Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is a New York-based documentary director with six features under her belt, including the Oscar-shortlisted Meru and newly minted Oscar winner Free Solo, documenting Alex Honnold’s 2017 historic climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan. (She co-directed the film with husband Jimmy Chin, a twenty-year veteran climber, photographer and filmmaker in the vertical world.)
She speaks with Paste about Free Solo the week after its Oscar win, and answers our first set of #18QuestionsFor innovating women directors.
Paste: After the success of Meru, how did you decide that Alex’s story would be next? And how did the prep and shooting process differ from the process on Meru?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: After Meru [achieved] critical acclaim, we were very hesitant to make another film that takes place in the mountains, but Alex’s story presented this opportunity on so many different levels. Alex began free soloing—climbing without a rope—because it was less scary for him to go out by himself than to speak to another person. And this scared, loner kid wanted to connect, so he saw other people eating vegetables, so he taught himself how to eat vegetables one by one, and it’s funny. He saw other people hugging, he wasn’t hugged as a kid, so he taught himself how to hug. And it was that same determination, vision, desire to connect and courage that led him to aspire to free solo El Cap. And that just seemed like an incredibly inspiring story to us.
Alex and my directing partner, Jimmy Chin, had known each other for a long time, and it seemed like the perfect storm. Once we wrestled with the ethical questions involved, it seemed like the right film for us.
Paste: Mountaineering has been a popular topic in fiction and in filmmaking. What do you think documentary brings to the table, and how does the technology we have now affect the way we’re able to tell these stories?
Vasarhelyi: What was different between Meru and Free Solo is that Meru was just three guys—Conrad, Renan and Jimmy—filming themselves on really small cameras because they were out there in the Himalayas for eighteen days straight, where weight was a really big deal, where conserving energy was a really big deal. It was a very different environment in which Meru was made. [In] Meru, there was very little footage because there was no crew supporting them.
[In comparison,] Free Solo was a very big production. Because El Cap is so big, and also accessible, we could have pro climbers who were also cinematographers working on our crew.
What I think is so compelling about these stories, [is that] they’re great stories. Meru’s about friendship and obsession and determination, whereas Free Solo is about courage and connection. What transpires in the mountains, and the way these characters connect to the outside world, transcends the story itself.
We were shooting cinema cameras and huge lenses and there’s a helicopter—it’s not a drone—just because we still can get better shots that way. We were aspiring to a certain aesthetic.
Paste: You can’t just bring any camera up a mountain. How and why did you choose the tools that you chose?
Vasarhelyi: [Our team] used the C300, which is a pretty giant camera, with very big lenses. They carried 50 to 70 pounds of weight with them, and that was our decision because we felt like it gave us more flexibility and would allow for the film to eventually go to IMAX, and would allow for us to try to capture the best shots. So we brought muscle to it. We decided not to use Alexas because they were more unwieldy and expensive, so if we trashed one it was a big deal. And we definitely had our fair share of broken lenses. We used cinema cameras. It’s not GoPros.
Paste: What does it mean to build a camera team on a project that requires so much trust between the subject and the filmmakers?
Vasarhelyi: Our high angle team was made up of elite pro climbers, the best of the best. They each have their own records; they’re sponsored athletes who are also cinematographers. And when you start honing down like that there’s not many people around who can do that, so it’s a very small community who also all happen to know Alex quite well. The trust is there. Jimmy and crew, they can personally empathize on a very deep level with what Alex is experiencing. They understand how difficult what he’s doing is, and that allows them to film with a certain sensitivity. They’re also fast enough to keep up with him, which is a big deal because he’s one of the fastest climbers in the world.
We had to be able to trust them in every way; there was no margin for error. And we had to trust that they could control their own feelings, especially in front of Alex, because we had to insulate him from all stress. [Building the team] was a complicated constellation of factors.
Paste: In the film we see co-director Jimmy on screen as a character explaining the dilemma of filming such a dangerous project, while you stay more behind the scenes. What was that dynamic like, and how do you work together as co-directors?
Vasarhelyi: We’re a great partnership. Jimmy is a professional climber, and it really falls on his shoulders to weigh those risks because I’m not a professional climber. I don’t have twenty years of experience to understand if this is a risky climb or not, or if today is a good day. It was an ethical imperative for us to include our debate and how we struggled with these questions. That was the only authentic way to make this film that didn’t feel exploitative. So we made a decision to put Jimmy in the film.
This film is a good example of why you need two directors. There’s no one better to direct the vertical world and the action that transpires there than Jimmy, and to bring a very profound insider view and knowledge to what Alex is doing, which allows the film authenticity, and allows Alex to trust us. [Free Solo] is my sixth feature doc. I come from a filmmaking background. I’m interested in emotional development, I’m interested in story structure, and those guys would still be on the wall after 15 hours. You need another crew and another director waiting for Alex to have other types of conversations once he gets down.
Paste: While Alex’s climb is an incredible story, to a layman, the footage you’re capturing is Alex doing scary thing after scary thing. What was your process of building tension and making that footage narratively compelling to non-climbers?
Vasarhelyi: We understood there were three main narrative elements to the climb. One was the Free Blast where he fell in the beginning, the other one was the start of the Boulder Problem, and third, there were a few shots that were just spectacular, that could do justice to the grandeur of El Cap so we knew we had to really work carefully to reveal information in a way that by the time you actually got to those problems in the real climb, you understood what was going on.
I have to give a lot of credit to our editor, Bob Eisenhardt, who is a wonderful editor and who also edited Meru. That was our big thing: how do you open up climbing in a way that’s interesting to non-climbers and also allows them to participate, but it doesn’t feel like medicine. That’s the craft, right?
