“Extreme situations where something super-difficult is going on and a level head is needed,” that’s how Adam Schomer, writer-producer of The Highest Pass, a documentary opening in Los Angeles this weekend, about riding motorcycles through India on a spiritual journey with his guru, described cinematographer Dean Mitchell’s métier. A longtime bike enthusiast, Mitchell owns “about nine or 10” motorcycles himself.
The film tells the story of a group of Americans following guru Anand Mehrotra on a quest to reach the highest traversable road on the planet, a strip of asphalt more than 17,000 feet up in the Himalayas, known as, “the highest pass.” Adding to the challenge was that the group learned while en route, that guru Mehrotra was traveling with a prophecy given to him as a young man that he would die in an accident this year. As the riders dash through the intense chaos that is Indian traffic and then leave “civilization” behind for steep, rutted, guardrail-free roads with falls beckoning hundreds of feet down mountainsides, the entire group, not just the guru, seems moments from meeting their maker.
But it’s all in a day’s or rather, a month’s work, for Mitchell who has filmed frighteningly close to 30,000 gallons of water falling out of a C-130 transport plane and then filmed while jumping a car over a bus…. in the same day. He’s hung out of a helicopter over Angel Falls in Venezuela, the tallest waterfall in the world, and then climbed in behind it for a “different, closer look.” And for one commercial project, he traveled from the Mojave to New York City, then to India, Paris and Japan. Clearly, Mitchell gets around.
“As soon as he became available, we knew he was our guy,” said Schomer, Mehrotra’s key disciple whose journey overcoming his deathly fear of motorcycles figures prominently in the film’s story.
“How many cinematographers can ride a motorcycle with one hand while filming…. backwards?” Schomer asked.
That skill came into play when one of the riders crashed his bike on a muddy, broken road and the other riders gathered round afraid their companion had mangled his foot. It was then that Mitchell jumped on a bike and rode out in front of the group in the direction of the next town while filming the procession carrying the stricken fellow behind them, and filmed it all with his Canon 5D camera pointing backwards.
Indeed, Mitchell somehow found the dirt road leading to the small, Indian hospital and was there to film the group when they arrived at the hospital. The story of the rider’s eventual outcome is told through Mitchell’s camera and is in the film.
“Every day was a race to see if I could get 30 minutes or so out in front of them, scout the terrain, find the place that would be the most strategic and the most beautiful to film them, and then try to be ready when they were riding toward me,” Mitchell said. Then he would have to find his was past the group and get out in front of them again.
At times Mitchell road on the back of producer Paul Greene’s motorcycle, facing backwards so he could film the group following.
“One minute you’d be thinking, ‘This could all end very badly,’” Mitchell says. “After all, Anand is not your stereotypical, old guru. He’s this young (26) dude,” who, while wise far beyond his years, still insisted on riding at the outset of the trip without the kind of protection Angelenos are accustomed to seeing riders on the 101 wearing.
“But the next minute you’d be standing in the sun drinking chai latte and petting a rabbit,” Mitchell said.
The Highest Pass is playing at the Laemmle Theaters in Santa Monica and Pasadena beginning Friday, and opens in New York and other cities soon.