his [back]story. I tried to make his character interesting on the screen, but I knew the audience would be more with her because we know more about her. So, we decided to make him less sympathetic and to have a contrast between them. You like her, but you don't like him because he's a troublemaker. But at the end, you really like him.

There is a thread of spiritualism running throughout your work. This is a story that would be suitable for discussions of faith. Can you speak to that?

The religious element is the nature. That's what I feel. It is very hard to have God and religion plus nature. It's almost the same. The metaphysical speaks to us through the nature. There is a kind of faith that people who pass, they are somewhere. You can feel their presence.

"Infinite Storm" is about someone who changes Pam's life. Who has changed your life, and how?

My life was changed by people I met, and definitely by my father, who was a strong personality. And it was changed in a good way because of him. I met amazing teachers and directors at film school, and they changed my life. They encouraged and empowered me to do what I am doing.

"Infinite Storm" is now available on VOD. Watch the trailer via YouTube.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Infinite Storm Interview Malgorzata Szumowska Mountain Climbing Movies