It’s been a looong time since Top Rope Tough Guys premiered at Reel Rock, back in 2010. A lot of folks said climbing cinema would never get better than that. I certainly didn’t think it could, but I try to keep an open mind, and it was in that spirit that I joined my brother and some friends for the Seattle stop of the Reel Rock 11 Film Tour.
Okay, to fully disclose, Reel Rock gave me a few free passes and asked if I might write a review. As a bonus, I got a hold of Nick Rosen on the phone and asked some questions about the films I’d just seen.
Nick, for those unaware, is a partner and filmmaker at Sender Films. We have worked and played together in the past, and we make it a point to stop by Sender’s office whenever we’re in Boulder to catch up, and to raid their stash of Clif bars. I chatted with him on the phone about how this year’s films came to be. I took notes but didn’t record the conversation, so the following is mostly paraphrased.
RVP: How did you guys select the 5 films in this year’s program?
Nick Rosen: Every year, we sit down and powwow early on about storylines and film ideas. And the REEL ROCK lineup evolves throughout the year. Above all, we want to create a program that’s going to entertain and get people psyched. That’s a really high bar! It can’t ever be less cool than the previous year, which is subjective of course, and you can’t please every one, but we try really hard to raise the bar every year. That could mean a crazy new story, cutting edge climbing, or a new take on a story everyone knows. Storytelling is at the core of what we do, and it’s just as important as the cinematography.
Last year was awesome, because Tommy and Alex [Caldwell and Honnold, respectively] are such great characters, and everyone is excited to see them in the program. This year, there were opportunities for new characters to emerge, like Brette Harrington and Mike Libecki.
The films also have to hang together as a whole program. The program has to have a diversity of themes and characters, explore different styles (e.g. alpine climbing and bouldering), and have a good arc of energy through the night. A few years back, we closed with a really interesting and important story about Ueli Steck and the Sherpas working on Mt. Everest (High Tension) but it might’ve been overly intense to end the program with. I think we nailed it this year, with a rousing sing-a-long send-off from the Dodo’s Delight.
RVP: It seemed like this year was less about following the big ascents and more about the backstories of the characters. Was there a theme that you guys tried to follow this year? Was it different from previous years?
Nick: I don’t know if we aim for a particular theme. If I had to identify a theme this year it was about pure love of the sport, love of adventure, not taking yourself too seriously and having fun. That was definitely the ethos in Dodo’s Delight and Boys in the Bugs. And speaking of which, make no mistake that the line that Matt and Will established is a big, cutting-edge ascent.
It’s rare that we would cover cutting-edge climbing just for the sake of it. Even with Daniel Woods establishing The Process (V16) last year, we crafted a world of highball bouldering around the ascent, and focused on Daniel’s struggles. Or something like the Dawn Wall, sure its a cutting-edge ascent but it’s also a great story, and we’ve been following that project for 7 years.
Often, the hardest ascents are done by great characters and make for great stories. There’s a lot of overlap there.
RVP: Last year’s tour was awesome, but there was critique of the lineup for being male-dominated. Was there a conscious effort to make this year’s program more balanced?
Nick: Well, we always want to represent a diversity of characters and styles. The male-heaviness of last year’s program is hard to ignore, but really it was just happenstance. Still, the limited critique that we did get was a good reminder. Given that we are three white male partners at REEL ROCK, it’s important to check ourselves for that kind of thing.
But it’s a complex equation, and in my opinion the solution isn’t to just make a rule about 50/50 gender parity. In Hollywood, there is also a lack of strong leading roles for women. I agree diversity in films is a really worthy goal, and we’re doing our best to get there. As for why there’s still such an imbalance, I have to admit a little bit of confusion myself, and I think there are a lot of factors that contribute to the problem.
The critique didn’t really influence the program this year…if you go back over the last 11 years of Reel Rock, you’ll see we always try to have diversity of climbing styles, characters and so on. But above all else, it has to be a good story. There’s sort of a Venn diagram of priorities, and story is central. And in fact last year we had been working on stories centered around females that fell through. They may re-emerge later.
RVP: Speaking of females, how did you guys decide to have a feature about Brette Harrington?
Nick: We’ve been following Brette on social media for a while now. When she soloed that tower in Patagonia, it grabbed headlines and our attention. So the conceit was follow her for a year in the life of an up-and-coming climber. Who knows what she’ll end up doing, but if she keeps climbing I think she’ll continue to grow. She’s been traveling with the tour, and we’ve been keeping in touch. I think you’ll see her in future productions.
