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Tiffany Melius interviews Pretty Strong Co-Director Colette McInerney

Local competitive climber Tiffany Melius catches up with Colette McInerney, Co-Director of the film Pretty Strong. Read more to find out the inspiration and stories behind the film. The online Canadian Premiere of Pretty Strong goes live April 17-19, buy your tickets HERE.

Tiffany: So, Colette, thank you very much for joining me from Hueco Tanks, Texas. Can you start by telling everybody a little bit about yourself?
Colette: I am originally from Nashville, Tennessee. I started climbing when I was 19 and have been climbing for almost 17 years. I started shooting climbing video and photography while I was living on the road and doing what I love [climbing]. And then I started shooting more and more and found that it is a nice way to sustain myself. I got drawn into that line of work and just kept doing more of it because I realized I really liked it. And it let me do what I wanted to do at the time, which was climbing.

Tiffany: Have you found that film and photo shooting is giving you enough of a living that you’re able to support yourself and climb?
Colette: Yeah. I’ve been doing it now for 12 years. Clearly, different people have different levels of what sustainable is – I don’t own a house, I live full time on the road, I live in various situations. I don’t have a lot of money or anything. So for me, it has worked so far. I also am a sponsored athlete, so I work with companies as a professional athlete and I do clinics. Sometimes I question myself – am I doing it right? [laughs] But no, things are good. No complaints!

Tiffany: Let’s jump into discussing the film. Where did the name PRETTY STRONG come from?

Colette: There was a group of us at Never Not Collective, we all came together and decided to work and produce films. We wanted to make an all women’s climbing film which was one of my long-term passion projects, and everybody was totally on board. And so, honestly, we all just brainstormed for a few weeks about what would be cool, the same way we did with our name for Never Not. It just came to me one day, I like that it was a play on words. It’s a classic thing that you hear with women in general in sports – like pretty strong for a girl or even in climbing. So it was just a fun play on the two things.

Tiffany: I’m sure, as with all art, there’s a lot of different interpretations of things. For me, I really liked the added layer of how women are often seen for their looks or appearances, and not for their strength. And there’s a song at the end of the film called Pretty Strong, was that custom written?
Colette: Yeah, it was written by Alison Krauss. She’s a climber and we are now good friends. She wanted to do a demo track for us, she wrote the song and that’s where the lyrics come from.

Tiffany: What did you try to achieve in making Pretty Strong?
Colette: I think on a selfish level, I wanted to make a film that I wanted to see. I was drawn to shooting and telling stories that I was personally motivated by. And I think a lot of artists will say that – make it not for someone else, but make something that you are motivated by or that you would like to put into the world. So one element was that I was just drawn to those stories. But it was obviously bigger than that, I wanted to create something for the future of climbing. The sport was growing so much and I really loved the idea of a young woman getting into climbing and having a film that felt like it was for them, something that spoke to them. I also wanted to show that there’s more than one type of a climbing girl or woman, whereas a lot of the films I grew up with always had what we called the “token climber chick” in the film. I wanted to show all the levels of women in the sport.

Tiffany: Yeah, very cool. And you definitely do that through all the different streams of storytelling that you have in the film. And then the other thing that I remember from when I started climbing is going out to the crags where you got the boulder problem with its name and V-grade, and then next to it you’ve got the easy “girlfriend problem”. That’s what the girlfriend has while the boys are trying the hard stuff. Your film really shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. So I hope it does inspire some young and even older women to go out there and try some of the hardest stuff.

TIffany: The team behind the project and the subjects of the film are all women. How was an all-female project different from other projects that you’ve worked on?

Colette: We all would say that there is a unique energy that comes when you have all women on a shoot or even on a climb. I would say most of the media I’ve done in the past has been the opposite where there’s only one woman and you’re on a team with a lot of men. Traveling with climbing, especially when I started 17 years ago, I was often the only girl on a trip for months at a time. I think it’s changing a lot, there’s a lot more women that are going out together, but you still felt this sense that it was different or unique. Like you would look around and you’re like, wow, we’re like all girl, it’s just all girls here. And we can bring that energy to the film, that deeper understanding of what that means in the sport, into the production and creativity

Tiffany: Awesome! Well, I hope there’s more projects like this coming up. What makes this film different to any other climbing film?

Colette: The all women cast and all women production is the biggest difference. But to be fair, the film was very much mirrored after Josh Lowell’s from Big Up Productions of Dosage – these were short vignettes. Originally, I wanted it to be mainly only climbing and no story, just to show hard climbing and all these places. I did not want to be tied to explaining why I was making it, I just wanted to show it. But in the end, luckily, I had a bunch of writers on the team that were insisting on us needing stories and going a lot deeper. I think we did get really great stories out of some of the vignettes and in that way maybe it was a little different than some of the climbing films that were being made at the time.

