INTERVIEW: Alastair Lee On New Film Citadel

Alastair Lee - you've heard of him right? He's the guy with the biggest camera in Lancashire, and occasionally he points it at rocks and mountains. We like what he captures. He's got a new blockbuster coming out, and this time it doesn't star Leo Houlding. We wanted to find about a bit more about what he's been filming and where, and after watching an awesome looking trailer we got in touch with Al to get the full scoop on his next film - Citadel. Here's the interview:

You’ve just made a film ‘Citadel’ - we’ve seen the trailer and it looks visually stunning. In a nutshell, what is the film about?

Alastair: In a nutshell the film is about hard pioneering alpine climbing in a stunning, largely untouched, remote part of Alaska.

Matt and Jon beneath the Citadel, 132 kb
Matt and Jon beneath the Citadel
© Alastair Lee

You’ve said that you’re focussing more on story and character than grades and other climbing details, so what is the story and who are the characters?

Alastair: Our main and contrasting characters are alpinists Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey.

Jon Bracey, 92 kb
Jon Bracey
© Alastair Lee

Mat Helliker, 171 kb
Mat Helliker
© Alastair Lee
The film follows their attempt of an outstanding mixed ridge line of the Citadel in the Neacola Mountains, Alaska. Its a story of friendship and the paradox of the alpinist risking everything in order to live a full life. Although its a documentary the narrative arc could match a hollywood script as victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. 

In making a climbing/mountaineering film you face a huge dilemma, to make a good film and story you want things to happen, if things going wrong it makes it interesting and keeps the audience intrigued and involved as they want to find out how the climbers will cope now things have gone wrong. Characters come out in adversity, the audience is engaged and we find out what people are made of. But on the other hand you just want things to go smoothly, you don't want anything to happen to anybody on the trip... you want it to be a success but if it goes too smoothly the film may lack any real action or drama which can make for a dull and uninspiring watch. 

It worries me when I'm talking to producers or investors about how risky any mountain film project is, I always point out very clearly that we could get bad weather or their could be an accident. They can get excited at the prospect of capturing a Touching Void like epic as it unfolds. They are dreaming though, they think if my mate breaks his leg I'm going to stand by and film it.... I'd be part of the rescue fighting for survival like everybody else.

The standard of climbing films has sky-rocketed in the last few years, and now your latest offering is shot on 4k. It must be tricky to maintain such high standards in the high alpine environment? What did you do to shoot in the harsh Alaskan environment, but make sure you get all the glossy footage you needed?

Alastair: The standard of capturing climbing with the use of better and better cameras, easier editing software, drones, GO Pro's has certainly hit peak levels of late, I think the jury is still out whether the standard of actual 'films' (depending how you interpret the word) has sky-rocketed or not. Certainly filming in an alpine environment is one of the most challenging you can put yourself in. Cold temperatures aren't so much the problem as snow. It doesn't take an expert to work out that wet sticky Alaskan snow and electronics aren't a match made in heaven. Adding to the challenge of this project was the decision to go 4k, at first I rejected it thinking it impossible however once I thought about it a bit and with a bit of persuasion from my broadcast distributor I finally got excited by the pioneering nature of the concept and went for it. It hasn't been pretty.

Al Lee filming for Citadel - that is one massive looking GoPro!, 140 kb
Al Lee filming for Citadel - that is one massive looking GoPro!
© Alastair Lee

One major difference with how this route was captured compared to other films I've made is that it became clear very early on in the trip that due to the nature of a mixed route like this and the style its climbed in (IE light and fast) taking me on the route wasn't an option. You wouldn't want to weight an alpine belay too hard much of the time, never mind start jumaring with the backpack from hell. What we did have at our disposal, so to speak, was a helicopter with a cineflex camera on it. It involved a lot of begging and blagging for funds and reduced rates with the aerial company but somehow we managed to pull it off. I'm not sure filming of this nature has been done of a first ascent in such a remote area up-till now, the whole process was certainly a new experience for me. Very much a co-ordinator, calling the chopper on the sat phone, trying to guess where the climbers would be at a certain time of day then using a ground to air radio to help find the climbers an direct the shots, I have to say its one of the best experiences I've ever had in the mountains. It was risky and exciting but a welcome change to jumaring and hanging over the void in my harness.

