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Duke alums talk 'Everest,' building careers in the film industry

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A group of people set out to climb one of the world’s tallest mountains, but not all of them will return. Based on the very deadly 1996 Mount Everest disaster, “Everest” tells the story of two expedition groups attempting to survive after an avalanche. The real 1996 event left 12 dead on the mountain, but viewers will have to wait and see how the cast—including Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke—fares in the movie.

While most moviegoers have to wait until Friday for the wide-release of the film, Duke students have the opportunity to screen the movie for free Thursday at Griffith Film Theater. The 7 p.m. showing is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts of Duke University and will be followed with a panel and dessert reception featuring John Doherty, Trinity ‘07, and Charlie McSpadden, Trinity ‘10.

Doherty is a creative executive at Cross Creek Pictures, the production company behind Everest, and McSpadden is a creative executive for Material Pictures, Tobey Maguire’s production company. Material recently released two new movies, “Z for Zachariah” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” which stars Maguire and was in development for over 10 years, McSpadden said.

While Doherty and McSpadden are returning to Durham for the screening, they will also use the time to connect with students interested in learning more about the film industry including stopping in several classrooms and spending time at the career center.

"Take a chance, and then once you are given an opportunity, you better make sure you deliver,” McSpadden’s said his advice is to current students wanting to break into the industry.

Both men said they would be happy to discuss their positions in the film industry with interested students during their visit to Durham. The Chronicle’s Carleigh Stiehm spoke with Doherty about his part in working on "Everest."

The Chronicle: Can you describe the role that you and your company played in producing "Everest"?

John Doherty: Cross Creek Pictures is a production and finance company. On the heels of “Rush,” the movie we did with Ron Howard, Working Title—a production company owned by Universal—was producing "Everest" as their next project and they had really liked working with us, so we started talking to them and Universal—who is our home studio as well—about doing a co-production together.

It was funny because that project went to a different financier for a little while. We actually lost the movie to them, but their offer was a little too good to be true. So then, as production was approaching, they came back to us and we came in and helped orchestrate the financing, helped cast the movie up a bit—got Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley in it.

And then we were off shooting, and that was in the spring of 2014. There was an avalanche right when we were finishing in April. We were just about wrapping up, and none of our people got hurt. The crew was going to go up and take some final exterior shots right before it happened.

TC: At Cross Creek, you are a creative executive. Can you talk a little bit about what responsibilities you have in that role?

JD: What that entails is a lot of reading incoming submissions, tracking books that are on the market that are about to be released, tracking screenplays that are on the spec sale market, as well as tracking writing contests—the Nicholls Fellowship, the Black List—and just meeting with a lot of writers and filmmakers. Basically just keeping a pulse on the town and the properties that are circulating. A lot of what I do is in the development space. So once we have a book or a screenplay, working closely with that writer to really get the best possible screenplay or adaptation out of them.

TC: Do you ever have friends and family try to pitch you ideas or tell you about books they would like to see made into movies?

JD: I’m lucky. My brother is actually an executive at Sony, he worked in publishing over there for 10 years. So it is sort of the other way around, I am always asking him what he is reading. I do get the occasional friends and family sending me stuff though.

TC: What advice would you give to Duke students who hope to find a career somewhere in the film industry?

JD: First and foremost, make sure you like to read. If you work in the film industry, you are going to just read a lot. Beyond that, I went through the Duke film program, and I know it is expanding. There is Duke in LA for those wanting to wet their whistle. Those students are out at internships. They are really seeing is this is something they want to spend some time on if not the rest of their lives.

It's a lot of high energy, big personalities. Its exciting, it's hard, long hours. But it's all fun. You are dealing with a lot of writers, actors directors, filmmakers. It's all a huge, and very fun, process. There is every type of job you can think of that goes into a film. There’s lawyers, there’s financiers, there's insurance.

But make sure you want to read because it is all reading. I read for four or five hours per day.

TC: What can students attending tonight’s screening expect from the movie?

JD: You're gonna see some crazy visuals, some exciting action sequences, and you're gonna cry. But in a good way. It is very exhilarating and heartfelt.

TC: Do you have a favorite movie of your own?

JD: I like “Rear Window” a lot, by Hitchcock.

TC: Now that you live in LA, what do you most miss about Durham?

JD: The food. And that’s why I am so excited to come back.

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