SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET – by
Brad Pitt wasn’t necessarily Annaud’s first choice to play Heinrich Harrer,
the real-life Austrian mountaineer who set off to climb a Himalayan peak and
ended up escaping from a British prisoner-of-war camp and meeting the young
Dalai Lama-and being spiritually transformed to boot. But Pitt "charmed
me and seduced me," says Annaud. "I think Brad badly wanted to have
Some experience. Pitt and Thewlis, who plays Harrer’s climbing partner, Peter
Aufschnaiter, spent two weeks in Austria and Italy for intensive mountain-climbing
practice before filming. Unable to shoot in India, as he’d hoped, Annaud and
his team moved 200 handpicked Tibetans-100 monks and 100 laypeople-and dozens
of yaks to a small town at the foot of the Andes in Argentina, where the film
crew recreated a Himalayan village.
"Working with the monks every day was extraordinary," says Thewlis.
"If you found yourself with a grudge against someone, you looked twice
at your motives-without even realizing it." But not even Buddhist serenity
was enough to fend off the fan hysteria inspired by Pitt. Annaud recalls "with
terror" their first night in the tiny, remote village of Uspallata, when
"zillions of little girls" who had persuaded their parents to drive
them miles in search of Pitt descended on the town. "It was embarrassing
for him." Says Annaud. "He wanted to play this very conflicted, internal
role and here were all these little girls wanting his body." The producers
were forced to spend $60,000 to build a 12-foot-high barbed-wire fence around
the barracks where Pitt slept.
Wong, who plays a Tibetan courtier in the film, remembers a girl who approached
him in the village’s only restaurant, saying she had come 200 miles to meet
Pitt. Wong later saw her sneaking onto an even more remote location in the guise
of delivering ice cream. "It was like on I Love Lucy when Lucy went to
Hollywood and wanted to see William Holden," the actor marvels. Despite
such intruders, Annaud, Thewlis, and Wong say that making the movie had a powerful
emotional effect on them—and on Pit as well. "After a day of shooting,
the monks would ask us to do some prayers for the set or for the Dalai Lama’s
birthday, and we would all stand with them and sing," says Annaud. "Brad
was very often in tears."