Moving any mountain: Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is on top of the world with documentary 'Free Solo'
By Emma Jones
The movie reference I carried for free solo climbing for many years was Mission Impossible 2 when a (much younger) Tom Cruise dangled from a precipice from one arm and with no harness. He made it look easy; with Free Solo you’re about to find out just how hard it is.
This documentary, released this week in the UK, follows super-elite pro-climber Alex Honnold as he climbs the 3,000-foot vertical rock face El Capitan in Yosemite without using ropes. He’s attempting to set a new record and fulfil his life’s ambition, and is tracked every painfully considered, chalk-handed step of the way by married directing partners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, not to mention another team of elite climbers and cinematographers.
This is far more than a human Spiderman story or don’t-look-down documentary; Alex is a character in himself, a man who was once a little boy who, as Elizabeth says, “was more afraid of speaking to people than climbing a mountain.”
“He is unique,” she agrees. “Alex and Jimmy have known each other for around a decade and Alex had seen Meru (their previous documentary set in the Himalayas) and he’s come a long way since then. We were interested in Alex as a character, then he brought the wish to climb El Cap to the table, and that raised the stakes in many ways.
“It was about commitment on all sides. Alex was committed to his objective. He knew we were committed filmmakers. He understood the type of work we do and Jimmy is an elite climber himself. We had to trust that he would make right decisions on the mountain –including to turn back - and he had to trust us to be judicious about what we filmed.”
So that was my relationship with El Cap – asking ‘is it scary enough, do people understand the magnitude of the task and the courage of the people involved trying to climb it?’
The film is all the more interesting because over the months and years as Alex prepares to try and free solo El Cap, he has another mountain before him – an important romantic relationship with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. She asks him to take her feelings into consideration; he refuses. Given that so many other professional climbers have died before the age of 40, she might have a point. He though, sees himself as a “warrior.”
“I think he might have been watching a lot of Spartacus at that point,” laughs Elizabeth at the memory. “Or perhaps a lot of Trojan history, something like that, and he was particularly in tune with the idea of a ‘warrior spirit.’ But professional athletes do think that way – that nothing good happens because you are happy and cosy. Sanni lives as intentionally as Alex, but she’s not a pro athlete trying to scale El Cap.”
Elizabeth is not a climber herself, and explains her relationship with that rock was ‘different to Jimmy’s because of that. My big concern was how to make it look big enough to the viewer, because every time we filmed it, it looked foreshortened. So that was my relationship with El Cap – asking ‘is it scary enough, do people understand the magnitude of the task and the courage of the people involved trying to climb it?’ We had graphics done to show the different routes up and to try and make a 3D mountain so people could understand where he was at different times, and just how small he was in comparison to the scale of what he was attempting.”
His courage and commitment is extremely moving to me – he suggests that through process, you can actually make the impossible look possible.
One of the most extraordinary disciplines that Alex Honnold has is that he rehearses and visualises every move he has to make for the climb. Audiences also discover Alex has been equally methodical about overcoming every obstacle in his life – his fear of hugging people for example, or eating vegetables as an adult.
“That was exactly the method and discipline we hoped Alex would bring to the film,” Elizabeth explains. “That’s what is interesting about him. He memorised and visualised all those moves in order to minimise his fear up there. He expands the different scenarios in his mind and how he’s going to deal with it. His courage and commitment is extremely moving to me – he suggests that through process, you can actually make the impossible look possible.”
Directing from the valley floor, on the day of Alex’s attempt to free solo El Capitan, Elizabeth had a clear view of her climber. Jimmy and his crew of six climber-cinematographers on the rock face did not. Alex did not have them in his line of sight.
“Jimmy and the team practised alongside Alex for 18 months on the rock so there’d be no surprises on the day about their positions,” she says. “Alex would have known where they were but chose not to look at them. And yes, there’s danger and risk in filming it as well but they are amongst the best climbers in the world in their own right. My biggest worry throughout the shoot was exposure. Meru was only 18 days filming, now we’re talking 18 months of being on a wall for hours at a time. That was the area we were nervous about; the longer you would be up there the more likely you were to make a mistake.”
Free Solo has reaped more than 10 million dollars in US cinemas since it opened – and also has buzz ahead of the Oscar nominations. Elizabeth is thrilled.
“You always hope that the work will touch people and I got so many messages from young people saying Alex gives them courage when they need it, and that he makes the impossible looks possible.”
She will, she says, carry Alex and El Cap around with her for the rest of her life. “I can’t use a plastic bottle anymore because of Alex,” she laughs. “He tries to make you be a better person in so many ways because he’s so committed to this life of intention. He made me ask myself questions about future projects and whether to take them. He’s made me think about what I waste, my own footprint on this planet and teaching my own children about it. Basically, his radical candour just inspires you all the time.”
Free Solo will be released in UK cinemas from Friday 14th December.