Sync: Going solo to explore an adventurer’s mind

A new documentary combines talking heads and actual footage from a man’s tragic adventure. Peter Galvin explores the filmmaker’s passion for the material.

In December 2006, an adventurer called Andrew McAuley attempted to cross the Southern Ocean of the Tasman Sea, alone in a kayak, covering the stretch of 1600 kilometres (about 1000 miles) that lays between Australia and New Zealand – which experts describe as wild and lonely, with gigantic swells and stupendous storms.

McAuley, a one time mountain climber accustomed to severe conditions, took with him not just a plan and equipment to combat the extreme conditions, but also a camera to record the journey. Even before losing sight of the Australian coast, McAuley broke into tears. He confessed to his video diary that he was worried that he might die and he would never see his wife Vicki or young son Finlay again. Two days later, wracked with hypothermia and frost bite, he turned back. Six weeks later, he tried again.

Solo, says producer, and co-director Jen Peedom (Miracle on Everest), is the tragic story of what happened to McAuley: he disappeared, presumed drowned, within sight of the New Zealand shore line after four weeks at sea. The 50min documentary is also, in part, an exploration of the psyche of explorers and sports people who are drawn to dangerous pursuits. “I’ve been asking this question, about the inner lives of people like Andrew McAuley, for a long time,” says Peedom, who has herself climbed the Everest within reach of its summit. “Adventurers, of all people, are the least capable of providing an explanation for why they do what they do…it’s a drive and inner calling, an adrenaline rush and a fear.”

Peedom says the final cut was shaped from observational footage and talking head interviews with the McAuleys, and friends and supporters; this was augmented with archival material of a storm-swept Southern Ocean and graphics that describe the stark challenge of the adventure, such as the fact that McAuley could not be rescued once he made mid-point on the journey, since he would be out of helicopter range. There then there was the video diary. “There were six hours of mini DV found in the wreck, but it was damaged; what we used was material from the first trip and 20mins (out of 35) of stuff on an SD card that survived, and all of that was recorded on the first half of the trip.”

Peedom worked with Mark Fox (Ten Pound Poms) on the first few cuts. “We knew we didn’t want a narrator, and it was drawing out strong emotions, especially from women,” she said. A drama editor, Scott Gray (Somersault) and drama director David Michôd [who, at press time, was unavailable for comment, preparing his feature Animal Kingdom) worked on the final cut. “I had got close to the subjects, especially Vicki McAuley, and David and Scott kept asking the kind of questions a general audience might be thinking about.”

Michôd worked with composer Lisa Gerrard (The Insider) on the score, which Peedom says adds to the films ambiguous and moody feel. Viewing the cuts, let alone the original material, was a harrowing experience for all: “Viewers are fascinated and perplexed,” says Peedom. The film had to draw a balance between authenticity and emotion, yet remain aloof from a moral judgment. Peedom interviewed McAuley after he returned from a trek to the Everest: “I told him I felt that it was ten times more dangerous than the Everest. He said that he felt fear, but he wasn’t afraid of being afraid.” Solo is produced by Essential Media for the National Geographic Channel, the ABC and the BBC.


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