By Amanda Beals
Several months ago I wrote 3 posts on rock climbing. I particularly focused on the work of Sender Films as I attended their premiere of First Ascent their Nat Geo production. Pete Mortimer of Sender Films kindly took time out of his busy shooting schedule to chat a bit about his film company and the developing profile of rock climbing as an international sport.
AB: How did Sender Films come into being? (be as specific as you can)
PM: I’ve been making climbing films for more than ten years now. After college, I independently produced a couple climbing films, which were all well receive in the climbing community. After the release of “Return to Sender” in 2005, I was joined by Nick Rosen, a writer living in New York City and friend from Colorado College, who helped write and direct the first official Sender Films release, “First Ascent.” “King Lines” followed, which was a collaboration with Josh Lowell and Big Up Productions that continues to be the best-selling rock climbing DVD of all time. In 2008, Sender Films released “The Sharp End,” and 2009 brought the release of a six-part series co-produced by National Geographic International called “First Ascent: The Series.” The Sender Films family remains a core group of climbers and filmmakers based in Boulder, Colorado, with big plans for the upcoming years.
AB: What is the market like for Climbing films? Documentaries?
PM: It’s likely that the market for rock climbing films will always be a relatively small niche, supported by the loyal fans and practitioners of the sport. But at Sender Films, we want to bring a less esoteric product to viewers that goes beyond the realm of sports-documentary, and tells genuine stories that are exciting and compelling to all audiences. In the past, we’ve distributed the films ourselves and in gear shops, and DVD sales have been the biggest bread-winner for the company.However, we are looking forward to the international television release of “First Ascent: The Series” to more than 140 countries in January, and the DVD box-set release coming this Fall. We have high hopes that this box set will be our biggest release yet and will cross over to more than just rock climbing fans.
AB: DUMB QUESTION: How the hell do you film a person like Honnold free soloing at Half Dome? What are the biggest concerns with any kind of filming?
PM: Shooting Alex Honnold was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. It goes without saying that what Alex does on those big-walls is dangerous, but his casual attitude and fearless approach to danger renders us, the cameramen, shaking in our harnesses, while Alex cruises these difficult climbs with ease. Composure is the name of the game in free-soloing, where the slightest mistake means certain death for the climber, and certain liability for the film-makers, and Honnold holds it together like a Theravada monk. So that helps a lot, as does the exhilaration of just being a part of something so far-out; what Honnold did on Half Dome and Moonlight Buttress will probably never be repeated, so this stuff was a one-take kind of thing. Obviously, our biggest concern when filming is the safety of the athletes and all crew involved, and all of the climbers that we work with make our jobs that much easier by being such professional, impeccable athletes.
AB: Who are the climbers you are most excited about?
PM: At Sender Films, we like to focus on styles of climbing that emphasize the adventure, because a great story naturally follows from the more epic goals and achievements of these styles. Trad-climbing, alpine climbing, and of course free-soloing have inherent conflict and high stakes, and thus lend themselves to more elaborate stories, as the athletes spend years researching their ascent, training, and encountering physical and emotional obstacles all the way to the top.Dean Potter has taken climbing a step further by synthesizing it with BASE jumping, which is some of the most exciting stuff we can hope to capture as filmmakers… but it’s hard to say who will step it up in 2010. We have solid relationships with many of the top athletes in the climbing world, and are keeping busy in the off-season to come up with next year’s objectives. Every year, it is easy to feel like we’ve hit the ceiling of potential in pushing the limits of rock climbing, but somebody always comes along and blows the top off all over again.
AB: Any films on the horizon about female climbers?
PM: We work often with athletes like Steph Davis and Lisa Rands, and have been brainstorming different objectives with them, as well as Lynn Hill. Most of our future projects are still in development right now, but there are a lot of incredible female climbers out there who will be duly represented.
AB: What does the future hold for Sender Films? Sundance Film Festival?
PM: We’re moving in all kinds of directions right now, but we’re feeling pretty good about the future of Sender Films. The Reel Rock Film Tour just had its biggest year yet, and it will be back next year with more of Sender Films’ traditional fare. Fans can also look for us to expand into different genres as we evolve into a more diverse production company and explore interests beyond the world of adventure sports. Sundance is definitely on the horizon – watch out Redford, we’ll be BASE-jumping in for the premier.