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Interview with FREE SOLO director Jimmy Chin & climber Alex Honnold

October 24, 2018

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With the current theatrical release of “Free Solo”, there have now been two absolutely outstanding climbing documentaries within a matter of months. Last month, I interviewed rock climbing stars, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, for “The Dawn Wall” a documentary which chronicles their ascent of the titular area alongside El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park n January 2015, something which had never been done before. “Free Solo”, directed by the married team of Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi (who helmed “Meru”, another amazing climbing documentary from three years ago), returns to the same location although for a very different reason. The nerve-racking documentary follows free solo climber Alex Honnold, who climbed 3,200-foot in 3 hours and 58 minutes without any support system. Obviously, Honnold completed his goal, but the fact that he could’ve died doing this challenge is never lost on viewers or the film’s directors. 

Chin and Vasarhelyi have been friends with Honnold for years, so imagine what it took to decide to go through with filming such a climb – knowing one possible outcome could prove fatal. Thankfully, Honnold spent plenty of time preparing and planning and eventually made it to the top (which makes this thrilling doc easier to watch, for sure) and in “Free Solo” it helps that Chin and Vasarhelyi wisely capture who Honnold is and not just what he does, knowing it’ll make the film a more rewarding and engaging viewing experience. You can read my full review here, for more of my thoughts on what is a truly unforgettable documentary.

Currently, Chin and Honnold have been traveling to different cities in support of the film, introducing it at various theaters followed by a discussion about the film in which they field questions from the audience. That’s what happened last week when they both appeared here in Chicago. I had the honor to chat with Chin and Honnold over the phone (individually, albeit in that order) last Friday after the film played the previous night before a packed house as part of The North Face Speaker Series at the beautiful Music Box Theatre.

“Free Solo” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this past August and also screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival last month, where it won the People’s Choice Award: Documentaries. Here in the states, it was released on September 28th and has been steadily making its way to more theaters since then.

Below we talk about what that evening was like, what it was like to shoot the climb, their thoughts on the film, as well as the audience reception overall. Enjoy…

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Welcome to the Windy City!

JIMMY CHIN: Thank you!

DJF: Now, I know you had an event last night at the Music Box. How’d it go?

JC: It was awesome! Actually. Alex and I commented that that might be the most enthusiastic crowd we’ve seen yet, which is saying kind of a lot.

DJF: Considering our geography here is quite flat, I can see how that would be a surprise. 

JC: Yeah. Two standing ovations. It seemed like people were very receptive to the film.

DJF: Well, I do know that there’s a huge indoor climbing community here in Chicago and I know that the place where my daughter and I go for climbing, the place has been talking about “Free Solo” and I ask them, “Have you seen “Meru”, because that movie is amazing!” 

JC: Well, thank you!

DJF: You’re welcome. So, I wanted to back up and start at the beginning a little bit with you. You’re a climber and you’re a filmmaker and you travel around the world. Which came first, climbing or filmmaking. 

JC: Definitely climbing. I was a climber and a skier before I ever picked up a camera and I picked a camera when I was in my early twenties and started shooting photos and it wasn’t until a little bit later that I started filming.

DJF: This is obviously before “Meru” – when did you realize that filming could be something that you progress into making feature-length documentaries and have this whole unique cinematic approach to capturing climbing on film?

JC: Well, I always knew that climbing is an incredible cinematic experience. There’s just a lot of different elements – you know, usually it’s in a dramatic landscape and people are doing things that look really incredible. But, I started making shorter films early on, but I knew what great films did and could be, especially in terms of how they made me feel, how they changed my perspective – in a way, I kind of feel like I’m a little bit of a romantic in that way in terms of films.  I love great films. I love how films can make a person feel. So, when we made “Meru”, I was really wanting to share particular experiences with people, things that I’ve known and been inspired by or felt deeply about in terms of what I’ve experienced climbing and being in the mountains, being on expeditions. That feeling of inspiration, that feeling of camaraderie and taking on really big objectives and risk and what that brings to me and wanting to share that.

“Meru” really surprised me in some ways, how it was received and how people seem to want that experience in a film as well. “Meru” was certainly like the big turning point for me in terms of the work that I’ve done, but there’s other films that have moved me.

DJF: When I watch climbing documentaries. I’m always wondering, “How did this get made? How was this done?” And when I watched “Meru” and definitely “First Solo”, I just can’t keep those questions out of my mind. Yes, I’m immersed in the moment and the story that’s being told, but I can’t help but think about the lengths that are being taken to make this happen. Was there something about communicating that kind of immersive feel that you had to develop and learn over time?

