Erika Bean talks to Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, directors of the new climbing documentary The Alpinist.
When we sign onto the call, I notice Peter has one arm in a sling. He has to leave halfway through the interview to speak to a surgeon (we can assume the injury came from something adventurous and exciting), so the remaining answers came from Nick alone.
How did you first hear of Marc-André Leclerc? What made you want to make a film about him?
Peter Mortimer: We heard about Marc-André through the climbing world. We’ve been in that world ourselves as climbers, and we heard about him from some of the best climbers that we know. Here’s this guy who’s better than all the people you’re filming with, he doesn’t talk about himself, he’s under the radar, and that was really intriguing to us as documentary filmmakers. We tracked Marc down through his girlfriend Brette, who unlike Marc, actually has a phone. We spent some time with him and immediately realised he was this underground crusher. He’s one of the best climbers in the world but no-one knows about him. Apart from this handful of other elite climbers who understood what he was doing.
Was he quite hard to convince?
Peter: He was a bit reticent at first, and shy. He didn’t really understand the magnitude of what we were planning. We do films of a lot of different scales, and he’d probably seen a lot of what we’d done. But once we started working with him, we knew we really needed to go all in and make a feature length documentary film. He was somewhat taken aback by the scale and degree of that.
He was shy but at the same time he really wanted to share with the world the mountain landscapes and these experiences that he was having. He was deeply inspired by it all, and so he wanted other people to see it as well so there was a little bit of a push and pull there.
His mother mentions in the documentary that Marc-André has ADHD. And in a couple of your other documentaries and in other climbing documentaries too there seems to be a lot of neurodiversity. Is that because you pick people specifically because they’re a bit more interesting or quirky or is it a bit more common in the climbing world to see a lot of neurodiversity?
Nick Rosen: I think Neurodiversity is such an emerging field, and people are learning so much about it that we’re all learning too. Before Free Solo came out, I had a sense that Alex [Honnold – subject of Free Solo] was on the spectrum having worked with him. But I feel like that film was so valuable in bringing that out. Generally, though, climbing draws in so many different kinds of people. There are folks who are really type-A and organised and then there’s other people who are crazy dirtbags drinking whiskey and living on the rocks. It’s a wide world, is how I would look at it.
Peter: The first film that I made 25 years ago was called Front Range Freaks. It was about the front range of this area of Colorado which is a total mecca for climbing. I got into climbing as a teenager having been into more mainstream sports before and I was really drawn to the eccentricity of choosing your own path. Everyone was finding their own ways of expressing themselves. Once I found climbing and these alternative heroes I was just all in. I just quit everything else and just climbed exclusively for the next decade. So, I do think, we as storytellers despite the diversity within climbing as a sport, are drawn to the eccentric, obsessive, big dreamers, with unique visions. They’re characters.
I also noticed that in your documentaries compared to a lot of others, you tend to show female climbers a lot more. Have you made a conscious decision to show women as equal climbers to the men that they climb alongside?
Nick: We document the climbing world, and the climbing world is producing an impressive number of women who are naturally as gifted at climbing as men. Especially more recently as people are more able to see women on the big screen doing things like this and be inspired by that. We don’t have to go out of our way to find amazing and impressive women climbers.
Peter: Also, our audience is way more varied than you’d maybe expect. We run the Reel Rock Film Tour which is an annual tour of climbing and adventure films and at our shows there’s usually at least 40% women. You go to a climbing gym today and there are so many women there. When I started climbing it wasn’t like that, if a group of women walked into a climbing gym everyone would stop and be pretty shocked and would try and get them to be their climbing partners! But you go into a gym now and often 60 or 70% of the people in there are women and they all climb harder than me.
Some places also have climbing teams for kids. I have an eight and an eleven-year-old and they aren’t on the climbing teams, but a lot of their friends are. And those are massively skewed towards young women. We’re just reflecting the climbing world that we see. On the other hand, that’s something I particularly love about the climbing world. Because I surf and skate and there are very few women in those sports really in comparison.
It seems a lot like the climbing world is actually pretty small, like a family? Is that accurate?
Nick: Yes. It’s interesting because traditionally the climbing world is like this counterculture. It’s small in scope and distinct from the culture around it. Nowadays as it’s evolving, and it’s getting bigger and bigger. A lot of it is more mainstream and there’s thousands of climbing gyms and all kinds of communities whether they’re close to mountains or not. Churning out these incredibly talented climbers, year in and year out. They’re getting younger and better and more diverse. That’s one of the most exciting things about the sport right now.
You will see certain climbers, like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, recur on the Reel Rock tour year in and year out because these guys are so dynamic and they’re doing some of the most incredible things. It’s also getting so much bigger for us though and it’s really cool to have it expand. We just finished a film about a woman named Janja Garnbret who just won the gold medal in the Olympics. Before she won we were working on a piece about her, because she was already the Michael Jordan of competition climbing. That’s something I’ve never really followed that much, competitions, so we spent a lot of time learning about the dynamics of competitive bouldering and the world cup circuit. And also, this incredible woman from rural Slovenia that I didn’t know much about, who is changing her sport in fundamental ways.
