Interview with Henna

Learn more about Henna’s work and future projects!

The interview

My wife, Madeline. Sorkin and I lost about seven people to albinism and rock climbing, both snow sports and rock sports, in that summer. And it really rocked Madeline.

In order for her to process all of that loss and grief, she really had to go outside of the climbing community to find support and processes to help her integrate. And ideally, she would have stayed within more within the climbing community to be able to work through that grief and that loss with her peers who are also going through very similar losses. That was the inspiration to create the climbing refund. And as she was describing the climbing refund, as a filmmaker and a storyteller, I was just getting all of these ideas about how we could start to destigmatize the conversation in the climbing community. And that’s when the idea for the interviews came to mind, that it would be helpful to just simply record people’s own experiences in the most neutral and non judgmental way as possible and just share them in full.

And then as we were doing the interviews, it occurred to me that people were talking about very similar themes. And so it just started making a lot of sense to bring those voices together, to have them speak together in a short film. How challenging did you find exploring the complexity of Breathe a big challenge for us wasn’t so much in filmmaking anyway, in the kind of designing the questions and the space that we set up for the interviews, investigating this from the outside in as filmmakers and as interviewers. I think the challenge came in neutralizing the space and the questions so that people’s own experiences can come out with value and really try to withhold our desire to steer it in directions that were projecting onto people. The footage that you have, it comes across as very raw.

Was there things that you decided not to use in the end? Interviewees? The people in the film and everybody else who we interviewed, we’re just incredibly generous. I was never asked not to use anything in the film. But the thing is, when you’re putting a lot of voices together that weren’t spoken together, they were spoken separately.

When you put them together and you take sound bites from each and you start to arrange them and mix them up, everybody’s sound bite then starts to impact everybody around them. When somebody speaks about an experience they have, and it takes 3 seconds, and then somebody else speaks about an experience they have, suddenly what I realized was the viewer takes them in as the same experience and links them together as one moment and it changes the meaning, the original meaning for both of the original speakers. And so what I chose to leave out, it had less to do with trying to soften the impact and more to do with trying to really maintain integrity. How long was this huge? He shot over three days.

Two days? In a row. And then we had a whole another round of people who wanted to be involved. And so we set up another day at a different location. And we interviewed, I think, about 30 people in those days.

Do you have any anecdote to tell us about what happened during was it anything interesting that occurred? Well, the first two days were interesting because there’s a sort of conference that happens each year, a few times a year, called Outdoor Retailer Show. And it’s where everybody comes and sells stuff and pitches ideas. And it’s this really vibrant, upbeat, very external experience, a lot of energy. And we had the great idea of doing this very introspective, quiet, very intense interviewing there, partially because we had almost no budget to make this film.

And we knew most of the people that we wanted to interview would be there over this weekend. So it would be easiest and cheapest to just go where the people are. So we ended up getting a room at the very bottom of this big entertainment center in Denver. And we’d have people sign up for times and they’d come in from this really high energy external sales event. And then we’d have them come into this dark room.

We had Gregory Alan Isaacoff playing and calm music with a therapist present. I think it was challenging for some people and it was comical for others. It was just this very conflicting environment that we were making. Can you tell us more about the technical aspects of the movie? Yeah, it’s a shoestring movie, for sure.

I wrote my sister, who’s a photographer mostly, into this, and so I threw her into cinematography really fast. She was my B camera. It was a hodgepodge of old lights that I’ve had for decades and a few rented lights and a lot of black sheets and black paper and anything we could come up with to control the light in this conference room. Two Sony cameras. I use a seven s.

And, yeah, some scrappy lighting in a stool. So, yeah, directional. So audio for me, I was really stressed out about audio because capturing a story, people’s words are the most important thing, even though the visuals are also beautiful. So I had a directional a lav mic on them, super low down on their chest so we wouldn’t see it. And then I think I strung another lav mic here as a boom, which I’d never done before, but actually worked remarkably well.

So we had this sort of like, hanging little lab. Is it found footage that you’re using? Or this is footage that you made over the process of years ago. All the interviews are original. The footage of the climbers who’ve passed was all donated.

Yeah, I put a call out to everybody that I know. And the climbing community is very small. The climbing filmmaking community is even smaller. So if we’re speaking of them in the film, if we’re hearing their name. If a story is referencing those people, even if we don’t hear their name, I really wanted to honor that with showing the face and naming and acknowledging those people.

