Interview: Chuck Fryberger, Climbing Filmmaker

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Filmmaker Chuck Fryberger has made a name for himself creating visually arresting climbing flicks with some of the sport's strongest athletes. But high-def sparkle isn't enough to satisfy Fryberger, whose film Core last year became the first rock climbing movie to be released on Blu-Ray. His latest movie, The Scene, delves deep into four unique climbing communities whose residents approach the sport in wildly disparate ways: the social hub of Boulder, Colorado; trad-happy Moab, Utah; the competition scene of Innsbruck, Austria; and the next-level sport crags of Spain.

I caught up with Fryberger to find out more about The Scene and the communities he visited while making it. The film premieres on August 6th at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2011 in Salt Lake City.

Adam Roy

Where did the idea for The Scene come from?
I felt like a lot of climbing videos have fallen into this structure of one person talking about themselves, and then some sort of achievement. The segments are all about the same length, ten minutes or so. The story arc is always the same: you get a little intro, you have some sort of achievement or difficult thing that's going on, and eventually either the achievement gets done or they fail. 

There's some stuff there that you can't really escape. The basic storyline is still going to be “boy meets rock, boy climbs rock.” But with The Scene, I also tried to shed some interesting perspective on climbing culture. So while there are close-ups of crimpers in the movie, really the movie is about these four scenes that are hot spots, places on Earth where climbing culture has evolved in very different ways.

Steph Davis and the people in the Moab scene are concerned about climbing freestanding towers in traditional style, respecting the rock, and then BASE jumping off at the top, defying death and seeking adrenaline. The scene in Innsbruck is one of competition; these people are tremendously skilled, but they're fighting for the tops of podiums and major corporate sponsorships. 

It seems like an interesting idea. So often climbers, especially professionals, are kind of transient people. They're always looking at their next road trip or their next faraway project.
Yeah, this isn't necessarily a road-trip kind of movie. The Scene gave me an excuse to document athletes at home. I guess to summarize, The Scene is about the really, really different climbing cultures there are in the world. I think that diversity is really cool, and worth celebrating.

How did you decide to focus on these four destinations in particular instead of, for example, Fontainebleau or Yosemite?
I thought they worked well as a team. There's a bit of a landscape component as well: I wanted Moab because it's the vast, red, American desert, and that contrasts very nicely with the claustrophobic streets of Innsbruck.

A couple of the climbers in The Scene are newcomers to your films, most notably Chris Sharma. How did you end up working with him?
I've known Chris for a really long time. I've competed against him, I've set routes for him, and I've filmed him for not-my-own projects. It just kind of came about naturally.

Chris has had a very long-running and very successful relationship with Big UP productions and other filmmakers, and I've never felt the need to approach him. They were always working on some kind of next big thing. But I met Chris last year, I think it was last August that I saw him, and we were just hanging out, drinking beer, and he was like 'Yeah, you should come and we'll do some filming in Spain.'

And that kind of evolved to taking a trip over there for the Spain scene. It's where sport climbing is at. Chris is one of the figureheads there, and it fit in naturally with the concept of the film. And I got to document him on the first ascent of a 5.15b sport route, one of those stratospherically high grades that not many people can understand.

Which one?
It's called Fight or Flight.

So you were there [for the send] last week?
I wasn't there last week. This is an interesting way climbing videos work. Often when there's an agreement to film something, the documentary filmmaker will shoot something so that it can be assembled both ways. That way, the video production doesn't have to spend three months on location filming the person falling over and over.

And often, the climber doesn't want a crew there, so they can focus and relax. Having a filmer dangling on a rope, it's just an extra element of logistics. Often it works best for the athletes: they do the media and the press when it happens, and they don't have to have uncut footage of the thing going when it goes. 

So you filmed him working the route?
Yeah, I filmed him working the route. And you know, this is something that's in every single climbing video you've ever watched. This isn't just something new I've invented.

He was linking it, he had his beta refined to the point where he was linking huge sections. It's just that it was a bit warm when I was there, so he didn't put the whole thing together. But the footage in the movie is basically an exact replicate of what I would have displayed if I had been there shooting him when he sent it. That's why we're fudging it a little.

I was just working on editing it yesterday. The picture cuts maybe 50 times on the climb that I portray as being the ascent. That just means that the story is told better and more accurately than if you just had one angle shooting from the ground or from a rope. It's just more engaging to watch, and does the achievement better justice, than a single uncut angle.

After filming this incredibly place-based movie, do you feel that the climbers shape the climbing scene, or that climbers are shaped by the community they live in? Is it some mixture of the two?
I guess that's a question that the movie talks about. Another question, one that I think the movie answers, is how does geography play into all this? The people in Innsbruck don't BASE jump off the top of their climbs because you can't BASE jump off the top of an indoor bouldering wall. The people in Moab don't compete because there are no competitions in Moab. 

There's also a cultural component. All these communities have their figureheads. For example, in Boulder I've been focusing on Dave Graham. Dave is legendary. Dave has created, literally, a little micro-culture within climbing. He leads an unofficial group of people that's large, and global. He takes very strong stances on things like grades and chipping, and he knows that when he takes a stance on something, thousands of people are going to automatically have the same opinion.

And man, turning Dave Graham's dialogue into a narrative arc that people can listen to is like solving a Rubik's Cube. The guy is just hyper-intelligent. You'd think that would make editing his dialogue easier, but it makes it hard because his mouth can't keep up, so it's like I'm missing a bunch of words. 

Your past films have been really visually impressive. One thing that people often note about them is the use of color and how carefully composed they are. I saw you filmed The Scene in 4K ultra high-definition.
The movie is pretty unique technically. We filmed most of it, probably 90 percent or so, on this fantastic video camera called the RED One. It's not even high-def in the conventional sense; it's so far beyond what people call HD that it's kind of in it's own league. 

Was it a challenge to be shooting outside in harsh conditions with that complex and expensive of a camera?
Oh yeah, for sure. In the last year, we've been contracted by several companies, including our “competitors” at Sender Films, who contracted us for Reel Rock this past year. It's incredibly complex, it's really hard work, and it's dangerous for both the equipment and the operator. It kind of sucks, until you sit down and start working on the footage.

Out of the four places you focus on in the film, is there any one in particular that was your favorite?
The politically correct thing to do would be to say I can't think of a favorite. But as far as my personal favorite, I like hanging out in Innsbruck. Almost every time I go, I wind up extending my ticket, and every time I leave, I think “Man, I could probably live here.” It's a culture that is so motivated for climbing, and there's so much climbing close to Innsbruck.

Geographically, Innsbruck is very tight, so when you ride your bike or walk downtown, you're within walking distance of a hundred kick-ass climbers, and they might all show up and grab a beer with you. This happens, we have footage of it in The Scene: the evening starts out with just us and a couple people having beer, and by the end of the night the entire Austrian team–half of the people in the world who stood on a podium at the World Cup last year–are in this bar having beer with us. That just doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. 

Do you think the US will ever have a climbing culture like that?
Boulder is pretty close, but Innsbruck is even beyond what Boulder has. Boulder has talented young people who have a clothing contract, but Innsbruck has a population of climbers with big corporate sponsorships and a really proper athlete setup where they win in a competition and they get in the newspaper. The culture is one where more people are asking who won that climbing competition than who won that soccer game. 

Photos courtesy of Chuck Fryberger Films

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