Interview with Dave O’Leske, Director of Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey

Dave O’Leske is the co-founder of Through a Child’s Eyes Productions and the director, co-producer, co-editor, and co-cinematographer of the upcoming film Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey (see the extended trailer here). 

In this interview, we caught up with Dave to learn more about his upcoming film, and his experiences of climbing with Fred Beckey.

How long have you been working on this film?

I got in touch with Fred in 2005 and pitched him on the idea. I thought the process would take a couple years, but it has morphed into a decade-long endeavor. Looking back, it’s been a total blessing because it has enabled me to spend a huge amount of time with Fred.

How has your vision for the film changed over the years?

The film ideas have morphed, and a lot of it is about what happens during the aging process. He was 83-years-old when we started, and 83 to 93 is a dramatic change.

Originally it was about the stories you hear, this mythology of Fred Beckey. As the project went on, the theme has bridged the gap between the climbing community and general population. The film looks at Fred, who’s this one-of-a-kind, eccentric character that rarely exists in the world, as well as the aging process. You see firsthand what happens when you take a person who’s accomplished so much in their life physically and their body no longer allows them to do that anymore. Their mind is still sharp and they want to do these things. It’s given a whole new focus to the film.

Do you think the film will appeal to more than just climbers?

From the beginning, I didn’t want to make a climbing film. I just felt like this served a bigger purpose. If we can make a film that people like my mom, or someone that has never heard of Fred Beckey will want to watch, then we’ve done a good job. We’ve gone from trying to figure out the character of Fred, to more of a humanistic side of aging and life.

That’s always been the goal: to find those themes that will bring his life not just to the climbing community, but to the rest of the world as well.

There are so many great climbing films out there, with really dramatic and climactic scenes like Meru. This is more of a biopic; looking at someone’s life over 90 years. It examines a character and all the eccentricities that come with him. It’s a different kind of beast.

Are there any other climbing films, which take this non-traditional narrative that have inspired you?

A film like Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, which looks into Jeff Lowe’s life and what’s happened to him with his illness (NB). I think that’s inspiring; it’s a different kind of perspective.

I thought Touching the Void was really interesting. It examined the thought processes behind that classic story where they had to cut the rope.

There are so many things out there that are beautifully shot, documenting a climb. They’re great to watch, but I’ve always been story and character-driven.

You’ve been all over with Fred, are there any locations that stand out to you?

The two trips to China were phenomenal. In 2006 we went to China with Fred to attempt an unclimbed peak just over 19,000 feet. We were just getting to know Fred, and we had glamorous ideas that we’d get him to the top of this peak. We hadn’t come to realize the kind of physical limitations he was dealing with. It turned out that Fred didn’t get very far, and there was a lot of frustration on his part. We also realized that he just liked being part of the expedition, being in the mountains, helping to figure out the routes. He was 83 at the time.

I went back to China with him at 90. I couldn’t believe he would be going back to China. It’s not easy, with travel and so many elements like high elevation. He’s such a tough person and to put it in perspective with his age, it’s mind blowing.

We’ve also climbed all over the Sierras, Washington, Oregon, and Canada. I tried to revisit his ultra-classic routes like the Beckey-Chouinard route in the Bugaboos. It’s incredible how much he got around.

Would you say Fred Beckey knows more about the mountains of North America than anyone else?

That’s a pretty fair statement. A lot of the people we interviewed would say things like that. No one could repeat what he’s done because there’s a definitive number of mountains. There was a lot of luck in terms of when he was living. No one else was going out at the time; he almost had the mountains to himself.

Fred has a reputation for being difficult to work with because he’s so singularly focused on climbing. Did you find that to be a problem?

He’s so hyper-focused on what he’s doing. It’s an obsessiveness that can’t be breached. As time went on, the approaches became difficult for him. We would try to talk him out of certain climbs, but we learned quickly that you flat out cannot talk him out of whatever is on his mind.

That’s a theme that I’ve learned talking to a number of his partners over the years. He’d have an objective and if people were on board it was fine, but if they weren’t he would find someone else. He wouldn’t budge.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

He did not want to be filmed. As soon as he realized you were pointing a camera at him, he’d shut down. He was hypercritical of how he was climbing.

Don’t film this. Don’t waste your film.

I can’t even count how many times I heard him say that. That’s the exact moment, as a filmmaker, you want to capture because it’s so powerful: when he’s struggling or something that in his mind is not worth looking at. He’s hard to crack. As the years went on, he became more and more open. I think it was trust and a friendship, that he eventually opened up. It wasn’t easy. It was probably good that we had ten years to make the film!

Are there any stories of Fred that you’d like to share?

There were a couple super powerful moments with him coming to terms with not having the ability to do certain things. Those are some of my favorite scenes, and it was difficult to be a part of those private moments.

The quirky ones were endless! He’d stop at 5 fast food restaurants within 200 miles, and the whole time he’d be talking about how he hated fast food. He’d get recognized in the strangest places, like a diner in the back roads of Nevada. Sometimes he’d get frustrated, ask “Who is that person? How do they know who I am?”

He’s not really aware of his legend.

Do you have any dirtbag tricks that you’ve learned from Fred?

It’s funny, because he literally doesn’t consider himself a dirtbag. It’s interesting because he’s the grandfather of the dirtbags. He’s never considered himself one because of his writing career and the kind of climbing he did. He was never camped out in one spot for a long time, and he considers dirtbags to be the Camp 4 Yosemite climbers.

He will suck water out of moss, and off of rocks. If there’s a seep on a slab, he’ll get water out of that. He’s very minimalistic; he has what he needs and that’s it. That’s a good lesson that I’ve tried to learn. Keep things simple, and don’t have too much stuff. You can be comfortable with very limited amenities.

Thanks for your time, Dave. Is there anything else you’d like to share with Moja Gear readers?

We’re just super excited to get this film out to the world. Fred’s become more introspective. I think he’s finally come to realize the importance of the movie, and he’s more invested in it now. Our big goal is to have Fred be a part of the tour and premiers next year.



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