Interview: Director Stephen Low, Rocky Mountain Express (2011)

After seeing Rocky Mountain Express at IMAX recently, Film Blerg contributor Amy Taylor was able to put some questions to the films’ director Stephen Low, both about the film and his experiences as an IMAX filmmaker.


Amy Taylor: Mr. Low, you are described as the ‘foremost large format filmmaker’ and you have been working with IMAX for some time – what draws you to this medium of film?

Stephen Low: It’s a wonderful huge screen and if you shoot with 15 perf 70mm film it’s incredibly high quality. Hollywood screens are only 10% of the information and of course the screens are tiny in comparison. 3D Imax can be fun too but it does miniaturize things so I like the vast scale of the 2D screen the most.

AT: You have worked with a very wide range of subject matter – various aspects of the natural world as well as technology and science – why is it that you have chosen documentary over narrative film?

SL: My father was a documentary filmmaker so I grew up with it. I worked on a number of feature films in the seventies and didn’t find it a very interesting environment. Maybe it would have been more so if I had been directing. The public thinks a movie set must be very glamorous but it’s not nearly as interesting as the real thing—the real world. I’ve had a lot of Hollywood directors tell me they would have preferred doing Imax documentaries. “You guys get to work with the real deal…and risk your lives!’, one director told me. “ Yeah that’s the part we like the most” I replied.

To be near the space shuttle when it takes off, to meet astronauts, fighter pilots, Mario Andretti, to dive on the Titanic, the Bismarck, deep sea volcanoes, to work with the famous surfer Kelly Slater, one day and dive with humpback whales the next, to have a steam train in the mountains for four summers—last fall we flew off a carrier and filmed fifty warships in the Pacific, then a week later we were shooting in the large hadron collider in Switzerland and so on and on. There is really nothing else as much fun.

AT: Rocky Mountain Express is quite an amazing film – It certainly reignited my long held interest in making a documentary about trains! Can you tell us a bit about the appeal of this particular story for you as a filmmaker?

SL: I tried several times to make this film. In the eighties we were going to do a television documentary about “Rogers Pass” and a new tunnel they were building. The financing fell through and it’s a good thing because twenty years later we were in a much better position with Imax experience and enough funds to do it properly. We also had a steam train that was not available in the eighties.

Speaking of drama you rarely see good train films because it is simply too expensive to pay a railroad for that kind of track time, not to mention a functioning steam locomotive. The production value of the restored steam locomotive running on the main line in “RME” is in the many millions.

AT: During the course of the film, the narrator talks a great deal about the experiences of the workers building the railway tracks – were you drawn to their experiences?

SL: I worked on track at a railway museum when I was a kid—it’s very hard work! So yes I had a remote sense of it. I also worked as a brakeman on the Canadian Pacific in the seventies. Everything you can learn about a topic helps you later on with filmmaking and storytelling.

But it was when we first started production and got up in a helicopter and looked down at the tracks carved through the wilderness towards the mountains looming ahead that we realized the scale of the construction. It was a stunning revelation. How they built three thousand miles of track in the eighteen eighties, in a few short years– well it’s unbelievable.

AT: You have a new project on the cards – The Trolley – which will be another film about trains and train travel. This has been an interest for you since you were a boy – what is the appeal of trains and rail travel for you?

SL: I’m fascinated by the energy efficiency of railroads- in all their various forms. Saving the planet is not that difficult if we ever decide to give it a try. Switching to rail and especially electric rail would have a huge impact. Urban transportation creates much of the waste and damage to the atmosphere at the moment. If we used shared electric transportation (trolleys) we could cut CO2 the world over to almost nothing. Cars are nuts as they are used now in city gridlock. In addition highways and aviation are vastly more damaging than railways on intercity routes.

Railroads are just good engineering or physics if you will. We could create a cleaner, better, safer world just by using our brains a little more.

AT: Your narrator mentions towards the end of the film that the railway line was responsible for shaping the nation of Canada – how significant is this in Canada today?

SL: Less so than in the early days. Governments have tried to marginalize railroads in much of the world. They subsidize highways and airlines and at least in North America they charge railroads property tax for every mile of track. Why? Because railroads don’t pay enough fuel tax as they don’t burn much fuel.

Governments favor things that waste energy. Things the government owns and operates. That’s why people sit in traffic jams in every city in the world. You’re being charged fuel tax on every stroke of the piston– while not getting to work.

AT: What projects are coming up next?

SL: Our next film is called “TRAIN TIME” it’s about a vast western American railroad. One day in the life of 1,6000 trains. 32,000 miles of track.

Rocky Mountain Express is still showing at IMAX Melbourne. View session times here. And you can read Amy’s review here.

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