Q&A: Free Solo directors

Free solo climber Alex Honnold, the subject of National Geographic’s Free Solo, a front-runner in the 91st Academy Awards’ Best Documentary category, is far more accustomed to eating from a skillet in his van than attending star-studded events like the Oscar nominees luncheon.

Shot over a three-year span, the documentary follows Honnold’s quest to become the first person ever to complete a solo ascent of the 3,000-foot El Capitan summit in Yosemite National Park without ropes or safety equipment. In the film, he calls it “the most impressive wall on earth….the center of the rock-climbing universe.”

Ahead of the Academy Awards on February 24—and following a recent win at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—Furthermore talked with directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about what inspired them to tell Honnold’s story, why he risked his life for such a dream, and the logistical challenges of capturing it all on camera.

Photo: National Geographic/Chris Figenshau

How did you first learn of Alex’s El Capitan quest?

Chin: I’m a filmmaker and a professional climber so I’ve known Alex for ten years. [We] both thought he would be a cool subject for multiple reasons. Anyone who can function and perform perfectly when the stakes are at the highest is extraordinary. Alex is that good because he’s found something that he believes in and that gives him purpose. That was something really important for us to share. His intentions are so pure—it’s not about fame or money, just the love of his craft.

Vasarhelyi: There was also the personal side: Alex began soloing as a kid because it was less scary going out without a partner or a rope than it was having to speak to another person. It’s a film about free soloing but it’s more about this idea that if you work really, really hard, anything is possible.

It’s also, unexpectedly, a love story. Were you surprised at the direction his personal life took?

Vasarhelyi: We were very surprised. We always understood that it was his dream to free solo El Cap, so it would be a transformative process. He was online dating when we began the film and we thought it would be comic relief in an otherwise stressful movie, then he meets Sanni [McCandless] and they truly fall in love in front of our cameras. That was something no one could have planned for. Her ability to love him for who he is and to stand up for herself really gave us a way to access Alex that you normally can’t.

As a married couple yourselves, did it make it harder or easier to film them together ahead of the climb?

Vasarhelyi: Both. There’s me as a human clearly wanting to protect Sanni coming into this situation as we knew how difficult it would be to live with someone in Alex’s position. That was hard, but it allowed us this empathy to ask the right questions, and to be there as a safe base for them. There was also a real instinct to protect both of them, which wasn’t our job.

Do you think there’s a biological reason Alex appears so fearless or has he trained himself to be that way?

Vasarhelyi: I think it’s a combination. He has conditioned himself and is slowly expanding the fear bubble—being able to anticipate the mistakes and how they’d feel so there’s no surprises. I think it comes down to his ability to live with fear, he’s scared of a lot of things but worked through it.

How difficult was it filming Alex when you knew he could’ve fallen to his death?

Chin: We had to address all the different scenarios before we started production. If we didn’t believe in Alex and [think] he was a daredevil and as meticulous as he was, we wouldn’t have made the film. But there’s always the worst-case scenario. It was hard to say if we would have 100 percent finished the film, those are things you can’t answer until you’re in that moment. Our thought was that we would, but it would have been very difficult.

Vasarhelyi: Alex has thought about his own mortality more than anyone and he chooses to live this way. We would have had a terrible time making the film with that tragic fact, but I don’t think the film would have been very different. It is about honoring Alex, the idea of his life of intention, and his courage.

How did you pull it off logistically as filmmakers without ever distracting him?

Chin: We spent two years filming with Alex on the Freerider route, so we knew it intimately and had the logistics completely dialed in. There were certain parts of the climb where, even though it’s difficult, it was very secure for him, so he didn’t mind if we were close. Especially towards the end, we were always in the same position so he knew and expected us in certain places. In the really difficult sections, we decided to use a remote trigger camera, mainly so that he wasn’t thinking about how scared the cameraman was and could focus on climbing.

Vasarhelyi: Jimmy is being humble. I can’t overemphasize how difficult it was logistically. You have to be ready at all times.

Chin: It was complex. We had to have elite, experienced climbers as the camera team. I’ve climbed El Cap at least 25 times [with ropes]. One of the other cameramen holds a speed record there—they were all pretty badass, for sure.

What was Alex’s training like? The film shows him doing pull-ups in the van, but did he do anything else to physically prepare?

Chin: He’s already a world-class athlete, so the training he did was mainly just for finger strength and core. The best training for what he was doing was climbing a lot. He did a bunch of laps of Freerider until it was “easy.” To put it into perspective, a world-class professional climber can spend five days on that climb and still not climb every single pitch without falling; Alex climbed it in three hours and 36 minutes.

This is a random question, but what was the deal with the man in the unicorn costume on Heart Ledge?

Chin: I’m so happy you mentioned that! It was amazing. Alex is a unicorn and he is doing a unicorn endeavor then suddenly there is this lavender unicorn right there. It was like a good omen. We actually found him, he’s a climber and he just likes to wear a unicorn suit.