On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold completed one of the most impressive athletic and fear-inducing earthly feats. He climbed one the most difficult rock climbing routes in the world—without ropes. Scaling El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is considered by many to be an apex of achievement for a rock climber. But if a climber free solos El Cap and no one is there to film it, did it actually happen? Luckily, thanks to filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, audiences across the world don’t have to ponder that meta question. The making of Free Solo, one of 2018’s highest-grossing documentaries, is a feat in and of itself. We sat down with the filmmakers to discuss fear, friendship, and inevitable possibilities.
Did you fear that you were putting Alex more at risk of dying by filming?
That is the existential ethical question at the heart of the film and really at the center of all nonfiction filmmaking. The difference between nonfiction and fiction is that in nonfiction you never know for certain what will happen. To take on this film, Jimmy and I had to think Long and hard about what could be the observer effect here—if by filming are we increasing Alex’s chances of messing up, of falling. To proceed we had to understand that we trusted Alex to make the right decisions and likewise trusted ourselves to never put the interests of the film above those of our subject. We decided to mitigate the risks as best we could by employing a high angle team of elite pro climbers. However, the ethical questions never went away and that’s why we felt it was so essential to including the filmmaking process in the film itself.
Before Alex became your documentary subject, he was a longtime friend. Was working with a close friend more difficult or less difficult during the project?
Alex and Jimmy have known each other for the past 10 years. In this case, the friendship was essential as they both trusted each other immensely and the only way this film could be made was with great mutual trust.
How long did the entire process take, from deciding to document Alex’s process to the end climb?
About 4 years from our first conversations about the possibility of making this film through to Free Solo’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival this fall.
It must have been a delicate balance; how did you keep things as stress-free and focused for Alex’s free solo?
It was a very delicate balance but it was the center of this film. We had to insulate Alex as best we could from the pressures of the production. Everyone had to be focused, everyone had to be perfect. But like I said this film could never put the needs of the production over those of our subject Alex because the stakes were just so high.
What are the conditions like at El Capitan during the optimum climb time?
The best time to try to free solo El Cap is in the spring before it gets too hot on the wall, in the spring the days start to get longer so there are more daylight hours when the wall is not in direct sunlight. At the same time, you have to wait until the wall is dry enough (snow has melted)
Among many other things, Jimmy is a professional climber. How difficult was it to physically maneuver cameras, equipment, and rope, all while simultaneously filming on the southwest face of El Cap?
It was incredibly difficult. Jimmy assembled a team of elite pro climbers who were also excellent cinematographers—not that many people can do both. They trained alongside Alex for two years, perfecting their shots and their maneuvers. Imagine 10–12 hour days dangling 2000 feet in the air, carrying 50 pounds of gear, no assistant camera, no craft services, you are a one-person unit filming the fastest climber in the world. The achievement can’t be underestimated.
In the film, one of the crew has a difficult time watching the climb while standing behind a camera. What was the overall atmosphere like on the day of?
The day of the climb itself was terrifying mixed with this sense that we were about to witness one of the greatest human achievements and that we had prepared diligently for this moment for years. Of course, it was tense, and your eyes can play tricks on you but after the boulder problem this sense that Alex was having the best day of his life was overwhelming—I was so happy for him. I was also so proud of our crew.
What about Alex Honnold appealed to you as filmmakers, aside from his obvious climbing abilities?
It all goes back to this story about how Alex began climbing without ropes. When he was a kid it was less scary to go out climbing by himself (without a partner you can’t use ropes) than to speak to another person (to ask them to be his partner). Jimmy and I were so moved by this fear—everyone grapples with fear maybe not quite this extreme. But Alex always wanted to connect with others so step by step he taught himself how to eat vegetables one at a time, how to hug, how to speak to strangers, how to free solo El Cap. We were very inspired by Alex’s commitment, discipline, and vision—this idea that with hard work and dedication you can achieve your dreams!
Free Solo is now playing in IMAX theaters across the country.