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Faces of the Festival: Sebastian Copeland

What's it like to go to the North Pole... on foot? Meet Sebastian Copeland, director of the TFF 2010 environmental doc Into the Cold (also available online via TFF Virtual Premium) and find out.

In Into the Cold, part of both the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival and the TFF Virtual Premium, extreme adventurer, environmental advocate, and filmmaker Sebastian Copeland documents his attempt to reach the North Pole on foot. Pulling over 200 pounds each—including food, shelter, and camera equipment—Copeland and his intrepid colleague trekked (if you can even call it that) for 35 days over Arctic ice in beyond frigid temperatures.


We recently caught up with Copeland to have him break it all down for us. How, exactly, did this ambitious feat become a film?


Sebastian Copeland Tell us a little about your film.


Sebastian Copeland: Into the Cold is about a vanishing environment, a childhood dream to reach the North Pole on foot, and the realization of that dream… but with the understanding that this is not a dream afforded to children today.


I’ve done quite a bit of polar traveling, and this expedition was set for the particular year of the centennial commemoration—2009 was the 100-year anniversary of the journey made by Admiral Peary and his team of Inuit, who reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. We wanted to put a coda on both the fact that this was a significant milestone and that there will be no bicentennial [due to climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps]. That’s really very sad.


SC: Yes it is. The film is beautifully shot. Can you talk about your background as a photographer and how that relates to your work as a filmmaker?


SC: I started taking photographs in my early teens, and I’m in my mid-40s now, so that’s a lifetime as a photographer. I also went to UCLA film school, and since then, I’ve directed a large amount of commercials, so I have some basis and grounding in filmmaking.


I moved away from advertising—which is what I was doing in the first phase of my professional life—as I became more focused on advocacy. I was always an extreme adventurer, and progressively, I was asked to speak about my travels and the nature of my work as an environmental advocate. And as I spoke about a marked transformation to a sustainable economy, I could no longer really be promoting vapid consumerism on television and magazines on one hand, while on the other hand re-examining our mode of operation [as a society]. I made a moral and conscious decision—it was a thoughtful choice to focus on advocacy [in my adventuring] and come back with content that ties it all together. So this was your first feature? What advice do you have for first-time filmmakers?


SC: Wear sunscreen!


Into the Cold This is a very specific question, but in the film, on your trek, sometimes you wore snowshoes and sometimes you wore skis. How did you decide which was the right choice for each day/terrain?


SC: It really had to do with the weight of the sledge [the sleds they pulled] and traveling conditions. At the onset, it’s weighted down by extra food and fuel. The 200 pounds of pull is significant on skis—the weight wants to pull you backwards—so when it’s really heavy the snowshoes give you more grip. You don’t travel as fast, but you have greater traction, and make you feel more in control of your environment. I can’t imagine you ever feel in control of your environment! It all looks so, so hard. And so cold.


SC: At the North Pole, which is considered by most experts to be the toughest expedition, it’s an environment that is constantly moving and shifting. The drift is significant—you’re moving forward, but the drift is pulling you backwards—and it can be demoralizing. How did you find the strength to keep going?


SC: That’s the beauty of this type of expedition: the simplicity. It’s just about putting one foot in front of the other—if only everyday life could be reduced to such a simple proposition! It’s enticing. It’s not about the result—not to be cliché, but even though you want to reach your destination, it’s really the nature of the progress. That and the ownership of your trip: knowing you are committed, and that you are applying all of your energy to reach your goal. That, and the fact that there is very little in terms of back-up.


I never thought on this trip that there was an easy day. How did your trip compare to that of Admiral Peary?


SC: My trip was the Four Seasons of polar travel compared to Admiral Peary’s—a cushy resort. You have to factor in that his ship (the Roosevelt) could only take him so far before the ice gripped it, even in the summer season; he [started out] much farther south in latitude—many hundreds of miles farther than we started, maybe even 1000 miles. (We could get dropped off by plane.) Planning an expedition of that size—he was traveling for six months, by the time he got back to port. All that time elapses, before you can even announce your success!


Also, he had none of the fabrics—windproof fabrics and breathable synthetics—and the technology: our stoves are rudimentary, but at least they are stoves! They were traveling with wool and sealskins, the way the Inuit did. You have to remember—Peary lost all of his toes. It was very very rudimentary, definitely a difficult, hard core way of doing it. And then he had the same trip in reverse! (We got picked up by helicopter at the end.)


Into the Cold How did Peary know when he was at the North Pole? He obviously didn’t have GPS, like you do in the film.


SC: The truth is, he was probably never at the North Pole, exactly—there is some controversy about this—he definitely got within range, probably within 30 miles, but it’s not exact. He would have had to calculate the declination from a compass, and declination is not totally accurate to the mile. But the point of the matter is that he’s the guy.