JC: Yes. I mean, for “Free Solo”, we had at least a pretty clear intention of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to film. We didn’t know what the outcome of the story was going to be. We didn’t know where the story would lead, obviously, because that’s part of the mystery of documentary filmmaking, but I wanted to take twenty years of experience shooting and filming in high-angle terrain and really push the edge of that, as far as I could and really give people an immersive experience and bring people as close to what it is like up there as possible. I mean, I think that’s the goal, to really transport a viewer in a movie and so that was all very intentional. We really – and when I say ‘push the edge’ I don’t mean big camera moves, since I don’t like filming in a way that calls attention to the process. I prefer subtlety and nuance, but great compositions are important to me too.

DJF: Well, that definitely shows on the screen in “Free Solo”. There were times when I just couldn’t believe the camera angles and how it literally felt like the cameras were in the air. Was there several different approaches that you implemented in “Free Solo”, compared to what you did in something like “Meru”? 

JC: With “Meru”, we were obviously much more limted with the fact that we were on an epic mountain at a high altitude and there’s snow and cold and we were literally handing over a couple cameras between each other. When we made “Meru” we weren’t planning to make a feature documentary, it was really just filming for posterity and filming different parts of our lives, but it was never cohesive and it was with all sorts of different kinds of cameras and there wasn’t really a style in the way that we shot it. With “Free Solo”, it was much more intentional, how we wanted to shoot it. You know, we wanted to shoot it at 4K and shoot with cinema lens, cinema glass and really make it kind of beautiful. We were really thinking of a theatrical release with this film. We also had a lot more resources. The space that we were working in, I was able build a really good team around it. And so we had more of a capacity to shoot different angles, work together from long lens shots from the valley to having different angles on the wall. We did use a couple of G-of-arm shots and toyed with some new ideas I’ve with how to shoot up there. So, yes, it was very different.

DJF: Apart from the approach, the big obvious difference here are the stakes. Here is your friend, who you’ve known for quite a while, someone you’ve filmed before, who is committing to a free solo climb of El Capitan – did you have some initial reservations?

JC: Yeah, we had quite a few. When we first decided to make the film, it was just a character study, a portrait of Alex. It didn’t include soloing El Cap and really Alex brought that to us later. While we were still in development, he told us that he was thinking about soloing El Cap, which is when we decided to take a step back for a few months…and it was really almost six months where we really had to take into consideration a lot of different factors and ask ourselves some hard questions. Ultimately, we decided that, based on my experience with Alex, and the trust and relationship the we have with him, that we would be willing to go forward with it and make the film.

 

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DJF: I’m under the impression that Alex was going to free solo El Cap whether or not you decide to film him. But because of your friendship, I would imagine that you couldn’t even comprehend anybody else filming this but you.

JC: Yes, that’s exactly how I felt about it. And it wasn’t just me personally filming, but knowing his psychology, both from being around him but also from being a professional climber and understanding what it feels like and the different pressures that you feel as a professional climber and the different pressures you feel as a professional climber with a big objective. That understanding was really important in how we approached shooting with him.

DJF: Obviously you’re working with a group of filmmakers, but you’re sharing directing duties with your wife. How do you two approach a project and share directing duties?

JC: Well, we come from very different backgrounds in filmmaking. Clearly, I spend a lot more time managing the high angle filmmaking and Chai spends a lot more focus on the verite filmmaking and we have very different perspectives on it, but they match up very well because I think our two perspectives are necessary to tell the story in a multi-faceted way. I also have a very close and deep understanding of the culture and the nuances of climbing and the authenticity of climbing and the challenges that climbers face. Chai knows that intimately well from being married to me and seeing it, so she’s really good at translating that and has much more objectivity towards that.

DJF: Definitely one of the great things about the film is that it’s not just about the climb. As you said, this was going to be a profile about Alex, but having the audience get to know and spend time with Alex was maybe moreso important than the climb itself. 

JC: Yes. The only way to really maximize people’s experience and understanding of the climb has to come from knowing Alex.

DJF: The timing of the release of this film is kind of crazy because I just recently watched “The Dawn Wall” and it’s almost like these two would make an amazing double feature, because obviously Tommy Caldwell is in this film as well and there’s this community where everybody knows each other, but it just seems like uncanny timing for both of these movies to be released close together. 

JC: Yeah and I think climbing is definitely having a moment too.

DJF: Right and more people are trying it out and a lot of that has to do with the climbing documentaries and what people see and the draw of the subculture and community of it. 

JC: For sure. I think people love the idea of – what I always found appealing about the climbing culture and community.

