Jen Randall is a rising star in British outdoor filmmaking. As her long-awaited new film, Project Mina, is set to be unveiled at the Women's Climbing Symposium on 27 September, we asked Claire Jane Carter to track Jen down, drag her out from the dark side of the lens and find out just what makes her tick.
Jen Randall could have escaped from an off-beat kids book, coloured in with crayons, whimsical in places and sharp in others, she would wear the armour, then make friends with the dragon.
What am I taking about? Jen is a modern heroine, a creative, indomitable female filmmaker in a industry dominated by dragons, I mean men. Her first feature, Push It, followed five female climbers and Jen's own attempt to climb El Cap in a witty, journal-esque and punchy edit.
The camera work was top-notch and captured Scottish trad, Swiss bouldering, Yorkshire lime, and of course, the American dream big-wall. The reaction was pretty huge, and Jen started getting commissions from the big boys, like BMC TV.
For her next project she decided to unpick what makes a competitive climber tick. At the Women's Climbing Symposium on 27 September Jen will premier Project Mina: a film that follows BMC Vice President Mina Leslie-Wujastyk as she takes on the World Bouldering Circuit. We join our heroine in the Dragon's Den.
Why did you want to make a whole film about one climber?
Basically, I wanted to find out how a person gets so good at climbing – how they train, what they eat, what the formula for success is I guess. I wanted to look beyond the hard sends we always see in climbing films and look at everything it takes to get to that point.
I asked Mina if she would be up for making the film with me because she was the one who opened my eyes to how strong and dedicated professional climbers really are when I filmed her in Magic Wood for Push It. She is also a very thoughtful, lovely person and we got on well so I thought it would be fun to work with her again.
Of course it didn’t take long to realize my original concept was a bit flawed – there is no recipe for success in climbing, so the film took on new dimensions and I think became a far better documentary as a result.
How do you negotiate creating an honest biopic alongside friendship?
Hmm, this is a good question because when you’re making a film with someone, especially such a personal film, there is always potential for destroying that relationship by pushing someone too far, or asking that person to give too much of themselves to the film that they might not want to share. There’s also a bit of a risk as a filmmaker of forming a bit of disconnect between the human being you’re working with and how you want your film to turn out.
From the beginning of this project, I wanted to preserve the friendship I had with Mina. I wanted to show her in her true light as a world-class, dedicated climber who has doubts about life and herself and her career choice just like the rest of us, but who is also fun and silly and happy. And I wanted Mina to be happy with the finished film.
It’s brave putting yourself out there for the public to see and judge, but we also both know that is the power of the film – it’s genuine and it’s honest, and from my experience people tend to appreciate that. We had moments where Mina has felt something we filmed is a bit more than she’d like to share, and when that has happened we just talk it through and find a different way to do it.
I guess making a film like this is largely about trust. I want to make films about experiences rather than accomplishments anyway, so if Mina won a world cup during filming, that would have been great, but similarly if she had decided to quit climbing altogether during filming and take up knitting, that would have been her story, so that’s the story the film would have told. I like to think it’s been a collaboration, and although I know Mina is a bit nervous about the film being released, I think she is also happy with the way it turned out.
You're premiering the film at the WCS14, What do you think about a women’s only climbing event?
I think if you over-analyse a women’s only climbing event it could seem silly and unnecessary. But as a climber, two main things have helped me get better than I used to be – learning to dyno, and climbing with other women because when I do, without fail, I realize I’m more capable than I thought I was. It’s so valuable sharing beta and ideas and all that stuff with other women because our bodies are similar and often our mindsets are too, so I think it’s great. And it’s fun!
What will you be talking about on the day?
I’ll be talking about many things – how I got started as a filmmaker, the glamourous, rock n’ roll lifestyle I lead and of course, Project Mina, which I can’t wait to share.
This is your second ‘feature’ film focusing on female climbers, have your feelings about this theme changed since you made Push It?
Hmm, I want to say yes but now that I think about it I don’t think they really have. I focus on women quite often in my work because I find them interesting and they haven’t had all that much worthwhile attention in adventure films of the past. But I also don’t want the message of those films to be ‘hey, look at this girl… she can climb!’ I want the people in my films to speak for themselves, for their radness to quietly filter through without having to slap people in the face with it.
