Anyone who followed free climber (that is, no ropes) Alex Honnold’s historic scaling of El Capitan in Nat Geo’s movie Free Solo breathed a huge sigh of relief when he finally made it to the top. While celebrating Honnold’s triumph, the team that captured the event on camera admitted at today’s Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys that making the Academy Award-winning documentary required a “free solo” of its own.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed the film with her creative partner Jimmy Chin, said it took four years of effort and two years of filming to create the real life cinematic thrill ride. She called Honnold’s story the chance to showcase an inspiring person.
“If you work very very hard to achieve your dreams, anything is possible,” said Vasarhelyi, who appeared on the panel with cinematographer Clair Popkin and editor Bob Eisenhardt, who took a coveted Ace Eddie Award for his work on the film. “Everyone has their free solo.”
The director said the actual climb took three hours and 56 minutes, “which to us probably felt like two weeks.” She added the filmmakers had to give up control and be ready when Honnold was to make the cllmb. “Alex brought it, and we all had to just meet him there,” she said.
She also said the crew never could have anticipated that the reclusive Honnold would meet and develop a relationship with the love of his life during the film’s production period.
Popkin said the photography team had to also be a team of elite mountain climbers. And “you can’t be distracting in any way, because you don’t want to change the outcome.” He added: “You get one shot at this, because Alex is not going to do this again.”
Eisenhardt joked that though the climb seemed long, “he moved faster than they thought.” The crew rushed to keep up.
Vasarhelyi and Chin are now in early talks with Netflix to direct a film based on the Jonas Bonnier book The Helicopter Heist, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.