You have to understand, you are standing on ice, which is constantly moving. The North Pole is calculated based on the point at the bottom of the ocean. It’s very different today because you can get yourself at the very point, [but] the ice is moving, so a few instants later you are no longer there. The point I am making is there is no static point on the sea ice. So in that respect, once you reach the Pole, it’s that one point that no one other than you will ever be at. You traveled with a partner, Keith Heger. In the film, though, it looks like you take lots of extra steps to get various shots. Did that add a lot of extra work for you?


SC: Thank you for noticing. It’s absolutely true; it was incredibly challenging. I don’t mean to glorify my efforts, but it’s brutal, brutal exercise. It’s so cold, and you are dressed to be cold standing in order to minimize the sweat while exerting, because it freezes. You wear an overcoat when you build the camp, but you take it off when you are exerting. Even putting on the coat is a time-consuming measure, and you have to exact it against the effort or the cold or the time.


When I would pull the camera out of the sledge, I would have to take the mittens off, and handling a steel-bodied camera in 30 or 40 below—it’s like holding a block of ice with bare fingers—within a few moments, they start to hurt. The worst part was battery protocols, which failed in my case [after the first 10 days, with 25 days to go…] I had to keep the smaller batteries I brought under my armpits to bring them back to life. And one lens just split in half because of the cold. Luckily I had another one.


Because I had such little power left, I had to very carefully examine each environment, wondering whether it was more valuable than what was to come ahead of me. Between the cold and the cold injuries that invariably come with this environment—and deciding when to film and when not to film—it made it such a mindfuck. Everytime I would pull the camera out, Keith would just huddle. There are a lot of lonely shots of him on his sledge when I was photographing or filming. Sometimes he would just start to walk away [to stay warm]. And [spoiler alert] then you fell into the water when the ice cracked beneath you…


SC: Yes, such a thing is not uncommon, but it’s extremely unpleasant and dramatic. It was the only time—I don’t measure things against fear, but in a moment like this, it’s definitely one where you feel completely helpless, and fall into complete panic, sinking to your neck. There’s nobody coming at you with a blanket or a feetwarmer, so you have to get naked and put some dry clothes on. Amazing how the body operates—adrenaline protects a jolt of dynamic energy. Surprisingly, I didn’t get frostbite from that—I got it from other things, but not that. Is any of your frostbite permanent?


SC: As long as you don’t get down to the first knuckle [on a finger], then you recover. You monitor them, especially in the beginning. It’s impossible not to get frostbite in these conditions. Keith had some on his toes, and a few on his fingers—I had frostbite on all of my fingers and the tip of my nose. I have some permanent nerve loss in the tips of my finger, and a small part of my nose fell off. But it was a little too long anyway.


Into the Cold If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


SC: Stanley Kubrick. He is and was the seminal filmmaker of all time. His technical ability, his mastery and understanding of how to incorporate technology in filmmaking. He has a unique way of telling stories and in a world that is so rich with talent—certainly now we have incredible filmmaking talents like Ridley Scott, James Cameron (a seminal figure), David Fincher (a great visualist)—but no one who has captured what Kubrick did. His work is so abstract, and shows both talent and vision and the politics of handling vast amounts of money while delivering a wholly personal approach to storytelling. What would your biopic be called?


SC: "Get Out." What are you recommending to people right now—book, movie, art, music?


SC: I often find myself either giving or recommending Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. It’s a remarkable book about the passage of time, the adventure of life, measured against tradition and history and your own history. It’s a beautiful book about life in general, a great poetic metaphor for the search for individuality and meaning. Where are you from originally?


SC: My blood is French, my heart is English, and my soul is American. I’ve been in America for 30 years from an English mother and a French father. Needless to say, that union didn't last! What makes Into the Cold a Tribeca must-see?


SC: Into the Cold is, at the core, a historical document, chronicling the centennial mission of two men reaching the North Pole on foot. It was made with the understanding that people will look at this film in the future and recognize it as a dream that will soon no longer be afforded or possible. It is also meant to get people in touch with their world, with the understanding that we will not save what we do not love. We all have a role to play in the preservation of our species on this planet.


I hope it’s an inspiring story of commitment and endurance in an environment that has never been filmed in this way before. Getting to the North Pole is an expedition that has only successfully been done by less than 150 people in the last century; it truly is a very rarefied accomplishment. By comparison, 257 people summitted Mount Everest in 2008 alone.


Into the Cold really takes you there, gives you the sounds and sights of what it takes to go into such a difficult environment and tough it out for six weeks.


Bonus! Into the Cold is one of the 8 feature films available online from April 23-30 with the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Premium Pass. The Premium Pass is available to all U.S. residents, age 18 or older, for only $45. Learn more, and get your pass today so you don't miss out.



Read more about Into the Cold, and find screening times.
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