'Free Solo': Alex Honnold and Chai Vasarhelyi on the Ethics of Filming Someone Defy Death

Free Solo Still - Publicity - H 2018
Jimmy Chin/National Geographic

The subject and co-director of the new doc, which chronicles free soloist Honnold's quest to scale Yosemite's El Capitan without ropes, talk about cheating death, the ethics of filming someone try and pulling up to the Four Seasons in your van/house.

To watch Free Solo, the new documentary from co-directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (2015's Meru) chronicling world-class free soloist climber Alex Honnold's quest to scale Yosemite's El Capitan — is to marvel at humankind's capacity for endless customization.

One man, by accident of birth, acquires the genetic seeds of a climber's endless endurance and ideal frame, and a brain that — quite literally, if you believe the results of the MRI Honnold subjects himself to in the film — is numb to fear. He's born in Sacramento, a few hours from the massive granite slabs of Yosemite Valley, America's rock-climbing Mecca. He discovers climbing at 11, pre-puberty, which any climbing coach will tell you is key to developing maximum strength and flexibility in your tendons and ligaments. His father is extremely supportive of his nascent interest, nurturing his son's developing talent. A shy child, he prefers climbing alone, and so develops an affinity for free soloing. A thousand more events and decisions, large and small, conspired to produce Alex Honnold, undoubtedly one of the most interesting human beings currently living, and the only one strong enough, and mentally disciplined enough, and — most of us normies would say — crazy enough to attempt a climb 3,200 feet up El Capitan's sheer granite face without a rope, where any mistake, any slip, any accident of nature, means death, well and certain.

The documentary calls to mind other great works in the "interesting character tries to achieve audacious athletic feat" canon — James Marsh's Oscar winner Man on Wire, George Butler and Robert Fiore's Pumping Iron — in its focus on Honnold's meticulous mental and physical preparation, and interviews with the subject and his friends and family about his unique approach to life and, in this case, imminent death.

It's also the story of Honnold's burgeoning relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless. (In one scene, where Honnold's returned to his high school in the capacity of "notable alumnus," students ask him insightful questions about his career, like how much money does he have and does he get girls. "I live in a van," he offers, as a partial explanation for the answer to the latter being "not really."). Obviously, the work of meaningful relationship-building, for anyone, requires setting aside some of the finite resources of time and mental space, but for Honnold, whose dearth of past romantic success means he's seemingly never grappled with such apportioning before, and whose determination to, like, not die on El Cap, demands more of both than most anyone else … ? It presents a unique portrait of first love, to say the least.

The other major element of Free Solo is Vasarhelyi and Chin's decision to put the filmmakers themselves on camera as they struggle with the ethics of filming something that, in the very worst case scenario — one where Honnold not only falls, but does so due to some mistake or oversight by the film crew —  could wind up being, essentially, evidence. Some of the most poignant scenes feature the crew members reflecting on the non-zero possibility that they could capture or even contribute to their friend's death, and as the day of the big climb approaches, it's clear that Honnold might be the least nervous of the bunch.

Last week, ahead of the film's limited theatrical release on Sept. 28, a very-much-alive Alex Honnold and Vasarhelyi sat down with THR to discuss the process of preparing to face immediate and proximate death, preparing to film someone facing immediate and proximate death and getting stung by bees while clinging to a tiny ledge of rock hundreds of feet off the ground.

What went into the decision to put the filmmakers on camera and make them such a big part of this documentary?

Chai Vasarhelyi: There are two answers. One is that we do need an avatar in the film, and Sanni and the camera team are an avatar for us to respond to Alex, to conceptualize the feelings that are being felt around him. But the other answer is kind of deeper in a way, where I think that the film team articulates, like, the existential question at the center of this film, which is in struggling with the ethical questions around the decision to actually make the film and accept that risk and enter into this covenant with Alex, we had to think about the worst-case scenario.