RVP: What about sponsor influences on the films? In Young Guns, for example, there’s Kai and Ashima, and Chris Sharma talking about their chops as climbers. All three are sponsored by Evolv.
Nick: Evolv isn’t even a tour sponsor, so the selection of characters had nothing to do with that. Chris Sharma is in there because he already had a relationship with both of the kids. They had both climbed with Chris in the past. Also, Chris was a young gun himself 20 years ago, so he’s a perfect person to speak for the next generation. We’d also interviewed Sasha Digiulian for the piece but didn’t end up using it.
RVP: That makes sense, though I have to ask about a particularly over-the-top montage of Skratch Labs in Boys in the Bugs.
Nick: (Laughs) You know, we talked about that, and I said “That’s ridiculous! We can’t have that much of that in there,” and in the end we left it in. You know how it gets when you’re close to deadline. But actually, the funny thing is that whole sequence was supposed to be about the boys being hungover, and bingeing on electrolytes. Not sure if anyone caught that.
The other thing is, these climbers are all sponsored, and some of them are such good reps that the products and logos are impossible to miss.
RVP: Another things I noticed this year is that oftentimes the standout characters aren’t the climbers but the supporting cast, like Connie (Kai’s mom) and Captain Bob of the Dodo’s Delight.
Nick: Absolutely. Those guys are the facilitators, they make the story happen. Connie devotes her life to Kai’s climbing and academics. Quite simply, there is no Kai without Connie. And there is no Baffin Island expedition without Captain Bob. His knowledge of the Arctic circle facilitates those expeditions. They aren’t the climbers, but they are fundamental to what’s going on. They make the climbing possible, and it’s important to celebrate that side of things as well.
RVP: So what do the next few years of Reel Rock look like? What can we look forward to?
Nick: I’m sorry, but I have to hold my cards close about that. [I think this is code for “Vertical iPhone Footage Only” – ed.]
RVP: How do you guys balance the need to “hold your cards close” to keep a film premiere exciting, versus clips on social media to hype up the next big film? Do you feel like you guys usually get it right?
Nick: Yeah it can be a tricky balance, but I think our instincts about releasing just enough teaser material have proven fairly effective in the past. I think all filmmakers face new challenges and opportunities with social media, but they are mostly just opportunities, avenues for building buzz among our fans that didn’t exist at this level when we started more than a decade ago.
RVP: Have you guys ever released too much or too soon?
Nick: Our problem is usually the opposite – we are so busy cranking out Reel Rock that the trailer is always a little late. Fortunately, Josh Lowell of Big Up is a trailer master and can crank them out even when he is busy and fried.
RVP: Well I think we’re all looking forward to whatever’s next, especially the Dawn Wall. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Nick.
Nick: Thank you! You guys are so amazing at making films, and the fact that you’d even remember our names made my day. On top of that, you’re both so smart, humble, and physically attractive that it’s hard not to be consumed by blinding jealousy.*
*this is definitely paraphrasing.
So, without further ado, my review of the films in Reel Rock 11.
The first film in the lineup profiles teenagers Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner, two dominant competition climbers that buck the trends of what we tend to think of when we think of American climbers who crush. Ashima is a small female of Japanese descent, and Kai doesn’t much resemble the Sharmas, Woods, or Webbs in physical appearance, climbing style, or upbringing. The audience gets to meet Kai’s mother Connie and Ashima’s parents too, particularly her artist father Poppo, and follow them on a trip to Norway’s incredible Flatanger cave.
Ashima’s chops as a climber are unquestionable, and her eccentric father is a crowd favorite. The highlight of this film has to be her ascent of Horizon, Dai Koyamada’s recently established V15 in Japan. The boulder problem looks like an absolute dream, and the Sender/Big UP team showed it beautifully, no surprise there.
Overall, though I enjoyed many aspects, I thought the storyline didn’t quite hang together. Every scene was well-shot, and the characters were all very likeable, particularly Connie Lightner, but it felt less like a story than an extended profile of two up-and-coming climbers. There were plenty of comedic interludes that made me laugh out loud (and I was sober!). But In the absence of a compelling story, I would have liked to see more awesome climbing footage from Flatanger, like the amazing sequence as Ashima gets close to sending Thor’s Hammer.
Boys in the Bugs
Matt Segal and Will Stanhope attempt to get the first free ascent of an absolutely stunning and nails-hard finger crack on a Canadian mountain in the Bugaboos. It takes them many seasons, and they drink a lot. What’s the film about? I’d say it’s about trying really hard and sacrificing a lot in order to pursue something useless, and the humor required to cope with such poor decision-making. Something we can all relate to.
