When Free Solo was released last fall, it was an instant sensation—the movie that everyone was telling their friends they had to see. The picture, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature chronicled Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the 3,000-foot sheer rock face ofYosemite's El Capitan without a rope. It also captured his emotional growth as he fell in love with Sanni McCandless, a relationship that made his goal much more complicated. One giant reason Free Solo was so special was the husband and wife directing team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, whose unique backgrounds made them the perfect duo to tell the story. In this conversation with Outside’s Michael Roberts, recorded earlier this month at Summit LA, they open up about the life and work that they’ve created together—and where it goes from here.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael Roberts (Host): It was just over a year ago that the world started going nuts over the documentary Free Solo. The film was released in late September, and by Christmas, it was the movie that had everyone telling their friends that they had to see—well, unless they’re afraid of heights.
[Clip from Free Solo begins]
Interviewee from Free Solo Trailer: People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like: Oh. He’s totally safe. And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Roberts: Free Solo chronicled Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the 3,000-foot sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It also captured Honnold’s emotional growth as he fell in love... which made his incredibly dangerous goal a lot more complicated. The film, and the climb, couldn’t have gone any better.
[Clip from Oscars Awards Ceremony, February 2019]
Announcer: And the Oscar goes to… Free Solo.
Roberts: Among the unique factors that made the movie so special was the directing team: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. A married couple, and two individuals with remarkable backgrounds that made them the perfect duo to tell Alex Honnolds’s story.
Today, we’re going to share their story: how they met, and the work and the life that they’ve created together.
This story begins in 2003, when Chai, as her friends know her, is 24 years old. She had grown up in Manhattan, and both her parents were immigrants. Her father was a professor, her mother worked with big non-profits. Chai went to college at Princeton, where she studied film, … and then she went out into the real world and made her first documentary: A Normal Life, about seven college-age friends living in Kosovo during the very bloody Bosnian conflict.
[Clip begins from A Normal Life]
A Normal Life Interviewee: In war, you don’t get to see anything that makes you happy. Everything you see is just… sad, and… it’s war.
Roberts: Chai and her co-director submitted the film to the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the prize for best documentary. That got her noticed by major Hollywood figures, including the legendary director Mike Nichols. She decided to spend most of the next decade working on documentary films about the African nation of Senegal.
The first one was I Bring What I Love, which followed the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour as he released a Grammy-winning album that presented Islam as a peacful and tolerant religion. In 2008, it premiered at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.
Next came Touba, a film that chronicled the annual pilgrimage of more than a million Senegalese Sufi Muslims.
Meanwhile, as Chai was building her career, and growing up, out there in the world, there was this guy named Jimmy. He was also the son of immigrants: two librarians who had settled in Minnesota. Jimmy went to college at Carleton, and after graduating, he became a dirtbag climber, living out of a beat-up car and pretty much climbing all the time. He was very happy.
And then, early one morning in 1999, Jimmy woke up at the top of El Capitan, in Yosemite, where he had camped out with his climbing partner, Brady Robinson. He noticed a beautiful rising light, so he grabbed Brady’s camera and took a photo of his friend, who was still sleeping. Brady then sold the photo to the outdoor gear brand Mountain Hardwear for 500 dollars and graciously gave the cash to Jimmy, who used the money to buy his own camera.
And so began the career of the world’s preeminent adventure photographer.
Jimmy took trips all over the world and started selling more photos. He got noticed by major figures in the climbing community, like the American alpinist Conrad Anker. In 2006, Jimmy was part of the first expedition to ski from the summit of Mount Everest.
By 2011, Jimmy was a big deal: he was on the cover of Outside magazine, and also shot his first cover for National Geographic.
[Live recording from Summit event begins to fade in]
And then came a major turning point in this story, when Jimmy and Chai meet for the first time. It was 2012, at an event near Lake Tahoe put on by a group called Summit, which was building a community of leaders from across industries. Earlier this year at a Summit event in Downtown Los Angeles, Jimmy and Chai told me what happened next…
[Summit recording comes to the foreground]
Roberts: And, as it happened, Jimmy was about to give a talk about two climbs he’d done on a mountain named Meru, in India’s Garwhal Himalaya. 21,000 foot peak. And out in the lobby--outside the room--well, let me bring them in to tell their own story themselves. Everybody, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.
Okay. So. Um. Do--Jimmy, do you remember that moment? Like, do you remember how you pitched the talk that you’re about to give, and how that went over?
Jimmy Chin: Uh…
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Like the best moment of your life.
Chin: This is a cautionary tale. No, I’m just kidding. I was about to give a talk about... well, she has a very different perspective on it. I'll tell mine right now. Uh, I was about to give a talk. I had just come back from my first attempt on Meru, where… Was it? No, 2012. Okay. So yeah, I had just gotten back from my second attempt. You know my history better than me.
Roberts: I've been studying it--
Roberts: --a while.