In Project Mina I made a conscious decision not to interview anyone else but Mina in the film, because I didn’t feel we needed a coach or partner or fellow climber to validate her strengths or weaknesses. Mina is very aware of herself, and it’s a film about her, from her perspective, about her personal journey… so I wanted her to speak for herself. I guess that’s one of my key views on climbing films about women – the fact that they are female-led doesn’t need to be the point of the film, and they don’t need outside validation from the adventure world we’re more accustomed to, either.
How different is it working with men?
Ooooooo… depends on the man! I don’t get to work with that many women so it’s hard to say. 99% of the people I’ve worked with have been ace. Sometimes I’m not as good at puffing up my feathers as some of the folks I’ve worked with, and then I feel intimidated by their confidence. But puffing your feathers up isn’t what counts at the end of the day, and it’s all down to the individual.
Gemma Wiseman designed a really original poster for Project Mina, how did you define the brief?
Gemma is one of my oldest and closest friends, so we understand each other pretty well. She designed the Push It poster too, when I sent her a photo and asked if she would draw on it, and she came back with something awesome. Then with the Mina poster we looked for images and designs we liked from elsewhere and decided on a collage explosion. I sent her a few photos of Mina and gave ideas of what could be in the collage, and bam! She produced a work of art. I wish I had a mind that could do that.
You've got a very individual aesthetic. What are your favourite shots in the film?
I love the Rocklands sequence because I think the joy in it is so evident. And the training sequences – witnessing Mina train made me realize something – I will never be as good a climber because I am just not prepared to put that much work into it. Wow.
Are there bits you binned?
We filmed a beautiful sequence in TCA Glasgow with lights and everything. It was meant to be the closing sequence to the film, where we’d hear Mina’s thoughts on what she felt she needed to do to improve during future competition seasons. But events took a different course and in the end that section of the film was no longer as relevant.
It took feedback from peers and mentors to make me see that, probably because when you put a lot of effort into filming something and you have some beautiful footage in the can, well you want to share it, so you can end up with blinkers on. I realized the story of the film had changed and took most of it out, and it’s a stronger film now for sure.
What three things do you think an adventure film should strive for?
I think they should strive for all different things because if they all aimed for the same three things, that would be dull wouldn’t it? There’s a place for everything, but mine strive to give insight, entertain, and be genuine.
What filmmakers or films achieve this?
I think The Asgard Project from Posing Productions will always be one of the best adventure films. The people in it were suffering and the mission they were on was wild, but they laughed at themselves all the way through, and that was the first time I’d seen that in an adventure film.
Adventure and climbing films are becoming quite technical with cameras in flying drones, cameras in sunglasses. How do you make time to learn new filmmaking methods or afford the equipment?
Ha! Aren’t they just! I always feel like I’m generally trailing behind the technical wave. Every so often I buy new equipment so as not to get stuck in a rut, but I also try to make up for my lack of gloss by employing good story telling and just keeping things simple and solid. I don’t think you always need a helicopter to get a good shot.
Some films use crazy, advanced technical equipment but fall flat on very basic filmmaking techniques. I do my best to make my work look cool, and have been trying to develop my cinematography skills in the short films I’ve been making this summer, but I try not to worry too much – telling stories that focus on people don’t always need to look epic.
Push It and Project Mina have quite psyche-inducing soundtracks, how do you chose the music for your subjects to climb to?
I love choosing music! I just root around for tracks that I a) like and b) fit with the sequence I need it for. I spend a lot of money in audio libraries.
How have you managed to make a living from a ‘dream job’?
I do lots of different things, which is part of what I love about it all. I make videos for all different clients, from short films for the BMC to our series for Epic TV (Europe’s Best Crags) to leading a regular youth group, and I try to make sure I work on one personal project a year, like Project Mina or Push It. I also write a little bit, do some wedding photography, and until about a year ago I also had a part time job in order to make ends meet, consistently at least.
Could you describe an average Randall day?
Hmmm, brace yourselves. I wake up, walk the dog with my husband, go to the studio and work at the computer, editing for about half of that time and doing lots of boring admin type stuff for the other half (I quite like admin though if I’m honest) until I’ve been at the computer for way too long and can’t see properly anymore. Then I go home, walk the dog again and go to the climbing wall. I probably have a shoot about once a week, so a day at the computer is average. Is that disappointing?
Nah. Sounds alright... But what makes you put down the camera and get on the rock?
Granite crack climbs! But there aren’t many of those in Glasgow.
Maybe you could build your own...
Watch Jen's film on BMC TV about being a woman and a climber by Mina Leslie-Wujastyk:
Watch Jen's film on BMC TV about climbing as a mum: