'A Successful Production Always Happens in Pre-Production': How Elite Climbing Cinematography Captured ‘Free Solo’
How does the camera change your subject’s life, especially when he’s in the process of risking it?
While finishing up their documentary Meru, husband and wife directing team E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin first set out to make a film about the world’s most renowned free solo climber, Alex Honnold. Honnold informed them early on that if they were going to make a film about him, he wanted to free solo a route on El Capitan, a 3000-foot overhanging granite monolith in Yosemite Valley that no one had ever free soloed—climbed without a rope—before.
Full disclosure: I’m a climber and have made films that try to explain why someone would risk their life to do it. The particular act of filming a free solo is a thorny subject in the climbing community, and for good reason. On the one hand, it’s a dramatic subject: Doesn't the examination of life or death perfectly fit the point of filmmaking? On the other hand, free soloing is usually a private, highly focused act where filming could inadvertently create enough distraction to cause the climber to fall to his or her death.
There are darker implications. Is filming the free soloer, at its philosophical core, entertaining an audience whose joy is predicated on the possible outcome that the climber might fall—in essence, commodifying death? These are questions non-fiction filmmakers wrestle with in all fields; here, I don’t claim to know the answer. Almost 10 years ago, I interviewed climbing legend John Bachar, who is referenced in Vasarhelyi and Chin's film. A few months after our interview, Bachar died free-soloing. I’ve spent years debating my responsibility in glamorizing, demonizing, or anatomizing that fact.
After thinking long and hard about the implications, Vasarhelyi and Chin ultimately realized that if Honnold was going to do this (and someone was going to make a film about it) for everyone involved, it had to be them. The result is Free Solo, which premiered at TIFF and is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Vasarhelyi and Chin sat down with No Film School to talk about the highly trained team, the evolution of the story, and how the camera changes your subjects life, regardless of who they are and what they are doing.
No Film School: How did you first decide to make a film about Alex Honnold and his attempt to free solo the Freerider route on El Capitan?
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: There is this original anecdote of Alex Honnold as a kid, where it was scarier for him to talk to someone and ask them to be his partner than to go by himself and climb without a rope. I always get tears in my eyes when I think about that, because I feel like we all have something like that in our lives. Here was this kid who worked through expanding his comfort zone minute by minute, inch by inch, learning how to hug, and finally find his thing in climbing without ropes. We always thought there was a real potential in Alex's story to make a deeper film about intentionality of how you live and how you can have these outrageous dreams and work through them methodically.
Alex signed up right around when Meru was finishing and we thought it was going to be a character portrait. It was Alex who was like, "If we're going to make a movie, I want to free solo El Cap. That's the only movie-worthy thing I can think of doing." It really made us step back for a few months and think about if this was something we were willing to be involved in. He had changed the game and the risks involved. Ultimately, filming will change the narrative. It affects your subject. The idea that the risks were so high was very difficult for us to negotiate.
Ultimately, we came to the understanding that this was something we should do. We trusted Alex profoundly and we were some of the best people to do this. The existential core of this movie is about the idea of a life well lived, right? Alex is living his life the way he wants to live it. As long as we don't mess him up, that’s the point. We can share the story. [Soloing] El Cap was not originally in the plan but, once it was introduced, it was a big deal.
"...it was Alex who was like, 'If we're going to make a movie, I want to free solo El Cap.'"
NFS: How long had you been following Alex before you realized you would incorporate his attempt?
Vasarhelyi: We hadn't started shooting yet. We were just beginning to talk about the film. Our son is two years-and-ten-months-old, almost three. We started filming when I was seven months pregnant. So that was about three years ago. He free soloed El Cap on June 3rd, 2017. We edited and then finished the movie a few weeks ago.
NFS: Did you edit as you went along? Or did you need to wait until filming was over to edit and see the story?
Vasarhelyi: We edited while we were shooting and we've never been able to afford that before. We could on this film, however, and it was really important because one, you know, the climbing itself is so surgical and it's so difficult to cover. We needed to understand what we wanted and needed in planning for that. But also, we started this film when Alex was internet-dating. He was online-dating on his book tour and would set up a date for each city he had to speak in. I thought we were going to make a pretty funny movie like, "Come back to my van and have a good time." That was very millennial, and then he meets this woman, Sanni, who was an unexpected, wonderful addition to our film that brings soul and depth, and actually facilitates Alex growing emotionally in front of the camera.
