How to Make a Cult Classic: Fred Padula on “El Capitan”

Fred Padula’s El Capitan is one of those rare cult classics whose lore has survived despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to get a damn copy. For awhile, you were hard pressed even to get the movie on VHS. (The American Alpine Club Library had it on VHS, but for as long as I can remember, some climber had checked it out and never returned it. *shakes fist*) Luckily, after a substantial Kickstarter campaign a few years ago, Fred Padula was able to complete a major digital restoration and remastering effort. Now, one of the most seminal climbing films of all time will be preserved for generations to come! We were fortunate not only to use a few iconic clips of the film in Brave New Wild, but also to pick his brain a little about the making of the film. Read our original interview below!

El Capitan follows three climbers in 1968 as they climb up, you guessed it, El Capitan. It’s probably one of, if not the, best climbing film of all time. Don’t believe me, believe Dave Brower.

“EL CAPITAN is the best rock climbing film. . . period! No other film compares!” - David Brower

Still from El Capitan courtesy Fred Padula

How did you get into the world of climbing? Fred Padula: Glen Denny was a student in my film class at San Francisco State University and asked if I would help him make a film about climbing El Capitan. How did you get involved in film? FP: One evening I found myself at a The Ephesian Church of God in Christ, a black church in Berkeley, California. I was so overwhelmed by the people, the singing, the excitement and the preacher’s sermon, I though, all this must be captured in a film. So, I went on to make Ephesus, my first film. It was well received and went on to win several awards. 
I plan to restore Ephesus also as soon as El Capitan is completed. We noticed you did cinematography for Dreamwood by pre-beat underground filmmaker James Broughton. Were you involved in the underground San Francisco film scene back in the day? FP: Yes, I guess you could say that I was part of the San Francisco Independent (underground) Filmmakers Scene in the 1960s. It was a very exciting time in history, quite unlike today’s film (video)


What possessed you to make the film? FP: After Glen resigned I was left with the whole production and all the production debts. How long did the actual filming take? FP: We filmed on the wall for almost six weeks. What was Yosemite like in 1968? FP: A lot fewer people and the Park Service enforced fewer rules. El Capitan is famous for epic cinematography with mind bending shots, how did you come up with these? FP: Glen is a very fine photographer/cinematographer and as an experienced Yosemite climber, new the subject well. What did it take to film them? FP: He used a 16mm arriflex 100 foot model allowing him less than three minutes shooting time before having to reload.

Glen Denny Filming on El Capitan courtesy

There’s a scene in the dark where you hear someone fall… who was that and what happened? FP: Gary Colliver, as I recall, pulled out a knife edge piton, landed side ways and broke a couple of ribs. What kind of film was this shot on? FP: We used a Kodak Ektachrome reversal film called ECO. Did you write the titles by hand? FP: Yes, the titles were done by hand in somewhat of a Japanese style to relate to the music score. The sound design in El Capitan is very unusual, how did you come up with the concept for it? FP: Not to avoid question entirely, but the sound track took considerable more time and effort than the visual part of the film. I constructed the sound as a musical composition and relied heavily on counterpoint to the visual.

Before and after the restoration courtesy

How was the film received when you first showed it? FP: It was premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to a packed audience. A second, unscheduled show the same evening was held for those who could not get in the first show. Do you still keep in touch with the climbers in the film? FP: I’ve remain good friends with Richard McCracken and Lito Tejada-Flories. Some quick trivia: What are the climbers eating on the ledge? Canned stew What utensils are they using? Pitons What time of year was it shot? June What route are they climbing? The Nose Where did the watermelon come from? I had a fellow haul it to the top on the trail from the road.

Thank you Fred!

If you want to watch the film yourself you can get a copy on DVD or Bluray at

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