Chin: A second attempt at Meru, and I was giving a slideshow. I still remember it, because I had just met Beretta and, um, Jose Gonzales. And I was like: Ah! Because we listened to his music on the climb. And they both came to the talk. But anyways, I was outside. It was 10 minutes before the talk. And I saw someone standing outside and I was kind of just standing outside. So I started, I approached Chai and started making some small talk and... You know, because the entrance of the talk was right there. I said, Oh, I'm giving a talk right here, uh, in like 10 minutes if you want to go. And, uh, she said... no. [Everyone laughs]
I should have known then. But anyways, um…
Roberts: But she came, right?
Chin: She came to the talk. Yes.
Roberts: So here's what I wanna remember, Chai, like what you remember of that talk. Like the story that was there, or anything that really stood out from what you heard. Or so.
Roberts: Uh, I think that's what you do. Yeah.
Vasarhelyi: I have to say the photograph that Jimmy shows of him as a really fat baby… [Laughs] ...is like, like it was amazing. And then of Jimmy playing the violin when he's about four. And then he went on to tell this incredible story of how he found this life of adventure. But those images of the Chinese immigrant experience, um, and this idea of like, you know, kind of tiger parents who want the most for you, you know, really moved me. Because it was where I come from too. Right? So it was this very unexpected, um, kind of communion.
Um, and also of course, like you've all seen Jimmy's photography. He brings like this graciousness and humility to how we look at the outside, outdoor world. As well as a breath that kind of elevates it. But what happened was he was also telling the story about Meru, which was, you know, his first attempt was a spectacular failure. They were 300 meters from the top, and they understood that if they kept on going, they would die. So they turned around.
And this idea of being that close to achieving your dream... was amazing to me. And I was at Summit with one of my best friends from my high school, who's now a professor at Harvard, in vision and justice, her name's Sarah Lewis. And she was writing a book about failure, called The Rise. And I was like: Listen, Sarah, you've gotta meet this guy. He's got the biggest failure. [Laughter]
Chin: Right. She loves saying that.
Vasarhelyi: But this is, this is like, Summit in its heyday bro days. Where we’d be hanging out, and Jimmy would be like: Hey, bro. And Sarah and I would start snickering. Like, we're two girls from Manhattan. We couldn't be further away from this world. But we had a really nice time that weekend.
Roberts: Yeah. So what I'm wondering is how we get to this next point, which is, a few months later, you ended up sending her an assembly of your footage from Meru. And here's the thing about that, cause that… to me that's, that's kind of a surprise. I mean, you had a nice weekend together, and you know, there was clearly some connection. But in that movie, you have this moment where you say: I never climb or go on expeditions with people I don't trust and know. And then you have this very personal story, and you, like, send it to this person who at that point, I don't think you know that well. So what made you think like: This is a good idea. I'll share my stuff and expose myself this way with all my work to get her tape. Like, what brought that out?
Chin: I mean, a couple things. I think, uh, within probably five minutes... Well, we met after the talk with her friend, Sarah Lewis, which I also thought was kind of funny. ‘Cause every... They were constantly, like, sizing me up, you know? In every question that they asked me, it was always like, where's this guy? Can he, you know, um... But it was pretty apparent early on that she's highly, highly intelligent. And I was in the middle of cutting the film, and there were a lot of questions. And I knew that... I'd done a lot of, you know, shooting, but not feature length documentary, which is a complete... another animal in itself. And I knew what her credentials were and I knew that, you know, she would also have a different eye on the story, as someone outside of the industry.
And so I sent her... And I asked her if she would look at it. And I sent it to her, and then I didn't hear back from her for three… Was it three months? Yeah. Um, so I just assumed, yeah, whatever. She just totally blew me off. That's fine. But she kind of blew me off when I asked her to come see my talk, and then she actually came to the talk, so maybe there was some hope. And then, uh, but she was actually in Senegal filming Incorruptible. And then, uh, I remember her giving me a call, and if you get to know Chai, she's very direct. There was no small talk. She just like, I picked up the phone, she said, this is Chai, what are you doing with the film? And that was it. And I was like, I don't know what I'm doing with the film. And she eventually actually sent fairly insightful notes. Not exhaustive. Like, very to the point. And um, and I thought they were extremely helpful.
Roberts: When you saw the footage, I mean, what was your first reaction when you saw what Jimmy had sent you? And again, yes, you should be honest.
Vasarhelyi: I mean, Meru is astonishing. I mean, I had never seen anything like it. It was, you know, kind of enabled by the DSLR revolution where you could be in these extreme circumstances and filming yourself. It's like one of the most intimate... it's a very, very intimate story.
At the same time, like, the story itself is Shakespearian. I mean, it just, when you know, when you least expect it, the worst thing happens and they persevere and come through it. So it was, it was just, the material was absolutely amazing. And I had never seen anything like it. I had never seen... you know, they're at like 19,000 feet, like, shooting themselves. Filming themselves. And it was just clear it had to be made into a film. Like, it had all the material. But it was assembled not in a way necessarily that best kind of expressed its strengths.
Roberts: But I, you know, you guys obviously started working together on it, but… [Laughs] You're used to this.
Roberts: He seems fine.
Vasarhelyi: That’s true!
...Well, footage wasn't astonishing.
