Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen on Reaching Impossible Heights in “The Alpinist”

Given the 20 years their production company Sender Films has been in business, Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen know, at least to some degree, what they’re getting into when following one of the many mountain climbers they’ve profiled over the years, letting the same spirit of adventure that leads their subjects to pave the way for them. Still, Marc-André LeClerc was in a league all to himself.

“I will never forget the morning [our] editor Austin Siadak, who was working in our edit room at the time and is the guy we later sent down to film with him on Torre Egger, [said] ‘Oh my God, Marc just soloed the Emperor Face — it’s on [a] website,” recalls Rosen, who could usually expect to be alerted by a subject before embarking on such an impressive feat. “We’re busting our ass on this movie and we didn’t really know where Marc was. We’d been trying to reach him, and he went and just made climbing history, so that was frustrating at times, but it was also what we loved about him. He was lovably elusive and you’ve got to respect that.”

That moment is lovingly included in “The Alpinist,” a dizzying portrait of the wily LeClerc, who wasn’t one to bring attention to himself in spite of his eye-grabbing climbs, scaling the sides of mountains in freezing conditions with just his bare hands where the difficulty level was even greater considering the slippery surface of ice and sleet, and while it was to Mortimer and Rosen’s great chagrin that the Canadian climber often didn’t want cameras to accompany him as he pulled off feats that no human was thought capable of, the duo could feel good about keeping a record when they received the more tragic news in the editing room that LeClerc had died during one of his expeditions in Alaska.

The co-directors of “Valley Uprising” spend little time mourning, as you suspect would’ve been been the wish of its subject, in favor of a celebration of LeClerc, a goofy and somewhat shy kid in the ice climbing scene in Squamish, British Colombia whose personality would come out as he set his sights on the most intimidating summits to reach. With an equally intrepid partner in Brette Harrington, he would take on Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and the Stanley Headwall, where the mix of ice and granite makes it extremely difficult to get a handle on, or as LeClerc remarks, “a good, engaging climb.” Legends in the sport such as Alex Honnold and Reinhold Messner can only marvel at what LeClerc accomplishes while it seems LeClerc himself is nowhere near as impressed, simply gaining a focus in such perilous places that feel safer to him than the outside world.

In spite of learning of some of his exploits on social media, Mortimer and Rosen followed LeClerc around enough with his blessing to convey just how extraordinary a person he was, presenting his hikes in their full glory with the know-how cultivated over two decades of capturing climbs and the film will be shown on the biggest screens possible across the country in a one-night event this evening, followed by a full-fledged theatrical run starting this week. On the eve of its release, Mortimer and Rosen spoke about carrying on with the film after learning LeClerc had passed away, working with an elusive subject generally and the challenge of filming in slippery conditions.

You make clear in the film you were well on your way to finishing this film when you heard of Marc passing. Was it much of a decision to continue on?

Nick Rosen: We were pretty well through production when tragedy struck. We had filmed all the major scenes that we wanted to film, and we stepped back from the film for a little bit, and when we really revisited it, and talking to Marc’s close friends and his mom and Brette, his partner, everyone was like, “You got to tell this story.” Marc was this incredible person, doing these amazing things that at some points we had captured a bit of, [so the feeling was] that people need to know about him and they need to see his example. Marc was an example of what you can do, so we revisited [the film] with renewed vigor to really capture and tell the story of Marc.

This actually gives some insight into your process as far as you have the instinct to film this person, but do you actually know whether you’ll be making a feature from the start or do you decide the form it’ll take at a later time?

Nick Rosen: Like any documentary filmmakers, every story is different. This particular one unfolded in front of us, so I don’t think we knew what we were going to do until we were following Marc, which was a huge undertaking and once you just start committing to something like that, it’s taken on a life of its own at that point and we’re realizing this was a feature documentary. You don’t go into the third big mountain shoot without the clarity of the scope of the story that you’re trying to tell there.

