Every now and then a documentary comes along that simply blows away the fictional super-hero feats of action films. Free Solo is a testament to the breathtaking challenges real life can offer. This documentary chronicles the first free solo climb (no ropes) by Alex Honnold of El Capitan’s 3,000-feet-high sheer rock face. This was the first and so far only successful free solo climb of the mountain.
Free Solo was produced by the filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who is renowned as both an action-adventure cinematographer/photographer and mountaineer. Free Solo was produced in partnership with National Geographic Documentary Films and has garnered numerous awards, including OSCAR and BAFTA awards for best documentary, as well as an ACE award for its editor Bob Eisenhardt, ACE. Free Solo enjoyed IMAX and regular theatrical distribution and can now be seen on the National Geographic Television streaming service.
Bob Eisenhardt is a well-known documentary film editor with over 60 films to his credit. Along with his ACE award for Free Solo, Eisenhardt is currently an editing nominee in this year’s EMMY Awards for his work in cutting the documentary. I recently had a chance to speak with Bob Eisenhardt and what follows is that conversation.
[OP] You have a long history in the New York documentary film scene. Please tell me a bit about your background.
[BE] I’ve done a lot of different kinds of films. The majority is cinema vérité work, but some films use a lot of archival footage and some are interview-driven. I’ve worked on numerous films with the Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Matt Tyrnauer, a couple of Alex Gibney’s films – and I often did more than one film with people. I also teach in the documentary program at the New York Film Academy, which is interesting and challenging. It’s really critiquing their thesis projects and discussing some general editing principles. I went to architecture school. Architectural design is taught by critique, so I understand that way of teaching.
[OP] It’s interesting that you studied architecture. I know that a lot of editors come from a musical background or are amateur musicians and that influences their approach to cutting. How do you think architecture affects your editing style?
[BE] They say architecture is frozen music, so that’s how I was taught to design. I’m very much into structure – thinking about the structure of the film and solving problems. Architecture is basically problem solving and that’s what editing is, too. How do I best tell this story with these materials that I have or a little bit of other material that I can get? What is the essence of that and how do I go about it?
[OP] What led to you working on Free Solo?
[BE] This is the second film I’ve made with Chai and Jimmy. The first was Meru. So we had some experience together and it’s the second film about climbing. I did learn about the challenges of climbing the first time and was familiar with the process – what the climbing involved and how you use the ropes.
Meru was very successful, so we immediately began discussing Free Solo. But the filming took about a year-and-a-half. That was partly due to accidents and injuries Alex had. It went into a second season and then a third season of climbing and you just have to follow along. That’s what documentaries are all about. You hitch your wagon to this person and you have to go where they take you. And so, it became a much longer project than initially thought. I began editing six months before Alex made the final climb. At that point they had been filming for about a year. So I came on in January and he made the climb in June – at which point I was well into the process of editing.
[OP] There’s a point in Free Solo, where Alex had started the ascent once and then stopped, because he wasn’t feeling good about it. Then it was unclear whether or not he would even attempt it again. Was that the six-month point when you joined the production?
[BE] Yes, that’s it. It’s very much the climbers’ philosophy that you have to feel it, or you don’t do it. That’s very true of free soloing. We wanted him to signal the action, “This is what I plan to do.” And he wouldn’t do it – ever – because that’s against the mentality of climbing. “If I feel it, I may do it. Otherwise, not.” It’s great for climbing, but not so good for film production.
[OP] Unlike any other film project, failure in this case would have meant Alex’s death. In that event you would have had a completely different film. That was touched on in the film, but what was the behind-the-scenes thinking about the possibility of such as catastrophe? Any Plan B?
[BE] In these vérité documentaries you never know what’s going to happen, but this is an extreme example. He was either going to do it and succeed, decide he wasn’t going to do it, or die trying, and that’s quite a range. So we didn’t know what film we were making when I started editing. We were going to go with the idea of him succeeding and then we’d reconsider if something else happened. That was our mentality, although in the back of our minds we knew this could be quite different.
