Today we’re super excited to share an interview with not only one, but TWO totally rad ladies, filmmaker Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures and world-class boulderer Mina Leslie-Wujastyk. Over the past two years Jen and Mina have been working on Project Mina, which follows Mina through the 2013 World Cup as she tries to balance her love for outdoor climbing and her incredible desire to find success as a competition climber. The finished product is a compelling must-see and a breath of fresh air for climbing films.
CXC: The film follows Mina as she struggles with being a competition climber while her true passion seems to be climbing outdoors in a non-competitive setting. Was this the story you intended to tell when filming began?
Jen: This film definitely evolved as time passed. We started the project in January 2013 with the plan to explore what it takes to become an elite climber – the training, the dedication, meals, coaching, etc. This just happened to be the time when the comp season was coming around, so naturally I started filming comps. Going into the project I was pretty ignorant as to how Mina felt about comps versus outdoor climbing, but of course the more we chatted the more I started to understand. Then, at the World Cup in Millau, I got my first real insight into Mina’s struggle with competitions. But it wasn’t until we had to take some time away from the project over winter 2013/2014 that I had the time to realize what our story was, which seems obvious now – why Mina put so much into competitions when she was so much better at climbing outdoors. The fact that she did this said a lot to me about her personality; feeling the need to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and get better at something she struggled with. Suddenly the film really took shape in my head and I felt we had a human story at the heart of this climbing film. Of course it kept evolving as life unfolded, but really it took almost a year for the real story of the film to become clear – and I was lucky to have that time. It’s rare to have so long to let a project ‘cook’, so to speak.
CXC: Mina, the film does a beautiful job of contrasting your feelings about climbing indoors and out, but of course each style of climbing has unique challenges. How does climbing outside differ from the struggles and frustrations you have felt as a comp climber?
Mina: I think the main two differences are that 1) outside you have all the time in the world, that rock isn’t going anywhere. Even if it means another trip, you can always keep trying something if it means that much to you. 2) You are in competition with yourself and not other people. Outside we still strive to climb hard, to be the best we can be but it feels more personal and more straightforward; you either accomplish something or you don’t, it doesn’t matter what your neighbor does. In competitions sometimes you can win or do well because your competitor fell off, not because you got to the top. That always felt strange to me.
CXC: Towards the beginning of the film, when you were competing in Team Trails, you mentioned that it was a big deal for you to “aim to win”. In previous competitions was this not what you aimed for? What was different about this than your usual approach?
Mina: I think I was just learning that I was good enough. I had done a lot more work that year and I had hit on a good training routine that worked well for me (that I have struggled since to reproduce!) and I was confident that I was strong at that time. I guess I hadn’t really been in that mindset before, I think I always felt like there was luck involved in the past but this time it was just me and the work I had done.
CXC: Jen, your films always have a very personal feel. So much that it seems like you’re good friends with your subjects. How do you accomplish this?
Jen: That’s nice to hear! Mina and I didn’t know each other particularly well before this project, we’d spent three days filming for Push It together and that was it. I’m always aware that, when making a film with someone, especially such a personal one, there’s potential for that relationship to be destroyed in the process. I recently read some advice for documentary filmmakers and one of the points was that, at some point, your subject will hate you. Now I may well have been on Mina’s list of not favorite people at some stages, but ultimately we became great friends through this project. I admired Mina’s courage at putting herself out there in this film, so if there was something Mina wasn’t sure of that we’d filmed, we’d talk about it. If I really wanted to keep that footage but Mina really didn’t then we’d work out a different way to go about that part of the film. It was a collaboration in that aspect, which built up trust and meant we could both be (fairly) confident about the film, although it’s always nerve-wracking releasing a project, and this was the first time the star of my film was more terrified than me! I also like to try and make sure the people I film with have fun during the shoot, because then it’s just better for everyone, and I think that energy and naturalness comes across in the film. I’ve also been lucky and generally worked with really fun, lovely people so far who I like to think would have been friends anyway. I suppose it all comes down to forming good, genuine relationships with the people you film.
