Interview: Alex Honnold and Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Share What It Was Like to Film the Death-Defying Climb

Lauren Miller ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff WRiter
Emertainment Monthly met with Alex Honnold, the subject of the documentary Free Solo and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, one of the directors, for an interview. She goes by her middle name, Chai, and so is identified as such below. An MIT Student, Erica, was also present for the interview and asked some interesting questions. Below is a transcript of that interview, editing and abridged for clarity.
Emertainment Monthly: (to Alex) I was wondering specifically what it was like for you to watch (Free Solo) because that’s a whole year–
Alex Honnold: Two years.
EM: Yeah, two years of your life put under a microscope.
Honnold: It was an experience. It seems like audiences watch with their hands covering part of their face for most of the film. And that’s exactly how I watch it, except that I cover it for the first 40 minutes or first hour when it’s my relationship with Sanni [McCandless] and my family and backstory and all that and I’m just like, “Aw, cringe, cringe,” and then with the climbing I’m like, “This is awesome!”
EM: Did you feel like you learned anything about yourself in watching it?
Honnold: I mean, maybe that I should be a little more friendly or kind or like, caring or whatever. But I mean, not really, I mean it’s very honest. It’s like, this is just my life for two years. So I’m just like, “Yep, that’s me. There you have it.” For better or worse, that’s just my life laid out on the screen.

Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Photo Credit: VOA News.
MIT: You mentioned many times during the film about free soloing for the right reasons and whether or not the fame surrounding this accomplishment, how it affected you. Do you think free soloing El Cap would have been as grand or as beautiful if there had been no public huzzah around it?
Honnold: I mean, the experience would have probably been just as good. In some ways, the experience with the film was slightly better because I’d been working with the crew for so long that I got to share this beautiful moment with them. You can see me high-fiving them on the summit and it was really nice to share that with somebody. I mean, had I free soloed El Cap entirely by myself and then been sitting on the summit completely alone, that would have been very satisfying too and the decline itself would have felt the same, but at a certain point you’d be like, “Where are my friends?” I think the experience probably worked out as well as I could, it was like best case scenario.
And in some ways now, having the actual film in theaters is nice, because I relive this amazing moment for myself. Every time we do a Q&A, I watch the last ten minutes of the film, and there’s this amazing music and it’s so beautiful and I’m like, “Oh, what a beautiful day.” It’s like getting a really nice picture of this special place you got to go.
Chai: In the future, if you ever have children or something, that’s kind of amazing that they can see that.
Honnold: Yeah. In some ways, it makes the whole experience better to know that it’s captured in this nice way and it’s so beautiful.
MIT: As a part of the filmmaking process, over and over again, you guys as [a] whole film crew, you had to trust that Alex wouldn’t feel pressured into doing that.
Chai: I think [that] it was a central part of the process, was that it was a personal line that Jimmy would never be able to cross, that we cannot ask Alex if he’s going to do it. It was our job to minimize the pressure as much as possible and kind of insulate him from it and trust in his own decision capacity, his capacity to make the right decisions. And if we didn’t have that trust in him, we wouldn’t be there. He had to do it because he was ready to do it and we were there to help him as much as we could and working alongside him so there were no surprises from our side. He knows where the cameras are, he knows the person behind that camera, and–
Honnold: Trust them not to drop anything on me.
Chai: Yeah, trust them not to drop anything.
Honnold: Which is totally real. Not totally joking. It’s important to trust the people you’re working with and prepare together so that each person knows exactly what’s going to be happening.
Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
EM: Was there anything in the process of the filming that was really surprising? Like, a problem you didn’t think you were going to have and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, I never even thought about how difficult that would be.”
Honnold: When you showed up in Yosemite for the first time and you’re like, “That wall’s way too big.”
Chai: Yeah. Surprises, I think Sanni was a revelation. So, when we first began making the film, Alex was online dating, which is what I guess people do now.
Honnold: That’s normal.
Chai: I guess I’m just too old.
Honnold: Yeah, exactly.
Chai: And he was on his book tour and setting up [a] date for most cities and we thought we had a comedy on our hands. And then Sanni arrived and she is very very special. She’s emotionally intelligent and articulate about those feelings and has enough self-confidence to be able to push back on Alex and stand up for herself and also love him for who he is. And so that triggered,  as you see in the film, a real emotional evolution for Alex. And that was a surprise. It was great, just to have someone who is there and adds this tension to film because it’s clearly a dilemma, it becomes another kind of mountain in the movie. So, that was a surprise. And our other surprise was the unicorn.
