Three years ago when married filmmakers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”) embarked on climbing documentary “Free Solo” (NatGeo), they had no idea what a nailbiter it would finally be. By the time they unveiled the gorgeous 4K spectacle at Telluride over Labor Day weekend and watched it with an audience as well as their crew, they were stunned at how it brought back feelings of PTSD. “It was crazy,” said Vasarhelyi. “Looking at dailies of the climb, it no longer affected me while we were cutting these scenes over and over again. But seeing it with an audience brought it back. My stomach fell out.”
During filming, the filmmakers weren’t the ones climbing the 3000-foot rock face of El Capitan without a rope, where any misstep would mean certain death. That was mountaineer Alex Honnold. But in some ways watching him and tracking him and not getting in his way was tougher for them than it was for him.
The craft of the cinema verité of this film is undeniable — pro climber-cinematographer Chin brings 20 years of experience and high standards to his work. But he and Vasarhelyi also probed into the brain and personal life of the reluctant, camera-shy Honnold, whose intimacy issues were on display, as he fell in love with Sanni McCandless, the current woman in his life, on camera.
That’s why the movie scored not only with festival audiences (it won the Toronto People’s Choice documentary award) and critics (Metascore: 83) but at the box office, earning $16 million so far (including two one-week IMAX runs during awards season) before it airs on NatGeo March 3.
Having won four Cinema Eye Honors and Critics Choice documentary awards each, as well as the documentary BAFTA, DGA, Cinema Audio Society, and ACE editors guild awards, “Free Solo” is looking good to win the Oscar as well. Yes, “RBG” (Magnolia/CNN) is a popular contender ($14-million gross), as much for its Supreme Court Justice subject as its filmmaking. But that film plays as well on an airplane as it does on the big screen, while “Free Solo” was so visually spectacular that IMAX offered to blow it up and release it.
The duo started the ambitious movie with NatGeo behind them (the big-scale climbing epic cost a final $2-million), two months before their son was born in October 2015; Honnold climbed El Capitan on June 3, 2017.
“It was pretty fast and intense,” said Vasarhelyi. “There were a lot of risks involved. The clearest risk was what happens in the worst case scenario if Alex fell? What happens if he decides, ‘this is too big?’ The main risk was, how do we as filmmakers balance that? How does our process not get in the way and interfere with his experience? It was such a dream for him, that the question was when, not if. It may be five years from now. I was committed to that. He’s going to do it at some point.”
Knowing that Honnold could fall or get injured on the climbs was ever-present. “We had to establish our baseline and what were were going to do in each scenario and be clear about it with each other and our intentions,” said Chin. “If this happens, we really need to think about how we are going to move forward. But on a day-to-day basis the focus — particularly for the high-angle crew — was to stay focused on your job. In these scenarios you have to be a climber first, you have to cover your baseline safety concerns, doing everything correctly in the mountains. Then filming on top of that, not letting it be a distraction.”
They didn’t want to get too close to Honnold, but also needed to catch the telling closeup of several treacherous foot-holds during the climb. “We applied the verité rules,” said Vasarhelyi. “Keep on filming, and over time everyone will get used to it. We are trying make a verité film that has depth and captures the raw emotional moments — while he’s trying to train for this incredibly difficult thing. So it didn’t just end when he got off the mountain. He had to go home to a whole other new crew who was ready to talk about his innermost secrets.”
That was the other telling question. By doing that, “are we getting into his brain, is that bad?” said Vasharhelyi.
“We spent a lot of time shielding him from feeling that external pressure around the filmmaking,” said Chin.
“And if we asked for a moment, it was something that was highly important,” said Vasarhelyi, “he trusted that. Alex doesn’t do something halfway.” (We all laugh.)
“What we are looking at here is the two challenges for Alex,” said Chin. “The big dream of climbing El Cap free solo, but clearly intimacy was another hurdle for him, we were dividing and conquering.”
“It was also threefold,” said Vasarhelyi, “the intimacy with us and with her.”
“He was online dating when we started,” Chin said. “Finally we have a funny documentary, ‘come back to my van tonight?’ Then he meets Sanni, the perfect documentary thing you can’t anticipate happens, and it turns out to be most challenging meaningful relationship of his life. Sanni has the emotional vocabulary and ability to express what she needs.”
National Geographic/Chris Figens
While Honnold has never been formally diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, the filmmakers suspect he falls there somewhere. His clear-eyed mindful confidence is tough to explain. “We had a clear understanding of the result of the MRI,” said Vasarhelyi. “He does feel fear, but it takes more to feel that fear, whether it’s from exposure or how he was born. We and Alex agree, it’s probably from exposure, but he might be predisposed to it.”
The level of precise mountaineering choreography with big HD Canon cameras was an enormous challenge for Chin and his team. For the actual free solo climb — after filming multiple repeated rehearsals and after Honnold’s last-minute dramatic withdrawal from one planned climb — they deployed a full-crew of 15 including producer, drivers, two camera units on the ground, several anchored cameras, one helicopter at 3000 feet with a 1500 millimeter lens, and climber cameramen trying to keep up with fast-moving Honnold on the rocks. They had to keep it a secret and they had to do it right.
“‘I’ve been filming in this space for 20 years,” said Chin. “I’ve worked with some of the greatest athletes at the peak of their careers doing their personal greatest achievements. This was by far levels beyond any kind of athletic achievement I’ve ever seen. The different stakes were clearly so high. I had filmed at the El Cap site but in this case we had to refine everything we knew about filmmaking on that kind of terrain. It had to be surgical and capture one of the greatest athletic feats you could ever imagine and yet preserve his experience and stay out of his way and be safe.”
On the day of the climb, Vasarhelyi felt very worried until one of the cameramen came up to her smiling and said, “Chai, it’s going to be great. You are about to witness something amazing!” That changed the tone.
“Watching it was joyful,” said Chin. “What makes him extraordinary is, who wakes up before the NBA finals prepared to shoot 100 baskets and not miss — and if I do I will die — and not miss a single shot!”
“If he didn’t feel good he would stop,” said Vasarhelyi. “We knew.”
In the final movie, two closeups of the scariest tippy-toe footholds were shot during Honnold’s roped rehearsals. But otherwise it’s the real thing. They used every shot from the actual free solo climb.
For Chin, finally, “nothing will ever compare to the day I was up there.”