Interview: Jimmy Chin, co-director of Free Solo, found beauty in the fear of the world's greatest climber


Reel Nine recently sat down with director Jimmy Chin to talk about his newest documentary, Free Solo, which depicts world-renowned climber Alex Honnold’s ropeless climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan. The film tracks the events leading up to his death-defying feat, exploring the complex personality behind one of the world’s most accomplished and mysterious climbers.

Ryan Ninesling: Tell us a bit about the background behind how you and Alex decided to make Free Solo.

Jimmy Chin: I had been thinking about making a film with Alex after we finished our last film Meru. At this point I had been working in the industry for about 20 years, filming and shooting with some of the best climbers, skiers, mountaineers in the world, all at the peak of their careers. After that much time, I had seen quite a bit. And I had never seen anybody like Alex. It’s like a talent scout or a sports scout, that’s been looking at talent for 20 years and seeing somebody do something that they’ve never seen before, ever. So I recognized that he was really special, and he was also this compelling character. He’s not your average, super jock, sporty kind of person. He’s awkward and shy, and a little bit odd in some ways. But very interesting, also. Very, very smart. He’s a Mensa-tested genius, and you just knew that the way that he approached the world and his climbing was very thoughtful.

So I thought about making a film with him, and in that process of talking with him about it he revealed that he wanted to free solo El Cap. I was taken aback because the risks are so high and the consequences so high that I didn’t think I wanted to carry that burden. So I said I don’t think I can make that movie, took six months off, and after that had to answer some really hard questions for myself. The main one being is “Do I trust Alex? Is he gonna make the right decision and not be influenced by the external pressures of a production?” Having worked with him for 10 years, I really thought about how he’s always made really, really good decisions. That’s one thing he’s always been solid on. So I banked on that.

RN: You’ve talked before about how for you this was just as much about the process of preparing for the climb as it is was about the climb itself. Keeping that in mind, did you consider about what would happen if the unthinkable did happen and Alex fell? Would you still have made the film?

JC: As any sort of responsible filmmaker, especially with a documentary piece where you don’t know how this is going to end, you have to really analyze all the potential outcomes: financially, emotionally…on a lot of different levels. We thought about every possible case scenario, or at least tried to. There was also a very likely chance that a crew member could get injured, I could get injured, I could die on this production…this is a very high risk production. So we thought about all of that a lot. There’s also the outcome of Alex deciding that he didn’t want to do it. Certainly we’d make a film in that case because that’s interesting, it brings up the question of how far do people push and when do they turn around. If he had fallen, and he had died, that would have been very difficult. But we would have ended up making the film because we would have felt responsible for his legacy. Given that I knew him that well, it was gonna be important that we did right by him.

RN: What was the biggest difference between shooting this film and shooting Meru?

JC: The biggest difference in the approach is that we weren’t planning on making a film when we shot Meru. We just were just sort of shooting our lives, shooting for posterity on the climbs. We added in some interviews with that footage later. With this film, we were starting from the very beginning with a very clear intention of what sort of film we wanted to make. We wanted to make a cinéma vérité film that had a lot of depth and a good narrative and also happened to have some climbing in it. We weren’t out to make a climbing film. It had to have a bigger story, a bigger narrative. It needed to address deeper questions about life. So in this case we had the advantage of knowing we were looking for a good story and character portrait in particular. And we had to have that approach anyway in case Alex decided not to climb. His character needed to be able to carry a film on its own.

Chin and his wife/co-director, E. Chai Vasarhelyi.

Chin and his wife/co-director, E. Chai Vasarhelyi.

RN: By chance, Sanni entered Alex’s life while you were making the film. That was a blessing and a curse for you because you have this person who lets him open up more emotionally but at the same time you have this new person’s head space that you have to be concerned about. How did you try and approach that?

JC: In these kinds of situations, we’re not trying to push an agenda on somebody’s life for a film. You have to be embracing of whatever happens. As an experienced documentary filmmaker, you always find that you can pivot the things you might not think are good into something that ends up being critical to the story. So Sanni’s love story with Alex is one of the backbones of the film, and it’s the way that we get to see Alex evolve emotionally. It brought up a lot of hard questions that I think were important to look at in Alex’s story. Sanni is this incredibly sunny, self-confident, self-aware, emotionally intelligent woman who is helping Alex articulate his emotions. But it also brings up the other side of being in a relationship. How much accountability do you have to your partners? Those are struggles that everyone has in their relationships, so it really worked out in that it brought to life a lot of issues that I think are relevant to everyone.

RN: You really had to accommodate Alex in that you had to be very calm around him.

JC: Yes, very neutral.

RN: So with that obviously you didn’t talk much about the actual logistics of filming with him. You couldn’t distract him with all that. I hear the story goes that basically one day he said to you, “I think I’m gonna scramble tomorrow.” And you basically replied with an “Alright, cool.” Then you proceeded to quietly leave and book it to get everyone ready. How did you go about planning to be ready to film on the fly?

JC: Essentially for the two years that Alex spent preparing for the route, we were filming him on it. So we were preparing for his big day and he was preparing for his big day in parallel. By the time he was ready for the route, we were ready to film him. We knew exactly how we wanted to shoot it, what we wanted to shoot, what shots we wanted, who was gonna be where. We were kind of on-call all the time. At any moment, we knew exactly what we had to do. Who had what ropes, how many ropes did we need to drop where, what equipment we had to carry, how many batteries, how many memory cards, how much food and water, how many headlamps, etc. Everything was so dialed by the time he was ready to go, largely because the whole team was made up of professional climbers as well.

RN: Of course when Alex actually does the climb, you’re still very worried despite both his and your preparation. But was there a moment when you really thought to yourself that he had this in the bag?

JC: Once he got past the traverse pitch up high, you knew that it was over. Upper climbing is very difficult for most people by any standard, even really good professional climbers, but for him, we knew it was over. If you were to say that to a professional climber, and say, “well, how would you feel if you had the climb the upper six or eight pitches of Freerider without a rope?” Nobody. Nobody on the entire planet would agree to that. So it’s still a big deal, still very difficult climbing. But for him, we knew it was over at that point.

RN: So everybody walking out of this film, they all have a different opinion about what it’s about.

JC: Yeah! We like that.

RN: If you had to boil it down for you personally, what is the film about to you?

JC: The film has a lot of different themes that I think are relevant and can touch people. But ultimately it’s about an awkward, shy kid who’s afraid of everything. A kid who started free soloing because he was more terrified to ask somebody to climb with him than he was to go climb without a rope. And he’s scared of vegetables! The kind of guy who systemically eats vegetables so he can like vegetables. It’s about somebody who’s very fearful facing his fears, and meticulously step by step overcoming those fears and going on from being an awkward, kind of loner kid to performing one of the greatest athletic feats of all time. I think it’s about overcoming fear, facing it, and that you can do that. I think teenage kids, the sort of kids who don’t ever feel like they belong, I think a lot of kids are gonna relate to his story. And adults! It’s got something for everybody. There’s life lessons in there for everybody.

Free Solo is in theaters now. You can read the full Reel Nine review here.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ryan Ninesling