When they started, it wasn’t with the intention of making this film. Jimmy knew Alex for 10 years. They were old friends and had done a lot of filming together. He thought Alex would be a great subject for a documentary. That’s what they proposed to Nat Geo – just a portrait of Alex – and Alex said, “If you are going to do that, then I’ve got to do something worthwhile. I’m going to try to free solo El Cap.” He told that to Chai while Jimmy wasn’t there. Chai is not a climber and she thought, “Great, that sounds like it will be a good film.” Jimmy completely freaked out when he found out, because he knew what it meant.
It’s an outrageous concept even to climbers. They actually backed off and had to reconsider whether this was something they wanted to get involved in. Do you really want to see your friend jeopardize his life for this? Would the filming add additional pressure on Alex? They had to deal with this even before they started shooting, which is why that was part of the film. I felt it was a very important idea to get across. Alex is taciturn, so you needed ways to understand him and what he was doing. The crew as a character really helped us do that. They were people Alex could interact with and the audience could identify with.
The other element that I felt was very important, was Sanni [McCandless, Alex Honnold’s girlfriend], who suddenly came onto the scene after the filming began. This felt like a very important way to get to know Alex. It also became another challenge for Alex – whether he would be able not only to climb this mountain, but whether he would be able to have a relationship with this woman. And aren’t those two diametrically opposed? Being able to open yourself up emotionally to someone, but also control your emotions enough to be able to hang by your fingertips 2,000 feet in the air on the side of a cliff.
[OP] Sanni definitely added a lot of humanity to him. Before the climb they discuss the possibility of his falling to his death and Alex’s point of view is that’s OK. “If I die, I die.” I’m not sure he really believed that deep inside. Or did he?
[BE] Alex is very purposeful and lives every day with intention. That’s what’s so intriguing. He knows any minute on the wall could be his last and he’s comfortable with that. He felt like he was going to succeed. He didn’t think he was going to fall. And if he didn’t feel that way he wasn’t going to do it. Seeing the whole thing through Sanni’s eyes allowed us as the audience to get closer to and identify with Alex. We call that moment the ‘Take me into consideration’ scene, which I felt was vitally important.
[OP] Did you have any audience screenings of the rough cuts? If so, how did that inform your editing choices?
[BE] We did do some screenings and it’s a tricky thing. Nat Geo was a great partner throughout. Most companies wouldn’t be able to deal with this going on for a year-and-a-half. It’s in Nat Geo’s DNA to fund exploration and make exploratory films. They were completely supportive, but they did decide they wanted to get into Sundance and we were a month from the deadline. We brought in three other editors (Keiko Deguchi, Jay Freund, and Brad Fuller) to jump in and try to make it. Even though we got an extension and we did a great job, we didn’t get in. The others left and I had another six months to work on the film and make it better. Because of all of this, the screenings were probably too early. The audience had trouble understanding Alex, understanding what he’s trying to do – so the first couple screenings were difficult.
We knew when we saw the initial climbing footage that the climb itself was going to be amazing. By the time we showed it to an audience, we were completely immune to any tension from the climb – I mean, we’d seen it 200 times. It was no longer as scary to us as it had been the first time we saw it. In editing you have to remember the initial reaction you had to the footage so that you can bring it to bear later on. It was a real struggle to make the rest of the story as strong as possible to keep you engaged, until we got to the climb. So we were pleasantly surprised to see that people were so involved and very tense during the climb. We had underestimated that.
We also figured that everyone would already know how this thing ends. It was well-publicized that he successfully climbed El Cap. The film had to be strong enough that people could forget they knew what happened. Although I’ve had people tell me they could not have watched the climb if they hadn’t known the outcome.
[OP] Did you end up emphasizing some aspects over others as a result of the screenings?
[BE] The main question to the audience is, “Do you understand what we are trying to say?” And then, “What do you think of him or her as a character?” That’s interesting information that you get from an audience. We really had to clarify what his goal was. He never says at the beginning, “I’m going to do this thing.” In fact, I couldn’t get him to say it after he did it. So it was difficult to set up his intention. And then it was also difficult to make clear what the steps were. Obviously we couldn’t cover the whole 3,000 feet of El Capitan, so they had to concentrate on certain areas.
