Interview: Stephen Low, Director of Rocky Mountain Express
The Rocky Mountain Express was made for iMax – both literally and figuratively. Following the construction and route of the titular steam train, Stephen Low captures beautiful Canadian landscapes and intriguing stories. We spoke to the director of Rocky Mountain Express, Stephen Low.
What first sparked your interest in the railroad? Was it the countryside they traversed, or was it the construction itself?
I was born interested in railroading and I spent my summers on my grandfathers ranch on the eastern face of the Rockies near Banff Alberta. So the answer is both.
What was the point where you realised you wanted to do a documentary on its construction?
I worked on a Hollywood film in the mid seventies called Days of Heaven directed by Terry Malick. It was shot in Alberta and it had a steam engine scene in it. I remember thinking at the time, I could skip the drama and just make a film about a steam train and so I eventually did.
But it took many years. In the mid eighties the CPR undertook to build a nine mile tunnel under “Rogers Pass” so I tried to get funding for an hour documentary for television on both the tunnel and the history of the pass. The main funding eventually fell through but it gave me a chance to scout the mountains and research the story of the building of the mountain section of the CPR. The demise of the project was a good thing because twenty years later I had access to both a fantastic functioning steam train and the funds and experience to shoot the film in Imax.
How much experience did you have with the railroad before you made the film, and with the landscape?
I worked at a railroad museum in Montreal starting at about 11 years old. Later while at university I worked as a carman, switchman, brakeman on the Canadian Pacific out of Thunder Bay Ontario on lake Superior. As I mentioned I scouted the western mountains in the eighties and rode the line on trains but you don’t really understand a mountain railroad until you get up in a helicopter.
By the time I did that we had an Imax camera on the helicopter. It took all of thirty seconds to climb out of the trees and fly up a thousand feet to look down and realize how incredible the feat of building the railroad was (and indeed what a good idea it was to do a film.)
The scenery and the photography in this film is jaw-dropping! Was tying to capture the Canadian landscape a part of what prompted you to make the documentary?
Sure, this route through the southern part of the Canadian Rockies and the Selkirks, through Banff, Field and Revelstoke, is arguably the most beautiful railroad journey on the face of the planet. And the story of its construction in the nineteenth century is compelling. Canada itself would have failed if the railroad had faltered—and it was most likely to fail in the mountains. Most transcontinental railroads around the world came later on. The Americans built a much earlier railroad—what is now the Union Pacific but it was not from sea to sea and not through very difficult terrain.
I should mention our helicopter pilot, Steve Flynn had spent his entire career flying in the mountains and he knew of the most extraordinary scenery—much of it unknown to just about everybody but a few helicopter pilots. Certainly a lot of the credit for the photography should go to him. Also we had a fantastic camera operator, Ralph Mendoza for the gyro-stabilized Spacecam camera system. Sadly they are now both irreplaceably retired.
What were you most surprised to learn about the construction of the railway? Did anything come as a huge shock, or you were fairly familiar with with the story already?
The most interesting thing for me was how little they actually knew about that route before construction began. It was incredibly difficult just to scout, let alone actually build the railroad. They were not aware of how bad the avalanches were going to be because spending the winter there, before the railroad was finished, was almost out of the question. The snow sheds and tunnels, of course, were built out of desperation afterwards. To this day the CPR struggles with heavy snow, flooding and avalanches. And rock and mudslides the year round. Steep grades remain and there is always a danger of runaway trains.
It was effectively the wrong way to go but, as I said in the film, there was a silver lining—tourism. Although some would argue even now that it was a shorter route to the Pacific than the easier northern route. (now operated by Canadian National Railways)
A minor detail, but was the inside of the train restored in the same way as the outside?
There are a few shots of the interior of the train. Some of the cars are private business cars and they have beautiful interiors. The rest are coaches built in the fifties and they remain pretty much original. So none have been restored. A better description might be preserved in original condition.
Who do you think was the real hero or heroes of the railroad?
I think Van Horne is regarded as a legitimate Canadian hero. He was immensely capable as a general manager and even those skills the project was almost undoable. One can only imagine what would have happened had it been in the wrong hands. The young men that did the heavy dangerous work were heroes to me. Many hundreds died in accidents. They came from around the world but most of the deaths were Chinese. They didn’t even keep track of the dead in those days.
As you show in the film, the builders hit many snags along the construction of the route. Did you encounter any issues with your own journey? What were some of the problems with filming in such remote locations? Did the train itself run smoothly, or did you run into problems with that as well?
The film was more difficult to make than the building of the railroad—I often joke. As with most humor attempts there is some truth in it. It actually took longer to make the film than to build the CPR. We filmed the steam train over five years. The steam engine was beautifully maintained and never caused any problems while we were filming.
Typically we didn’t have much control over the train as it was on the main line and on a tight schedule. The Imax camera on the helicopter went through a thousand feet of 65mm film every three min. To reload we had to land, meet up with the camera truck, reload for about twenty min. and then chase down the train again. Then we had to scout ahead of the train to make sure there were no power or telephone lines before doing a shot. And every second load or so we had to meet up with the fuel truck as well. So it was challenging to say the least.
The financing was even scarier and will remain so for years to come. We will need everyone in Australia to see it (and most everyone else on the planet) just to break even.
What was the highlight of your own journey?
It’s the reaction of people—the letters we get almost daily. Some people have seen it many times. One guy told me he had been forty times. His wife muttered “more than that.” They had season passes and he went a few times a day! Children love the film, especially girls. They get hooked on the romance of it I suppose. I overheard one little girl say, “mom, is this a true story?” “It can’t possibly be true!” she said. “Oh yes it is.” replied her mother.
That’s why I love documentary, to use real 1570 65mm Imax, (something fiction directors rarely get to use) to work with real elements and people—a steam train, ruins and artifacts to build mythology from lost stories where little else remains—old photographs (albeit very high quality 8×10’s) and of course the railroad line itself. For me at least, it doesn’t get more fun than that.
I should add that one of my all time favorite railroad films is the Australian short A Steam Train Passes. I saw it only once in the seventies. I think it was at a museum in Toronto. Hauntingly beautiful and simple it begins in a round house as an engine is prepared for a trip across the country. Magic. I’ll bet you can find it on YouTube. (Ed: you can.)
When I was three my father took me to a roundhouse and put me in the dark cab of a simmering steam engine. I recall being terrified by the hot coal fire. I suppose love is always hot and terrifying, and you never get over it.
Book tickets for Rocky Mountain Express at the iMax website.