Will Power starts with a cliff-hanger

Photo by Pete Hoang

Vancouver filmmaker Calixte Leblanc’s 40-minute film Will Power is showing at this year’s Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) from February 19 to 28. Part of VIMFF’s Climbing Show, it follows Red Bull athlete and ice climber Will Gadd as he travels to China in search of new ice routes in the Taihang Mountains. The range runs for 400 kilometers along the eastern edge of the Loess Plateau in the central provinces of Shanxi, Henan and Hebei.

Leblanc explains that China is not the first country that comes to mind when people think about ice climbing. “I wanted to make something about ice climbing but go visit an area in the world that is very difficult for most people to commit to go to,” admits Leblanc.

Will Power was a project that I had wanted to do for a long time,” he says.

A slippery start

Leblanc pitched the idea to a producer and to Will Gadd who had been to China the previous year to go ice climbing. Gadd was excited to go back and do it with a film crew because he knew of the country’s potential for new ice climbing routes.

But even getting into the country really helped cement the idea that this was going to be an adventure. The challenges of planning how to film in China started before a single ice pick struck the side of the Taihang Mountains. “Just getting the logistics of what we need to know when we get to the border, or if we need passports for our camera equipment, or do we need to put a deposit down, and all these things are very challenging,” says Leblanc.

Gadd and the crew left for China in January 2019. A month earlier on December 1, 2018, Canada had agreed to a U.S. extradition request to detain Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer (CFO) of Chinese telecom giant Huawei for fraud and conspiracy to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran. Nine days later China arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on suspicion of espionage.

The political tension between China and Canada at the time of filming made it the perfect setting for his new project but also added more challenges. Both Canada and China changed their travel advisories cautioning potential travelers. “All of a sudden, we are sitting here, plane tickets booked, crew put together and we have journalist visas, we have all this equipment, and China arrests two Canadians,” says Leblanc.

The uncertainty was a bit too much for the family members of some of the crew and Leblanc had to adapt very quickly. “I had to find another photographer, and I just took over a DP. When we were there, I pulled my sound guy aside and said, okay you are now the DP and I will direct. We just kind of had to improvise,” says Leblanc.

And then, one of the nice surprises along the way was how easy it actually was to get into the country.

“We thought that they were going to give us trouble at the border once we arrived in Beijing. That never happened; it was smooth sailing,” says Leblanc.

With the help of the local contact, River, a Chinese ice climber that accompanies Gadd on his adventure, the film maker easily navigated the challenges of speaking the language and reading road signs. All the pieces were in place,

A long fascination with ice climbing

Leblanc’s fascination with ice climbing began 20 years ago when moved to Jasper and discovered a love for the sport. As a fan of the ice climbing, he also became a fan of Will Gadd.

Will Gadd and “River” (He Chuan). | Photo by Pete Hoang

“Will Gadd was the king of ice climbing, and I started following him before social media. I would see him in magazines and stuff like that,” says Leblanc.

Soon, Leblanc picked up a camcorder and started making home movies. As he got better, he knew what his ideal subject for an ice climbing project would be, if this new hobby of film making would ever blossom into a business.

“I felt that one day – if I ever turn this into a business – I want to film Will Gadd ice climbing.”

Over the years, Leblanc kept developing his career in sports journalism. He was Outdoor Adventure columnist for the CBC and did plenty of film work for Wild-TV. With that background experience, he could start putting together a project for Gadd.

Leblanc saw Gadd as a great host and wanted the project to be about more than just the sport of ice climbing. Will Power took on the structure of a docuseries feel where Gadd was the host. “Will is a pretty decent guy on camera. He’s got a lot of strong beliefs and he is very good at articulating. He is a public speaker that does TED talks,” says Leblanc.

Will Power takes on a familiar format, but with a bit of a twist. It is structured like this in hopes that this could lead to Leblanc filming Gadd on more ice climbing adventures around the world in parts where the sport is not that well known.

For more information visit: www.vimff.org