DJF: I’m sure you didn’t plan on making the best action thriller of the year (both laugh), but what’s your plan for the next film, do you have something in mind?

JC: Yes, we are in development on a couple different projects. We have been talking about a film about conservationists, Kris Tompkins and Doug Tompkins.

DJF: Sounds great. Well, hey Jimmy, I appreciate your time today and congratulations on the film. Have fun in Chicago and I will definitely be looking forward to whatever you work on next. 

JC: Alright, thanks David!

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE:  Hey Alex. 

ALEX HONNOLD:  Hey, how’s it going?

DJF: Pretty good. You’re in Chicago right now, right?

AH: I am, indeed.

DJF: Excellent. So, how did it go last night, at the Music Box?

AH: Actually, it went – wait, where are you based?

DJF: I’m here in Chicago too…

AH: Oh, okay. It was, it was crazy. Actually, I don’t know it you, you just talked to Jimmy, right?

DJF: Yeah yeah yeah…

AH: I don’t know what he said, but I think it might be the craziest reception we’ve had for the film anywhere, which we were really surprised by because I generally don’t think of Chicago as a big climbing hub or outdoor thing. So, for whatever reason the reception was outrageous last night.

DJF: That’s so cool. I was telling Jimmy, Illinois is kind of known for its flat lands, but there’s a huge indoor climbing community.

AH: Hmm, yeah, I felt like I could crowd surf from the stage to the back. It was seriously outrageous.

DJF: That would’ve been great. So, in general, what are your thoughts on the reception of “Free Solo” overall? There’s the reception you received last night, but you’ve been touring with the film, have you been surprised?

AH: Yeah, I’ve been super surprised. To be honest, I haven’t thought that much about it. I mean, I had no idea what to expect, just because I’ve never participated in any kind of film project like this. I just don’t know anything about cinema or, you know, how things are released or what that even means. And honestly, I’ve been sort of intentionally trying not to learn too much about it and just focus on being a good climber and let Jimmy focus on making a good film. And now that it’s all happened and it’s out there, it’s just like, “Whoa!” It’s just like a lot – a lot more than I expected.

DJF: Well, I’m pretty certain that worked out for both of you. I’m sure, based on your friendship with Jimmy, you’ve learned a little bit about the process of filming climbing. What are the things that you’ve learned about being filmed or working with Jimmy and his crew as they film you.

AH: I don’t know. Seriously, I haven’t thought that much about it. I think that maybe one of the things that I sort of learned from this film is just that honesty is key. You know, with the reception we’ve had, I’ve just had a lot of people telling me that it’s a very personal, vulnerable and inspiring – I don’t know, that it’s moving because it’s so personal and I think that they did such a good job at telling a good story. I mean, that’s the last two years of my life up there on the screen. So, maybe that’s one of the keys to it all.

DJF: I definitely agree with you on that. I imagine that you probably had no idea that it would come across that way when it’s all done, not to mention how much your personal story would resonate with viewers.

AH: Well, I mean, to be honest, I never really thought about how it would come across. I was just always kind of focused on I just do my thing/they do their thing. It was all compartmentalized in some ways. I just focused on the goal that I had and let them focus on what they’re doing. And now, when it’s all said and done and I see it laid out, I’m like, “whoa, they did a great job!”, they really did focus on what they were doing.

DJF: So, when you first saw the final cut of the film, was it with a regular audience or was it just you and Jimmy watching it together?

AH: I saw an almost final without color and sound, it wasn’t totally final. I saw a rough draft in the spring with a tiny little screener audience. I think it was with a few of Chai’s friends and maybe one of the editors. So, a handful of people…maybe six or eight people sitting in a screening room. And so I saw it and it was like, “Oh, it’s a good film. It looks nice, (both laugh) El Cap looks beautiful.” I don’t think that the full gravity of it struck me, especially, you know, when I watched the film, I think that when I watch the film, I think I just have a different experience when the average person watches it. I mean, so much of it I’m cringing my way through – all the, my relationship with my girlfriend, all the personal things – I find hard to watch. And so, you know, I’m covering my eyes and pull my hood up and I’m like, “Why would I just listen to myself talk for an hour-and-a-half?”, it’s slightly horrible. But, then when I saw the climbing, I was like, “This is awesome. This is everything I hoped for in a film. This is wonderful!”

DJF: You probably want your own shortened version of just the climb, right? (both laugh)

AH: Seriously, just fifteen minutes of climbing! It’s funny, some of my friends have asked me if they can get the full uncut four-hour long shot from the meadow…

DJF: Oh wow! (both laugh)

AH: …just to see how the entire climb was laid out and now I kind of want to see it. I think it would be kind of amazing!

