Max Lowe on How Filmmaking Could Capture — and Facilitate — His Family Rebuilding Itself in “Torn”

When Max Lowe was in high school, he became interested in photography. It made a lot of sense when his mother Jenni was a painter and his father Alex always had a camera on him as he scaled mountains around the world as a world-class climber, but not necessarily anything he saw as his destiny, though the skill that would ultimately land his pictures in the pages of National Geographic would suggest otherwise.

“I explored that more through college, never thinking it would ever become anything more than a hobby really,” Lowe recalls now. “I just loved the access it gave me to the world and different perspectives that a camera allowed me, stepping into these other worlds and exploring through other people’s eyes.”

One world the camera could open up for Lowe was actually the closest to home, giving him entry to talk about the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Alex in a 1999 avalanche on the Shishapangma Mountain in Tibet when Max was just 10 and the fallout that led to Alex’s best friend and climbing partner Conrad Akner, who was with him on the expedition, step into his place in the family as a husband and father. “Torn,” which wrenchingly recounts the pain that the family went through when Alex’s body couldn’t even be recovered for over 15 years, sees the filmmaker engage in conversations that no one should have to have, yet reveal themselves to be an act of love between all involved when they offer clarity to each other that would never come without digging in.

Once in the uncomfortable position of being expected to have the greatest memory of Alex as the eldest of his three sons even before reaching middle school, Lowe is able to pull younger brothers Sam and Isaac, as well as Jenni and Conrad, to collectively piece together both a living memory of Alex, burnished with the remarkable footage he filmed during his travels, and untangle the complicated family dynamic that they adjusted to well before their patriarch’s death, with Alex long grappling with the pull towards adventure while trying to be there for his wife and kids. What becomes clear in “Torn” is that this reconciliation can happen when everyone is open with one another, an especially big ask when at the time of the tragedy the story became sensationalized in the media, and after being fuzzy for years, Lowe is able to offer a clear-eyed view that obviously comes direct from the heart about the complexities inherent in any household.

After initially being scheduled to debut at the Telluride Film Fest in 2020 before the pandemic made it impossible, “Torn” made its triumphant premiere in Colorado this past fall with subsequent stops at Camden and DOC NYC where it became an audience favorite and on the eve of its release in theaters this week, Lowe generously took the time to talk about what prompted him to revisit this painful part of his life and come to know his father Alex in a whole new way, as well as how being a filmmaker facilitated conversations with his family that they long resisted and the delayed gratification that has occurred with the film’s premiere.

What made you want to pursue this at this moment in time?

Going back to Tibet in 2016, that was really the first thing that we shot for the film and I thought about making a film about Alex at some point in my life as a way to go back and explore more who he was a bit as a man and as my dad, but it wasn’t really we were faced with that trip to Tibet to go recover his remains that the idea making a film about our family really came to the surface. In the last year since then, it became much more apparent that the story of our life, the story of our family and Alex’s story has become more of a story of the each of us and how we still relate to him in his absence and how his death and his absence shape our relationships with each other.

It’s a question you confront at the beginning of the film, but what was it like getting your family involved when this isn’t necessarily a choice you can make individually to make this film?

Yeah, it was a sensitive subject and one that I think if I didn’t have the family that I do, most people probably look at this and think I’m insane to embark on an endeavor like this. But as you can see in the film, my mom is really the rock of our family and she’s always pursued this grasp of our story in a way that I think inspired me to feel like I could do that also. That became a path of conflict between us at certain points in the film because she is this very powerful individual who has this very defined understanding of our story and of who Alex was and she’s defensive of some of those things, so that was difficult for our relationship at points, but honestly, my family never would’ve let anyone else make this film. They agreed to be a part of it because they knew it was part of my journey to understand what we were all coming out of Tibet experiencing and moving on from that experience.

When you have the premise of a documentary, does it open up conversations you might not have been able to have with the people who were closest to you?

Totally. And I’ve talked a lot about this since I started working on this film with many people outside of the film world, but also friends who have been working on film projects and [there’s] just the magic and presence that sitting down in front of a camera brings to whatever conversation or subject matters you might be exploring therein. It gives you this space and intention with whatever you’re exploring that it’s hard to find under any other circumstance and I recognized that fact and used it personally to have these conversations with my family members that I felt we needed to have following 2016. Also as a filmmaker. I was able to use that space to tell the story of my family that has been told in many different ways in this way that no one had ever really seen before.