I don't know if you have anything to add, Alex, about how those feelings and discussions factored into your mindset in preparation for the climb?

Alex Honnold: I think that it was easier to incorporate the film crew just because they did a really good job of insulating me from their feelings. They were just sort of documenting my process. I mean, I knew that it was stressing them out and I knew that they would prefer not to watch me free solo just because none of my friends really want to watch me free solo. (Laughs.) But they weren't overtly talking about it. It was much more difficult with Sanni because she was overtly expressing her opinion, which was that free soloing is — I mean, actually, she was never outright negative about it, but I could see how much it affected her and that was hard. But the dream of free soloing El Cap had predated my relationship with Sanni by quite a bit, and even the film project had predated my relationship with Sanni. So I think it was easier for me throughout the film to just focus on the climbing objective — free soloing first and the film first — and think of Sanni second just because she had come later. But over the course of filming our relationship blossomed. It made that calculus more difficult.

You seem like a person who could write, like, the book on mindfulness and mental discipline. I'm curious about what your process is on a daily basis.

Honnold: I don't know if I would say that there is a real process. I think a lot of it is living intentionally, making choices to maximize the things you want to do. I normally wouldn't say "mindfulness"; I would say being rational or being smart about your time. For me it stems from, "What do I want to do?" In this case, "Free solo El Cap." And then basically, "What do I need to do to be able to do that?" and then sort of make a plan and execute the plan. I look at it more from a rational perspective like that, like, "What are the steps that you need to lay out in order to do the thing that you want to do?" But I think that people can sort of frame it in whatever way it's most helpful to them, you know, if it's like mindfulness or the Zen power focus sort of thing. It's like what do you need to do to accomplish your goal.

Vasarhelyi: And part of that, just as an observer, would be that I think Alex, that you took a lot of time to go over the moves in your head. Like you needed space to do that.

Honnold: Yeah. Well my actual process, you see a lot of it in the film. But the film actually doesn't really show the full extent of it. I erased all my social media off my phone and stopped responding to emails. I basically created a space where I just had a lot of empty free time in the months leading up to the actual solo so that I had a lot of time to let my mind wander, to think about the route, to daydream, to fantasize, whatever. But just giving myself the space to process.

I think the filmmaker — someone says to him off-camera — "Alex is having the time of his life up there!" And he responds, "Not me!" That was my avatar in the movie — the camera guy who couldn't even look in the viewfinder. What is happening in your mind when you're up there?

Honnold: A lot of what was going on in my mind was before I went up. All the preparation was so that while I was actually doing the climb, I wouldn't have much going on in my mind. So for the actual free solo of El Cap, I wasn't really thinking about much, I was mostly just executing. I mean, there's some lines in the film where I talk about "autopilot" and things like that. Sort of allowing my mind to go blank and just execute. So that's why I took so long to prepare, though, is that all the things that I was doing in my mind were all before the climb — that was when I spent all the time visualizing and imagining and thinking through. I mean, for something like that kind of free soloing, for something that's never been done before, the only real way to practice is to do it in your head. It's something that you can't actually do it over and over, and so you just imagine the sensations and visualize it. And so each time you imagine the whole thing it's basically the same as practicing.

Vasarhelyi: (to Honnold) Would you imagine the whole thing through?

Honnold: No. I would imagine all the important parts, yeah. But even that part of it, though, you think through the important parts, and you think through all the filler parts again. And you can be like, "Oh, did I forget anything?" Because you're gonna be up there without a rope, and then suddenly you get to a part where you're like, "Oh, I never really thought about this part but it's actually quite scary."

I'm comparing it to dumb things in my life — like playing a video game — where you're concentrated on the difficult sequences, but then it's like where you usually mess up when you're focused on that one part is the easy parts, right?

