Interviews SIFF

At SIFF: the Whittakers and Kennedys Reunite in ‘Return to Mt. Kennedy’

In 1965, the Canadian government, in a tribute to the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy, named a previously-unscaled 12,000-ft. mountain Mt. Kennedy. Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, wanted to be the first person to step foot on Mt. Kennedy, so he put together a mountain climbing team led by his friend Jim Whittaker. Whittaker became the first American to scale Mt. Everest two years earlier, so if anyone was going to get the former Attorney General on the mountain, it would be Whittaker. Whittaker was even with Kennedy after he was assassinated in 1968. Whittaker also named his oldest son after Robert Kennedy.

That is the backstory for Return to Mt. Kennedy, a new documentary set to play at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend.

Return to Mt. Kennedy is, ostensibly, about a team that included Bobby and Leif Whittaker and Christopher Kennedy (sons of two of the men who were on the original expedition up Mt. Kennedy) to scale the mountain some fifty years later, in 2015. While Bobby’s younger brother Leif has climbed Mt. Everest twice, Bobby isn’t quite the mountain climber his brother or father are (though, Robert F. Kennedy was also not a natural athlete). Bobby was mostly known for being an insider in the Seattle music scene as it was exploding into ubiquity on the national stage. He served as the tour manager for Mudhoney (the greatest rock band to ever come out of Seattle) and later REM.

Return to Mt. Kennedy explores, in sometimes painful detail, the relationship between father and son. It’s a beautiful and moving (and occasionally funny) film with an incredible soundtrack that includes new music by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder (who is also interviewed in the film). To get some more insight on this, I spoke with Bobby Whittaker by phone earlier this week.

First, I want to ask about the music in the film, because it’s so great, but also because that’s where your background comes in.

My little brother Leif and I talked a long time ago about going to Canada for various reasons, and Eric and I had some conversations. I never expected the movie to take on me as a central character. I didn’t have a whole lot of say in the narrative, but one thing I insisted on very good music being in it. I was really excited when Eddie Vedder came to a party and delivered some really beautiful songs, and some really creepy scoring. Creepy good.

I’m really tickled with how it turned out. But I’ve been very lucky with the bands I’ve worked with.

What was the genesis for this movie?

The idea of going to Mt. Kennedy came from my little brother Leif and I. I call him “little” brother but he’s climbed Everest twice. (laughs) We were talking about our family and heritage, and Everest, and how crowded Everest has become. We talked about what you do to make things better. Does going back to Everest for the third time for him going to do that. I don’t who came up with it first, but through this conversation we had in a cabin on the coast, and it came up that we had to go back to Mt. Kennedy. For us, we didn’t know a lot about what happened there. There were a few pages in Life Magazine and National Geographic, and some photos in the hallway. But we decided that was a genius idea. It was the less-traveled path, which speaks to both of us. We were hooked on the idea.

Around the same time, I saw a movie called Honor the Treaties. It was through my advocacy in Northeast Washington. I’ve been doing some work with the twelve Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. They helped us with our trail plan, so I enjoy working with their trail preservation officer. Then all of a sudden, one day, this movie popped up on my radar. It was called Honor the Treaties, and it was directed by Eric Becker. It’s a really beautiful movie so if you haven’t seen it, you should Google it. (ed. note: Or, you can watch it here:)

It’s about the Pine Ridge Reservation and the tragedy there. It’s a really, artful, emotional piece. That’s sending to a message to make something better. Then my dad told me there are some people from Seattle University doing a film on him. He said his name was Eric Becker and I recognized him from Honor the Treaties. It’s a beautiful film. That’s really exciting. Eric made a very short movie, and I saw it. It was about my dad and Mt. Everest. But Eric had taken it and made it a much less macho story. It became a more emotional and a more environmental story, the way Eric flipped it. I think I reached out to him and we became friends. I thought if we’re going to go to Mt. Kennedy, we should probably tell the story about it. I sent him an e-mail and his response was basically “I’m in.” It was just two words.

Then we realized it was a bigger story with a lot more connections to make, so it took us years to make. I’m so impressed with how Eric and editor Andrew Franks really connected the dots and made this incredible film. It was very provocative and interesting, I think.

I really liked how the story was told, through going back and forth between the original journey with your father and your trip in 2015, and connecting those stories.

Yeah, I do too. For me, talking about myself is like putting a cat in a bath. There’s one scene in the movie where Eric asked me “When was the last time you saw your father?” and there’s a long pause. The pause wasn’t because I didn’t remember, but I was thinking “Why is he asking me about my dad?” That snuck up on me. Maybe I was a fool for not expecting Eric to go there, but I thought it made for a better movie, having that family stuff in there.

You mentioned earlier that your brother climbed Mt. Everest twice, but what did you have to go through to prepare for climbing Mt. Kennedy?

I always loved the outdoors and I’m a trail advocate. So I walk and ski and go for hikes, but in this movie they have Eric showing me going to a gym and it’s the only time I’ve been in a gym in the last thirty years or so. (laughs) I just worked on my diet and went to Mt. Si to get some altitude. That was fun. I liked being on trails, that’s like meditation for me. I’m not sure if I got my 48-year old body in shape. I know I could’ve done better. I enjoyed being out and putting in the miles. Eric said I needed to get a Fitbit or a Strava, or something like that I said, “What’s that?” I think he had a different vision for the film, like we were conquering the mountain. I’m glad it turned out to be a different animal. It fits my narrative better.

