When most people watch “Free Solo,” which just earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, they will likely wince and grit their teeth at the death-defying climb that Alex Honnold makes up Yosemite’s El Capitan without any climbing gear.
But when Honnold watches the film, he cringes at the scene where he buys a house with his girlfriend.
“When we premiered the film at Telluride, Alex was cringing through the whole first hour of the movie,” co-director Chai Vasarhelyi told TheWrap. “During the actual climb, while everyone else was amazed, he was just sitting there smiling.”
“Climbing is his thing,” added Vasarhelyi’s directing partner Jimmy Chin. “He’s in his element when he does it and he does it every day. Even when we were touring promoting the film, he was going to gyms to climb on rock walls.”
To make “Free Solo,” Vasarhelyi and Chin had to go over every stage of the El Capitan climb with Honnold, figuring out how to film the climb with drone cameras and cameramen attached to ropes and harnesses. At the same time, each shot was carefully constructed so as not to distract Honnold. One second of lost focus could lead to him plummeting to his death…something that the film team also had to make a plan for, should that happen.
But seeing Honnold cheat death wasn’t why Chin and Vasarhelyi wanted to make the film. It was the personal moments, the ones that made Honnold uncomfortable watching, that the directors see as the true heart of the film. Before the climb, “Free Solo” delves deep into Honnold’s past with a no-holds-barred approach and shows the ups-and-downs of his relationship with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. In candid interviews, Honnold talks about his passion for climbing and how he would easily choose it over any human relationship without a second thought.
“That’s just who Alex is,” said Chin. “He speaks his own truth openly. He’s a very honest, straight-speaking person. But that’s the film we wanted to make, a film about a person with incredible talent and drive and the mindset you have to be in to achieve something that’s so dangerous. Creating this human portrait is what documentary filmmaking should be about.”
And the directing duo say that in the months since “Free Solo” made the festival circuit and hit theaters nationwide — including in a terrifying IMAX limited engagement — they have seen a noticeable change in Honnold. He’s grateful that people now understand why he risks everything to free solo climb, and they believe it has helped him with his next great endeavor: connecting with others.
“This movie is a character portrait about a man who loves climbing but struggles with human connection, so he essentially teaches himself how to interact with others with the same drive he puts towards climbing,” said Vasarhelyi.
“He knows that people cook food, so he taught himself how to cook vegetables. He doesn’t hug people, but he knows that people hug so he pushes himself to embrace people more. It’s all about learning how to connect with Alex, and he’s made so much progress with this woman who can push back on him when she needs to but accepts and loves him for who he is.”
“I think he’s evolved since the film came out,” added Chin. “He’s grown so much, and as for what’s next for him, I think he’s just going to keep climbing. He might not do a free solo climb again, but climbing has so many iterations and disciplines that he can explore, and he’s going to keep trying all of them.”