Roberts: Yeah. So, but I still find it somewhat surprising that you chose to eventually invest yourself in this project. I mean, you'd been making films about these really difficult subjects and you know, the sort of, for lack of a better word, this sort of the big important topics, I mean, it's religion, and war. And this is a story about climbing. And so I want to understand like, what pulled you towards that? I mean, great footage. It's all there, but you know...
Chin: Right. Wow. All the way through!
Vasarhelyi: No, but really I'm, I mean. I invested in Jimmy. Like, I was falling in love with this man. And Meru also tells, you know, this, this kind of wonderful story about Jimmy and his sister, where his sister—his older sister—is married, and living at Yale in New Haven, and she got a divorce. And she had two small kids, and when she called Jimmy, his response was: Just move in with me. I mean, there were so many different reasons to fall in love with Jimmy from watching that footage. And as I got to know him more, I… you know, I was falling in love with Jimmy.
And so it really became more about... Like, filmmaking is like a muscle I have. It's a craft. I've refined over X amount, you know. I've made, I don't know, eight films, eight films by now. But the idea of being able to put myself in the service of helping the man I love best tell his personal story was incredibly moving to me, you know?
Roberts: But I mean, co-creating anything is complicated. Like it is hard for people to, you know… there's negotiation involved. There's compromise involved. There's putting two people's visions in. For a lot of people it's difficult. What you're describing makes it sound beautiful, but it complicates it a little bit, no? Or is it, is it all good to be in a relationship with someone that you’re creating a very complicated project with that also happens to be about them in a big way?
Chin: That's a hard question.
Vasarhelyi: But it's funny, like, I think part of our magic is that it actually isn't that complicated. The creative part. I feel like the business of being married is hard. You know, the business of parenting is hard. But the creativity part, like, it's that... I think that I can speak for both of us that we fundamentally trust each other. And, you know, what was the hardest part about Meru was there was stuff that Jimmy didn't understand. Like we had this whole process of him understanding what we, myself and our editor found interesting. You know? And you know, to this day there are things that'll only came out much later that I'm still regretting, that, why didn't anyone tell me this stuff?
You know, because it's just like a different language that we spoke. And I think that's what happened with this—you know, with both Meru and Free Solo—is that we were looking at it through a different lens, like a more human or universal lens.
Roberts: At the same time though you, I would say one of the things—and you spoke to this briefly, when you said what you liked about his talk—is you did come to this with a certain shared background, immigrant parents, some Asian American heritage, your parents. His understanding of the tiger parents really pushed you. Did that immediately facilitate an ability to work together and you know, have a process that fit?
Vasarhelyi: I don't know necessarily working together. It just made it very clear we had shared fundamental values, shared… I mean, Jimmy can handle my mother better than I can. He's like a pro at old Chinese ladies. [Laughs] My dad is Caucasian and could learn something from Jimmy. So it was just, like, it was a seamless thing. And I'd never dated somebody who was Asian. Yeah.
Chin: I think the other part that was clear very early on was just, you know, Chai’s expectations of herself and the work that she produced and directed, uh, like the level of excellence that she expected. And that was immediately apparent. Uh, and when you know that the person you're working with has that—not just that expectation—but has the capacity to perform at that level and work at that level. You know, there is an immediate trust in terms of, you know, our working relationship and making the film. But you know, by far the biggest challenge for me with that film is—and you know, other filmmakers I'm sure will agree—is that —when you're in the film and you've lived the film and you have lived through, you know, what's happened with the friends that you are in the film with—it's really hard to be objective about it. It's really hard to understand what narrative points are worth telling.
Because you know, all of it kind of blends together just as your personal experience. And so there was like a specific point that Chai’s referencing, when she says: Why didn't someone tell me this earlier? Was that… uh... I guess I should also say you also live in the culture and the ethos of your experience. Right.
So you know, late in the edit on Meru, I told Chai... She was like: Why did you end up climbing to the top first when this was Conrad's climb? Why didn't he go to the top?
Roberts: I wanted to ask that actually.
Chin: Yeah. And I was like: Oh, it's just a thing. You know. Conrad knew that, you know, that in a way he was passing the torch to me, and kind of giving me the onus, the responsibility of taking us to the summit. Which is, you know, a double edged sword. You do get to summit first. And you do get the summit pitch. But um, you are also carrying like the weight of getting to that, ‘cause it was a not-straightforward pitch.
Chin: And so, and Chai was like, are you kidding me? You're telling me this at the ninth hour of the edit? Like, that is like a very critical idea within the entire kind of ethos of, you know, this climb, and your climbing community, that someone would give up the summit pitch because they are handing over the torch. Very significant narrative point.
And I was like: Yeah, but that's just the way it is in climbing. [Laughs] And that's just who Conrad is. It's not that big of a deal. And I remember actually thinking it's not that big of a deal. Like, let's not mess around. And you know, it caused us to have to edit longer, and then you put it in the film, and then it of course makes total sense where you're like, wow, that's kind of a big deal. [Roberts laughs] But, you know, like, when you live in that space and your expectation of your partner and your mentor, you know, I mean, that's totally who Conrad is. Like he is... he has that mindset, of, you know, mentorship. And that was obviously a very critical idea that we explore in the film.