I watched what we're shooting to see, what we can do better? I watch to make sure something's playing where we think it's playing. Our shoots are always pretty thoughtful and mindful.
"They were running their audio, pulling their focus. They could rig on their own...I think of them as like a super elite special ops team..."
NFS: Part of what you see in the film is Alex negotiating the climb and the film crew, and for the actual attempt, you see the team needing to stay out of his way as much as possible. Can you talk about the general production considerations for this?
Jimmy Chin: We clearly wanted to shield Alex as much as possible from the pressures of production and everything that was going on behind the scenes. We had such a great, incredible crew of people that were not only amazing professional world class climbers and great cinematographers, but they were also very sensitive to what we were trying to do and why we're trying to do things a certain way. A lot of them, myself included, are professional athletes. We know what it feels like when there's a camera there and that sensitivity really played out in the production and helped us keep that external pressure on Alex to a minimum. Everyone was so efficient and trustworthy.
That meant that I could really minimize the team as well. They could move in that kind of terrain. They were doing multiple jobs. They were running their audio, pulling their focus. They were their own ACs. They could rig on their own. They were these solo units. I think of them as like a super elite special ops team, you know? They were so badass.
Vasarhelyi: They were rehearsing the whole time. As Alex rehearsed, we were rehearsing. The plan was pretty clear. It didn't change all that much. It was very important that he understand where we were and so there'd be no surprises that way. It was a big operation, but you couldn't bring too many people in because they would just distract him. It was this very close-knit group of climber/cinematographers who worked alongside him for two years.
What evolved was that we kept him even more insulated from production so he wouldn’t know what was going on outside of his immediate experience.
NFS: In the film, we see some remote-controlled cameras get worked in to accommodate his privacy.
Vasarhelyi: We're pretty conservative. We used big cameras on the wall with big lenses. We then created a bunch of remote cameras for the difficult places so a human wouldn't have to be there.
NFS: So someone would be controlling a remote camera from the ground?
Vasarhelyi: No, no, no. We didn't have that luxury because of the distances. We had to just roll them and hope we got it. It was interesting!
NFS: I know there was one crew credited as a drone operator but it wasn't for the Freerider attempt.
Vasarhelyi: You can't use drones in a national park.
NFS: Oh right.
Vasarhelyi: So the drones we used were in Morocco. [In Yosemite] what you see is a helicopter in the final climb. We were conservative and old school in a way. I mean, yes, we're shooting in 8K, but there weren't so many tricks. There's one GoPro shot in the entire movie.
NFS: Having done other documentaries, not about risk-taking exactly, there’s always this negotiation about the role of the camera and the film in your subject’s lives. Did you learn anything that changed how you think about the role of the camera on Free Solo?
Vasarhelyi: I think it's a very good example because it's so extreme. I've had these debates in every film I've ever made, about how the experience of making film itself changes your subject. I know my first film, A Normal Life, I spent three years with the subjects of that film. I know it changed their lives. It opened up a different possibility. I went to Princeton. One of them ended up going to Princeton from Kosovo. It was very clear what was happening, and my life has changed too. There's always this encounter between the filmmaker and the subject.
With this film, it's just more extreme. It gets to the existential heart of what the film's actually about, which is about a life well lived. Alex was going to do this no matter what. Alex thinks a lot about death, clearly. He free solos without a rope and he was at peace with that. For me, I was like, "This film celebrates Alex and I respect him for that," as long as we just don't mess up, you know? It can't be because of us. I had an exit clause if Jimmy got hurt. I needed to know that I didn't have to make that movie.
It was heavy. It's similar to all films, just a more extreme case. The crew was really close to Alex and he’s an elite climber. There's not that many of them. They've all known each other for years, and so it was his friends all around him. Ultimately, the filming made him more prepared because he ended up being affected by the idea of how many people were watching. His answer to that was like, "I have to be ready to do this with a stadium full of people." Ultimately, I think that made him safer. But the weight of what the potential worse case scenario could be was ever-present. We had to have two press releases prepared, but our job was to insulate him from our own concerns. It was heavy and we're very, very happy it's over.
NFS: Based on what you learned making Free Solo, what advice do you have for other filmmakers?
Chin: A successful production always happens in pre-production. When I say that, it really has to do with putting the right team together. Surround yourself with a great team.