What was it like figuring out what your presence in the film would be?

It was a shifting target throughout the production of the film. As a filmmaker, I think we find comfort in hiding behind the camera, so I never really intended to be in it as much as I ended up being, but I was definitely inspired by other films such as “Stories We Tell” and my friend Bing Liu’s film “Minding the Gap” where the filmmaker is definitely very much in the story as a presence that you feel and experience with them as they experience the things they’re exploring with the camera. I definitely wanted to imbue that into this story because I knew as I went back into my own life and had these experiences, there was going to be an immense emotional relief for me and that was the emotion I wanted to capture and share, so allowing people into my perspective ended up becoming a fairly main theme of the film.

You set out with an abject goal and hope in any project, but especially since this was so personal to me, I didn’t want to be too rigid in the story and the takeaway. I think it ended up being pretty close to the emotional relief that I found when I first started talking about this story at all, being vulnerable about my experience and takeaways from the trip to Tibet and sharing that vulnerability with people via those stories became the heart of what “Torn” is, giving people permission to feel that for themselves.

What was it like getting to know Alex through the archival footage he had shot? Did you get to know him in a new way?

Yeah, sitting down and sifting through this huge filing cabinet of mini DV tapes and thousands of slides he had shot and Conrad had taken of all these old expeditions and family videos, I had just never taken the space to sit down and sift through any of that for myself because it seemed like an act of self-punishment in a way, delving into this sadness a little bit. The film gave me a purpose to do that, which was an immense gift. And a huge part of it was it also gave me permission to seek out conversations with people who knew Alex as a man, less as a legend as I had known him for much of my life and talk with people who knew him including his parents – my grandparents – and both of my parents, obviously. Many of our friends who are close to our family knew Alex and much of that stuff didn’t make it into the film, but I used this as a tool to personally have conversations across this huge spectrum of people that knew him.

When you’ve got all the information, but you’re laying it out for an audience, does that knowledge ever get in the way of telling the story? It’s really well-structured, but thought that could be a challenge.

Yeah, we had to lay out the backstory basically to really get into the complexity of the emotional exploration that happens later in the film, so figuring out how to build that world for people that are stepping into it for the first time, I didn’t want to go too deep into this world of climbing because for me, this has never been a climbing movie. It lives in that space, but it’s more about the interactions that I’ve shared with my family and the relationships that I explore in the process of making the film, so my hope is that you understand the world as we’ve painted it, but you really see your own world in the love that I’m able to touch on and expose in the relationships that you see between me and my family members. In the last couple of years, I think everyone in the world has probably had some sort of traumatic event in their life, whether it be small or large or the loss of a loved one, and even though this world of extreme mountaineering is beyond most [people’s] understanding, the emotional landscape of the film is one I hope people can relate to on a personal level. [And at DOC NYC] there was a really remarkable speaker today who I heard mention they had made their own first film about their own life and to have made my own first feature doc about my own story, I hope sets me up to tell other people’s stories in a more true sense because it allows you to see the pressure and the intensity and responsibility that rests on the shoulders of storytellers. It’s pretty remarkable.

This had been scheduled to premiere at Telluride in 2020 before the festival was cancelled due to COVID, but it made it there this year. Was it actually nice to have that space in between finishing it and having it premiere given how close everyone involved was to the subject?

It was good for me personally to get time to sit and all of that for that year that we waited, and working through everything that came of the film with my family. But it was definitely hard spending so much time making the film. From 2016 all the way to wrapping it in the spring of 2020, it was close to four years of working on this project and to have our premiere at Telluride, all set up, which was super-exciting, and the pandemic swooped in and shut everything down, for me as a storyteller, it was hard for me to sit on that for a year. [laughs] But I’m so glad that we did because going back to the impetus for me wanting to make this film at all and finding the courage to do that was in sharing it with an audience and it’s just been so powerful to be in theaters and in person with some people as they experience our film.

“Torn” will open on December 3rd in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and December 10th in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Laemmle Monica Film Center.