Do Or Die: Interview with Oscar Winning Directors of Free Solo
Enthusiastically embraced by critics and audiences alike, Free Solo won Best Documentary Feature against five other full-length documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year.The film starts as an intimate, unflinching portrait of what makes the singular Alex Honnold tick and ends as a nail-biter, a suspenseful, ultimately thrilling account of his death-defying climb up El Cap’s sheer 3,200 face.
When non-fiction filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin decided to profile professional the rock climber, they didn’t grasp the enormity of the danger the ace mountaineer would assume. Nor did they appreciate the full degree of the personal, professional, and ethical risks they, too, were about to take. There’s no room for error: One slip can end in a crippling injury or death.
Vasarhelyhi and Chin, who are married, spoke with Musée’s Bruce Feldman.
BRUCE FELDMAN: Tell me about the origins of Free Solo. You were friends with Alex. What was it about him that made you want to make the film?
CHAI VASARHELYI: We were interested in Alex as a character. There’s this story about Alex as a kid, about why he began climbing with no ropes. It was scarier for him to speak to another person and ask him to be his partner than to go up by himself. And if you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone to support you, so you’re not using a rope. Here was this kid. He was scared of everything. But he had this desire to connect with people.
BRUCE: Were you intending to make a film about Alex in general, or were you thinking to make a film about his free solo climb up El Cap?
CHAI: When we started, we were not considering El Cap. Alex brought that to the table.
JIMMY CHIN: The other part of wanting to work with Alex is that I’ve been working with the top athletes at the peak of their careers. When I started working with Alex, I realized very quickly that he was different.
BRUCE: In the film’s production notes you said that Alex is not a maverick. Most people would think he is. What did you mean by that?
CHAI: He spent years preparing to free solo El Cap. It’s not an off-the-cuff decision. It was very, very studied and practiced. He had absolute intent, an intention to free solo El Cap and to do it the right way. If he wasn’t prepared, he never would have done it. That’s what I mean by he’s not a maverick.
BRUCE: You also said that you were interested in the emotional issues surrounding climbing, and I assume also surrounding Alex’s personality. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?
CHAI: I think with Alex there are a lot of different factors that play into it – looking at what his childhood was like, understanding how intimacy is a really difficult thing for him. And then we had this incredible opportunity in Sanni [Alex’s girlfriend], which we never anticipated, where suddenly Alex was falling in love in front of our cameras. It became emotionally complicated for him. He had dreamt of free soloing El Cap for years and this was a relatively new relationship that grows in importance. In the beginning, it was clear that El Cap was more important, but it changes.
BRUCE: Jimmy, you’re hanging from a rope a thousand feet off the ground, filming Alex’s climb, and making decisions on the fly as both a director and producer. How do you juggle all of this?
JIMMY: Thankfully, I had a lot of help from Chai and our [other] producers. This was a huge team effort. But often these duties fold together on shoots like these when there are complicated logistics that aren’t obvious to someone that doesn’t understand the logistics. I’ve often had to plan logistics, manage shoots, make directing decisions or decisions on creative as well as film while on remote expeditions. So you could say this wasn’t new terrain for me.
BRUCE: Did technology change between the time you filmed Meru and Free Solo? Were you able to do things differently on Free Solo?
JIMMY: We shot cinema cameras with cinema lenses on Free Solo because we knew that we wanted it to be a big cinematic experience and that it was going to be theatrical. We were carrying a ton of weight. It’s a totally different shooting scenario [from Meru]. We were in Yosemite in the United States. El Cap is a 20-minute walk from the road. I had tons of personnel. We had a great team. Meru was me and Renan [Ozturk] and one camera that we handed back and forth. It’s a very, very different scenario. Because we had that access on Free Solo, we really tried to push the boundaries of high-angle shooting, taking everything that I’ve learned in the last 20 years and applying it to making this film.
BRUCE: There are two aspects Free Solo. On one hand, it’s a thriller capturing the effort to achieve an incredible feat, and it’s also a very personal character study. Was that your intention?
CHAI: It was always our intention. I understand that it’s two films in one, but in a way we both feel that one wouldn’t exist without the other. The personal side allows climbing to come to life in a very different dimension, a much more intimate [one].
BRUCE: The theme of this issue of Musee is risk. When it became clear that Alex was going to free solo El Cap, a dangerous and terrifying thing to most people, I’m wondering what was going though your mind? There could have been three endings to the movie: He didn’t do it; he did it; he fell off the mountain. As filmmakers, what kind of film would you have made under these different scenarios?
