Mar 19, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cormac McCrimmon | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
If you doubt the value of a Colorado College education, try talking with alumni. Speaking with past graduates not only quells uncertainty about life after CC, but it also helps to showcase all the unique and amazing work others are doing.
This past week, the filmmakers behind “The Dawn Wall,” and a host of other adventure films — Peter Mortimer, Josh Lowell and Nick Rosen — joined CC students for a virtual Q&A about their film and to answer questions about how to start filming.
“The Dawn Wall,” which premiered in 2017, showcases Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesons’ ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan. The wall, like so many Yosemite classics, rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor. The difference between the Dawn Wall and other big-wall climbs is its sheer difficulty.
Caldwell and Jorgeson often relied on razor edges and pea-sized crystals to hold their weight. For non-climbers, this description of tall walls and small holds might sound like the plotline of every climbing movie ever made.
However, the film also dives into Caldwell’s experience being held hostage in Kyrgyzstan, losing a finger, and going through a divorce. During Caldwell and Jorgeson’s multi-week siege, personal difficulties added to the trip’s challenge and the film’s excitement.
If you’re interested in watching “The Dawn Wall,” check your CC email for information on streaming the film for free. While watching “The Dawn Wall” is an experience in itself, speaking with the film’s creators offered an in-depth look at the world of adventure filmmaking.
Mortimer, Rosen and Lowell all graduated from CC in a relatively short span, but it wasn’t until after college that they seriously teamed up. The trio recalled shooting amateur climbing films in college, mostly of friends.
Mortimer, a geology major, didn’t take a film class until his senior year.
“Film and Media studies, or even journalism, didn’t exist at the time,” Rosen, who studied political science at CC, said.
Today, there is much more support for student films. Students can wander onto campus, discover an urge to try filmmaking and sign up for classes to learn production basics, documentary creation and film analysis.
“I think there’s something about the Block Plan that encourages students to take on projects like creating films,” Mortimer said.
The energy to dive into projects does seem apparent when you speak to most CC students. A willingness to embrace opportunities, combined with CC’s encouragement and funding to embark on projects, can help students produce their own films.
Since graduating, Mortimer, Rosen and Lowell have given back to the CC film community by serving as mentors for the Annual Documentary Exploration Grant.
Like many adventure filmmakers, Mortimer honed his skills as a climber while cutting his teeth as a filmmaker. After graduation, he eventually attended film school at the University of Southern California.
Rosen followed a different trajectory, attending Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. By honing his journalism skills, Rosen was able to bring high quality writing and storytelling to his films.
Rosen and Mortimer, who knew each other at CC, partnered after graduation to form Sender Films, a production company spinning out dozens of climbing films.
In 2006, Sender Films decided to join forces with, once-rival filmmaker, Josh Lowell, who founded Big Up productions after graduation. Pooling their experience helped Sender Films and Big Up surge. As interest in their films grew, the trio decided to also create the Reel Rock Film Tour.
Reel Rock is a climbing film tour that features films ranging from short documentaries to feature-length projects, like “The Dawn Wall.” Reel Rock now holds its annual film screening in more than 500 cities, including at CC.
What can students learn from the creators of “The Dawn Wall?”
- Don’t worry where you’re starting out. Two of the three filmmakers behind Sender films came to CC with very little film experience. They picked up cameras, shot their friends doing stupid stuff and told stories about what they loved to do.
- Lose the ego. Lowell, Mortimer and Rosen cautioned that new filmmakers need to keep their egos in check. Big egos have long been a stereotype of the film industry, but Mortimer cautioned that not knowing when or how to listen to more-experienced mentors can isolate young filmmakers.
- Focus on access. Oftentimes access for documentary filmmakers is the trickiest part. When you’re just getting started, film the people to whom you do have access: friends, family members and other students.
Watch “The Dawn Wall” on Netflix.