It Took Madness to Make ‘Free Solo’

In this BTS video, we see the insane passion required to record a ropeless ascent up El Capitan.

Free Solo
National Geographic Documentary Films

Being film fans, we often express hyperbolic declarations of Hollywood fantasy: “I would die to make a film as good as Mad Max: Fury Road” or “I would kill to work with Daniel Day-Lewis.” In the fury of that passion, we may even believe such ghastly sentiments, but few of us would start plotting the required steps to bring those thoughts into reality. Watching the documentary Free Solo, it is clear that directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin committed to a deadly line of reasoning to get their film made.

Rock climber Alex Honnold could not escape the thought of conquering El Capitan, the colossal vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, without the aid of a rope. This pursuit was the very definition of all-consuming. He would have to put his relationship on the line, his career on the line, and his life on the line. That line, by the way, would be the strength of his grip on a practically flat surface. Call it madness, passion, or bravery, the deed would be done, and Vasarhelyi and Chin would be there to put it to film.

Hah. Easier said than done, right? If you’re going to track a free solo climb and achieve the necessary shots for a stunning IMAX presentation, you are going to have to put your own life at risk. You’re also going to have to make peace with the reality that you may be documenting the last moments of a person’s life as they slip and fall to their splattery doom.

Free Solo is about as tense a moviegoing experience as we had last year. The film does an exceptional job of aligning your thoughts with that of Honnold’s. You understand his interior before he takes to the rock for his ascent. You like him at times, and at others, you think him insane. Once the climb begins, however, your breath leaves your body, and it feels like hours before it ever returns. Then you start thinking, “How the hell did they capture these images?”

Vanity Fair turned their cameras on Vasarhelyi and Chin and asked them to put their terror into words. In the below seven and a half minutes you’ll get inside their brains and within their worries of pulling off this unique cinematic achievement. As tense as you were watching their documentary, their blood was practically freezing while they were in the process of making Free Solo. At the same time, this video is an astonishing example of commitment to your art.

“Perfect execution or certain death.” Phew. Dear god, Jimmy Chin. My hats off to you and Vasarhelyi and your entire crew. I’m not sure I could ever pledge to that level of finality, but their madness is infectious, and after I first hit stop on the Vanity Fair video I found a wave of inspiration flow into me.

Maybe I could not physically strap my body to El Capitan in an effort to creatively succeed, but I can certainly push myself further metaphorically and get closer to that edge creatively. Seeing these folks truly commit to their art is a high unto itself, sparking jealousy for their accomplishment. Get off your couch and do something, Brad.

So much about the American experience surrounds the idea that failure builds to success. We’re underdogs, and we take our licks, and we keep on ticking. When it comes to Free Solo, the mission was to ascend El Capitan “Clean,” as in “without falling.” There is no room for error. There can be no failure. Honnold, Vasarhelyi, and Chin had no rough drafts or do-overs. Free Solo is a one-and-done miracle built on a lifetime of preparation. Forget the fall down and get up mentality, embrace confidence, education, and get the job done.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.