Roberts: There's a mentorship obviously, you know, look, the film was a great success. The collaboration worked. You had the audience award at Sundance, shortlisted for the Oscars, and it was the highest grossing documentary that year. So we've been talking about it so much. We're gonna watch a clip from Meru. So enjoy for a moment here.
[Clip from Meru begins]
Film Narrator: The Shark’s Fin at Meru Central. This climb has seen more attempts and more failures than any route in the Amalia.
Chin, in film: [Laughs] Wow.
Film Narrator: It's the headwaters of the Ganges river, one of the most sacred rivers on earth. The center of the universe. It’s this weird nexus, that sort of the point where heaven and earth and hell all come together. The thing that gives it the name the Sharks Fin is this 1500 foot blade of this beautiful, flawless granite. Way up high, you know, 20,000 feet. This is the test of the master climber. You know, it's been tried by so many great climbers, I don't know, 20 times. Some of the best climbers in the world have tried and failed on this route.
Meru is not just hard. It's hard in this really complicated way. You can't just be a good ice climber. You can't just be good at altitude. You can't just be a good rock climber. You gotta be able to ice climb, mixed climb, and you gotta be able to do big wall climbing at 20,000 feet. It's all that stuff wrapped in one package. It's defeated so many good climbers, and will probably defeat you, and me, will probably defeat everybody for all time. That to a certain kind of mindset is an irresistible appeal.
Roberts: And that. Yeah. That ending part of that clip I think gets at what, um, what was so impressive to me about this film. Is that it explained better than anything I've ever seen, or really read, why people like you, and people like Conrad, and Renan Ozturk, who was with you, chase these dreams that put your lives at incredible risk. And it's something at Outside we've been trying to explain for more than 40 years, and we fail a lot at explaining, ‘cause it's really difficult. But this film captured that. And I just wonder, you know, like, you spoke before about you not understanding the language. And maybe that was... is that really just the key to this? That you just talked about, you're into that, but I wonder from you, going in, not really knowing what they're talking about at times in a good way, but it allowed to bring out that piece that climbers themselves maybe would have a challenging part surfacing. I'm telling you.
Vasarhelyi: No, I think absolutely having an outside, like an outsider's perspective, allowed us to ask questions in a certain way that hadn't been asked before. At least hadn't been asked of them before. And also brought a patience to the filmmaking, like these very long interviews over and over again, to really try to get to it. And it's funny now, watching that, I’m like: Oh, I was clearly evaluating if he's crazy or not crazy and should I get married to him? [Laughter]
Like, I mean, cause that was the question. Like, we had this constant dialogue in our edit room in between myself and Jimmy, about: Can you resist doing this? Like, why would one do this? Can you? It’s irresponsible to do this right? And, you know, the question is unresolved. You know, that clip says it's irresistible, but I'm still like bullshit. You know? But that's the point of it. Like, it's about that dialogue, and about keeping it alive and vibrant, and bringing up both sides of the argument and giving voice, letting Jenny Anchor, Jenny Low Anchor, have a voice in this. Hearing from the people around them who really loved them.
And watching them have to struggle with those questions.
Vasarhelyi: So it was just like a different way of looking at something. And the material itself, the world that you guys live in, is so, so rich. I mean, these are Shakespearian stories. So it was just about someone coming at it who really doesn't know anything, and asking some questions. But, you know, like the example Jimmy gave there, I mean, there were others with no clue. But it also taught me to really respect every single... like, everything has a reason, you know? Like, everything Conrad Anker and Jimmy do has meaning. And its just not apparent at first glance to someone from the outside.
Roberts: Yeah. And I would, I would say, you know, the interesting thing is if someone hasn't seen the film, and that clip we just watched, the only thing they'd seen, they'd be like: Oh, it's a story about climbing, right? It's a mountain. And of course it's so much more than that. It is this penetrating look at friendship, and obsession. And I think one of the things that stood out with me so much when I watch it is, these guys, really bringing their emotions to the film and opening up. And these are kind of like, tough guy, climber bros. And so that, I just want to go right to this next clip from Meru. This helps us talk about that a little bit more.
Vasarhelyi: Climber bros.
Roberts. Sorry. Can we roll that next Meru clip?
[Clip from Meru begins]
Chin: My mom had made me promise fairly early on. She was like: If you're going to make this your life, you need to promise me one thing. You have to promise me that you will not die before me. And when I was on climbs, and on expeditions, I would get to a certain point and I would say: Okay, how close am I willing to go to potentially break that promise? So, after my mom died, when the climbing started to get into that place, I remember a moment being like: Well, I can go for it right now.
Roberts: So… I wasn't supposed to be funny. I think. I mean, I... you know that there's another moment in that film that I just said haunts me, which... not haunts me, but just, it really grabs me, which is of course when Conrad Anker really talks about some of the things he's seen in his life. And um, uh, we didn't show that clip, cause I don't want to ruin the film for those who haven't seen it. And if you haven't, go home, go see it.
Um, but the… Getting these guys to do that—getting these guys to talk about that—I want to understand a little bit about how you surface that, and people who, who don't share that outside their community.
