'Free Solo' Directors On How Their Oscar-Winning Mountain-Climbing Documentary Teaches People To Manage Their Fears
Rock climber Alex Honnold scaled the famous 1-km El Capitan — without any ropes. Take that, Tom Cruise!
Three hours and 56 minutes. That was how fast it took rock climber Alex Honnold to scale the iconic nearly 1-km El Captian at Yosemite National Park in 2017. But this was no ordinary climb: Honnold, then 31, became the first person to do so without using ropes or other safety gear.
Free solo, they call this death-defying undertaking. (It isn't the same as free climbing, which climbers use no gear but are attached to ropes only to catch them if they fall. A free-soloist uses nothing to climb.)
And fellow climber and documentary filmmaker Jimmy Chin and his team — including his non-climber wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi — were there to chronicle the whole process, from his grueling training regimen to eventual triumphant ascent.
Dynamic duo Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi on location at Yosemite National Park. Chin, an expert climber himself, was one of the cameramen filming Alex Honnold's ascent, while Vasarhelyi was running the show on the ground.
But Honnold’s journey to the top was fraught with risks. Any misstep will see him plunge to his death, with the possibility of Jin recording the tragedy. Besides concerns that the cameras might get in the way of Honnold of reaching his goal, there was also the fear that he might be distracted by a budding romance with his new girlfriend.
All of Honnold’s trials and travails are captured in Free Solo, a heart-stopping, acrophobia-causing, vertigo-inducing National Geographic documentary that begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. (You’re doing the filmmakers a disservice if you’re watching it on your puny smartphone or tablet — chromecast it to a 50-inch TV screen!)
The documentary is also a smash with critics, winning countless awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in February. Speaking to 8 DAYS from Jackson, Wyoming, Chin, 45, and Vasarhelyi, 38, tell us why a documentary about mountain-climbing has resonated with audiences everywhere. (Chin was born in Minnesota to Chinese immigrants while Vasarhelyi's father is Hungarian and mother, Chinese.)
But first things first, does the couple, who split their time between Jackson and New York City with their two children, know where Honnold is up to next? “I think he’s just working on his climbing,” says Vasarhelyi.
8 DAYS: Congrats on the Oscars! Do you think you’ve made the mother of all mountain-climbing documentaries?
ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI: The mother of all mountain-climbing documentaries? I don’t know. I think we just told a good story I think Alex was incredibly inspiring and he kind of captured the hearts and minds of the audiences. We were never expecting this. So we’re just grateful to be recognised.
You don’t need to be a mountain climbing enthusiast to embrace Free Solo…
JIMMY CHIN: I think it’s important to look at it through the lenses of anybody who is passionate about their work. I think you could be a very busy hedge fund manager who’s never home, who sacrifices a lot of with his/her family.
Anything that requires that kind of commitment to pursue excellence or something you’re deeply passionate about comes with sacrifices. You don’t always get to choose what that passion turns out to be, and if it happens to be climbing and you’re fortunate enough to find something that gives you meaning, that is great.
Jimmy, you’re a climber as well. Do you see yourself and Alex as adrenaline junkies with a death wish?
JIMMY: I’ve certainly never thought that I had a death wish. I really love life, which is why I do what I do. Part of the film addresses the total misperceptions of what climbing and adventurous sports are and I think that it’s all about very intentional living.
I mean, if people were suicidal, there would probably be a lot of other ways to do it. Alex thought about his mortality more than anybody. The point of him doing what he’s doing is because he wants to live the life he wants to live and it’s very intentional.
If he had a death wish, I don’t think he would be practicing for years and years the craft of free-soloing, spending two years literally memorizing every single move. That process to him is very meaningful; it gives him purpose. I think people are very lucky when they find that purpose and meaning
ELIZABETH: I think the heart of the film is about Alex’s process. It’s about how Alex moves through his own fear and how he manages his own fear. He creates a fear bubble; he practices really hard for a long time so that he does not feel fear.
But he does feel fear. Biologically, he does feel fear. That serenity that you may see on him is something he has worked really hard to achieve. The film is mostly about his process. It I about this idea that you can move through your own fear if you work really hard and dedicate yourself to something, you can make the impossible possible.
What does it take to be a cameraman for Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai?
JIMMY: The main criteria is that they have to be at least professional climbers and also incredible cinematographers, so we really had the best high-angle production team in the world who have worked tirelessly over years and years of production. It was really helpful that they were also Alex’s friends, so there’s a lot of trust between them. Without that trust, this film would have been impossible to make.
So your crew faced the same challenges as Alex did?
ELIZABETH: Yes, the day was never done until every crew member was on the ground. The exposure was incredibly high, we had many days and many people on that wall and the hazards were real, so our day wasn’t done until every man was accounted for.
How long would a filming day usually take?
