El Capitan: The Movie
[Photo] Glen Denny
THE KING SWING ended the first part of filming. Denny thought the middle part of the route was less interesting visually. He planned to skip that section and continue the shooting on the last third of the climb. Denny offered Steve Roper and Dick Erb $60 each to hike to the top of El Cap and fix ropes to below the Great Roof.
On June 18, Roper looked over the edge at the top of the Nose, terrified of rappelling the summit overhang, especially since he'd be tottering under a huge pack stuffed with ropes and bivy gear. But sixty bucks was sixty bucks. They reached Camp VI, where they spent the night, before continuing down below the Great Roof the next day and then jumaring to the rim. "My arms cramped horribly on the last few hundred feet," Roper wrote in his diary.
Tejada and McCracken talked Colliver into returning to the project. The team rapped ten pitches down and then spent four days filming the upper part of the route. Padula hired a porter to haul a watermelon to the summit. Tejada and McCracken tore into the juicy fruit with abandon. Padula filmed it—the final action scene.
Denny came back to the Valley in the autumn to jug fixed lines on El Cap and shoot scenes of swifts darting off the side of the cliff. Padula used a telescope to film a full moon rising over the Big Stone. The following spring, Denny trained his camera on Horsetail Falls. He thought the water glinting off the side of El Cap could make a lyrical opening for the movie. If it ever got made.
AFTER TOMPKINS LEFT, Padula expected that most of the money raised for the film was unspent. Upon returning from Yosemite with the checkbook, Padula discovered that Doug had withdrawn his money from the bank. "Doug said he was quitting," Padula says, "but he didn't say he was taking his money. The contract allowed him to back out up to a certain point. Doug's a businessman. He saw that things weren't looking good and cut his losses."
Padula picked up the last batch of film from the lab. Would he mind paying the several thousand dollars he owed? He apologized, but said he didn't have the funds. "The helicopter company was calling every day," Padula says. "The camera rental company called. The creditors were calling weekly for two years."
The filmmakers managed to get a grant of $15,000 from the American Film Institute, but the money disappeared as soon as it appeared, paying off creditors. Avenali remained a partner, but not a happy one. He threatened to sue the filmmakers to get control of the movie. (Avenali died in 2008.)
Like a married couple, Denny and Padula began to bicker about money. "Fred said we need to rent a studio to edit," Denny says. "I said let's use your bedroom or mine. The cost escalated without any way to get it back. It seemed the only way to get out of the financial hole was to make the kind of film that from the beginning I didn't want to make."
Padula wound up renting a basement room for $25 a month to edit the film. Denny and Padula put together a rough cut. It was more than three hours long—longer than it takes to make a speed ascent of the Nose today.
"The vision we had talked about from the beginning was fading," Denny says. "Originally, the concept was it would be as long as needed. In the art film world, it comes out as long as it should be. Fred and I always agreed on that. Because of the unfortunate example of The Endless Summer, 16mm films could make a fortune. But the film had to be feature length with clean language. I said we didn't have enough good stuff. Padula and Avenali insisted it had to be an hour and a half. They started to get cold feet about the four-letter words. When it came down to making money, those words couldn't be in there. Cado said he would only kick in more money if it were cleaned up."
"I felt a real responsibility to make good use of [the money invested]," Padula explains. "You just don't take people's money and kiss it off." (He says he didn't insist about the length of the film.)
One day in late 1969, Padula and Denny were working on the film as usual. Padula went home. By the time he got there, he found a typed letter from Denny. "He was basically resigning," Padula recalls. "He didn't want to finish the film and hoped that I wouldn't. If the film is a success, it will popularize climbing. That would be terrible." "Glen and I were very close friends," Padula adds. "I was crushed. I felt like I had been stood up. It's like your girlfriend leaves you with no explanation. It was his concept and dream. I didn't know what to do without him."