Kimberly French/Fox
Shirley Li
August 14, 2017 AT 03:30 PM EDT

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Shooting on the snowy peaks of the Purcell Mountains near Calgary in negative 36-degree weather — yes, negative thirty-six — meant there were days director Hany Abu-Assad (Omar) could barely do his job on the set of The Mountain Between Us, a romance survival thriller based on a novel by Charles Martin about two strangers trapped thousands of feet above civilization after a devastating plane crash. “On certain days, I couldn’t move my mouth,” he says, laughing. “My muscles in my face were frozen.”

But the cast and crew of the film endured, and the result is a harrowing tale of a photojournalist (Kate Winslet) and a surgeon (Idris Elba) fighting for life and falling in love that Abu-Assad hopes will make viewers question what it means to live. “There’s a celebration of humanity in this story that’s very important to me,” he says. “When I read the script, I felt the whole journey, the hunger and pain and cold and love.”

Of course, to illustrate that journey, Abu-Assad had to put his stars through the wringer — Winslet encounters a mountain lion, Elba dangles from a cliff, and both spend scenes clambering through layers of snow — all of which Winslet says she welcomed. “As hard as it was, as scary as it was, I really did love it,” she says. “It was quite frightening, but amazing at the same time because of how spectacularly beautiful it was.”

Of course, the beauty didn’t cancel out the cold, and Winslet admits there were days she was afraid to leave her car and head to set. “There’s a funny thing that happens with actors,” she says. “From the outside looking in people assume that it wouldn’t be as cold for the actors, that there would have been extra things or magical fairy dust sprinkled on them to make them not as cold as everybody else.” She laughs. “Just forget all that, because that does not come into play in this film at all.”

Still, the actress explains that it was the grueling shoot that attracted her to the film in the first place. “I was excited by the physical challenge,” she says, pointing out that it’s been two decades since she faced the elements for Titanic. “I hadn’t done something quite so extreme for a really long time.” And though Titanic also happens to be a romance survival story, Winslet swears she wasn’t looking to dive back into the genre just because it’s the blockbuster’s 20th anniversary. “It was honestly just a coincidence,” she says. “I’m realizing now, as I’m talking about this film, people are going to want to compare it to Titanic. Actually, they are so wildly different.”

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Paramount

After all, the James Cameron-directed film had been an ensemble epic, whereas Winslet spent the majority of The Mountain Between Us working opposite Elba and his contrasting style. “We do work in quite different ways, Idris and I,” she says. “Idris likes to keep everything extremely loose and do quite a bit of improvising, which I’m all in favor of as well, but I had just come off the Woody Allen film [Wonder Wheel] so I had been learning reams and reams of dialogue. It’s quite good for me to experience absorbing a different process.” That said, Winslet notes that she has no idea how Elba felt about having to work with her 24/7. “I mean,” she jokes, laughing, “I’m sure he was sick of the sight of me at the end of the shoot.”

The Mountain Between Us hits theaters Oct. 6.

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