Vasarhelyi: Um, it was also again about this partnership, um, for us. So I thought earlier when Jimmy was talking about what was difficult about the process, I think I thought he was going to mention just how difficult it was for him to, to agree to put himself out there.
Not because he was scared of being vulnerable. It was because he was uncomfortable with the attention. Like, those of you who know Jimmy well know that like he's the last person who wants to be on the cover of that magazine or in the movie. Um, and so that was a big dialogue for us about, like: Please trust me, that it is really important that you do this. And so you had that, and then you had the fact that both [inaudible] and Conrad knew that Jimmy I were really serious romantically. And that they had to show up. You know, like it was, I mean, it was kind of something they knew, understood that we were. This was for real. And Conrad showed up and just gave it the time and the work that needed to happen. And you know, that was always the question about the film: Whether Conrad would cry. You know, whether he would go there. Um, and he did. And I just... You know, it was like a seven hour interview. It was [Crosstalk] ....ungodly.
Chin: That’s also part of Chai’s process. [Laughs] Because the initial problem was that I was interviewing Conrad… Like, and I interview, or not. But, um, and we have such a shorthand. And, you know, it's hard for me to ask Conrad: So, why do you climb? When him and I both know that we both know why we climb. Um, and so it's really hard to kind of get past that point where like, I'm trying to do an interview with people that I know very well, that know me very well, and... You know, to kind of give the kind of answers and the insight that you need, you know, I'm like the last person that should probably be doing that interview. So Chai came in and redid all the interviews, went in and you know, I really learned a lot watching how she approaches interviews. I mean, it's a long process because in a way, it's like you're breaking down the person to get them to the right place. And you set them up in a certain way, uh, where she'll do a seven hour interview, but she goes in and she knows exactly what she wants. There's like three things that she needs. And the whole process is to get them to that point—to get to those three things that she wants—and the delivery she wants from those people. On those two points. And so, uh, it's exhaustive in the way that is, you know, part of the craft. Um, but that's how, you know, she got the deliveries that she needed which were so important.
Roberts: We’ll be right back.
Roberts: So after this film, um, you start working on Free Solo. And you're at a different point in your lives at this point too. And I think that comes up pretty well. I have a picture, um, here…
Roberts [Narrating]: I’m showing the audience a photo of Jimmy with his camera, and also his daughter on his back.
Roberts: Um, but you guys talk about, uh, filmmaking, uh, as a family affair. But I'd like, I'd like you to sort of just paint a picture of how that really works. Like, how that plays out on set. Because it doesn't… like, I have three kids, I don't bring them to work. Um, and so like how does that... how do you actually survive that?
Vasarhelyi: It's a work in progress. Um, but as we were talking about that Conrad interview, I guess the thing where my mind began going, I was like: Oh, I was six months pregnant during that interview. And Conrad knew that, like, I was sitting there for seven hours, so he had to sit there for seven hours. Like, I was really pregnant. Um, and kind of like waddling around.
Um, it's a work in progress. I don't know how people do it. I, you know, it's the great kind of, I don't know, like irony of my life. I don't know. That you worked so hard to get somewhere professionally and then you have these amazing children and suddenly everything—the value of everything—changes. And you know, for Free Solo, we were lucky that they were young enough that you're somebody... that was very special place that we could all just go. Right?
Chin: I mean, so we had Marina while we were making Meru. And then we had James two months into production on Free Solo. So we’re in Yosemite with like our whole crew, all of like, you know, my, like my heavy, gnarly climbing buddy crew, and we have a two-and-a-half year old and a newborn, and we're like just launching into this film. And I don't know. Anybody that has kids and knows what a two and a newborn is like, um, know coming off the wall after a 16 hour day and looking at dailies and then like changing diapers simultaneously while you're running a crew up and down El Cap, is like… that's like the greatest achievement of our, like… Yeah.
Vasarhelyi: That should be the quote of the night.
Chin: Making them movies is hard enough. But yeah, you gotta bring a newborn and a two-year-old on location. That’s tough.
Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. What I love, at least in the backstory of this film, that I only really recently came to understand, is that initially, this wasn't supposed to be a movie about Alex climbing El Cap. That initially you were like: We could do a character sketch of this guy who's this world-class climber, and he lives in a van, and he's having trouble dating because he lives in a van. And like this'll be this really great story. It's like the worst Tinder sell ever, I think. I live in a van.
But you know, it evolved quite a bit from that. And I think one of the stories I heard that was most interesting is that Alex, the first person he told that to was you. That he was going to climb El Cap. And I, you know, with everything you just said about you and Conrad, there's like the sound of the record screech, and I'm like: Wait, he told you? I kind of feel like now up here, if you asked me anything I'd probably tell you what you wanted. [Laughter] But what, like how, how did, like why did that happen? Do you have any idea? I mean, Alex is a hard person to maybe understand, to say the least.
Vasarhelyi: Well, we were kind of set up on a date. Like not a real date, but Jimmy knew Alex really well and you know, to embark on this type of movie, like everyone has to kind of suss one another out, understand if we can go on this journey together. And I mean I use this analogy, but like, making a documentary film, especially a cinema verite film, is kind of like getting married. You are agreeing to go down this road that's a little scary. Super intimate. For, you know, like four years, five years, six years? And it's an experience that's going to change both our lives as filmmakers as well as the subject's life. So Alex came and stayed with us and, um..