I rather enjoyed this one for a few reasons, the first being that Reel Rock has always had a knack for comedy, and two dudes hanging out on a portaledge for years throwing themselves at something that could be impossible is pretty damn funny when you stop to think about it.
The second reason I enjoyed this was the absence of the 4th wall. In other words, the climbers often spoke to the audience or the cameraman, therefore addressing the elephant in the room: who’s up there capturing this footage, and if it’s so shitty for the climbers, isn’t it worse for the dude holding the $5,000 piece of electronics?
The ascent itself is ground-breaking, a 5.14+ pure crack pitch in the alpine. It looks as desperate as Cobra Crack, but with a tremendously longer approach and even worse weather. I think this element of the story got lost in the self-deprecation of the protagonists, who don’t seem to adhere to any strict training regimens. Instead, the completion of the line felt more like a personal conquest, rather than an ascent of significance to the climbing world.
Mike Libecki is an adventurer and explorer who seems to know no limits when it comes to psyche, energy, drive, passion, and all those other attributes listed in LinkedIn profiles. The big difference is that Libecki is frequently alone in remote mountains. He’s also a father, and is trying to balance an unquenchable drive for adventure with a desire to make sure he comes home to his daughter.
I had trouble getting into this film. For one, it felt more like a snapshot or a sketch, rather than a film. It raised questions that it didn’t answer, leaving the viewer with a “we’ll see what happens” sort of anti-conclusion. Also, I’d already seen a portion of the footage on Mountain Hardwear’s Vimeo page.
That said, I will add that it’s a challenging topic, and one that hasn’t really been addressed much in previous Reel Rock tours. So while this one lacked the “holy shit did you see that?” aspect, at least it was refreshing.
Brette Harrington is an impressively bold climber from Tahoe, CA, and this piece chronicles “a year on the road,” as she travels from Squamish to Yosemite to Patagonia to tick hard and/or scary trad routes, culminating in her soloing Chiaro Di Luna (5.11a) in the Fitz Roy massif.
The footage was, again, fantastic. She climbs Zombie Roof, solos Apron Strings (both in Squamish), and gives hell (and takes crAzy whippers) on 5.13 liebacks on El Capitan. Seriously, this is some of the most intense footage you’ll see, as she spends what feels like hours in the “just about to fall” phase.
Unfortunately, I think the film suffers from the same problem as “Rad/Dad,” which is that it feels like a profile that’s shoved into a story format. “A Year on the Road” as a subheading is a bit misleading, as it suggests a Kerouac-ian tale of adventure, chance encounters, and things gone wrong. Instead, it’s a bit of climbing in a few wild places, gorgeously presented but weakly linked. I know this is a climbing festival specifically, and not an adventure film event, but I’d almost rather see a chronicle of someone’s road trip to Patagonia than their ascents once they got there.
It concludes with Brette saying she’s excited to see what she’s capable of in the future. I, too, can’t wait to see what barriers she ends up smashing.
Everyone I’ve talked to about this year’s festival fingered this one as their favorite, even many who had seen parts of it online. Nico and Olivier Favresse, Sean Villaneuva-O’Driscoll, and Ben Ditto join Captain Bob on the Dodo’s Delight for an expedition to climb virgin big walls in Baffin Island. They sing, they drink, they carouse, they get naked, and they pull off some big-ass bits of choss on the way to pulling off in-a-push first ascents of gobsmacking big walls. Narrated by Sean and scored by the climbers themselves, the whole film is just good goddamn fun. Don’t expect ultra-sick, high-production footage of crimping through cruxes from multiple angles; the climbers are also the cameramen. But there’s plenty of climbing footage and the backdrop is unbeatable.
And Captain Bob is the best character in the entire history of climbing films. Nobody watched Dodo’s Delight and didn’t immediately want to go scrub that man’s deck just for a chance to hear a story or two.
D’s D was a perfect film to end on, and Nick’s right: they really nailed the end credits, with characters from the other films joining in to sing the title song, “Dodo’s Delight.”
While walking out of the theater, I felt different than I had in previous years. I used to want to find the nearest dark cellar, lock myself in it, and not emerge until I could finger-curl my bodyweight with each pinky. This year, I felt like calling some friends and going somewhere wild with them. I wanted to learn to play music. I wanted to stand on top of things, juggle rocks, plunge into a cold river, and drink cheap beer by a fire.
So by that measure, Reel Rock 11 is a great night out.