Honnold: Well the hardest parts are just the hardest parts. That's why the film focuses on me trying the Boulder Problem [a particularly demanding section, or "pitch," of the climb] over and over and things like that. But then in addition to that, then I also tried to devote some time to all the other sections just to make sure that I didn't botch anything. But you see in the film, the Monster Offwidth [pitch], that's a relatively simple piece of climbing, overall. I mean, it's a relatively simple style. So that's something that I practiced a couple times and then set it aside and never really worried about it again just because I knew that when the time came that I would be fine.

So Chai, you've said with this film you set out to do a character study — which it is — but there's also this culminating event that could make two extremely different films depending on how it goes. I'm curious about your preparation for the day of. There's talk in the movie about the ethics of filming it, but there was less about what you guys would actually do with the film in the worst-case scenario, or in a scenario where the climb was never done.

Vasarhelyi: Well, the climb never being done, that was a reality we had to accept. Because at no point could we pressure Alex about doing the climb. And we really believed it would be fine if he didn't do the climb. I didn't think he wouldn't do the climb, but you just never know. As to the worst-case scenario, I think we really meditated and came to terms with the idea that this is what Alex wants to do, and that our real main point was we can't — it can't be because of us. We can't drop something on him. And what [the camera crew] did to prepare was, as Alex was training, they were rehearsing. We understood the parts of the climb we needed to focus on. We were incredibly judicious about our exposure and practiced and practiced and practiced.

Honnold: That's something I've heard Jimmy Chin talk about, the idea that is this something that I would've been doing either way, and is this the crew best suited to capture it if I'm going to do it? And I think that's kind of a nice way to look at it. I think for Jimmy that kind of provided some clarity as to whether or not it's OK to make a film like this, because it's like, "Well, it's gonna happen either way, and I'm one of the best people in the world to make something like this, so if it's gonna happen and I'm the person to do it, like, just may as well."

There's a scene where you're climbing and a bird jumps off the rocks, which scared the shit out of me but you seemed unphased. But that gets into, there's always this level of vicissitude, that once you get up there, even if you know that you have prepared and the film crew has prepared, but there's still just, like, sudden changes in weather, gusts of wind. How do you approach that type of stuff?

Honnold: Even a lot of the things — like the bird — that seem random aren't really random. Because when you spend enough days up on the wall, I mean you see those damn birds all the time. They come out of the cracks. It's all sort of predictable behavior because it's all natural behavior. That's the way the world is and that stuff happens. So for me, having climbed for 20 years and climbed in Yosemite extensively for 10 years, I mean, I've just seen most things like that. I guess I never experienced an earthquake. There are a few things that haven't happened, but for the most part, it's all natural, predictable behavior.

Vasarhelyi: The one that I used to stress out about when I was by myself in the dark was like, what happens if Alex gets stung in both eyeballs by bees? I've actually had this thought often! And then recently we saw Alex and he had been stung by two hornets on his eye and climbed through it. He was fine.

Honnold: No, no. That time I was walking.

Vasarhelyi: It didn't even phase him.

Honnold: I've been stung by bees while climbing and you're just like, "Ow, I got stung by a bee." But it doesn't necessarily matter. You know?

Last thing: You guys are at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, right?

Honnold: I don’t know. Yeah, we're in some random room.

Are you driving the van home? I was curious if the valets had any —

Vasarhelyi: It's funny you should mention that. (Laughter.)

Honnold: Yeah, it was kind of a classic scene when I pulled in. I mean, the valet was totally unphased. He didn't even make a comment. They were very professional. But I did come straight from Yosemite, and then I actually stopped and climbed in a climbing gym along the drive so I could beat L.A. traffic. So when I showed up I was totally haggard in shorts and a tank top and everyone around me is in tuxedos. I was like, "Ohhh man. What is this hotel and what are we doing?"

Vasarhelyi: Now it's actually parked outside of the hotel. They can't fit it in [the garage]. (Laughs.)

Yeah I was wondering if they were gonna display it in the courtyard with the Bentleys and Lamborghinis.

Honnold: I think they parked one of the Bentleys inside the van for the day.