Chin: Don't tell that story.
Chai Vasarhelyi: Okay. Um... [Laughter]
Chin: I'm just kidding.
Vasarhelyi: Anyway, so we had our one-year-old there, um, and we were having breakfast and he, I mean, basically he said: If you're gonna make a film, there's only one film to make. And that's free-soloing El Cap. And I'm like, what's free solo? And... I'm joking. I'm not, I'm not, I wasn't that dumb. But, um, you know, as a filmmaker, that is incredibly dramatic. It's amazing. It's remarkable. Um, so I was like: That sounds amazing. What a great idea. And then I told Jimmy, and Jimmy was like, he said: What? And then Jimmy was like: No way. No way. It's too dangerous. No way. Yeah.
And that is kind of like the magic of Free Solo. Because that debate, you know, those ethical questions, ended up kind of providing like the moral compass for the film.
Chin: And production.
Chai Vasarhelyi: Um, it allowed us, yeah, it allowed us to be able to make it. Um, but yeah, I mean, but Alex and I were just feeling each other out. Yeah.
Chin: It’s funny. Because I'd known Alex for, you know, 10 years, and I'd climbed with him all over the world. And we all—like, his peer group and his friends—we all could see that, you know, the types of solos he was doing were all kind of leading towards El Cap. And intentionally we never talked about it among our friends. And there was a kind of an understanding: we didn't talk about it because we didn't even want to put the idea into the ether, in case he ever picked it up and wanted to do it. Because we were, like, that scared of him actually ever thinking about doing it. And he never talked to us about it. Uh, and so, you know, obviously I was a little surprised when probably the only person he'd ever told was Chai and then she told him it was a good idea. [Laughter]
And I was like, that's a horrible idea. That's like the worst case scenario. Because I'd already had a lot of misgivings about making a film about Alex, because I knew that we didn't have enough footage of him free soloing. You know, a lot of us have shot with him free soloing and he's done a lot of incredible free soloing. But like, you know, even compiled together, it wasn't going to be enough to me. So I knew that we were going to have to shoot him free soloing, which has always been an ethical dilemma for me. For the obvious reason. Like, you never want to be responsible for your friend's death. I think that's pretty simple. So, uh, you know. And being a professional climber, I've worked on both sides of the lens, and it's very clear when a camera gets introduced to a situation, how it changes the dynamic of whatever you're doing. And particularly when you are doing something where the margins of success, or the margins between life and death, are very thin.
Uh, you don't know what it could be that, you know, shifts that margin, or causes something to go wrong. So I was extremely aware of that. And that's part of the reason why Alex, you know, is able to work a lot with me, because he knows that I understand that very well.
But that also meant that the team I put together...Most of the crew, especially the ones on the wall were, you know, top professional climbers. They had to be able to casually climb El Cap in a day. I mean, that was like the baseline. Um, and they have to be able to, you know, be world-class cinematographers. So, you know… [Laughter] There's a small pool of people I can choose from. I mean, I know all of them, or most of them. Um, but you know, Alex also knew that everybody on the crew had that sensibility and that sensitivity to that dynamic.
And, uh, as you see in the film, if you've seen the film, I mean, Mikey Schaefer, the cinematographer who can't watch what he's filming, um, he actually knows the route more intimately than any of us. ‘Cause he's actually freed it and climbed it multiple times. Um, and you know, that's why Alex can trust Mikey, uh, to be up there with him while he's free soloing.
Roberts: Yeah. What I think is interesting though, is you started the film—you started with this idea of this, you know, looking at this guy in the van and his dating life—and then you're making the film, and he starts falling in love with someone. Um, and it... things kind of come full circle in a way. Um, and we're going to show another clip here. What I like about this one is I think it’s the most surprising clip I've ever seen in a climbing film. And I'm sorry, no beautiful cinematography, Yosemite. This is going to take place in Home Depot. So can we play that first clip please?
[Clip fades into the foreground]
Roberts [Narrating]: So this quick clip has Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless shopping for a refrigerator.
Alex Honnold: That one seems very big and very wide. Whoa. That seems really deep. Anyway, let’s keep looking for the smaller ones. This is the four hundred dollar—that’s our jam. This is actually, like, kind of perfect. This is like so adequate.
Sanni McCandless: We have a fridge!
Roberts: So there’s other scenes with Sanni and Alex, and they’re some of the most memorable ones in there. And it's really interesting because she becomes a huge part of this story, and really at the emotional center of it. And I can, I can remember very well the one scene, where it's like, days before he's going to go, and she's kind of challenging him to reconsider this whole project. And it's really tense and uncomfortable to watch. And one of the things it gets at is just how you chose to represent her. Um, historically, climbing films, and literature, and magazines, have not done a great job of telling women's stories.
Chai Vasarhelyi: You mean the world? Like, everything?