I think the movie honors all of those aspects, the history, the politics, the civic duty. For me, that’s exciting because those are the markers I wanted to hit. It’s about finding gems out there, places of beauty.

I’m still pissed at Eric for including so much of me being a slob in the eighties, they could’ve made that point with a few two or three second clips. (laughs) I don’t know, people like it and I am who I am. It’s how I got here. So I’m okay with that.

What was it like for having a camera on you all the time?

Someone asked me at the Kirkland screening, during the Q&A how much of it was scripted and I had to laugh because none of it was. That was something interesting because it was so different from what I was used to. But Eric would do these interviews with me, but we’d talk for a while and then he’d start putting the equipment away when he was finished. But I didn’t think I said anything that was very interesting, so I had to think, “I guess they’re going to splice it together during editing.”

…and what about seeing yourself on screen with an audience?

This might be an interesting footnote but at the first screening at Telluride, our premiere. It was a beautiful theater. At one point in the middle of the movie, there’s this loud, punk rock music and flashing lights. It was some old footage from a tour that (former Mudhoney bassist) Matt Lukin gave us. I hear someone shout “Someone call 911 or get a paramedic.” Someone had a seizure in the back. They stopped the film. They got the woman out. She came out fine. Seeing yourself on a screen, I was definitely shrinking back in my seat, and then to have that happen. What the hell is happening? The funny part is that my father was at the screening. It was such an emotional experience for him because it covers his friendship with the Kennedys and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and then he sees his son being a rake during the eighties and nineties. It all comes together pretty well.

But what I was going to say was that after that happened and they brought everyone into the theater after they stopped it. My father’s guest was Gov. Jay Inslee. Gov. Jay Inslee is sitting there and they rewind the movie a few minutes, to the scene where one of Mudhoney’s guitar techs, Curtis Clark, is in the “Riot Hyatt” on Sunset Strip. He’s naked in the hotel room. The “Riot Hyatt” is this hotel that had a whole bunch of bands trash it, and there were a whole bunch of shenanigans going on there. There’s some stories with Led Zeppelin, if you google it. And that was the scene where that woman had a seizure during the movie. They rewound it, so at the premiere of this movie, and the Governor of Washington state is sitting right next to my father, and of all the scenes in the movie, you see Curtis’s naked butt twice. It was so poetic because Curtis is no longer with us, but he would’ve found it hilarious if you told him twenty or thirty years ago, or whenever that happened, that the Governor of Washington state would see his butt on a movie screen twice. He would be loving it.

So that was the first time I saw the movie. I was already on pins and needles because my father is there and Gov. Inslee is there.

I like that the audience laughed at this thing because it lightens the mood. There is some really serious stuff in this film, family stuff, assassinations. I like to think it’s balanced with some positive emotions. People were coming up to me after the screenings and they were saying, “Holy cow, I had no idea it was going to take these turns.”

What’s going to happen to the movie after this weekend’s screenings at SIFF?

Eric and I are talking about it. We’re trying to find distribution. The point of bringing a filmmaker with us on this climb is to promote these ethics and inspire people to do civic duty, and do nature conservation and have fun adventures. It’s a (more fun) An Inconvenient Truth. That movie is the most depressing thing ever because it’s showing glaciers falling into the ocean. This movie is a kinder, gentler movie with a message. We have someone who is helping us to try to find a distributor. There’s a big Canadian element in the movie, so we would love to take it up to some film festivals in Canada and remind people what a beautiful thing happened there in 1965. I’d love to have a soundtrack and DVD available.

I would imagine there would be a lot of interest in both a DVD and soundtrack because the music is so good. I have friends that will buy anything that has new Pearl Jam/Eddie Vedder music.

There are some songs on there that are so beautiful and they hold up so well that you can’t hear them enough. You don’t have to pop in a movie in to go on that positive, emotional roller coaster. You can just pop in a CD and be right there. I have soundtracks of movies I’ve never seen, and I think this soundtrack could be like that.

I gotta say, those Eddie Vedder songs are instrumental and people say to me that there’s no vocals, but I think they’re just beautiful stuff. He plays all the instruments on it. He reminded me at the Kirkland NW premiere that I had invited him on the expedition. We got up on stage and someone asked a question and he said “Actually, I was invited on the expedition.” I think he told me he had to wash his hair or something. (laughs) “Sorry, Bob, I can’t go.” So he wrote some songs for it instead.

Last question because I know you’re incredibly busy. Is there anything you want people to know about that we didn’t discuss?

My life has gone from being a goofy rock and roll guy to a bigger percentage being about trails and advocacy. I just want people to understand that you can act local, think local, don’t get too overwhelmed, but it’s important to give back to your community, too. That’s what I do with my trail work. That’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my whole life. You don’t make a dime, but you meet so many people and it’s just so much fun. The only message is to keep giving back to your community. There’s nothing more punk rock than giving back to your community.

Return to Mt. Kennedy plays at the Seattle International Film Festival on Saturday, June 9 and Sunday June 10. Tickets and more info can be found here.