We decided to cover five or six of the most critical pitches – sections of the climb – to concentrate on those and really cover them properly during the filming. These were challenging to explain and it took a lot of effort to make that clear. People ask, “How did you manage to cut the final climb – it was amazing.” Well, it worked because of the second act that explains what he is trying to do. We didn’t have to say anything in the third act. You just watch because you understand.
When we started people didn’t understand what free soloing is. At first we were calling the film Solo. The nomenclature of climbing is confusing. Soloing is actually climbing with a rope, but only for protection. Then we’d have to explain what free soloing was as opposed to soloing. However, Hans Solo came along and stole our title, so it was much easier to call it Free Solo. Explaining the mentality of climbing, the history of climbing, the history of El Capitan, and then what exactly the steps were for him to accomplish what he was trying to do – all that took a long time to get right and a lot of that came out of good feedback from the audience.
Then, “Do you understand the character?” At one point we didn’t have enough of Sanni and then we had too much of Sanni. It became this love story and you forgot that he was going to climb. So the balancing was tricky.
[OP] Since you were editing before the final outcome and production was still in progress, did you have an opportunity to request more footage or that something in particular be filmed that you were missing in the edit?
[BE] That was the big advantage to starting the edit before the filming was done. I often end up coming into projects that are about 80-90% shot on average. So they have the ability to get pick-ups if people are alive or if the event can still be filmed in some way. This one was more ‘in progress.’ For instance, he practiced a specific move a lot for the most difficult pitch and I kept asking for more of that. We wanted to show how many times he practiced it in order to get the feel of it.
[OP] Let’s switch gears and talk about the technical side. Which edit system did you use to cut Free Solo?
[BE] We were using Avid Media Composer 8.8.5 with Nexis shared storage. Avid is my first choice for editing. I’ve done about four films on the old Final Cut – Meru being one of them – but, I much prefer Avid. I’ve often inherited projects that were started on something else, so you are stuck. On this one we knew going in that we would do it on Avid. Their ScriptSync feature is terrific. Any long discussions or sit-down interviews were transcribed. We could then word-search them, which was invaluable. My associate editor, Simona Ferrari, set up everything and was also there for the output.
[OP] Did you handle the finishing – color correction and sound post – in-house or go outside to another facility?
[BE] We up-rezzed in the office on [Blackmagic Design DaVinci] Resolve and then took that to Company 3 for finishing and color correction. Deborah Wallach did a great job sound editing and we mixed with Tommy Fleischman [Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, BlacKkKlansman]. They shot this on about every camera, aspect ratio, and frame rate imaginable. But if they’re hanging 2,000 feet in the air and didn’t happen to hit the right button for the frame rate – you really can’t complain too much! So there was an incredible wide range and Simona managed to handle all that in the finishing. There wasn’t a lot of archival footage, but there were photos for the backstory of the family.
The other big graphic element was the mountain itself. We needed to be able to trace his route up the mountain and that took forever. It wasn’t just to show his climb, but also to connect the pitches that we had concentrated on, since there wasn’t much coverage between them. Making this graphic became very complicated. We tried one house and they couldn’t do it. Finally, Big Star, who was doing the other graphics – photomontages and titles – took this on. It was the very last thing done and was dropped in during the color correction session.
For the longest time in the screenings, the audience was watching a drawing that I had shot off of the cutting room wall and traced in red. It was pretty lame. For the screenings, it was a shot of the mountain and then I would dissolve through to get the line moving. After a while we had some decent in and out shots, but nothing in-between, except this temporary graphic that I created.
[OP] I caught Free Solo on the plane to Las Vegas for NAB and it had me on the edge of my seat. I know the film was also released in IMAX, so I can only image what that experience was like.