How do you approach your documentaries narratively? Did you have an idea beforehand of the story you wanted to tell? Or do you film as much footage as you can and cobble a documentary together from what you can get?
Nick: It’s a little of both. A lot of the time we’ll be making a film and we think we’ve got a great story and then someone gets injured. We can film hundreds of hours and then we can’t make a movie out of it. We often start with a great character, or team of characters, and a big goal. That’s a pretty good starting point. That gives you a lot of room to dive into the nuances of what makes everyone fascinating, and what are they going to have to go through to reach their objective. And then we just see where it goes.
I can imagine with Marc-André in particular it was more a case of cobbling together what you could get. Because based on what I’ve seen in the documentary he sometimes didn’t communicate with you very well.
Nick: Our strategy with Marc was basically just to follow him. Which was a very capricious experience at times! But at the same time, we knew that he had some big objectives. We’d been in the business long enough to understand when a climber is as at the height of their power and really coming into their own, being able to do stuff that is both creative and unprecedented. We really felt that with Marc so it was just a case of doing our best to keep up with him and something amazing would happen.
Peter: And also there was this special thing about Marc. He was so good but so humble. And our priority was capturing that.
<at this point Peter has to run off to talk on the phone to a surgeon about his wrist>
How do you balance getting the shots you want with not interfering with the climbs? Is that something that concerns you? Distracting the person you’re filming?
Nick: Absolutely, it’s a huge concern and challenge. Particularly when you’re filming alpinism and solo alpinism there’s this unprecedented difficulty. Because of how remote a lot of these places are, how difficult to access they are, combined with the volatility of the terrain. There’s hanging daggers of ice, potential avalanche conditions, loose rocks etc. The medium itself demands that we take the upmost careful and planned out approach to something like that.
You could just film from a distance but the real challenge for us as we’ve found over the years is capturing the drama and pathos of climbing really requires that you are able to get close to document the persons face. Their expressions and movements, the intimacy. The first priority is obviously safety, and for Marc a high priority was preserving his experience. That was an agenda that he imposed on us.
One of the ways we did that was by putting together a team of incredibly experienced alpinists who were also great cinematographers. Jonathan Griffith, who’s an Englishman, was the guy who filmed up close with Marc on those big mountain faces and on the ice walls. Jonathan was suspended above Marc, on a rope, safely tied in, but he has so much care and knowledge for the terrain alongside his creative and technical ability which enabled him to film safely and evocatively. There’s a tiny handful of people who can even think about doing that kind of thing. Of course, we’ve been doing this for a long time, but every climb presents new challenges.
Do you get scared when filming? How do you manage that?
Nick: Yes, obviously when you’re filming with someone who has no rope, they’re on terrain that is really steep and unforgiving, one false move could have the ultimate consequence. When you’re watching that, whether you’re with the camera or not, it’s an incredibly gripping experience. But ultimately, it’s not about us or what we’re thinking, we just have to try and make everything as safe as possible. I had a tremendous amount of trust in Marc. His comfort level up there on those vertical faces, it’s very clear.
We cut away from the scenes where he’s saying “cool you guys did you get everything you want? Do you want me to do it again a different way? Should I do this cool move with my feet above my head?” and we’re saying “No! It’s all good, we got it, you don’t have to do anything else.” That comfort and confidence and that trust that we can have when filming with Marc is a vital part of the equation for filming climbing.
He makes it look completely effortless, like he’s composing a symphony. He’s artful.
Nick: Yes, Jonathan Griffith said it’s like watching ballet.
Do you think it’ll ever get to a point when there’s going to be nothing left to be “the first” on?
Nick: No, definitely not. Not only are there many walls left in the world. On those same walls there’s a lot of room for a creative evolution of the sport. As Gary Blanchard says in the film, this is a 100-year-old tradition of doing things faster, lighter, in better style, paring down the assistance that one has to climb at a given difficulty level. Someone can climb El Capitan, get to the top after their first ascent, and then someone will do that faster, and then someone will do it with their hands and feet instead of artificial aids, and then someone will do it without a rope like Alex did. And that evolution continues. Some young person is going to come along one day and do the same route that Marc or Alex did in a more impressive style. Or they’ll take the ultra-minimalist style that they climb with and do harder climbs. The evolution is ongoing.
What’s next? Do you have the subject of your next documentary lined up or is something else planned for you?
Nick: Every year we make the Reel Rock Film Tour. In normal times it’s a worldwide tour that goes to 700 cities around the world. We make the films, which are short 20-minute films, at a rate of about four a year for this film tour. Last year it was more of an online experience with a few live events. We have other projects like YouTube videos. For us it just continues, there’s an endless number of stories, characters and climbs out there for us to document.
The Alpinist is in UK and Irish cinemas from 24th September