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How Documentary Filmmakers Prepare for Disaster: ‘We Had to Write 2 Press Releases’ Says ‘Free Solo’ Director (Video)

TheGrill 2019: National Geographic filmmakers look back on the scariest moments on the job

National Geographic documentarians put themselves in harm’s way every day. But before they set out into some of the world’s harshest climates and most dangerous scenarios, they have to prepare for the worst.

On Wednesday at The Grill, TheWrap’s annual entertainment and business conference, panelists including Jimmy Chin, director of the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” talked about the intense preparation that goes into shooting. “Free Solo” follows Alex Honnold as he tries to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan with no ropes. 

“By far the hardest part was not physical, it was the emotional mental aspect of it,” Chin said. You can watch the video clip above.

Other National Geographic documentaries on the panel included Guillermo Navarro, executive producer Nat Geo’s “Hostile Planet,” David Reichert, director of photography for “Hostile Planet,” Crofton Diack, field producer for Nat Geo’s “Life Below Zero,” Benji Lanpher, cinematographer for “Life Below Zero,” and “Free Solo” executive producer Shannon Dill. 

“I just had my first accident in the field, and it mildly sucked. I slipped on some ice and dislocated and broke my shoulder,” said Diack. “It was a two-day extraction, and six months later I’m holding a camera again.” 

Chin said the moral and ethical questions that came up during the early planning stages of “Free Solo” were so serious that he almost didn’t go through with the project. His team was so worried about Honnold dying during his climb that they met the night before to prepare for the worst. 

“We had to write two press releases, you know? You have to think about potential outcomes. It was a table of some of the gnarliest, heaviest expedition climbers and cinematographers in our business all sitting around the table crying. It was heavy,” Chin said. “You had to have a protocol… who’s the point of contact for a rescue scenario, or potentially a body recovery scenario?” 

Chin decided to make the film after talking with a mentor, Jon Krakauer, mountaineer and author of “Into the Wild.” Chin said Krakauer told him he should do the film if Honnold planned to make the climb whether or not cameras were present.

“Is he going to do it anyways, whether you film or not? And do you trust him? That’s the question,” Chin said. “I knew Alex enough to know he wasn’t going to do it to become famous or make money.”

Chin also had to be sure that Honnold had as good a chance at surviving the climb as possible. “If I thought it was likely that he was gonna fall, I would never even consider it,” Chin said. 

As seen in the film, Honnold abandoned his first attempt, opting to train instead for several more months.

“I was relieved Alex was able to turn back. It built the trust for me,” said “Free Solo” executive producer Shannon Dill.

Navarro said his team spent weeks in the Himalayas for “Hostile Planet” before getting any usable footage. The conditions were so severe that they almost called it quits.

“Just surviving there for three weeks was already nearly impossible,” he said.

But the team decided to push on and stay for another week. “It is this luck factor of being in the right place at the right time with a lens ready and the camera rolling, because it’s pretty extreme,” he said. 

Reichert recalled the difficulty of filming tiger seals hunting penguins.

 “It was a very long hard shoot for that one,” he said. “We had really aggressive animals too, which made it a really harsh sequence to make. We had to spend a lot of time with them, but they were cagey. It was a tough one.”

Diack recalls being faced with literally hundreds of mosquitos while filming “Life Below Zero.” Anarctica, it turns out, has plenty of insects.

“There’s bugs. The tundra wakes up and they’re raining mosquitos on you,” Diack said. “You’ve got, no kidding, 400 mosquitos on you at any given time. At some point you’re gonna lose your s—. But you try not to.” 

Lanpher struggled with cold, snow, and bears — just to use the bathroom.

“Some days that are like, ‘God this is cold, I can barely blink my eyes, I’m walking a rope out to the outhouse and there’s a bear that will maybe attack,” said Lanpher.

He recalled a moment when both of his team’s snow machines had sank into the snow while they were filming the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska. “We gotta call this off, we have to have a rescue team, which we’ve never done before,” he recalls thinking.

But his dread didn’t last long:”I think later that night I was excited to get back out into it,” he said.