Arts & Entertainment

Directors of “Free Solo” Discuss the Inspiration and Determination Behind Their New Film

Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films“Free Solo” follows Alex Honnold’s historic solo rock climbing feat as he scales El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Adrenaline junkies seeking a rush from the comfort of a movie theater seat, look no further — “Free Solo” has you covered. 

The National Geographic documentary from directors and real-life couple Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi is nothing short of mesmerizing. “Free Solo” chronicles professional solo rock climber Alex Honnold’s seemingly impossible attempt to climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without a harness.

“Free Solo” is more than a catchy title — it refers to the kind of daring feat rock climbers perform when they tackle mountains without any protective gear. As Honnold states in the film, it’s his preferred method of climbing. 

“Free Solo” follows the exhilarating, jaw-dropping journey through the years leading up to Honnold’s historic ascent. The film delivers an inspiring account of what it means to conquer one’s fears and live a life built upon dreams. As a man afraid of public speaking and establishing relationships with people, Honnold still retains the unbelievable determination to pursue the impossible — making his story one of human strength and possibility. 

While Vasarhelyi lacks climbing experience, Chin is an experienced and well-known mountaineer, who’s climbed Mount Everest twice and led expeditions worldwide. His work has also been featured in National Geographic, Outside and Men’s Journal. 

According to Vasarhelyi, creating a feature film surrounding Honnold’s journey felt like the perfect way to build upon their filmmaking careers while showcasing an incredible story close to their hearts. 

“We were looking for a story that has some depth to it and Alex is a fascinating character,” Vasarhelyi said. “You know, here’s this kid who was awkward and geeky and kind of a loner who was climbing without a rope because it was scarier to speak to another person … it seemed like a great marriage of our skills and what we’re interested in and an important opportunity to tell this story about someone scared of a lot of stuff.”

For the film’s crew, production required trust between themselves and Honnold and precision during filming. Crew members, including Chin, scaled El Capitan alongside Honnold in order to capture the breathtaking shots in the film. 

Chin said he and the rest of the crew’s expeditionary background was helpful in carrying out Honnold’s daring ascent. While the entire project was undoubtedly daunting, Chin said the crew’s collective determination made it possible. 

“We all have a lot of expedition background … there are certain variables that you can’t control and there are certain variables that you can control,” Chin said. “And in that sense, on expeditions, as with this film project, you put your best foot forward with the variables that you can control … you can kind of manage these objectives or goals that might seem really outrageous or impossible, but you put in your due diligence.”

While Chin said filming “Free Solo” was similar in some ways to previous work, he also said the unpredictability of Honnold’s ascent made this project different. 

“There are other big objectives in my life that seem completely, you know, beyond our imagination and yet we come to the right attitude and [by] taking the right steps and being meticulous and thoughtful and careful, we were able to pull them off,” Chin said. “But the thing that was different about this was that, you know, there’s this very singular focal point on Alex and his solo, and ultimately, you know, I didn’t have any control over how he was going to climb, so that made it more challenging.”

While “Free Solo” closely details the preparation and embarkment of Honnold’s climb, it also offers an intimate look into the climber’s personal life.

Honnold’s real-life girlfriend, Sanni, spent time with the crew leading up to the day he made his ascent. The tensions within their relationship amplify the unpredictability surrounding Honnold’s attempt. Audiences feel empathy for Sanni, as she questions the reasoning behind Honnold’s risky decision and fears for his life.

Vasarhelyi said showing sensitive moments between Honnold and Sanni heightened the film’s emotional resonance.

“Sanni was a wonderful gift to the film because she’s incredibly emotionally intelligent and articulate about those feelings … and self-confident enough to love him for who he is,” Vasarhelyi said.

According to Vasarhelyi and Chin, all the hard work that went into the project made the success of Honnold’s climb doubly fulfilling.

“That day when he soloed [El Capitan], it was terrifying, but on a certain level it was beautiful, like, you knew that he was having the best day of his life, but at the same time, I was just so proud of our crew because they executed this seamlessly and perfectly and they worked so hard,” Vasarhelyi said. “For Alex, all of his solos have been solo — that’s the point, you don’t want to tell anyone — you don’t want pressure, you just do it, and, at the greatest [solo] of his life — he had his best friends next to him, and it was a journey that all of us went on for two years.”

From the film’s subtle beginning to its monumental ending, inspiration surrounds Honnold’s miraculous ascent. Regardless of viewers’ interest in mountain climbing itself, “Free Solo” will likely spark a flame of motivation inside audience members.

Embarking upon such a risky, uncertain project might seem laborious to some, but Chin said he lives for this kind of filmmaking.

“That’s the kind of feeling I love, and that’s the kind of filming my whole crew loves,” Chin said. “So it’s physically and emotionally and intellectually challenging, but that kind of work is the kind of work that’s firing all your senses — that makes you feel alive and gives you purpose and direction, and you learn to really cherish those experiences even though they can be very hard.”

Honnold’s incredible conquest of climbing El Capitan is perhaps one of the world’s greatest feats of human achievement. In light of this, Vasarhelyi said she hopes Honnold’s personal story and unyielding determination will inspire audiences.

“Here was someone who was scared of intimacy, intimidated by vegetables, scared of public speaking, who methodically would practice discipline and move through his fears and to the point that he climbed [El Capitan] … he lives a life of intention,” Vasarhelyi said. “We just hope people are inspired by that — to drop their fears.”

“Free Solo” will begin playing in Chicago theaters Oct. 19.


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