Paste: Tell me about your decision to include Alex’s current relationship, as this counterpoint to the pure logic of climbing and strategy.
Vasarhelyi: That’s what happened. He met Sanni, and they began falling in love in front of the camera. And there were some very serious conversations with him about how if we film your relationship, a relationship in a film becomes a relationship for life, for better or for worse. But they had a very genuine chemistry, and it was clear that it was magnetic, and that it was worthwhile to him, and it became a very integral part of the story. And it complicated things, because he was pursuing this dream he had dreamt of for many many years, and also falling in love in a significant way with a woman, and that is somewhat of a conflict. The question was how to move through it. Iit brings a depth to the film that we never could have anticipated.
Paste: You’ve mentioned the responsibilities of filming in a life-or-death situation, and what kind of pressures you face as a documentary filmmaker, and I was curious what other conversations you had about other aspects of the film, like Alex’s relationship.
Vasarhelyi: It’s the same question no matter what kind of nonfiction film you’re making. Whether the stakes are life-or-death or not. It comes down to whether you respect your subject, and whether you trust yourself to treat your subject with respect, and whether your subject trusts you to treat their story with respect. That’s why they decide to participate in making a film.
This film could have had a version that was incredibly sensational—you know, “Isn’t this the scariest thing you’ve ever seen? He’s bonkers!” That’s not who he is, and we treated his story with respect. It just comes down to trusting yourself and knowing that your ethical compass is in the right place.
I think that documentaries are bound by journalistic ethics, and I think they have the pressure of trying to entertain someone for 90 minutes. It’s hard, but it’s the same question no matter what you’re doing. Every film I’ve done, I’ve approached it the same way with the same level of respect.
Paste: You’re very much a mid-career established director. What does it mean to win an Oscar at this point in your career?
Vasarhelyi: We won the day he happily free soloed El Cap. The stakes were so different on this movie. The fact that no one got hurt on our crew, that Alex came out safely, that we made the right decisions, that he made the right decisions—that was reward enough. You never know how audiences are going to receive a film, and we are amazed and humbled that there is an outpouring from audiences about how Alex’s [story] inspires courage in them, and also this idea that he just worked really, really, really hard to pursue his dreams, and anything is possible. Who knew that people would understand what we saw in him? It’s a real honor, and Jimmy and I are thrilled [with the award]. It’s a testament to our partnership, and our partnership with Bob Eisenhardt. It’s so fresh—we were just honored to be recognized by our peers.
(Free Solo makes its TV premiere on National Geographic this Sunday, March 3rd, at 9/8c.)
#18QuestionsFor Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
In this column, we ask our interview subject 18 questions about their life to give us a peek at who they are as an artist. Answers can be as long or short as the subject prefers, and the question interpreted in any way they wish.
#1. What cinematic image is indelibly stamped on your psyche?
Right now it’s that down shot of Alex on the traverse. I just can’t shake it. I think it’s the best shot in the film; it’s always inspired us. As an image, it speaks to so many other images that have come before it.
#2. What piece of music best represents your voice as an artist?
To quote the immortal words of Miley Cyrus, “There’s always gonna be another mountain. I’m always gonna want to make it move.”
#3. If filmmaking didn’t exist, what would your occupation be?
#4. How does color influence your work as a filmmaker?
Color is everything. It’s another piece of the visual language to express what you’re trying to say.
#5. What was your greatest accomplishment as a child, artistic or otherwise?
Directing my first play.
#6. Do you consider yourself an expert in anything other than film?
No, and I don’t consider myself an expert filmmaker either.
#7. What’s the most unusual community you’re a part of?
The documentary film community.
#8. Have you ever identified with a fictional character?
What pops out at me is the little girl in Arcadia [ by Tom Stoppard], but there are too many to list. Literature has guided me through my whole life.
#9. What piece of art that has shaped who you are today?
There are so many! My mom took me down to the Museum of Metropolitan Art when I was a kid, and I grew up surrounded by so many different types of images. There was a lot of Asian art that was very important to me.
#10. When did you hold a camera for the first time, and what did that mean to you?
My father filmed me all the time as a kid, and that’s how I was first exposed to a camera.
#11. What family rituals do you still practice in terms of art or community?
I love all holidays. I love the festivities around holidays. I’m a big sucker for a good birthday cake, or Chinese New Year cupcakes,
#12. What’s your most trusted and crucial tool?
He’s not a tool, but—my editor.
#13. What’s your relationship with technology?
Not great. Technology empowers storytelling, but on a personal level, my kids are device free, and i try to stay off my phone as much as possible, at the same time it also allows me to be a very active mom and have a vibrant career because I’m not tied to a desk because of my phone. So it’s a love-hate one.
#14. When was the first time you stepped on a set?
Closer, with Mike Nichols. Or when I directed my first play. It was exciting. It’s all these creative people coming together to make great work.
#15. If you could freeze yourself in or relive one time in your life, when would it be?
I wish time would go slower with my kids.
#16. Whose story are you the keeper of?
My own and anyone who trusts me to tell their story.
#17. What secret have you learned about yourself through being a filmmaker?
That it only gets harder. And that’s okay.
#18. Is there a time you ever felt like a failure?
All the time! You have to fail to succeed. It’s the problems that make things the most interesting. Your solutions to failure, your solutions to problems are actually where the most creative things happen.
Elle Schneider is a director, cinematographer, and genre film enthusiast who writes for Paste and International Cinematographers Guild magazine. You can follow her work on Twitter and Instagram (@attentionsoldier).