- “Free Solo” directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin recount what led to them agreeing to film Alex Honnold’s attempt to solo climb El Capitan.
- The filmmakers also explain why filming what was going on in Honnold’s life on the ground was just as important as his climb.
- “Free Solo” won the Academy Award for best documentary feature on Sunday.
On Sunday night at the 91st Academy Awards, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her husband Jimmy Chin were on stage accepting the best documentary Oscar for their movie “Free Solo,” about rock climber Alex Honnold. But for the filmmakers, making the movie was more intriguing to them because of how Honnold is on the ground than when he’s thousands of feet above it during a climb.
Before Honnold became known the world over for his incredible free solo climbs (mountain climbing without ropes or other protective equipment), he was a kid who was incredibly intelligent but also scared of everything: people, physical contact, even vegetables. But that same kid blossomed into a young man who fights his fears by climbing mountains.
“It was the potential of being a story that spoke to a lot of people and could inspire,” Vasarhelyi told Business Insider about her original interest in doing a movie on Honnold.
But Honnold had another idea. He wanted them to shoot him soloing up the 3,000 foot high El Capitan wall in Yosemite National Park.
“He said, ‘If we’re to make a film, the only film-worthy thing in my life is doing this,” Vasarhelyi recalled.
Chin has filmed Honnold soloing for 10 years. He knew Honnold had the skill to pull off the climb. But he also knew how crazy it was to even attempt it. It would be a four-hour climb, at least. Every single step would need to be perfect. His level of concentration needed to be super sharp throughout the entire climb because his next move could be his last.
Could Chin say El Cap is the Super Bowl of soloing?
“It’s beyond the Super Bowl,” he said. “The mental capacity to do that is unlike any athletic achievement I’ve seen, whether it’s extreme sports or professional sports of Olympic sports. You have to play the perfect game for four hours. You throw an interception in the Super Bowl, compared to this, it’s not really a big deal.”
With that danger in mind, Vasarhelyi and Chin told Honnold they had to think about if they wanted to proceed. And they thought about it – for months. Could they go forward with doing a movie that could end with their friend falling to his death?
They say the moment that really pushed them to finally agree to film the attempt was a chat Chin had three years ago with author and avid climber Jon Krakauer, one of the survivors of the disastrous 1996 expedition to Mount Everest and the man who wrote “Into the Wild” and “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” Who better to get advice from?
Chin told Krakauer he and Vasarhelyi were considering doing a movie on Honnold and his soloing of El Cap. The author simply replied: “Holy s–t.”
“He was quiet for a while,” Chin said. “And we walked for a little bit further, and I asked if it’s even ok for us to do this. He was like well, ‘Is he going to do it whether you film it or not?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘Are you one of the best people to do this?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘If this is one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time, shouldn’t it be captured?’ And I was like ‘Yes.’ We kind of went from there.”
With Vasarhelyi and Chin on board, they set out for Yosemite to make “Free Solo.” For months they filmed Honnold’s day-long training sessions on El Cap and his humble existence off the mountain living in a van.
Chin and his team of mountain climbers/cameramen used huge 4k cameras to capture Honnold on the wall, which he said is unheard of when filming climbing because of the weight of the equipment. But he and Vasarhelyi wanted “Free Solo” to be more than just a highlight video. They wanted to go a step further, not just visually, but emotionally. And that’s what Vasarhelyi was doing on the ground, trying to peel back the layers of the complex Honnold.
“It was basically a conversation that kept going for a year and a half,” Vasarhelyi said about creating a verite feel to the movie.
As “Free Solo” makes very clear, Honnold is not an open person. His life is completely focused on climbing and everything else comes second, including opening up to Vasarhelyi. But a fascinating thing happened during the filming process: He found a girlfriend who could tolerate his lifestyle.
Sanni McCandless is the complete opposite of Honnold. A big personality and not afraid to challenge Honnold, the relationship between the two is an interesting subplot in “Free Solo,” as the driven climber begins to let his guard down (the two go climbing one time and a mistake by the inexperienced McCandless leads to Honnold falling and injuring himself before the El Cap climb; in another scene, the two look for a house in Las Vegas).
Then there’s the lead-up to the climb itself. At one point in the movie, Honnold starts his solo climb of El Cap but then dramatically stops and climbs back down to the ground. From that point on, it’s unclear not only if Honnold will attempt the climb again but if he still wants Chin and Vasarhelyi there to film it.
“In our minds we’re not allowed to push him one way or the other,” Chin said. “But I would like to think he understood the amount of passion and heart that this whole crew was putting into it.”
“But Alex responded in an honest way,” Vasarhelyi added. “Which was, ‘I have to be stronger and better.'”
It all culminates in a dramatic conclusion where the filmmakers capture the dramatics on the ground between Honnold and McCandless as well as Honnold’s historic trek.
Audiences are already dazzled by “Free Solo.” It won the people’s choice award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which inevitably thrust it into the race for the best documentary Oscar. But as much as Vasarhelyi and Chin love how audiences have reacted to the movie so far, the standout for them is how Honnold sees it.
“He says he has the opposite experience from the audiences,” Chin said. “Everybody loves the love story and him as a fascinating documentary character and then are cringing during the climb. He loves the climbing footage and cringes during everything else.”
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