Hard Grit

Tales from behind the lens

What makes Hard Grit unique in terms of a rock climbing film is that, as film makers, you’re not asking the climbers to go out and perform specifically for the camera. You’re not picking locations for them, you’re not asking them to do routes that are either easy terrain for them or have to be done with a top-rope, so they don’t risk injury. Essentially, with Hard Grit we were trying to avoid cajoling people into doing climbs. In fact, in many cases, we were trying to cajole people out of doing the climbs! Simply, for the most part, the activity of the climbers dictated the routes and subjects approached within the film.

Time and time again it was a completely nerve-wracking experience to be there, as an observer with a camera, when such dangerous things were about to happen.

In order to film routes as hard and dangerous as these, your presence at the crag has to be minimal. We generally began to get out of the way when the climbers began to psyche up for the routes, keeping a certain distance for the fear of unduly influencing their readiness to attempt the climbs.

The filming was all about patience in waiting for the right times to catch such rare ascents. There are so many factors that have to be right before the climbers will even think about attempting their routes. Friction conditions, general weather, how strong or light they are feeling, what their horoscopes said. To anticipate all these things and then actually get out with the camera to join them when the urge strikes requires good luck as much as commitment.

Early on within the making of the film, it seemed like Rich had cunningly set up a network of ‘crag informants’ to eavesdrop on conversations in the pubs, cafés and climbing walls of Sheffield, so we had good tip-offs about when people were beginning to think about their routes. Sometimes we’d have to drop what we were doing and race out to the crags to catch up with the climbers. Mark remembers one occasion where he arrived at Stanage with the camera kit on a tip-off from Rich that John Welford was attempting a new E8. Unbeknownst to Mark, John had decided it was too hot and disappeared somewhere else, so Mark waited for a couple of hours, filming clouds instead, before returning home, wondering whether it had all been a cunning ploy to get rid of him for the morning.

When all the factors came together, there were many routes where you knew you would only have one chance film the ascents, the thought of which was almost as daunting as having to be there whilst the climbs were happening. It was certainly no good interrupting the ascent of an E9, asking the climber to hang on for a minute whist you changed a battery or went in for a close up shot. Besides, it was kind of difficult to put a sentence together at all when watching these things happen.

Dave Jones, the Australian climber, also a film maker, understood these problems very well and came up with a particularly obliging solution. When doing an E7, he figured that, to give us the best opportunities for cutting in the edit suite, he’d climb up to the crux, pause for a while, then wobble himself off the holds. He was so helpful that we managed to get four angles of the ascent to piece together before he finally made it to the top. We thanked him for being so considerate, and patiently waited for him to recover from his concussion. Seb, of course, was also particularly obliging in this respect when doing Parthian Shot, though didn’t have the moral fibre to try a similar approach with Meshuga, his new E9 at Black Rocks.

It seemed the stress of filming these ascents began to get a bit much towards the end of the making of the film, after a couple of particularly nasty incidents and close shaves. At this stage, Mark and Rich would find themselves at the crag with feelings of dread about watching the climbing.

When we did try to instigate ascents of slightly less dangerous routes on a few occasions, it seemed as if everything conspired against us. In order to film John Dunne, Richard and I made four trips to Ilkley in Yorkshire to catch the big man. On the first day it rained, so we went to watch John's other favourite pastime – scoffing food in the local cafe. The second attempt saw us arriving at 9 in the morning and waiting for a few hours, only to find John had forgotten to turn up before the rain set in again. Our third attempt ended abruptly when the camera we hired died from some hideous electrical malfunction, a kind of ‘mad camera disease’. Our fourth attempt was successful, and the big guy wobbled his way to the top of a fine new E7, after obliging us with a couple of swooping falls. That was the last climb to make it into the film, edited in at the final hour.

To make a good climbing film you need relentless enthusiasm, patience, optimism that you’ll be able to capture enough rare ascents, and access and ability to use edit suites, video cameras, sound equipment, and plenty of good ‘blagging’ ability to collect and commission music. You need a budget of sorts to work to, even if it’s only the equivalent to the suntan lotion budget from an episode of Baywatch. There are so many unseen factors that go into the making of any film.

Recently, Richard made the following list, scrawled down on a piece of paper, in which he identified many of the factors that went into Hard Grit:

2000 cups of tea and coffee.
76 grey hairs.
8 sponsors.
1000 phone calls.
11 pairs of underpants (generally replaced after watching the routes).
3 foreigners (that are willing to take big falls off Hard Grit routes).
30 pints of oil for our rusty old cars.
1 pair of flares.
1 blonde wig.
1 make-up artist (Ben and Jerry won't appear without one).
2 false moustaches.
1000 spare hairs on your head to pull out in times of stress without radically affecting your appearance.