Peter Mortimer: We think about it a lot. Our company, Reel Rock, has a big social media following and we do a lot of stuff on YouTube, so it’s an incredible tool to share different scale stories or just an incredible moment that happened that doesn’t need broader context. There’s so much room for storytelling on all the different mediums. When we look at the stories and we think, “Where would this fit? How big a story is this?” It’s Instagram, YouTube, TV series, Real Rock, feature film. That’s like our hierarchy, and the way we filter up to the feature film. You can’t tell a story with this much depth and this much of a journey [in a shorter form].

One of the eventual story points in “The Alpinist” becomes how uncomfortable Marc becomes with the camera during his climbs — he considers the purity of soloing to be compromised if anyone else is with him. Did you both go into this feeling each other out as far as that was concerned?

Nick Rosen: That’s a good way of describing it. He was hard to get ahold of. We reached him through Brette, who had a phone unlike Marc, and once we were able to convince him, “Hey, reserve an afternoon for us. We’re coming up to Squamish, we want to sit you down and interview you a little bit,” it evolved pretty organically from there. Marc was really reticent around the camera and certainly not trying to be in the limelight, but to have this broader vision of climbing and the history of climbing that he had, I think he was an ambitious guy when it came to the big, historical scope of like what he was doing and he genuinely wanted to share this and the mountains that he loved with the world a little bit and he saw us as an opportunity to do that.

And even before meeting Marc, we were interested in the concept of making a film about the history of Alpinism, and we know some of these characters like Barry Blanchard, [who would] have incredible stories of their own, so going into it, we actually thought there would be more back and forth between the history and coming back with Marc, who was this next evolution in the history, but as we got to know Marc, we really condensed the historical stuff to really get the context of how it fits, how Marc can have that as an influence for him [because] we’re like, “This guy has such an incredible personality,” his role just kept growing. And we just fell in love with him so much and wanted to capture this special time with him.

Peter Mortimer: But it’s interesting because the interviews we kept in the film were more of the organic interviews to Marc’s story, just the guys who lived in town when Marc showed up and started soloing all of the ice climbs in town. They just happened to be some of the most legendary alpinists in the world living there in Canmore, but it was very much just a local scene that we were documenting.

Was there anything that happened that really gave you insight into who Marc was?

Peter Mortimer: When he went down in Torre Egger, and we started understanding that he seems so spontaneous and the way he talks about it is just like, “Oh, just doing this. Oh, the weather is good. I’m going there.” But as we spent more time with him, we realized he was pretty calculated and he had some big objectives that were sitting with him for a long time and what we were filming were steps towards that objective. We knew how thoughtful he was, just from the deep understanding of the mountains he had, but it was all deeper and bigger in his mind than I think we imagined going into it.

It’s remarkable to think that Marc didn’t rehearse his climbs – does that make this a bigger challenge for you than most in trying to figure out how to film this?

Nick Rosen: It adds to it. The biggest thing is just the environment that he’s climbing — these unstable mountain faces, ice falls where there’s snow and ice and rock — so filming in those environments, you’ve got to make sure everyone on your team is safe and then you have to make sure that you’re not going to knock something down on Marc or affect his experience. The added factor of him onsite climbing everything is that often when we film a rock climb, while they’re trying it and failing, we’re honing in the camera angles, figuring out how to be in the right position, but this is a one shot deal. You see the objective with the team, we strategize where we’re going to put people, and when he starts up, we’re not moving, unless it’s a drone or something. But we have a team with a ton of knowledge about these objectives and we do have a lot of experience with filming in vertical environments.

Even more so than usual, what’s it like to have a record of Marc’s accomplishments?

Nick Rosen: Part of our initial inspiration for this film was, “Hey, nobody knows about this guy and he’s going and doing some of the most incredible things. We’ve got to document this.” And with what happened at the end of the film, that imperative became all the more important, particularly in the eyes of his loved ones and his friends in the climbing community. They were really eager for us to do this at that point, so I think both Pete and I are pretty proud to be a part of letting the world know about Marc-André Leclerc.

“The Alpinist” will have an exclusive one-night premiere on September 7th and open in theaters on September 10th.