Climbers have traveled from around the globe to scale El Capitan, a 3000 foot vertical wall of sheer forbidding rock. In the inspiring new documentary, Free Solo, filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow Alex Honnold as he prepares for the climb with no safety line. For those who aren’t aware, free solo is climbing without ropes and Honnold uses his hands and feet without any harnesses or ropes as he makes the defying climb.
I caught up with filmmakers Vasarhelyi and Chin to talk about working with Honnold and how his story inspired them and their filmmaking collaborators. It’s a spectacular story of a individual journey of a man who defied all expectations.
Read my chat below:
How did Free Solo start for you?
Chai: Jimmy and I were interested in making a film about Alex. There’s a story about Alex as a kid and that he started free soloing because it was scarier to speak to another person and ask him to be his partner than to go out there without a partner and no rope. We were always really moved by this thing that everyone has that type of fear in their lives and here was this geeky, scared kid who learned how to work through his fear to go onto free solo.
We were interested in doing this character portrait and Alex introduced this idea of free soloing El Capitan which suddenly changed the game for us because of the dangers involved.
Jimmy: Alex is totally gifted in a way that I had never seen in terms of his mental game and his athletic achievements having worked in this space and having filmed and having spent a lot of time with some of the best athletes at the peak of their careers Climbers, skiers, snowboarders, base jumpers and extraordinary athletes and yet, after being in it for twenty years, I had never seen anything like what Alex was doing. He’s truly one of a kind and so we knew we had somebody extraordinarily gifted and even was considered extraordinarily gifted among the extraordinarily gifted. Even the top best climbers in the world look at him and think he’s different. That combination of a vulnerable character and a superhuman character was an interesting juxtaposition.
How easily did that story all come together when you’re spending time with him before he goes out and does the climb?
Chai: The story becomes his training for El Capitan and the process he goes through. Along the way he meets a woman and falls in love. The story very much came together and culminated with him falling in love.
Jimmy: When you make a documentary like that you have no idea of what’s going to happen. It’s not an archival film where you know the outcome. You’re hoping things are going to work out and you have to shoot everything. Eventually, the narrative just reveals itself. For much of the production, you’re not sure what’s going to happen.
Chai: We were editing while we shot so we were well informed about where we’re going.
You capture some amazing footage and you’re up there doing that climb with him, talk about those technical obstacles and how you prepared.
Jimmy: To begin with the crew is the best crew I could ever ask for in this job. They’re all professional climbers and they’re all great filmers on top of that. As you know, being a top professional climber is hard to achieve, but then to find one who can film and really be able to shoot in a cinematic manner is a very tough combination. There’s not that many people to call, just a handful in the entire world and we have that team. It’s a small community at the upper echelon and the climbing world. We all knew each other and many of us are friends with Alex.
Over the course of two years, we were training and practicing shooting this. We really wanted to push the cinematography on it. Especially given the team we had, we knew we had the capacity to doing something extraordinary.
Chai: In the interest of doing justice to Alex’s climb.
Jimmy: Exactly. We all understood that. He is about to do one of the most extraordinary climbs of all time. We need to bring our game up to try and match that.
What were some of the challenges in working on this and capturing that incredible footage?
Chai: There were two types of filmmaking going on. They were working on the high angle photography and spending time with him on the mountain. The types of films that Jimmy and I are interested in have a rich story behind it and we thought that Alex had that. I think in a way it was harder for Alex because of the intimacy that was required. Here’s a guy who is uncomfortable with intimacy and all of a sudden you have a film crew who’s part of his life asking him to think about the harder questions in life. He meets a woman who walks into this situation and we’re filming their entire relationship as it unfolds. I think it’s how most vérité documentaries do transpire where you spend time with your subjects and grow to trust one another so that he understands we’re filming it for a reason. He’s a very candid open person. He’s also very intelligent so it became very engaging. I feel it was a conversation that transpired over a year and a half.
When he turns around on the first attempt, that’s a very difficult scene to film, but you have to film it.
Alex’s story is really inspiring. He’s such a great human being and to see his story is incredible. What did you as filmmakers take away having spent that time with him?
Chai: Alex lives his life with intention. He knows exactly how he wants to spend his time and what he believes in. I think that he inspires inevitably everyone around him. We hope that this story itself about how he perseveres and works through meticulously and practices to achieve his outrageous dream will inspire people in the same way.
I think he had an influence on all of us. I’ll give you a silly example. I can’t drink from a plastic water bottle anymore. Being around Alex, I can’t do that and we had to outlaw that on our shoots. He inspires you to actually act.
One of our cinematographers stopped eating sugar when Alex stopped eating sugar and it changed his life. These are just small examples of the deeper questions that Alex’s story raises about a life well lived, asking the question “Am I spending my life the way I want to?” or “Am I living the best life, a life that I admire and respect?” It definitely rubbed off on all of us.
The way you capture Alex on the mountain is incredible and National Geographic is just the perfect home for the documentary. How did they get involved?
Chai: They understood the risks involved, but they also believed in the story. You have to remember this was all a secret and they couldn’t talk about it. They gave us the best possible space to make the best possible film. They always respected what we were looking for.
Jimmy: I’ve had a long relationship with them and started shooting in 2003. They’ve been partners on a lot of different projects, but nothing of this magnitude. We had a good rapport and I think that they were also cognizant of the work we had done with Meru. They also respected Chai’s previous work and they understood that I had a rapport with Alex which is really important.
Talk about your collaboration process.
Chai: There’s just a lot of trust between the two of us. This film had so many risks involved and it was often about negotiations and what was the best decision in a moment. I have absolute trust in Jimmy’s judgment and risk assessment and how intimately he understood the subject. He would trust me and what I felt was important in terms of our story and the intimate and personal side of the story. Asking Alex these intimate questions while he’s planning for the hardest athletic achievement he’s ever tried is scary because you feel like you’re tinkering in his head. There was this mutual trust between us that allows for us to make a film with this much dimension.