So, big contribution list in this film. I mean, I made the film almost by myself, but in the same way, I feel like this was the most community made film I’ve ever done. When you sort of started your journey with climbing and where it’s kind of taking you, because it seems to be a very exhilarating world. But obviously this film in particular shows how dangerous that can be. I have a very complex relationship to climbing.

I started climbing when I was nine. I think my brother started doing it and I was feeling competitive, so I started as well. And then I kept going. He didn’t. For me, climbing has been something that my body has been doing because it’s the thing I’ve done the longest in my life.

That said, it’s never hooked me like it has hooked people like my wife or the folks in this film. I’ve never felt overly addicted or obsessed about rock climbing, which has given me, I think, this really wonderful perspective on the sport where I really deeply understand it and I really deeply understand why you would be hooked and I really understand the movement and the practice, and I can hold my own on big cliffs for filming. So all of those things I have in my world and in my culture and in my body, but because I haven’t really been taken by it like so many people have, I can critique it. For me, climbing is just so much more than the act of ascend or a summit or something, because those things have never actually interest me. It must be very difficult to be climbing and filmmaking at the same time.

It’s very physical. Luckily, when I’m filming, I’m never rock climbing. I’m always when you film climbing, you’re hanging on ropes and you’re repelling and ascending ropes. So I’m never climbing on rocks. I’m just having to get up and down vertical ropes.

The movement is obviously much simpler, which is great because I have a lot of equipment hanging off of me and it’s all very expensive, so I would not want to be rock climbing with all of that. Can you tell us a little bit more about your previous projects? I made three different climbing films before this and a few other non climbing films, more artistic documentaries. But on the topic of climbing and climbing films, my first film was called The Honeymoon Is Over. The Honeymoon Is Over was really the first rock climbing film that I made, and it was when my current wife and I had just started dating.

She was projecting this climb on Long Speak on the diamond, and I hadn’t shot any rock climbing up until then. I had been making films for about four or five years, but hadn’t combined the skills that I have of rock climbing and cinematography yet. So I asked if I could just go with her and repel off the top of the diamond and see how I liked it and see if I could shoot climbing. And I just did that with her all summer. I think I went up there ten times or eleven times with her and just shot her all summer and I really enjoyed it.

And she ended up sending so her sponsors asked if I could make a film and so that sort of just happened pretty organically and I really enjoyed the process. I thought it was beautiful and I thought there was, like you say, a ton of metaphor in rock climbing and a lot of access to something that’s unique about being human. So Madeline and I ended up going to Wadi Rum the next year and making a film there about putting up a really hard route with two of our friends and then Speak to Me Softly was with a different climber, Jenny a Beg. And that was a short film that she approached me to make with her just about fear, like just trying to get into what we do with fear while climbing. Can you tell us what are some of the most interesting places it has taken you to?

Yeah, it’s such a gift to be able to make adventure films. I just got back from starting a film in the Canadian Arctic, actually, and I think that that is one of the most incredible places I’ve been. Tell us about your new projects that you’re working on. It’s very much still in the beginning. In the beginning of production, that trip I took was really a reconnaissance mission just to understand the place and to start to discover the story with my friend Noel.

So that one should hopefully be coming out in 2023 if all goes well. It’s a combination of elder voices and elder stories influencing Noel and how he lives and how he expresses his traditional culture and philosophy and skills today and how he’s appropriated them for modern life and for a positive future. I’ll be making another short film as well about my wife who’s going to return to the diamond and actually climb a slightly harder route this year. So I’ll be shooting that as well. And I have some really interesting creative ideas for that, but we’ll see if I’ll be able to get them off the ground.

But hopefully that one will also come out in 2020. So I’m going back to shorts. I just finished my first feature this year and I’m happy to return to Shorts. Can you tell me the kind of issues that you face as an independent filmmaker? I have really struggled with distribution.

I’ve built my company, my career, my filmmaking on really scrappy filmmaking, which means that I can produce a lot on a little. I’m always trying to make a budget that feels abundant. And sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. But I feel like I’m good at making a film with what I have. What I think is really challenging as an independent filmmaker, especially somebody who works with very small teams, is after I make the film, trying to get it seen.

Do you have any advice for upcoming directors out there? I produce my own films by necessity, I have always. But if I were to do it again, I would try to partner with a producer earlier on in my career and divide the workload. The work of producing is very distracting from the work of creating, and it’s hard for me to switch my brain back and forth. So I’m if there’s any very incredible producers out there who want to produce me and my future works, please get in touch, because I’m exhausting my brain going back and forth.

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