Free Solo’s path to likely Emmy nominations has been paved with gold—the Oscar kind.
The film about mountain climber Alex Honnold’s breathtaking ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan—without ropes—won the Academy Award in February for Best Documentary Feature. It’s now on Emmy nomination ballots in multiple nonfiction categories, including cinematography, picture editing, and directing.
“It’s just a little surreal,” Chin admits, reflecting on that moment in the Oscar spotlight. “You understand how special it is, from coming up with the right idea to the production networks and a film that works that people embrace, your peers embrace.”
Free Solo has not only claimed awards but extraordinary box office returns—a theatrical run lasting months brought in more than $17.5 million in North America alone. Emmy season screenings for the National Geographic title continued to draw big audiences.
Vasarhelyi credits National Geographic for giving the Free Solo team room to make the most compelling film they could.
“We had time on this movie, and I truly believe that in nonfiction filmmaking, the movies are better when you have time,” she notes. “Because you get to play with it, you get to work with it, you get to think about just the margins.”
The directors also needed plenty of time to plan and carry out an immensely complicated shoot—documenting a man scaling a 3,000-foot rock face. Chin, a world-class climber himself, led a team of climber-cinematographers that executed a bob-and-weave around Honnold as he went up El Cap. They rehearsed their intricate choreography.
“Over the course of two and a half years you’re trying to sort out what sections of the climb are really critical to the narrative,” Chin explains. “You’re trying to figure out which parts of the climb look the most dramatic. You’re thinking about, in terms of rigging, how difficult it is to get to certain sections…And you’re also figuring out how to get out of the places, and moving in a way that you’re not going to be distracting to Alex.”
Honnold could have fallen to his death at any moment. The camera teams, though on ropes, also faced life-and-death peril.
“There’s a lot of risks involved,” Chin concedes. “You have to be so comfortable that you can stay focused on shooting but you never can be complacent about the climbing aspect. Because as soon as you are complacent, that’s when bad things happen.”
Just getting a steady shot presented a challenge for photographers handling heavy equipment while suspended high above the ground.
“If you actually listen to a lot of the audio from the footage, at the end of the clips you’ll hear someone go, ‘Aaahhhhh,’ like a huge breath, because they’re basically hanging on a wall, the harness is totally compressing their diaphragm,” Chin comments. “They’re hanging and they have to hold their breath for the entire shot to keep it stable…They just held their breath for like a minute and half.”
Free Solo contains much more than scintillating mountain climbing shots. There are intimate scenes that help reveal Honnold’s character, like the struggle he experienced letting girlfriend Sanni McCandless into his heart.
“We were very lucky with Alex meeting and falling in love with Sanni. That was something we’d never anticipated,” Vasarhelyi recalls. “She’s a mirror for a lot of [the audience’s] feelings…You have to care about Alex if you’re really going to care about the climb.”
Among those whose work on Free Solo could be recognized with an Emmy nomination is editor Bob Eisenhardt.
“Bob is our closest and most admired and respected collaborator,” Vasarhelyi states. “I’ve learned more from him than anyone else about filmmaking.”
Part of the challenge for the directors and Eisenhardt was to capture the suspense of the audacious endeavor, so viewers never lost sight of how precarious it was.
“We watched [the cut] so many times we just honestly kind of became numb to the magnitude of the climb itself and how thrilling it was,” Vasarhelyi tells Deadline. “And I remember watching the film the first time with an audience. Bob and I were like, ‘Oh. Oh. This is terrifying for people. It’s super visceral.’”
Sound editing was also critical to the end result, a process supervised by Deborah Wallach, whose credits include ADR editing on The Silence of the Lambs and The Wolf of Wall Street.
“Because on our doc budget we were shooting with one mic and one camera, she would fix what we messed up in production,” Vasarhelyi reveals. “We used a lot of sound design and foley and music. It was another means of translating to people who don’t climb, that experience of being up there.”
The challenge of miking Honnold on the granite wall was solved by running an audio wire through his shirt into a bag of chalk secured at his hip (the chalk being essential to keep fingers dry).
“Sound is critical. It’s everything,” Vasarhelyi emphasizes. “That’s why we had a ‘climbing audio guy.’ No one has a climbing audio guy, but we did.”
Whatever happens with the Emmys, Vasarhelyi and Chin will cherish moments from their Oscar triumph, like hearing their pal, actor and fellow mountain climber Jason Momoa, present the category for Best Documentary Feature (alongside Helen Mirren). They had previously visited Momoa’s house in LA, with their kids in tow.
“Our daughter Marina was there [at the Academy Awards]. She’s five, and we had matching dresses,” Vasarhelyi recalls. “Her honest reaction was like, ‘Of course you guys won. Uncle Jason chose you.’”