Roberts: Very true, but, but she…
Chai Vasarhelyi: Thousands of years. [Laughter]
Roberts: It's all true. Um, so, you know, but those, you know, well, I brought up that moment where, where she's asking him to reconsider this climb. And you know it was so powerful. But I also have to think that if anyone's going to understand that conversation it’s the two of you. Because you know, you've probably had it. He still takes some risks, you know, and has taken them. And I don't know, you know, how if you were able in that moment to think about that, or if it caused you to think about that it sort of mirrors moments out of your own life or not.
Chai Vasarhelyi: I think that our relationship and our experiences together definitely made us more open and receptive. Allowed us to listen better.
Chai Vasarhelyi: I do believe that both Jimmy and I are, regardless of whether we're together or both making the film together, I know that Jimmy would've listened the same way. Um, it was really important for us to give space to her point of view. And you know, also in a narrative way, like it was really... like, for people outside of the climbing world, this is the question. This is the essential question. Like: Why are you doing this? And will you reconsider? And if you want to love me, this is what I'm asking you to do. And so, you know, suddenly when Sanni arrived, like, we always wanted to make a character portrait. Like, it was just... it was going to be like a funny character portrait, ‘cause he was like, you know, online dating. And that was funny.
It was always going to be funny, but it's still going to be scary ‘cause he would have free soloed in the film too. But um, when Sony arrived, suddenly there were two mountains to climb. And probably the emotional one was harder for Alex. And so it just, it had that gravitational force. But it was, it was very difficult. Mostly, you know, just as a bystander, you know, in that scene, in that particular scene. Like, I would like to punch Alex and I also would like to pull Sanni away. Because on one hand, like he could very easily say I love you. And that probably could go, you know, he could kind of evade, like, kind of scoot by the question. And to her I was like: How could you say this to him and see doubt in his mind? But it was a really important scene, ‘cause, that's why she's special. And that's why it works. Is because she was self confident enough and emotionally kind of aware enough to be able to self advocate with Alex and say like: I love you for who you are, but you know, I'm going to stand up for myself. And that was, I really admired her. Because actually Jimmy and I don't have those, um, those have those conversations. Mostly because I trust Jimmy absolutely. Which is probably naive too, you know, it’s probably how we make our, allow our, you know, relationship to function. And it's really nice when we work these things out in public.
Chin: Sorry about that. [Laughter]
Roberts: Although that kind of gets at the next thing. Because I interviewed Alex last year and we got to talking about this. And one of the ideas that came out of that, um, was that the making of this film and then the film getting out in the world was really good for him. That having all this attention put on him and then being able to see yourself the way people see you was ultimately therapeutic for him. However, I think maybe it’s been a little different for you guys than him. So I want to play a clip that helps me answer that question. Can we play the second Free Solo clip?
Chin: I’ve always been conflicted about shooting a film about Free Solo-ing just because it’s so dangerous. It’s hard to not imagine your friend, Alex, solo-ing something that’s extremely dangerous. And you’re making a film about it, which might put undue pressure on him to do something. And him falling through the frame to his death. And we have to work through that and understand that what we’re doing is something we can live with even in the worst-case scenario.
Roberts: So watching that, it's hard not to imagine. I mean, it's hard to believe that. The way Alex talked about it with me, it was like, yeah, this was great, and I learned who I was, and it worked out really well. But you look really stressed out there, and I just... I don't know if you're able now to say: No, that was great during, too, and it was... Or, it's like: No, we survived that. It was worth it to make great art, but, like, that was brutal.
Chin: It was certainly brutal, because it wasn't just the responsibility of Alex’s safety. We just spent so much time on the wall. And, kind of, like... I've gotten a pretty broad understanding of how accidents happen, what causes them, and you know, a lot of it also is a numbers game. It's the statistics. It's like, the volume of time you're in places where you're exposed to higher risks... the volume of time you spend in high risk environments is something that I think about a lot. And so I was asking my team also to be in high risk environments a lot. And not just on the wall, like approaching the climbs, like, you know, because everybody's really good, we're not roped up a lot of the time and we're moving pretty quickly to get in position. And we're all carrying 50 pound packs and traveling on fifth class terrain soloing ourselves.
And so you know, that was a lot of responsibility that not a lot of people probably understand. But like just in Morocco, I mean, the amount of fifth class soloing we did with heavy packs and loose terrain was, you know, it was a lot. And so, you know, that burden was one thing, but the thing that I learned specifically about that was kind of intuitive, but became much more acute, in terms of how I was thinking about it, was that the approach in which we thought about making the film was really important. Because I thought about the outcomes of, you know, different intentions, in terms of how you were thinking about the film. And so... that sounds kind of vague... but I guess the point is just that we talked a lot about the fact that the film's needs could never, you know, be prioritized over Alex's needs. And that he was a friend first and the subject second.
