‘Free Solo’ Creators Talk Ethics, Success

Jackson Hole News & Guide | Scene Section

By Julie Kukral


Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi

Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi speak at the Global Networking Event 2019


When Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan without a rope the “Free Solo” film crew was arguably more nervous than he was. In a New York Times short, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi open up about the important question they had to address before agreeing to film their friend: What if he falls?


On Friday the husband and wife filmmakers spoke at a dinner for Jackson Hole Real Estate Association’s Global Networking Event. In a conversation facilitated by Steve Sullivan, CEO and founder of Stio, the husband and wife duo talked about the making of “Free Solo” and how they balance lives of adventure and filmmaking with raising a family.


The talk happened just three days after “Free Solo” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


“It’s been an amazing year for documentary films,” Vasarhelyi said. “This year documentary films made over $112 million at the box office. It’s a big deal.”


While many people in Jackson may be more familiar with Chin, a longtime Jackson resident and National Geographic photographer, Vasarhelyi is a renowned documentary filmmaker whose breakout film, “A Normal Life,” won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival when she was just 23.


During the evening Chin and Vasarhelyi gave comically differing accounts of how they met and got together in 2012. By 2015, however, Chin and Vasarhelyi shared their first co-director title on “Meru,” the gripping tale of Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk’s first ascent of the Shark’s Fin route on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas.


Both “Meru” and “Free Solo” are much more than climbing films. While set in the mountains, the films grapple with fear, death, the unknown — universal concepts that transcend genre. Part harrowing adventure, part character-study, “Free Solo,” as Vasarhelyi pointed out, is also a love story.


Chin and Vasarhelyi were already working with Honnold on “Free Solo” when Honnold met his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, something no one could have predicted.


“Climbing El Cap wasn’t his only kind of evolution in terms of having to push towards something,” Chin said. “Intimacy was a big part of that.”


While Honnold was perhaps more nervous about a new romantic relationship than he was about ascending a 3,000-foot wall without a rope, Chin and Vasarhelyi said they and the crew have PTSD from filming their friend as he embarked on the life-or-death climb.


Before agreeing to make the film, Chin and Vasarhelyi had to decide if filming Honnold’s attempt was ethical — what if he didn’t make it?


“We always believed he would, otherwise we wouldn’t have been there, but ethically you had to look into what if he couldn’t make it,” Vasarhelyi said. “Do we trust that Alex will make the right decisions?”


Honnold is incredible, Vasarhelyi said, because of his ability to not let external factors pressure him. He was going to climb El Cap, film crew or not. And he wasn’t going to climb El Cap unless he felt 100 percent ready. Chin and Vasarhelyi were then tasked with filming Honnold in the most unobtrusive way possible. For Chin it was important that the film crew respected Honnold’s experience alone on the wall.


Of course, audiences know before the film ends that Honnold does, in fact, make the climb. And yet the power of the film comes through Chin and Vasarhelyi’s cinematic mastery and willingness to peel back the layers on the more intimate parts of Honnold’s character. Striking that balance earned the duo the Oscar nomination.


Chin and Vasarhelyi split their time between New York City, where Vasarhelyi is from, and Jackson. On Friday they also talked about balancing their working relationship with their family life. Vasarhelyi joked that her kids were “feral” but conceded that the filmmakers’ whirlwind lifestyle has forced them to live efficiently.


“Everything is incredibly efficient because that’s the way it is,” she said. “But you do have these weird lists where you’re like, ‘Must submit to Sundance; must buy soccer shoes.’”


Chin and Vasarhelyi will learn if “Free Solo” has won the Academy Award on Feb. 24. The ceremony airs at 6 p.m. Mountain time. If you haven’t seen “Free Solo,” you can preorder it on Amazon Prime and iTunes. 


Read more coverage from the Global Networking Event 2019 here

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