Some climbing action filmed from the air, 154 kb
Some climbing action filmed from the air
© Alastair Lee

Usually Alpine climbers report their climbs with details of the line, the grade, the length and the style of ascent. This latest climb by Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey hasn’t been reported and you’ve opted to not give out that information at all, or even to confirm whether or not they summited the mountain. Do you think this approach of not giving out information will become more common as film-makers push to, as you put it, “ramp up the jeopardy” and can you explain your thinking behind not releasing this basic info?

Alastair: It's always a double edged sword coming back from a trip and doing a full trip report months before the film is out. It's required by the lead sponsors which is absolutely fair enough as they have funded the trip. As a film maker though it annoys me, people already know what happens when they come into the cinema, I'm not sure how much it actually effects the experience of watching the film as its an immersive medium in itself. As there was no lead sponsor this time we all agreed that it would be interesting to keep everything under wraps and let all be told upon watching the film. Of course as soon as somebody sees it there will be threads and spoilers online but its at least interesting to try it this way once. I'm not sure its that important though there is no relationship whatsoever between a first ascent of a good hard route and a good film.

We see a lot of climbing videos online these days, some very amateur and some fairly professional. Your Citadel is a real ‘film' though, and seems to have the look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster. Even the start of the trailer has that Hollywood feel, stating that it is 'suitable for all audiences'. With everyone having a digital camera that records video, it is pretty easy to document your climbs and stick them up on youtube. How do you make your offerings in to ‘films’ and make sure they are a cut above the rest?

Alastair: That's a big question! Essentially making a 'film' with all the layers and subtleties and correct pacing and balance of action etc to keep the viewer engaged over 60 or 90 mins involves a huge skill set, which I am still learning, one of the keys to a successful film, I believe, is getting the viewer emotionally engaged with the subjects, once you have achieved that then you are on to a winner. Filming some climbing and uploading it on youtube whilst not entirely straight forward is doable the majority of the time it results in a vicarious experience for the climber, like an animated guidebook, the climber and salivate at the footage imagining themselves doing the moves or being inspired to go climbing. Dont get me wrong, I love it too and watch them all, however you wont get many broadcast or cinema sales with this type of film. What I'm always trying to do is take something niche and make it understandable and enjoyable by a wider audience. That's possibly why my stuff does well at the festivals where the audience isn't full of rock climbers.

Basecamp under the Citadel
© Alastair Lee

This isn’t the first time you’ve made a film about Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey climbing in Alaska; you made The Moonflower back in 2011. The trailer for Citadel looks more polished, but isn’t the story essentially the same? Or if not, what are the key differences this time? And what are the differences in how the film was made?

Alastair: They say there are only seven stories ever written, if so somebody should tell climbing/mountain film makers about the other six.... you could argue all climbing films tell the same story, the one of quest. Setting up the goal and characters pointing out what dangers and challenges lie ahead and then enjoying all the thrills and spills as the protagonists overcome the challenges and meet their end goal. Whilst that maybe true Moonflower and the Citadel are as far apart production-wise as Flash Gordon and Gravity. Plus its a much stronger narrative but I can't tell you why, as previously explained.



How finished is Citadel? When is it out, and where can we see it?

Alastair: Rough cut now in place, still lots to do but we're on target for the world premiere at Hebden Bridge Picture House, 8th Oct. Then there's a run of around 50 screenings across the UK (dates still being added).


Kendal Mountain Film Festival, 11 kbKendal Mountain Festival 2015

Kendal Mountain Festival is by far the largest and most varied event of its type in the world - it is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK

'Kendal' is one of the leading festivals of its kind in the world. It is an internationally-known event, attracting film premieres from around the globe. Film makers, TV producers, adventurers, climbers and world-class lecturers gather to take part in four packed days of the very best films, speakers, books and exhibitions covering all aspects of mountain and adventure sports culture. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK and 2015 will be our 16th straight year.

- Download the Festival lecture whats's on guide (1Mb PDF)


- Grab a Film Pass here: FILM PASS

Citadel is showing at the: Kendal Mountain Festival

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