And so we always deferred to that intention during the production. Because, basically, if he fell because we were pushing him, because we were really, you know, putting the film's needs first, it's a very different than if he fell and we were kind of trying to protect his experience and not putting the film’s needs first. And that was always like this really weird, fine line, but it's, it's very distinct. Um, and so that was something that I talked about a lot with the crew that was understood: that that's how we had to approach the film. And the big part was always trying to protect his experience. Like, we all know why we climb, and it's for this specific experience, and we wanted to make sure that he had that experience on the day of his free solo. So the greatest success for me, or the greatest—kind of, I guess I considered it a success—because Alex got to the top, and the first thing he said to me, and I, and I mean he, he got it, is that he, he, he looked at me and said, that's exactly the experience I wanted. And that's when I felt like, okay, we did our job. And it wasn't covering it. Or like, you know, it’s the fact that we gave him the space to do the thing that he loved, and he had the experience that he wanted.
Chai Vasarhelyi: But just to speak to your, I mean, kind of elaborate on that was that, you know, there was a moment when the film premieres. This was a weight that like, Jimmy, and the team, and everyone carried: the risks involved, the idea of having to respect Alex, and also insulate him from the feelings, right? It's not like it'd be like: Alex, you're stressing me out, man. Don't do this. Like, it's like a respectful distance, emotionally. Which I also think is true of most journalism. I think that just free solo is a more extreme case of like the rules of documentary filmmaking, which are that the film's needs should not trump those of your subjects, period. And can you trust yourself to respect your subject no matter what? And we trusted ourselves that should the worst case scenario happen, it's not that we would, like... we knew we would respect Alex's story in that.
But anyway, so the film premieres at the Telluride Film Festival. It’s some ungodly late hour, like a 10:00 PM premiere. Um, Tommy Caldwell, Alex, Rebecca Caldwell, Isani, Mikey, Jim, the whole team is in one row. And at the end of the film, I'm like looking down, like every one of those burly dudes is sobbing. Because it was traumatic. I mean, it really was like a totally traumatic experience for everybody involved who believed, and believed it was important, and believed in Alex, and trusted him, and trusted ourselves. But like, you know, people often ask: Free Solo 2? And it's like a unanimous: Absolutely not. Never again. No way, Jose. You know, like, cause it was deep, it was hard, and it was deep, and those, like... it can never be overstated what Jimmy and the high angle crew achieved up there.
Roberts: So that’s a perfect lead-in to my next question. So, you win an Oscar! Like, it was incredible, right? And let's, let's give it up for a minute.
Roberts: You know, there was, you know, aura of glory around it. And there were these beautiful posed pictures that I saw out there. But then I saw this photo…
Roberts [Narrating]: I’m showing this hysterical shot of Jimmy and Chai with their kids in their hotel. It’s a bit chaotic.
Roberts: And just, with everything you just said, I just... are you guys just like exhausted? Like are you just so tired? I mean, I feel like, you know, the question is, like are you in the mood to take a break, or is it like: We're in a groove. We’re creators. Actually, we're packing up the kids and we're heading to Patagonia. We don't know how long we'll be there. It's going to be awesome. We'll figure it out.
Chin: We don't like to sit around too much. I dunno.
Chai Vasarhelyi: Yeah, I mean when you make documentary films, you never set out to win an Oscar. Like, like documentary filmmaking is like the lowest of the low, in terms of like, Hollywood, like the film industry, et cetera. And you normally make them because you don't get paid very much money because you believe in something. So what happened with Free Solo is incredible. Like basically, audiences responded to Alex's story, and were inspired by this idea that if you work really, really hard, you can achieve your dreams. I mean, he's kind of like the nerd’s hero. Like we all feel this, we're all scared of something. And here is a person who was able to move through his fears, not because he's crazy, but because he worked really hard.
So the fact that it lit a fire and people came out to see it, and like the industry, um, enjoyed the film... Which I think was because of the craft. Where Alex brought such craft that everybody involved: Jimmy, the editor, every person on this team... if Alex was able to free solo El Cap, you had to do your absolute best in your role.
But I think that at the end of the day, it's like we have this incredible platform because of what happened. And Jimmy and I both really believe that, you know... I don't know how much, like... Alex’s story is about intentional living. It's about, you know, are you doing what you really want to do with your life? And are we making the films that actually matter? So I think the real impetus for us right now is like, while we have this attention—while we have this platform—we've got to make work that matters, and says something good and is on the right side of history.
So, you know, our next film is a film about conservation. It tells a story of Kristine Tompkins, Doug Tom—the late Doug Tompkins, and Yvon Chouinard. Um, and it's a big fat love story about conservation: like the original eco warriors who are really close to Jimmy. Um, so that's what felt right. It didn't feel like a moment to stop. It felt like you had to, you have to keep on going. But it's hard and we love our kids. It's crazy.
Roberts: Um, well I think that's about all we have time for today. I did want to give you guys a big thank you for coming and sharing your story, and maybe getting a little more personal than we expected. Um, and just a thank you. Um, thank you for doing what you've done. And these films are real gifts to those of us who get to enjoy them. So thanks. And if you're in the audience, keep in mind you might meet someone out in that hallway and win an Oscar. You never know. So thank you very much you guys.
Chin: Thank you.
Chai Vasarhelyi: Thank you.
[End Summit LA Clip]
Roberts: That was Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin speaking with me, Michael Roberts, on November 9, 2019 at Summit LA. Thanks to Summit for the recording. You can learn more about their events and community at Summit.co.