DJF: I think I would probably have a heart attack! (Alex laughs) Because, literally, I was sweating watching this happen. I mean, you know the outcome – you made it. You’re alive, but this is a “do or die” thing.

AH: Yeah, well that’s why you put two years of practice in.

DJF: Last month, I talked to Tommy [Caldwell] and Kevin [Jourgeson] for “The Dawn Wall” and we touched on a little bit the subject of fear. And from watching this film, it comes across like you have this mastery over fear. Is it that or is just that you’ve planned so much that you don’t even think about fear anymore?

AH: Yeah, it’s definitely more the planning. I would not say that I have a mastery over fear. I would just say that I have a lot of experience at practicing certain things to the point that they aren’t scary anymore. And I think that’s kind of the process I had with El Cap. Just to put the time in and prepare until what used to seem super scary, no longer feels scary.

 

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DJF: Hmmm. So, at this point is climbing with a rope, a safety system, kind of restricting for you?

AH: Oh no, I mostly climb with a rope. I mostly climb with partners. I mean, I’m actually, honestly, as we’ve been touring with the film, I’ve been climbing in the gym. Actually, I’ll probably go to the gym here in Chicago in a little bit. So, I just like climbing of all kinds. Certainly climbing without a rope is kind of liberating in some ways and sort of a beautiful experience in many ways, but I wouldn’t want to do just that for the rest of my life, simply because you can never push yourself super hard. You always have to be careful, you always have to prepare and put in all this work. That’s just not something you want to do all the time.

DJF: Yeah, there’s a lot more preparation and planning, for sure.

AH: Exactly.

DJF: I gather that a lot of people are coming to you for input or advise while you’re on tour….

AH: (laughs) I actually think it may be the opposite. I think most people don’t want to take advice from that guy!

DJF: Ha! (laughs) They want to stay away from you, right? But this subculture of climbing, this community, there’s almost kind of like this zen appeal to the whole thing, where it’s almost like when you’re in the zone, it’s almost as calming as, say yoga or something.

AH: Oh yeah, for sure.

DJF: So, somebody who’s starting out, how would you sell them on sticking with climbing and hooking into this community, this culture?

AH: Well, I don’t think I would actually ever try to sell somebody on it. I would say if somebody’s interested, they should go to the gym and they should climb a bit. They should do it as much as they find fun. They should try. And just go and play in the gym. I mean, kind of like with yoga – it’s funny that you said it’s just as zen as doing yoga, but I find climbing much more calming than yoga. When I do a yoga class, I’m like, straining and it kind of hurts and I’m looking around at what we’re supposed to do and it’s all kind of stressful. Whereas with climbing, I know what to do and it feels very relaxing. I think a lot of it has to do with what you have expertise in and what you personally feel comfortable with and then that sort of allows you to tap into the zen, to be able to enjoy it properly.

DJF: Interesting. So, the free solo climbing is much more relaxing and freeing than the preparation and planning of it.

AH: Yeah. I mean, in a lot of ways. For sure.

DJF: Okay, alright. Man, I have to say that watching this film was utterly nerve-racking, my hand were sweating – and overall, it’s a great film, but when it gets to the actual climb, it turns into the best action film of the year.

AH: (laughs) Well, I appreciate that. It was certainly the best action climbing of my year. Pretty fun climbing.

DJF: I bet! I mean, this climb is, to date, the pinnacle climb of your career. Is there some other goal that you have your eye on now?

AH: I have a lot of climbing goals on the horizon, but none of them are big free solo projects and none of them are the same scale as El Cap. I have a lot of other climbing challenges I want to take on, but they’re just different sorts of things that involve climbing with a rope and climbing with partners in different places. I’m certain there will never be anything like El Cap, just because it’s such an iconic wall, so strengthening. I just don’t know if there will ever be objectives that are equally inspiring.

DJF: I’m sure. Well, again, congrats on the film! I appreciate your vulnerability in allowing us to get to know that you that’s up on screen. I know it can be awkward to watch yourself up there, but like I told Jimmy, I think getting to know you outside of the actual climb, made the film even more enriching and immersive and engaging, so thank you!

AH: Whoa, I appreciate that. Thank you. Cool.

DJF: So, have fun during the rest of your visit here in Chicago and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

AH: Yeah, thanks much. Have a good day!

 

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Co-produced and distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films, “Free Solo” is out now in theaters. In Chicago, you can catch it at the Music Box Theatre, AMX River East, Arclight Chicago, and Cinemark Century 12 Evanston as well as these other theaters. 

Also, if you want an opportunity to climb with Alex Honnold, check this out here!

 

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