Multi-award-winning filmmaker Alastair Lee talks getting into the British adventure film industry (and why now's the time to do it), what Leo Houlding's really like, why he'd like to peel back the layers on Shauna Coxsey, and the idea behind his brand new Brit Rock Film Tour. Sarah Stirling interviews.
Alastair Lee has spent five years hanging off exotic cliffs with Leo Houlding, completely defying the laws of Hollywood. How does he craft such slick films about real British heroes adventuring in dream destinations like the Amazon and the Antarctic on such a dirtbag budget?
And what can we expect next, please? Don’t miss Al’s new Brit Rock Film Tour, a collection of films about unassuming Brits who aren't quite normal, like soloist Julian Lines and fell-runner Steve Birkinshaw. It hits UK venues between October and Christmas, with the World Premiere on 2 October at the Rheged Centre, Penrith.
AL: From the word go I could naturally frame a shot. People always commented on my photos. I also had good adventures, climbing and travelling, and fancied myself as a bit of a comedian, so I started doing slideshows for climbing clubs to fund the lifestyle. Then I had this huge thought: why don’t I take some videos and put them in the slideshows?
So, in 2001 I borrowed the keys to a film studio for a weekend. It was already clear in my mind how this film about China would be; I had all the music picked and the story planned out. I took to filmmaking straightaway. I’d get excited by a cross-fade between two clips, put that music with it - Oh my God! - I danced in the studio when I hit that synergy.
Britain's best soloist Julian Lines in Al's new film Stone Free. Photo: Al Lee
When I came out on the Sunday my mate said he’d never seen anyone pre-visualise a whole film and then just make it like that. But I was only doing it to put in my slideshow. It sounds obvious now, but it wasn’t until years later, 2004, that I sent a film to Kendal Film Festival and won People’s Choice. I had no idea all this was going to happen.
The filmmaker who has most inspired me is Peter Mortimer of Sender Films in Colorado. Now Sender have become successful they’ve become more formulaic and less inspiring though. Return2Sender (2005) had such swagger and cool editing; you’d never seen anything like it. When I first started winning at Kendal he was a few years ahead of me.
I kept bumping into Leo Houlding at Kendal each year. He’d be on the stage shaking his head like: “This guy winning again - it must be a fix.” I think I got some respect for that, though. He was having big mainstream success then, and hadn’t been in climbing films for years, so I was chuffed when he agreed to be in On Sight (2008). The idea of a climbing film that was a bit rawer, was about unrehearsed adventure, really captured Leo.
That partnership led onto an unbelievable five years filming the Leo Trilogy. Baffin Island, the Amazon, Antarctica. Places I never thought I’d go; routes I’ve no business being on. It never got any easier, being on expedition with him. I just got used to being scared. I’d feel so sick I could taste adrenalin in my mouth and think: “I’m ready to die, this is it.” But it wasn’t so I had to get on with filming.
Anyone who thinks Leo’s on some sort of Berghaus yacht having adventures has no idea how hard he works. He really knows what he’s doing, that’s why he’s not dead. He’s not risky, his ability is just on a different level, he’s positive and he pulls it off. The amount of research he did before we filmed The Last Great Climb (2013) was incredible. I think he was crapping himself about what would happen to us all out there in Antarctica...
I now know Leo better than you’d want to know anyone, and we really pushed the boundaries of expedition filmmaking. This year I wanted to do something different, and very British. I can’t believe no-one has a massive adventure film tour in the UK, like Reel Rock in the USA but British stories about our adventurous British characters.
Someone said: “You know, when you organise a film tour, you don’t have to actually make all the films yourself.” But I’ve enjoyed tackling subjects I’ve never covered before, like mountain-biking and fell-running. And getting a film out of Julian Lines, Britain’s best soloist, but no-one’s heard of him because he avoids the spotlight. I’ve felt like a free bird flying this year. Expedition films come with creative limitations.
I’m proud of the strong characters we have in Britain. The stars of the Brit Rock films are just normal British people, except they aren’t normal. Normal people don’t try to mountain-bike down Skiddaw at 100kph or run up 214 Wainwrights in a week. But none of them are full-on professionals, which is refreshing.
