Free Solo Directors Chai Vasarhelyi And Jimmy Chin on “Surreal” Awards Run That Could Lead To Emmy Noms

Free Solos path to likely Emmy nominations has been paved with gold—the Oscar kind.

The film about mountain climber Alex Honnolds breathtaking ascent of Yosemites El Capitan—without ropes—won the Academy Award in February for Best Documentary Feature. Its now on Emmy nomination ballots in multiple nonfiction categories, including cinematography, picture editing, and directing.

Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have spent part of the last few months simply adjusting to their Oscar win.

“Its just a little surreal,” Chin admits, reflecting on that moment in the Oscar spotlight. “You understand how special it is, from coming up with the right idea to the production networks and a film that works that people embrace, your peers embrace.”

Free Solo has not only claimed awards but extraordinary box office returns—a theatrical run lasting months brought in more than $17.5 million in North America alone. Emmy season screenings for the National Geographic title continued to draw big audiences.

Vasarhelyi credits National Geographic for giving the Free Solo team room to make the most compelling film they could.

“We had time on this movie, and I truly believe that in nonfiction filmmaking, the movies are better when you have time,” she notes. “Because you get to play with it, you get to work with it, you get to think about just the margins.”

The directors also needed plenty of time to plan and carry out an immensely complicated shoot—documenting a man scaling a 3,000-foot rock face. Chin, a world-class climber himself, led a team of climber-cinematographers that executed a bob-and-weave around Honnold as he went up El Cap. They rehearsed their intricate choreography.

“Over the course of two and a half years youre trying to sort out what sections of the climb are really critical to the narrative,” Chin explains. “Youre trying to figure out which parts of the climb look the most dramatic. Youre thinking about, in terms of rigging, how difficult it is to get to certain sections…And youre also figuring out how to get out of the places, and moving in a way that youre not going to be distracting to Alex.”

Free Solo

Honnold could have fallen to his death at any moment. The camera teams, though on ropes, also faced life-and-death peril.

“Theres a lot of risks involved,” Chin concedes. “You have to be so comfortable that you can stay focused on shooting but you never can be complacent about the climbing aspect. Because as soon as you are complacent, thats when bad things happen.”

Just getting a steady shot presented a challenge for photographers handling heavy equipment while suspended high above the ground.

“If you actually listen to a lot of the audio from the footage, at the end of the clips youll hear someone go, Aaahhhhh, like a huge breath, because theyre basically hanging on a wall, the harness is totally compressing their diaphragm,” Chin comments. “Theyre hanging and they have to hold their breath for the entire shot to keep it stable…They just held their breath for like a minute and half.”

Free Solo contains much more than scintillating mountain climbing shots. There are intimate scenes that help reveal Honnolds character, like the struggle he experienced letting girlfriend Sanni McCandless into his heart.

“We were very lucky with Alex meeting and falling in love with Sanni. That was something wed never anticipated,” Vasarhelyi recalls. “Shes a mirror for a lot of [the audiences] feelings…You have to care about Alex if youre really going to care about the climb.”

Among those whose work on Free Solo could be recognized with an Emmy nomination is editor Bob Eisenhardt.

“Bob is our closest and most admired and respected collaborator,” Vasarhelyi states. “Ive learned more from him than anyone else about filmmaking.”

Free Solo

Part of the challenge for the directors and Eisenhardt was to capture the suspense of the audacious endeavor, so viewers never lost sight of how precarious iRead More – Source

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