Unexpected Joys, Drama from “The Dawn Wall”

The film is sure to make your palms sweat—but here are a few other things you might not expect.

Do you remember where you were when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson finally topped out on the Dawn Wall on El Capitan on Jan. 14, 2015? I do. It was a moment that captured the imagination of Americans—even countless people who aren’t climbers. The New York Times was covering their 3,000-foot ascent, and soon it felt like the whole world was watching the live stream of the two climbers living on the side of Yosemite’s iconic cliff face, sleeping in portaledges and attempting to do something no one had ever done before—free-climb what some consider to be the hardest big wall climb in the world. After seven years of attempts, it came down to that final 19-day push. But there’s a lot more to Caldwell and Jorgeson’s story than those days on the wall, and the film “The Dawn Wall”—which hits theaters nationwide for one night only on Wednesday, Sept. 19—dives in deeply.

The film, a Red Bull Media House production made in association with Sender Films, explores  the backstories that brought Caldwell and Jorgeson to that moment and their motivations for attempting something as audacious as free-climbing the Dawn Wall. It captures the intimate moments of the climb itself as well as behind-the-scenes detail. We got a sneak preview of the film and chatted with one of the directors, Josh Lowell of Sender Films, to find out what it was like to shoot and tell the story behind the one the world had been watching. We bet your palms will sweat—but here are a few other things you might not expect.

Having a good laugh. We don’t want to spoil anything here, so we’ll just say there’s a scene with Jorgeson’s mom that made us laugh out loud. If you’ve ever had a parent not totally get what you’re up to in the outdoors—whether it’s camping out or pitting yourself against a tough climb—you’ll probably relate. And that’s not the only chuckle-worthy part of the movie. “When you watch it with a bunch of people in the theater, there are probably about a dozen laughs,” Lowell said. “You wouldn’t normally expect that from a typical sports action film.”

Feeling like you’re on the wall—without any drone shots. Drones aren’t allowed in national parks. So all the footage you see of the climbers was taken by actual people holding cameras—hanging from the cliffs by rope systems. “We had a really small footprint up there,” Lowell explained. “El Cap is in a wilderness area, and it’s critical that we don’t have impact, that we’re small and unobtrusive. We’d never build a big rig or have a massive crew or big generators. We were operating just like the climbers up there. We came up with some really cool elaborate, low-impact rigs to get really unique perspectives,” Lowell said. “Tommy is a master rigger and helped us figure out some of these systems.” For some of the wider shots, they ran 3,000 feet of rope from the top of the cliff to the bottom, angling the lower end farther away from the base to make a giant triangle, which could pull the filmmakers out from the wall about 100 feet. The complicated rope work paid off—one of the shots in particular gives the feel of being on the wall with thousands of feet of air beneath your feet.

Along with co-director Peter Mortimer and Lowell’s brother, director of photography Brett Lowell, Josh Lowell had checked in with Caldwell’s attempts over the years—and then settled in for the long haul filming their big final push. “Sometimes it would take a couple hours to get into position for the shot,” Josh Lowell said. “For the hard pitches, we could be up there for days on end. And you know it’s going to be an hour or even two between attempts, but it’s easier to just stay where you are [while the climbers are resting and preparing]. So you’re just sitting there, waving around in the wind. You have to enjoy being up there in order to deal with it.”

Caldwell and Jorgeson in a portaledge at night.

Caldwell and Jorgeson in a portaledge at night. (Photo Credit: Corey Rich)

Caldwell and Jorgeson often climbed at night, for the cooler temperatures and better conditions, which brought another challenge—filming in the dark. The climbers “just wear a small headlamp, which makes a small bubble of light in front of them—and they enjoy that and find comfort in it,” Josh Lowell said. “It focuses in on the six-foot radius and blocks out the scale and the void beneath. But with a camera it’s not ideal.” Thankfully, in the years that it took for the climbers to get to the final push, Josh Lowell said, brighter and more compact LED lights were invented that didn’t exist when they started the project, which helped the camera team capture the tenuous moves. In fact, Josh Lowell said, the whole project took so long, and technology is changing so quickly, that they probably used 10 different cameras over their seven years of shooting.

Getting to see the dark side of the story. If you followed Caldwell’s Dawn Wall attempts, you might know a little about his story—that he grew up in Colorado, that he accidentally sawed his finger off in a construction accident. You might even know that Caldwell was shot at and kidnapped on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2000. Josh Lowell and fellow director Mortimer spent two years parsing through the different storylines that brought Caldwell and Jorgeson to their moment of success on the Dawn Wall, and figuring out the best way to weave them together. The film includes ominous footage recovered from Caldwell’s captors in Kyrgyzstan, and combines it with motion graphics from Barry Thompson—who also lent his touch to “Valley Uprising”—to draw the audience into the action of the kidnapping and the escape. It brings the past alive and gives an idea what Caldwell went through.

“Tommy’s not a classic superhero character,” Josh Lowell said. On camera, he’s humble and focused, not a look-at-me type. “So it made it a little challenging to tell, but [that’s what] makes him so lovable and relatable. He’s like a regular kid, and it’s hard to believe he does all these superhero things, while still being super unassuming.” Caldwell was considered one of America’s top climbers when he first started his journey on the Dawn Wall. But the film’s interviews with legendary climber John Long make it pretty clear that—even for Caldwell—free-climbing the Dawn Wall would be a long shot. While most people who climb El Capitan do it by aid climbing—pulling themselves up by protective gear attached to the wall—Caldwell and Jorgeson were aiming to climb the extremely difficult new route with only their hands and feet. The ropes were there only to catch them if they fell. A free route up the Dawn Wall simply wasn’t thought to be possible. Add in Jorgeson’s tale—of coming from the bouldering world and struggling to keep up with Caldwell on the wall—and you have a great American underdog story.

Sneaking a peek into the love stories. Josh Lowell admits that one of the more difficult parts of the story-crafting process was deciding how much screen time to give to Caldwell’s wife, Becca, and their relationship. Josh Lowell and Mortimer knew they needed to show Caldwell’s romance with his climbing partner and first love, Beth Rodden, when they were young (and, oh how young they look in that early footage!). The film also illustrates the separation Caldwell and Rodden went through and how the period influenced Caldwell’s obsession with the Dawn Wall. “That took a while, to land on a place where it felt [like] we recognized Becca’s importance without getting bogged down in love stories,” Josh Lowell said. In the final cut, there’s plenty of love to go around.

Feeling like you’re a fly on the wall in Caldwell and Jorgeson’s relationship. You don’t get the kind of up-close, raw, emotional footage you see in this film without a long history of trust. And for the Sender Films team—and director of photography Brett Lowell in particular—that trust came from long hours and days hanging in a harness on the wall with the climbers. “It takes lots of effort to go up and down from there,” Josh Lowell said. “Brett was up there the entire 19 days—he was embedded. He might have come down once. Your legs get weak and skinny [staying on the wall for so long] because you’re not walking at all. So when you get to the top and walk back down, your knees are really wobbly.”

While all the news crews watched from the valley floor, peering through binoculars at the climbers, Brett Lowell was right there next to them—so close we can hear Tommy choking up on camera, so close we can hear the kinds of conversations that might bring tears. “That’s just not possible without the long years of working together,” Josh Lowell explained. “A big part of Brett’s work is actually being a part of the team. Building that trust—he’s a really sensitive guy, who knows how to be there in the moment, to capture the emotion and not disrupt it all and there’s not that many people who can do that.”

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