TORONTO — Willingly hanging onto the edge of a massive cliff without a safety harness might seem like sheer insanity, but for free climber Alex Honnold it’s merely what gets his adrenaline pumping.
The thrill-seeker stunned moviegoers in the big-screen documentary “Free Solo,” which tracks his relentless quest to scale Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan rock formation without safety gear. But now his historic achievement is becoming even more enormous with a number of dates on Imax screens in several Canadian cities this week.
The Imax release is something filmmakers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi have eagerly anticipated since the film’s debut last year.
“It’s the closest you can get to actually being there,” says Chin, who dangled from ropes while shooting Honnold’s climb.
“It feels as big and grand as being up on El Cap.”
“Free Solo” was recently shortlisted for the documentary feature category at the Academy Awards.
Over the coming days, the film shows at the Cinesphere in Toronto, the Telus World of Science in Edmonton and at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.
The co-directors spoke with The Canadian Press about seeing their documentary on some of the world’s biggest movie screens and whether Honnold was willing to revisit one of the riskiest experiences of his life.
CP: “Free Solo” landed in regular theatres nearly four months ago, but it’s only getting Imax treatment now, even though it seems essential on a giant screen. What took so long?
Vasarhelyi: The film was always meant to be on Imax — to be shown on the biggest screen possible. And this has been an ongoing conversation with Imax for a year. (When “Free Solo”) performed at the box office and they were happy to host it for a week.
CP: You’ve probably watched “Free Solo” countless times at various screenings amid Oscar season. But is Alex eager to see himself on that treacherous climb?
Chin: I don’t think he has any problems reliving those moments. He likes to come in for the last 20 minutes. I think he enjoys watching people’s reaction, but he also loves the score and how it feels at the end.
Vasarhelyi: He recently watched it all the way through on Imax for the first time… and it blew his mind. He was vibrating. Alex feels that way sometimes. He kept talking about how visceral it was, how true to the experience. It’s a way that can kind of transport him back to that moment.
CP: Most audiences probably haven’t scaled an indoor climbing wall, never mind a cliff side, but popular opinion coming out of “Free Solo” is that everyone’s palms are sweating throughout the entire movie. Do you think the experience of watching the doc is more intense for a climber or someone who’s never tried?
Vasarhelyi: Intellectually, it’s probably more anxiety-including for a climber because they understand how dangerous it is. But as an experience, (for) non-climbers it’s knocking their socks off. The very vertiginous nature of it is freaky. But climbers understand truly how dangerous this is.
Chin: I also think climbers are at least somewhat habituated to this idea of verticality and exposure. So in that way, it makes climbers very nervous to watch it. But if you’ve never been climbing before or thought about being stuck on the side of a wall, to see that is very new and exhilarating.
CP: Aside from the climbing, were there any surprises in the shoot? Did Alex’s blossoming relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless come as a shock, considering that he was living in his van when it took shape?
Vasarhelyi: When we (started) making this film Alex was online dating — and it was kind of funny. Here we have this incredibly stressful and thrilling film that would’ve had this comic relief of Alex inviting women back to his van, and trying to explain that it’s for living. And then suddenly Sanni appeared, and she is a remarkable woman who is incredibly emotionally intelligent and confident enough to push back on him. It became this incredibly important storyline for us where suddenly there were two mountains — El Cap, but also the idea of negotiating a successful relationship.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press