Take Steve Birkinshaw - he's incredibly quiet, but get him in a nightclub and he turns into this dancefloor demon on fell-running legs. I was captured by him when I saw that. I thought: “What’s really going on in there?” That film is about him trying to beat Joss Naylor’s famous Wainwright record in the Lakes. There’s an amazing ending to it ... it was really special, I’ve never filmed anything like that before.
I've spent the summer dirtbagging in a van, shooting classic British landscapes that are rarely seen in films and using a hexacopter to add another dimension. You need a will and tenacity to film Britain's landscape. Bear Grylls was filming with Ben Stiller on Skye at the same time as me and Julian Lines, but I knew we’d get better shots. We'd be up and out while they were still checking the health and safety sheets.
I love the artistic garnish, the glowing layer a film can have. I had this slow motion footage of Jules walking across a plateau and felt I’d really captured him. Then I put this music under it; you can tell straight away if it’s going to work, you can't force it. Bloody hell I was so pleased with it I played it to death and still had the tune in my head when I went to bed.
I think what’s lacking in adventure films now is that we used to make fun of it. After all, adventures and challenges are all completely pointless. Kendal used to be dripping with stuff like Balancing Point, which was played backwards, and Xtreme Tramping, about breaking into gardens to get trampolining highs. So I've made three funny shorts for the film tour.
Steve Birkinshaw in Al's new film A Set of Wainwrights. Photo: Al Lee
If Brit Rock goes well and, you know, I don’t get a call from Hollywood in the meantime, I’ll make Brit Rock 2 next year and get more filmmakers involved. Right now I’m working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The workload is insane, but there’s no backing in the British adventure film industry. You don’t get paid; you have to think you have something to sell. Sponsorship has never even covered the cost of a camera.
Sometimes people say: “Hey, have you thought about sending your films to Channel 4?” I say: “Well, thank God you’re here!” I sell my films to TV companies all over the world, but not the UK. The Last Great Climb airs on National Geographic in the US on the 22nd September, but here, we get Bear Grylls. They’ve got to stick ‘daredevil’ on it. I think it shows a lack of understanding of the audience, which is more sophisticated than that.
Why don't we celebrate our adventure heroes and culture? It has to be a system error from the top. You can turn on TV in France and watch a film about sport climbing in the Verdun, because it's part of their culture. A German film, Am Limit, about setting a speed record on the Nose was in the German box office top ten for six months.
Sometimes I get emails from people wanting to do an internship to get ‘into the industry’. There is no British Adventure Film Industry! There’s me and Diff...[Paul Diffley]. Me and Hot Aches pumping out films, and a handful of freelance camera men. I’m right at the top in the UK and it’s a handful of guys and Jen Randall fighting over ten quid.
There’s never been a better time to get into British adventure filmmaking, but it’ll be the determined ones who make it. Despite the lack of backing, although the world’s adventure film market is dominated by American films, Britain is right behind them. The exception is Seb Montaz from France, who has become well-known. But why aren’t the French and Germans making loads of good adventure films?
Next year I’d like to make a really classy film about the rise of Britain’s female climbers. That’s the big story in British climbing, I think. They’re doing well, not just on a British level, but also world class. Hazel Findlay is probably the best woman trad climber in the world. That’s a massive story, really, and I’d like to film Shauna Coxsey too. She’s quiet, which gives the film somewhere to go; I like pulling back the layers on someone...
The Brit Rock Film Tour Programme:
Stone Free by Al Lee - a visual feast of a film featuring the best soloist you've never heard of: Julian Lines.
All My Own Stunts by Al Lee - Hilarious and mental Yorkshire lad Rob Jarman tries to bike down Skidaw at 100kph.
A Set of Wainwrights by Al Lee - The unassuming Steve Birkenshaw tries to beat Joss Naylor's famous Wainwright record in the Lakes.
Project Mina by Jen Randall - What does it take to turn your passion into a career, and is it worth it? Jen Randall documents the highs and lows of BMC Vice-President Mina Leslie-Wujastyk's life on the competition circuit.
Three experimental short comedies – left-field author Niall Grimes and extrovert Jerry Moffat offer unselfconscious abandonment, kayaker and funnyman Dave Halsted is a deluded guy taking Selfies, and Craig Hiller adds unique Irish spirit and beautiful landscapes. He’s not messing about...
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