How to make (good) climbing movies: Chatting to Mike Cheque

I first heard of Mike Cheque when I was at Kendal Film festival. A couple of the Wild Country team were raving about this obscure film called Stonnis. Luckily, I met Mike a couple of months later in the Roaches and he agreed to have a chat. Over a casual day’s climbing a Bamford Edge we talked about climbing, releasing Stonnis and what he’s working on now (you can Watch Stonnis now for free on BMC).

On releasing Stonnis…

The film was premiered at Matlock Bath Grand Pavilion. Before the showing I’d never really watched it as if I was watching a film. I mean I’d worked on it every day for months but it’s not the same.

On the night I was really nervous. After introducing the film I forced myself to watch at the back. I was totally gripped, fully expecting people to get their phones out and leave half way through. But people were really into it. They were literally running to the toilet so they didn’t miss anything.

I was thinking, we’re only at Tom Luff climbing Lean Man’s Super Direct now. Just wait until we show Mark Rankine climbing Gaia.

How did it start?

Other than a few Scouts trips I didn’t climb at all when I was young. I was into music– in a band from when I was 14 and always wanted to make it big. In the end we only released one CD and sent it out to a load of people who probably didn’t listen to it. I did learn a lot about recording, which really helps now because I think about sound much more in my films than the average filmmaker.

I started climbing when I was 28. I was working as a Librarian, my job role was re-assessed and I got a payout. I started planning all these places I wanted to go in the States. I had the money, the time off work but couldn’t find anyone to go with. I could have done a paid course but wasn’t into that. So I looked at it a different way, where do I most want to go?

I found an article by Dave Pegg about Red River Gorge and followed it pretty much exactly. When I arrived there were loads of Americans who were psyched I’d come all the way out to their crag. They were so impressed my local crag was Black Rocks. I had a climbing partner within half an hour and spent two weeks, mostly trying to recover from getting destroyed in the first few days.

The idea for the film came together one day when I was back at Black Rocks…the history, the climbing, how psyched overseas climbers were about it.

Had you made films before?

No, not at all. When I started climbing my parents bought me a little camera for Christmas. It could record video so I started using it with a gorilla tripod. I realized it was easy making a climbing film, but really hard to make a good climbing film.

What happened after the release?

I got invited to Kendal. The film was an hour and they needed a 45-minute version for the slot. I asked them when they needed it. They said today. I then spent 2 days trying to decide which bits I could leave out.

So what are you working on now?

I’m making the film I always wanted to see about British sea cliff climbing.

And what can we expect?

In some ways it will be like Stonnis, but with the whole of the British coast instead of Black Rocks! I’m still most interested in filming “normal” climbers attempting routes onsight and having the variety of hard routes, easy routes, well known classics, obscure gems etc. Of course sea cliffs are very different to grit and I’m keen to properly capture the experience of climbing on the coast, which I think has been achieved surprisingly rarely. I want people to be able to smell the guano and taste the salty air!

So you’re about a third of the way through now. Has it been a different experience than making Stonnis?

I didn’t realize when I was making Stonnis how controlled it was. It was all at my local crag so I could go down and set up all the camera angles well in advance. Much more straightforward than the sea cliff filming I’m now doing. There’s been a lot more driving involved in making The Seaside, and there’s always routes you’re going to miss because you’re not there all the time. But you just have to learn to deal with that.

So when can we watch The Seaside?

The plan is now to film until the end of September/ beginning of October and edit over the winter to have it ready for BMCTV in the spring. There might also be a sneak preview at the BMC event at Kendal this year.

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