Some men may claim they’d scale mountains to win the love of their future wives, but Jimmy Chin actually did it. He just didn’t know it for a couple years.
“I met Chai [Vasarhelyi] at this conference that I was giving a talk at, and I heard that she was a great documentary filmmaker,” Chin says, having spent the last few years with some remarkable footage he captured from his hikes up one of the world’s most remote mountains, the Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru in the Himalayas with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. “I shared the footage with her to look at, and we developed a relationship as collaborators on the film, and then romantically. Now we’re married, and we have a daughter.”
Naturally, Vasarhelyi, the decorated filmmaker behind such “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” and “Touba,” remembers it slightly different. A self-described “big believer of church and state,” she had initially resisted Chin’s efforts to bring her onto the documentary after the two began dating, but when she eventually relented, she was able to take advantage of a unique position – using the film to learn more about the exploits of her future husband, a professional climber with a striking ability to convey his adventures to places where few humans ever reach onto the pages of National Geographic and other publications as a photographer.
With Vasarhelyi asking questions of his friends and fellow climbers about stories that had long been left in the past, she was able to find a story every bit as compelling as the jaw dropping footage that Chin compiled for “Meru,” which tracks separate climbs in 2008 and 2011 where the trio of hikers spend evenings literally on the edge of a cliff in a hanging portal edge cot and their days scaling the mountain at just 200 feet at a time. As harrowing as the experience is in each instance, the film shows the camaraderie that developed between them as a result, reaching a different and perhaps more meaningful summit long before they ever approach the peak of the Shark’s Fin. Shortly before the film that took home the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year hits theaters, the two spoke about how they figured out the proper structure to bring Chin’s remarkable footage to the screen, the changes in technology that both allowed and complicated the making of the film, and whether the big screen experience replicates what Chin felt out on the mountains.
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: With docs nowadays, you want something that’s incredibly special, so when I saw the dailies, we’ve never seen footage like that before. What they shot in the mountains was a real filmmaking achievements and there have been wonderful mountain-climbing films, but most of it’s reenactment. The fact that they shot this themselves while on this incredibly difficult expedition was special. Then you look for the story, and they had these built-in challenges, obstacles, and a journey to go on. In this case, the characters all could express themselves and actually come to life on screen, so it was just about finding the right pieces, working on building contacts, and an emotional throughline that could allow people who are not climbers, access to this elite world.
It was a great puzzle. It was a wonderful constraint, honestly, because there is no such thing a re-shoot on “Meru.” We were so lucky for what we had. I’d never worked with that type of constraint before.
At one point, Jimmy says of Conrad, the more nonchalant he was about a climb, the more worried you’d become about joining him, and in general, it seems like a lot of people who put themselves in such extreme situations often downplay their experiences. Was it easy to pull emotion out of them?
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: Part of the magic of this was that, after a certain point, Conrad and Renan and Jimmy all knew that Jimmy and I were quite serious, so there was an added pressure to show up emotionally in these interviews. They’re all very intelligent, interesting people, so [while] it was the same questions they’d been asked before, it’s a different approach when you’re making a feature documentary. We worked on that. It took time, and if you’re patient with interviews, you’ve got to work to the right place. That was always the question, would that emotionality be there, and after interviewing Conrad, we knew it would be.
This might be silly, but I had to ask – at one point, you’re listing the resources you’re running out of and one of them is cigarettes. Why would you have those?
Jimmy Chin: It helps the hunger.
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: They’re not smoking tons of cigarettes, and they didn’t have very many. They would share one of them during the day. It’s weird, but it definitely helps the hunger because they’re starving.
Jimmy Chin: Making the film definitely gave me a different perspective. Chai brought out a lot of ideas and themes that were always apparent to me, but almost so obvious that I overlooked them. I took them for granted. I knew I wanted to make a film that really showed the friendship and mentorship – these aspects of climbing that I found really important to me from my experiences. But when you’re that close to it, it’s hard to describe it for people. It’s what I live, and Chai, coming in from the outside, really gave an objective viewpoint to it, and was able to really bring that out in a way that people could understand.
Your climbs take place in 2008 and 2011, which is significant because there was a huge technological shift in camera equipment. Did that affect what you ended up getting while shooting or even in post-production, when perhaps you needed all the footage to look like it was of the same quality?
Jimmy Chin: That was a challenge in post. We shot on literally everything from point and shoot cameras that captured less that standard depth video, all the way to the RED Epic. We had to marry all of that [together in the final film]. But the technology shift between 2008 – 2011 was very significant because the DSLR video revolution happened. The 5D came out, and all of a sudden, what I used to use as a still camera now could double as a camera that shot Hi-Def with much more cinematic quality because I could use prime lenses. There was actually some depth of field now. In a way, that technological revolution really was motivating, too, because all of a sudden we knew we could shoot and make something look cinematic.
It [also] was certainly lighter than some … I remember starting shooting on the XL1 Canon, this big, three chip [camera]. Now, all of a sudden, I had a camera that could shoot stills and film, so in that sense, it did become quite a bit lighter, [and captured] better quality footage, so it had an impact on what we were able to capture.
It’s easy to get lost in the experience of it, but when you see, for example, a shot taken from outside your tent, which is hanging off the edge of the cliff while presumably all of you are inside of it, I had to think how on earth did you get that?
Jimmy Chin: There are a lot of shots in there that we worked really hard to get. One was in 2008, when they’re building the portaledge and it’s just dumping snow out. [The shot is] from a little further away, and you can tell they’re hanging in their harnesses, trying to build this portaledge. I was freezing, I was wet. We’d just been climbing for 18 hours, and we had to get this portaledge built before we could even think about maybe being comfortable. But I just knew this looked so epic – I had to climb off to the side quite aways to shoot back and get that shot.
That was a hard one, and the shot of Renan at the end, trying to take the time to get Renan’s reaction [while] being in the sun. We’d just climbed to the top, and now we have this incredibly dangerous descent to make. It was getting dark. We were fighting daylight trying to get down as far as we could before it got dark and really having the discipline. I go, “Hey, I’m going to get this shot. I’m going to ask him these questions, and I’m going to get this thing from him.” That was a lot to add on top of everything else that was happening, so it was a really challenging shot.
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: It’s been very gratifying. This is a very personal project, so it was a privilege to get to Sundance and where it’s gone beyond that has certainly been humbling, gratifying and inspiring.
Jimmy Chin: I love watching the film with people who have no idea what they’re getting into. I love films that surprise me, and they’re unexpected, especially if you think you know what the film is about. Then you come in and then it has these elements that you didn’t expect. I’m not a documentary filmmaker – well, I guess I am now – but to be able to sit in a theater and [watch] the whole film play out for people, and to see their reactions, that’s been really fun for me.
Is it anything like what you actually experienced on those climbs when you see it on the big screen?
Jimmy Chin: These days, I have to consciously suspend my disbelief and enter the film, which I usually do through somebody who’s never seen it before. There are moments where I feel like I can get into the film and I hope people are having a real experience with the footage that we got.