CXC: Mina, we think this is an incredibly compelling film, largely because of your honesty and willingness to share your experience with the viewer. Did you ever find it difficult to open up on film? How did your comfort with the process change over the course of filming?
Mina: Yes, the film left me feeling quite naked in some respects. It was interesting because I didn’t find it that hard to open up on film because Jen was filming and she is a good friend – I could almost forget the camera, and the option was always there to edit bits out. The hard part was seeing the edits, realizing how much I had opened up and then feeling quite vulnerable and nervous about it being public. In the end though, I think it made a better film because of it and if I can swallow my nerves and pride to show it I think that is a good thing as it gives people a true insight rather than a glossy version.
CXC: What have you learned about yourself from making this film? Did watching the final product make you see yourself differently?
Mina: It made me realize how much I had neglected the mental side of things, not only in competitions but also in life. Psychological factors play a huge role in one’s ability to succeed and, more importantly, in one’s happiness. Along with many other people, I can be really hard on myself and if I have learnt one lesson, it is to be kind to myself. It’s funny, that was something my Mum always said to me but I’m now 27 and only really, deeply learning what she meant.
CXC: And Jen, what have you learned about your own climbing after spending so much time with Mina? Have your personal climbing goals or outlook on climbing changed since making the film?
Jen: Since making films with strong women, especially Mina, I’ve learned that I could do more than I used to think I could. I used to think 7a was the end goal for me, but seeing Mina in Magic Wood walking up to 7c and dispatching it so casually back in 2012 made me think, ‘Hmm, she’s a similar height, build and age to me… surely I could do better than I have so far.’ I definitely train a bit more these days and set my goals higher and occasionally achieve them because I’ve learned that there’s no excuse not to. On the other hand though it has also taught me that I’ll never be at such an elite standard of climbing as Mina or Shauna [Coxsey] or any of these dynamos, and the reason is very simple – I don’t quite have the commitment to train THAT hard or dedicate THAT much of my time to getting crazy-strong. There was always a little bit of me that wondered if I could be one of the best ever climbers, and it’s actually quite nice and liberating in a way to see what goes into becoming one of the best ever climbers and understand that just isn’t you!
CXC: Your films have a fresh and personal perspective that sets them apart from the average climbing film. Have you ever thought of submitting a piece to Reel Rock Tour? What projects do you have on the horizon?
Jen: I’d love to have something in the Reel Rock Tour, but so far I haven’t met or connected with those guys yet. Hopefully I will soon. Over the last 18 months I’ve made 43 different films, not to mention those I worked on for other people, so at the moment I’m trying to take some time to catch my breath and make a plan. Since Push It, work has been picking up faster and faster. I feel like I’ve come a long way since then, and I hope Project Mina reflects that, so the next big project needs to be that next step up again and I don’t want to rush it. I have lots of ideas right now, but no firm plans, so watch this space!
CXC: Mina, we largely know you as a boulderer but recently you sent Mecca Extension (8c/5.14b). Congrats! What inspired you to climb this route? Are you looking to switch your focus toward route climbing or will bouldering always be your first love?
Mina: There was actually another route that I was keen for but I didn’t think I was in good enough shape for (it was harder but shorter) so I thought I would try Mecca Extension to get a better fitness level, as it was longer. Funnily, by the time I did it I was so tired from the mental and physical effort of trying it that I wasn’t motivated to try the other route straight away! I really enjoyed the process of trying it, even when I was red-pointing and it was a bit stressful! I think I will probably do more route climbing in the coming years as I have really enjoyed it. As a boulderer, I have travelled a lot but in terms of route climbing, I have so many places I would still like to visit! Changing disciplines is like wiping the slate clean and having a long list of new places to go! Having said that I will still boulder a lot too, I will just try to balance the two… 😉
Thank you so much to Jen and Mina for chatting with us! Check out the trailer for Project Mina below and then head HERE to purchase the film. Thank you to the film’s sponsors, BMC TV, The Climbing Academy, Ellis Brigham, Arc’teryx and the Brit Rock Film Tour, and to Mina’s sponsors (and two of our personal favorites), Organic Climbing and Five Ten. For more on Jen and Light Shed Pictures check out our 2013 interview with her.