ELIZABETH: We had two teams. So the guys were on the wall for 12-14 hours. When Alex got down, another team had to take over to film.
So how did you manage to pull that the amazing camera works off without getting in Alex’s way?
JIMMY: Alex is a professional climber and he’s been filmed a lot of times, so he’s used to the process. I think it’s more challenging to shoot the scenes where he was having intimate conversations with [his girlfriend] Sanni. He trusted us as filmmakers on the wall with him and he also trusted us as filmmakers documenting his personal life.
Throughout the documentary, we see how concerned you are with the ‘what if’ scenarios of Alex falling off. How did you ensure that you didn’t burden Alex with your worries?
JIMMY: I’ve known Alex for 10 years. We’ve worked together and climbed together all around the world. I have a lot of trust in Alex and he has a lot of trust in me. If I didn’t think that I could trust him, we wouldn’t have embarked on this film.
I know his intentions are in the right place; he’s not doing it for the money or fame. He would’ve [climbed El Capitan] whether we were filming or not. If he were the type of person who was trying to pull this off as a stunt to get famous, then obviously we would not have embarked on this journey.
[During the shoot,] we shielded him from all the pressures of the production, our own concerns and we kind of maintained this neutral space where he could make decisions without feeling pressure one way or the other, and that was really important for us.
Was there footage on the cutting room floor that you wish was back in the documentary?
JIMMY: No, we had a long time to cut the film and so I think we’re very happy with how the film came out.
What was the most challenging part of working together as husband and wife?
ELIZABETH: There is trust between us, allowing us to do this where we had a shorthand. We each did what we did best alongside each together. I think probably the hardest parts were juggling our professional commitments with our two children.
What happens when you have different points of view?
ELIZABETH: We would talk about it. That’s it. And normally it was more about logistical differences, not storytelling ones. So it’s important for us to hear each other’s point of view but ultimately Jimmy acted on certain parts and I on other fields which I felt more comfortable with.
There are documentary makers like David Gelb (Chef’s Table), Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) and Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays in the Picture) who have gone on to making scripted features. Is that something you’re keen to pursue as well?
ELIZABETH: I think a good story is a good story. I think the difference between a documentary and fiction is that we’re governed by the ethics of journalism. But I really believe it involves the same muscles, in terms of understanding how to tell a story. Right now, we’re working on a new documentary. But we’re also entertainers. So if [the fictional story is right], we’ll definitely do it.
With an Oscar under your belt, is it easier to take meetings and raise funds for your next project?
ELIZABETH: As a documentary filmmaker, you don’t think about winning an Oscar, but, yes, [having] the Oscar helps but it’s not something you ever anticipate having that opportunity.
Your next project is about American conservationist Kristine Tompkins. How is that coming along?
ELIZABETH: It’s basically an intimate story about the greatest conservationist of our time. Kristine worked with [outdoor clothing brand Patagonia founder] Yvon Chouinard and met his best friend Doug Tompkins [co-founder of outdoor apparel The North Face].
Kristine and Doug ran away together to save the world. They did that by using all the money they made and putting all their resources to establish one of the largest national parks in the world in Chile.
It was a real dream because the Chilean government was very suspicious about it. It represents 30 years of work, but mostly, it’s this idea of living a life of radical intentions and dedicating yourself to a cause that you truly think will make the world better. And it’s a great love story.
By the way, where are the Oscars now?
JIMMY: Well, there’s one in New York, and then, there’s one in Jackson, Wyoming. We each got one.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Free Solo is now streaming on FOX+.
Photos: National Geographic Channel, TPG News/Click Photos
Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park. The Freerider is the route to reach the summit of El Capitan. Considered one of the toughest big wall climbs in Yosemite, Freerider has 30 sections — or pitches — for which Honnold had to memorise thousands of intricate hand and foot sequences to overcome them.
For his free solo climb, Honnold practiced for more than a year, training on routes throughout the Yosemite Valley and other locations around the globe in China, Europe, and Morocco. He kept his dream climb known only to a small group of friends and fellow climbers.
Alex Honnold became the first to free-solo (rope-less) climb to the top of the 1-km El Capitan, that's three times the height of Tanjong Pagar Centre, Singapore's tallest skyscraper. He completed the feat on Saturday, June 3, 2017, in three hours and 56 minutes. He did take a break (like answering nature's call), say the directors who left that footage out of the final film.
Honnold with girlfriend Sanni McCandless, who is featured in Free Solo, fielding questions at a TCA (Television Critics' Association) panel in LA in February.
Time stops and you enter the fourth dimension, says Vasarhelyi of the night she and her husband received the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Does winning an Oscar make it easier to raise funds for their next project? Yes, [having] the Oscar helps but it’s not something you ever anticipate having that opportunity, she adds.
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