As the Academy Awards wrap up, viewers have the usual question: Where can we see the winners? Answers vary: “Green Book” is still in theaters, “Roma” is on Netflix, some things have sort of disappeared. But one of the happiest answers is this one: “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winner for best feature documentary, will be on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, March 3. Here’s the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
For the “Free Solo” movie, the climb continues.
It has its Academy Award (best documentary feature), plus other prizes. It’s had a solid box-office showing; by Oscar night, it had made $16.5 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Now comes a new phase: On Sunday (March 3), the National Geographic Channel will show it commercial-free.
This is no standard doc, Carolyn Bernstein, the channel’s programming chief, told the Television Critics Association. “It is the breathtaking portrait of the free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares (to climb) the world’s most famous rock, the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without a rope. Alex is truly one of a kind.”
He is. He’s spent large chunks of his time living in a van, but before meeting the TCA in Pasadena, he stayed in a luxurious hotel. How was it? “Not as good as the van,” he said.
Really? “One of the things that drives me crazy in nice hotels is, there’s too much room,” Hannold said. “You have to, like, wander. It’s like a 10-meter walk to the bathroom ….
“You’re like, ‘Where’s the outlet? Where’s the light switch?’ You’re wandering around. It’s confusing. With the van, it’s like, everything’s within arm’s reach. …. You know, it’s simpler.”
This was going to be a film about a simple life, a man devoted to one goal. Filmmakers “wanted to make a strong character study abou courage, about Alex, and kind of living with purpose and pursuing your dreams,” said cinematographer Clair Popkin.
And Honnold, now 33, is purposeful. During his one college year (University of California, Berkeley), he has said, he sublet a family friend’s apartment and “never met anyone; I never spoke to anybody.”
Then he quit school, took his mother’s old van and gradually became a climbing star. “We started with Alex when he was online dating, living in his van, being alone,” said producer Shannon Dill.
And then? “One of the really nice things about documentaries (is when) reality falls in your favor,” said editor Bob Eisenhardt. “We didn’t start with the idea that we were going to have a love story.”
Sanni McCandless, a novice climber and outdoor enthusiast, was doing marketing for a tech start-up in Seattle. “I had just sort of actually sworn off online dating,” she said. “I was like, ‘If I see someone that I’m drawn to, I’m going to give him my phone number.’”
That’s when a friend talked her into going to Hannold’s lecture. “I was just immediately charmed.”
The rest clicked, Dill said. “Sanni – being the brave, daring person she is – met Alex, was interested and she gave him her number.” They talked by video, then became a couple … coinciding with his two-year
preparation to climb El Cap without ropes.
Popkin and Mikey Schaefer were also climbing, while filming him. “We were often more tired than Alex, because were were also carrying camera gear,” Schaefer said.
But they had safety ropes. Honnold had no ropes and, he said, few worries.
“Watching free-soloing is much more stressful than actually doing it,” he said. “When you do it, you know how prepared you are and you know how comfortable you are.”
— “Free Solo,”
9 p.m. ET Sunday, National Geographic Channel
rerunning at 10:45; on the West Coast, it airs at 6 and 7:45 p.m. PT