Honnold: You love that unicorn. That’s something I never would have included in the film like, “It’s too random, it’s too weird, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Chai: But that’s the point. That random, it’s the total bizarre spontaneity of life.
EM: Did you think about that at all as you were climbing?
Honnold: No,  I didn’t even really notice when I was climbing because he was still sitting in bed so I was just like, “good morning,” and didn’t want to talk to anybody so I just climbed by. Then later saw and was like, “Oh he’s in a freaking unicorn suit, that’s weird.” But I didn’t want to be distracted so it’s a good thing I didn’t start chatting with a freaking unicorn.
Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
EM: Were there ever any moments when you were really close to calling the whole thing off? Not necessarily the climb, but calling off the film.
Honnold: No, not really. With the fall, I was disappointed with myself, and it felt like a failure for the day, but even then, within a couple [of] days I was like, “Oh this is pretty good. I almost did it, I was almost ready.” It kind of showed that it was possible, once I got past the initial disappointment, I knew I was ready and that it could be possible. I don’t think we were ever that close…we were pretty committed. You know, we’d started down this path and I’d been working with my friends and it felt like a team working towards this thing. I don’t think anybody really wanted to walk away from it.
Chai: We were all very very committed, the whole group. I think that’s what makes the film special, on every level people were committed. Also because of the pressure and the risk.
Honnold: Yeah, the camera guys were coming back to like work for free basically because they wanted to see it through to the end. Claire was mentioning that he was there for weeks just covering expenses but not paying his day rate–
Chai: Because he’s so expensive.
Honnold: Yeah, exactly.
Chai: But I think this was one of those really special experiences for him.
Honnold: Totally. And I’m close friends with all of the crew and I think each of them individually had this amazing experience from the whole process. For Sam [Crossley], one of the other cameramen started as sort of an assistant and then by the end was on the wall filming. Through the two years of filming, he had a pretty amazing transformation. I think the whole thing was a pretty formative experience for him.
Chai: For Sam, I was like, “This is your first big job? That’s amazing.”
Honnold: Well you know he’s quote to Jimmy [Hurst] or whatever, where the day of he was slighting depressed on top, and he said to Jimmy, “It’s kind of sad that I’m only 24 and I probably just did the best filming that I ever will in my life.” Because he was shooting the main shot down the corners, it was awesome. But you know, poor Sam.
EM: How long did it take to map out the routes of where the cameras would be place?
Chai: We were preparing for two and a half years and editing along the way, so we knew what the main story points would be. Given that El Cap was so big, we were able to just focus on what we needed.
Honnold: Be strategic about placement.
Chai: Yeah, and they were moving all over the wall. Always visualize that, they were going up and down.
Honnold: Lot of cameras. Lot of moving parts.
Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
MIT: So all of this was orchestrated?
Chai: It was orchestrated. And the day of, it was a terrifying day, Alex started going faster than anyone expected and that was a big deal. It was, “Can you get into position,” and, “Can you get into position?” Everyone knew him so well so it was slightly anticipated, but not that fast. We were thinking like 5.
Honnold: I don’t know, I was just motivated.
Chai: Which is a big deal for the timing of the cameras.
Honnold: One of the cameramen was at the base to see the beginning of the climb and then he was going to carry my shoes and my little backpack up to the summit so that way I have something to walk down in, so I don’t have to walk down barefoot. But so then he’s trying to get to the stop before I do because it still takes a couple of hours to hike up.
Chai: For the shot, less for the shoes.
Honnold: Yeah, of course. But yeah it was stressful. He’s carrying his camera and all his gear and my gear and he’s like hustling up the side of El Cap. He knows that I’ve got a head start and I’m charging up the face and he’s like, “Oh, I’ve gotta make it.” He still beat me by like 45 minutes.
Chai: Barely!
Honnold: Next time I’ll go faster.
MIT: The one thing that stands out to me that you said in the movie was that, the fact that you’ve chosen it, you’ve chosen climbing, this way of life, that makes it so that you have to face your fear because the goal demands it. Can you expand on this?
Honnold: The quote … I don’t know, you know the line better than I do. Over the course of two years, there’s all kinds of rambles, I say all kinds of crazy things that wind up in the film.
Chai: I think it was also about the mindset of free soloing.
Honnold: Yeah, facing your fear because the goal demands it. I think that’s part of the appeal of soloing, is that it requires excellence of you. You’re doing something difficult and it forces you to perform at your best. And ultimately, the feeling of performing at your best is a very satisfying feeling. That’s part of the joy of climbing. And by choosing to free solo, it just forces you to perform at that level.
Free Solo is out in theaters and on demand now. Check out Emertainment Monthly‘s review here!
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