How 83 year old Sheila Hancock conquered Suilven

Film director Simon Hunter describes filming on the mountain of Suilven in Scotland’s northwest Highlands.

EDIE tells the story of an elderly lady played by Sheila Hancock who after a bitter and miserable life decides to release herself from a unfulfilled life by heading off to Scotland to climb a mountain and rekindle some of the magic of her youth.

Sheila Hancock near Suilven

Picking a mountain was always the easiest part of Edie for me. Like the character of Jonny who helps and trains Edie to regain her confidence for days and nights in the wild, I used to row across Loch Fionn with my Dad and climbed the mountain many times as a child. The last film I directed was a science fiction movie called Mutant Chronicles which was a pretty brutal affair. All indoors with 2000 visual effects shots, it took over two years to complete. The moment I finished that, I decided that the next film I directed would be outdoors, in the wilderness.

I hike and climb often and wanted to make a film that I wanted to see. You always hope for a large and enthusiastic audience but I deduced that if I liked the movie, others might like it as well. So the idea for Edie slowly started to form. What sort of story could I set on Suilven? And the first question I asked myself was, who was the most unlikely person to climb the mountain? Slowly I worked out a story with a young Irish writer Elizabeth O’Halloran, about Edith Moore a bitter old women who had had a miserable life, she was a free spirit trapped indoors by her invalid husband George… I wanted to tell her story.

The hardest part of the pre-production was to find an actress who could play the role and climb the mountain for real. No helicopter, no CGI… just two human feet and a lot of courage and energy. My casting director said “I’ve just seen Shelia Hancock in Grey Gardens and she was bouncing around the stage like a bloody teenager.” A day later Sheila read the script and said yes. I had lunch with her a few days later and she looked directly at me and said “you don’t expect me to climb the mountain do you?”. I sort of passed the question over to my producer Mark Stothert and we both looked at the floor for a moment before murmuring “well ….yes actually.”

Filming at Loch Fionn

Several months later after three months of gym work, Nordic training and long walks in Richmond park Sheila set out with our film crew on the long Inchnadamph walk to the base of Suilven. We realised early on that it would be a tough call to climb and film in one day, so we decided early on to walk, film, camp and then do the same thing all over again for three full days. It was tough walk, Arri cameras and Zeiss lenses are very heavy and yes as director I carried my fair share! Fjallraven kindly came in and helped us with clothing and tents, we couldn’t have made the film without them. To be out on the mountain with a film crew and such amazing acting talent was an utter dream come true. It was tough, exhilarating but the entire crew and cast were utterly changed by the experience.

I hope the traditionalists will forgive a couple of liberties I have taken with the film. I really wanted to have a bothy in the movie, they are close to my heart and I wanted to feature one in the final film. Anyone who has climbed Suilven knows the traditional way up the mountain via Assynt lodge is where Suileag bothy sits however if our hero had attempted to climb the mountain this way, the film would have been over fairly quickly with little drama! So please excuse the melding of the two routes, I hope I have been loyal to the spirit and soul of Suilven. Edie also starts her journey on the road to Achiltibuie which would make an extraordinary long walk in of course…. but it also makes for an extraordinary beautiful, cinematic start to the journey. So warning … don’t follow the movie exactly or climbing Suilven might take some time longer than Walkhighlands contributors suggest! However by and large we followed the exact Inchnadamph route (which is what the film crew did) and Sheila Hancock achieved exactly what you see in the finished movie. It was utterly extraordinary to watch. How many actresses would do that at 83 and after two weeks of filming six days a week in rain and wind, acting on bikes and in boats? I hope the film inspires many people to visit this incredible part of the world and climb one of the most mesmerising mountains that Scotland has to offer.

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