CHAI: I think this gets at the existential question at the center of the film, which is: By filming this, is Alex more likely to fall? It always came down, for both of us, to this idea that we really respect what Alex does in that he has thought more about his own mortality than most people. He lives every day with intention. He is doing exactly what he wants to do with his life. We also know that he wants to live; he desperately wants to live. It was that idea, that we were honoring and making a film about this man who lives with absolute attention. Clearly, we never thought he’d fall. But you had to accept the possibility. [He’s an] extraordinary character who works to make the impossible possible.
BRUCE: Since you stopped filming, how has Alex evolved? Does he still free solo? Has he stopped?
JIMMY: He hasn’t been soloing much [since El Cap]. That was the pinnacle free solo that you could ever really do. He’s quite thoughtful about everything that he does. He’s still climbing every day, [just] not free solo. Even when he was planning to do this big free solo, most of his climbing was not free solo. He’s certainly evolved in a lot of different ways. I think that his opinion of [choosing] a climb over a girl has evolved.
BRUCE: What risks did you both take in making this film?
CHAI: We took enormous risks. It was a calculated risk, but an enormous risk. [There was an] emotional risk, professional risk, a human risk, an ethical risk. That’s the thing, if something terrible had happened, we would have had a horrible job of making a film about that. It was a very, very difficult decision for us to make. I think it also came from Jimmy [as a climber] having 20 years of expertise in risk assessment.
JIMMY: I had a very good, trusting relationship with Alex, knowing that he was going to make the right decisions. There was a lot of trust required to make this film between Alex, myself, the crew, and everybody involved.
CHAI: There’s another fundamental risk: the risks that our crew took on. For a year and a half, they were spending a much greater amount of time in the vertical world than they normally would. There are objective hazards that do exist. We can’t possibly express how difficult it was. They’re a crew of elite professional climbers, the best of the best.
JIMMY: And we were getting really worked. (He laughs.) I think if people really saw the amount of effort and time and just sheer physical labor it took to get one shot a day… (He laughs again.) Yes, it was a tremendous amount of work.
BRUCE: How do you balance your desire to get the perfect shot with your safety?
JIMMY: You’re always a climber first, and your safety is always first. Once everything is covered as a climber, then you can begin filming. That’s always the directive.
BRUCE: Some of this takes place at night in the dark. Are you used to doing that?
JIMMY: Yeah, I’ve been a professional climber for almost 20 years. A lot of the team are elite professional climbers. We take a lot of it for granted because we do it all the time, but it still doesn’t diminish the amount of time and decision making that we have to do up there perfectly.
CHAI: We were very, very careful. This was all something that was incredibly well thought out. Everything was precise. Everything was practiced. As careful as Alex is, we had to be, [too]. It’s hard to conceptualize just how precise the entire endeavor is.
BRUCE: In Meru, the author Jon Krakauer said that climbing Meru was so difficult that it would probably defeat everyone who tried, but that’s what made wanting to do it irresistible. Is that what motivates mountain climbers?
JIMMY: The motivations that climbers have are often the same motivations that anybody has: to push their craft, to do something that has meaning for them, to have purpose. That drive and ambition to be great at what you do is the same for anybody. When you fall in love with climbing, you take that ambition and drive and you apply it to climbing.
BRUCE: Krakauer also said that you’re not supposed to take risk lightly. You’re supposed to go right to that line and no further. That doesn’t sound like Alex to me.
CHAI: To explain it to a non-climber, it’s like Alex can play a level-10 chess game. He will climb without ropes on level 7. This is what he normally does, the way you and I walk down the street. We can walk down the street and know that we’re not going to die. We’re not walking down the middle of a highway. That’s why it took us a year and a half. He had to practice day after day.
BRUCE: To quote Jon Krakuaer one last time, he also said that climbers think, “Why am I doing this? Why am I taking so much risk?” Because, they conclude, “I have to do it or I’ll go fucking crazy.” Do you agree with that?
JIMMY: If you ask a musician not to play music, if you ask an artist not to paint, what kind of reaction would that have?
BRUCE: What is the message of Free Solo?
CHAI: You never know how your film is going to land. You always hope that audiences will see what you see. The most moving part of this whole experience for myself, Jimmy, and Alex has been this outpouring from young people. Alex’s story gives them courage. Alex makes the impossible possible in a time when so many people feel disenfranchised or feel like it doesn’t matter, that they can’t do anything [to make a difference]. Alex’s incredible story inspires all of us to say that it does matter, [that] you can work really hard and achieve the impossible. That for us is the point. It’s this idea of living your life with intention and that with the right vision and the preparation you can do it!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Bruce Feldman has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and the website politicsmoneyculture.com. He previously interviewed Baby Driver editor Paul Machlis for Musée.