Tiffany: What you’re saying about the past is that some of those vignettes have been very similar – I’m trying this hard thing, and I’m falling off this hard thing, and I sent this hard thing. On the other hand, the stories that you show are actually quite different: some of them are about a hard send, and others are about just the fun of climbing. There’s quite a few different perspectives on the whole climbing film structure.

Colette: You can thank the writers for that, because I had different ideas about making a climbing film. I thought I’d just shoot a project that someone sends and we’re going to do it forever. But the writers are like, no, we need the actual story! And that’s the great thing about having a collective, big time. This film would not have been made without those guys.

Tiffany: As a pretty strong climber yourself, what makes you want to be behind the camera rather than in front of it?
Colette: I think it just happened, I discovered a passion for shooting and video whilst being a climber. It fell into my lap and it got forced on me a little bit. I don’t think I even liked filming that much and in the beginning. I did it because I had some sponsors that were going to pay for it and I wanted to stay on the road and climb. Later it did grow into the idea of telling stories, sustaining myself as a climber and working within my community. I’m basically working with my friends and I’m telling stories about my friends. If you had asked me twelve years ago, I’d be like no, I don’t want to be on this side of camera, I would rather just go climbing. But slowly, I needed more things in my world and once I got this passion for storytelling, I I became as obsessed with it as I was with climbing [laughs].

Tiffany: How did the Never Not Collective start and where did the name come from?

Colette: We started with Shelma Jun, she runs Flash Foxy, an all women’s climbing event. I had met her through that event and she was interested, she had just hit me up and was like, hey, I know you’re doing this filming and stuff and I’m thinking about starting a production company. And that was something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the guts, I thought it was too crazy. And she’s one of those people that doesn’t take “no” for an answer and is full of ideas. And that’s when she hooked up with Julie Ellison, who was an old editor of the Climbing magazine. And then Julie brought Leslie in, who was a photographer and writer. And Shelma came back to me saying we’re going to do it, and that there’s going to be more people so maybe less pressure. She asked me whether I was still interested. And I just said, you know, I have to go for it! That’s how we started: we were all going through changes in our careers, our lives, and we were looking for this other kind of outlet. I was definitely looking to partner with people and expand what I was doing. And in terms of the Never Not name, just brainstorming. At some point somebody made a joke about double negatives and I said, yeah. I’m always using double negatives when you’re not supposed to. That’s never not like negative – it just rolled off the tongue. We liked the play on words, trying to be clever when it’s really obvious.

Tiffany: How did you choose the five stories that appear in the film?

Colette: It was mainly about time as we basically had a year to film. We had some people in mind that we already had relationships through climbing. I had already been filming with others, for instance with Anna. It also depended on who was doing stuff that year, because there were people that were injured or people that were focused on competition climbing which did not interest us. So it was really about whose schedules aligned with ours and who was down to have us show up. At that point we were no name as a collective group of filmmakers, although I knew people in the climbing community. So that and money, like where we could get to easy enough. We just went out, shot a ton of stuff, then we came back at the end of the year and decided on the stories that did and did not pan out.

Tiffany: Is there anything else that we should know about the film that we haven’t covered yet?

Colette: I just wanted to tell that this has been such a hard time with how things have gone. We had this really cool tour lined up that we didn’t even really plan for, and we were getting a lot of feedback that people wanted to put on these events. It’s definitely a really special thing to see it in a theater with a bunch of other climbers, a feeling you can’t really replicate. It’s been hard to not being able to do the things that we want to do and be with our friends and have these experiences together. So we just hope that if you can check it out online, please do and maybe try to watch it with some friends at the same time and chat about it after, and try to create some of that community again, because I know we’re all just in a hard place. So we just hope that this is a little bit of a softener for people in these times and that hopefully you connect with some friends over it. So check out the Canadian online premiere with the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival on April 17-19, starting at 3pm Eastern time. Go to vimff.org for more. And if you are in the States then check it out online for rent on our site. There’s a few countries that we’re setting up with a premiere similarly to Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival – Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and Portugal. So if you’re in those countries, just hold tight, we are working on something for you guys. Eventually it will be online for everyone to be able to see.

Tiffany: Thank you for continuing to try to get it out to us. And I believe that at least in the video showing half of the proceeds go to you and half of them go to the festival, is that right?
Colette: That’s right. We want to bring something back to our company and then also help support the local climbing organizations coming out of Canada and all the work that they’re doing to bring cool stories to the people there. And hopefully they can keep doing that and we’ll be making more of these films in the future and putting on more cool events.

Tiffany: Fantastic! Well, thank you so much for your time, Colette. And we hope that eventually you might make it up and see a Pretty Strong showing in Vancouver in a theater with a bunch of people who can ask you that question themselves.

Colette: That would be awesome, I’m in! I don’t like to overthink it too much, but I can’t wait to get back up there. And you guys enjoy the premiere this weekend!