[BE] The film wasn’t made for IMAX – that opportunity came up later. It’s a different film on IMAX. Although there is incredible high-angle photography, it’s an intimate story. So it worked well on a moderately big screen. But in IMAX it becomes a spectacle, because you can really see all those details in the high-angle shots. I have cut an IMAX film before and you do pace them different, because of the ability to look around. However, there wasn’t a different version of Free Solo made for IMAX – we didn’t have the freedom to do that. Of course, the whole film is largely handheld, so we did stabilize a few shots. IMAX merely used their algorithm to bump it up to their format. I was shocked – it was beautiful.
[OP] Let’s talk a bit about your process as an editor. For instance, music. Different editors approach music differently. Do you cut with temp music or wait until the very end to introduce the score?
[BE] Marco Beltrami [Fantastic Four, Logan, Velvet Buzzsaw] was our composer, but I use temp music from very early on. I assemble a huge library of scratch music – from other films or from the potential composers’ past films. I use that until we get the right feel for the music and that’s what we show to the composer. It gives us something to talk about. It’s much easier to say, “We like what the music is doing here, but it’s the wrong instrumentation.” Or, “This is the right instrument, but the wrong tempo.” It’s a baseline.
[OP] How do you tackle the footage at the very beginning? Do you create selects or Kem rolls or some other approach?
[BE] I create a road map to know where I’m going. I go through all the dailies and pull the stuff that I think might be useful. Everything from the good-looking shots to a taste of something that I may never use, but I want to remember. Then I screen selects reels. I try to do that with the director. Sometimes we can schedule that and sometimes not. On Free Solo there was over 700 hours of footage, so it’s hard to get your arms around that. By the time you get through looking at the 700th hour you’ve forgotten the first one. That’s why the selecting process is so important to me. The selects amount to maybe a third of the dailies footage. After screening the selects, I can start to see the story and how to tell it.
I make index cards for every scene and storyboard the whole thing. By that I mean arrange the cards on a wall. They are color-coded for places, years, or characters. It allows me to stand back and see the flow of the film, to think about the structure, and the points that I have to hit. I basically cut to that. Of course, if it doesn’t work, I re-arrange the index cards (laugh).
A few years ago, I did a film about the Dixie Chicks [Shut Up & Sing] at the time they got into trouble for comments they had made about President Bush. We inherited half of the footage and shot half. The Dixie Chicks went on to produce a concert and an album based upon their feelings about the whole experience. It was kind of present and past, so there were basically two different colors to the cards. It was not cut in chronological order, so you could see very quickly whether you were in the past or the present just by looking at the wall. There were four editors working on Shut Up & Sing and we could look at the wall, discuss, and decide if the story was working or not. If we moved this block of cards, what would be the consequences of telling the story in a different order?
[OP] Were Jimmy or Chai very hands-on as directors during the edit – in the room with you every day at the end?
[BE] Chai and Jimmy are co-directors and so Jimmy tended to be more in the field and Chai more in the edit room. Since we had worked together before, we had built a common language and a trust. I would propose ideas to Chai and try them and she would take a look. My feeling is that the director is very close to it and not able to see the dailies with fresh eyes. I have the fresh perspective. I like to take advantage of that and let them step back a little. By the end, I’m the one that’s too close to it and they have a little distance if they pace themselves properly.
[OP] To wrap it up, what advice would you have for young editors tackling a documentary project like this?
[BE] Well, don’t climb El Cap – you probably won’t make it (laugh)! I always preach this to my students: I encourage them to make an outline and work towards it. You can make index cards like I do, you can make a Word document, a spreadsheet; but try to figure out what your intentions are and how you are going to use the material. Otherwise, you are just going to get lost. You may be cutting things that are lovely, but then don’t fit into the overall structure. That’s my big encouragement.
Sometimes with vérité projects there’s a written synopsis, but for Free Solo there was nothing on paper at the beginning. They went in with one idea and came out with a different film. You have to figure out what the story is and that’s all part of the editing process. This goes back to the Maysles’ approach. Go out and capture what happened and then figure out the story. The meaning is found in the cutting room.
Images courtesy of National Geographic and Bob Eisenhardt.
©2019 Oliver Peters