RunOut #9: Breaking the Fourth Wall in Free Solo with DP Mikey Schaefer

To free solo or not to free solo, is not the question of today’s podcast—but whether it is ethical to film it.

Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary film Free Solo remains just about the biggest thing happening in climbing right now. It’s something that has haunted me and co-host Chris Kalous since we saw it a few weeks ago. To be honest, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

And you can hear our initial discussion in episode 7. That episode is merely an attempt to dry out our sweaty palms in the aftermath of watching this film.

However, now, with clearer heads, we wanted to dig in and go a little deeper. Free Solo is not just a spectacle of Alex Honnold’s obscene tolerance for risk, it also dances dangerously close to discussing the ethics of filming a guy risking his life.

This film breaks the fourth wall—the behind the scenes story of struggling to shoot Honnold is as much a part of the story as Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan.

We invited our friend Mikey Schaeffer to speak to us for today’s episode. Mikey is a longtime climber and just one of the true, authentic energies of our sport. He was also a DP, a director of photography, on Free Solo. Honnold selected him as one of the few guys he could trust to be hanging on a rope beside him and have confidence that Mikey wouldn’t drop a lens on him or cause some other horrific outcome.

Mikey also has one of the more interesting roles in Free Solo. Of all the camera operators, he was the one who seemed to be most genuinely distraught by what he was witnessing. If you’ve seen the film, Mikey is the one whose face they cut to repeatedly during the climactic montage of Honnold’s big climb.

He’s grimacing. He literally can’t bring himself to watch—and yet, like we in the audience, he also can’t look away.

I recognized this as a device often utilized in horror and suspense films—Hitchcock was perhaps the original master of this technique. In this regard, Free Solo isn’t just a documentary; it fully fits in the genre of suspense and thriller.

And yet, the thrills aren’t moot or for mere casual entertainment. The consequences are horrifyingly real.

We spoke to Mikey to hear more about what it was really like to have worked on this film for the past two years. I personally really enjoyed this interview. Mikey shared some really surprising details and insights into his own experience. He also gave some really fascinating insights into the black box that is Alex Honnold’s mind.

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