El Capitan: The Movie
[Photo] Glen Denny
"It's going to be very expensive," Padula said. Denny said he knew a businessman who might fund the project—Doug Tompkins, who'd just sold a climbing store in San Francisco called The North Face. Denny invited the two to his apartment. Tompkins drove his red Ferrari to Denny's place. There, he parked sideways across two driveways so no other cars could scratch his vehicle. "I expected to see some hotshot businessman with grey hair," Padula says. "He was probably two years younger than I was. But he was no bullshit. He never questioned whether we could do it."
Padula was turning thirty-one. Denny was twenty-nine. Tompkins was twenty-five. He'd started climbing in the Gunks as a teenager, ski raced in the US and South America, then tried one business after another until he seemed to find success with The North Face, which had two stores and a mail-order business when he sold it in late 1967 for $50,000. But what Tompkins really wanted to do was make movies like his friend and surfing buddy Bruce Brown, whose 1966 film The Endless Summer almost single-handedly re-invented the adventure picture genre. Brown put $50,000 into The Endless Summer, which grossed $20 million. You weren't going to make that kind of money selling tents and sleeping bags.
Padula showed the investor some hand-drawn titles he had made for the film. Tompkins didn't like them. Tompkins was an aesthete. His father was an antiques dealer, and The North Face catalogues were laid out better than most magazines, with stylized line drawings of famous climbing photos. "They had a knock-down, drag-out argument about what the print for the titles should look like," Denny recalls. "Tompkins kept getting up and looking out the window to make sure no one was messing with his Ferrari. That was a bad sign that we didn't have the same values."
[Photo] Glen Denny
But Tompkins was nothing if not enthusiastic. He brought in another partner, his friend Peter J. "Cado" Avenali. "He got Cado to put up his life savings," Padula says. "Doug put in [some money]. Glen got some money from his grandmother. I put in my savings, $5,000. We had about $30,000. You could buy a really nice house for that much." The four signed a partnership agreement. Tompkins opened a bank account for the film. "Fred and I would have complete creative control," Denny says.
The filmmakers went to David Brower at the Sierra Club, who'd just finished a film of his own. He had 15,000 feet of 16mm film left over, which he donated to the project, as well as some seed money. "He was very encouraging," Padula says.
Denny and Padula looked at other climbing movies. There weren't many. The most recent was Roger Brown's Sentinel: The West Face, which followed Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins up the side of the monolith. It won best film at the Trento Film Festival in 1966. The climbing footage (shot by Tom Frost) was gripping, but the voice-of-God narration only served to underscore the distance between the filmmakers and their subjects. "We thought narration was deadly," Denny says.
(In 1966 Steve Roper, Allen Steck and Dick Long made an 8mm home movie documenting their ascent of the Salathe route on El Cap. Long showed up with the camera the night before the climb—the third ascent of the route—and the climbers studied the instruction booklet by headlamp. The color film had no audio track until Roper and Steck got together in the latter's kitchen in 2008 and recorded their recollections of the experience, which they turned into a DVD.)
What would it take to make the best climbing film ever? Denny and Padula came up with a daunting list of requirements. They needed wireless microphones, which cost a couple of grand apiece, to record the actual dialogue of the climbers. Tompkins talked an electronics company into donating four mics to the film—and a sound technician. They needed a four-track recording machine. Tompkins found a place that built one to order. They needed a mobile sound studio to house the gear. Tompkins convinced the National Park Service to allow him put up a shed at the base of El Cap. They needed power for the equipment. Tompkins got the NPS to install (for free) a transformer to tap into the high-tension power lines running into the park. They needed good 16mm cameras. Tompkins flew to Hollywood and rented thousands of dollars worth of professional equipment—all on credit. "Doug was a very persuasive salesman," Padula says. "Tompkins kept coming up with stuff I couldn't imagine."
In May 1968, Padula parked his VW van at the base of El Cap (in those days the road ran closer than it does now) and started to unload gear. Denny had a friend who worked for the Curry Company, the park concessionaire, who loaned the film crew a house to use in the employee village. "I knew the guy in charge of Curry Company advertising," Denny says. "Padula was always for a big budget. I was always for a small one. I said, 'We'll stay in Camp 4.' Fred said, 'No, they'll steal all our expensive gear.' I mentioned it to the guy at Curry and he got us an employee house for two months."
Even before the climbers were on the wall, Tompkins and the filmmakers began to have differences. "Tompkins wanted the climbers in bright clothes, probably North Face designs," Denny says. "I wanted clothes to look like what we wore all the time—drab."