In 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk set out to climb the Shark's Fin of Mount Meru in the Himalayas, a route that peaks at 20,700 feet. No one had ever made it to the top. After 19 days of climbing, they fell short of the summit by a mere 100 meters. In 2011, they tried it again.
Chin — an accomplished National Geographic photographer — had filmed both attempts, but was having trouble editing it all together, so he reached out to an acquaintance who had directed a couple of movies.
That acquaintance was Chai Vasarhelyi, and together they took the raw footage from the climb and turned it into "Meru," a documentary which won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
When Chin and Vasarhelyi spoke with The Frame at Sundance, they spoke about the challenges of filming while hanging from the side of a mountain, as well as the emotional elements of the story that brought the whole thing together. Oh, and how they ended up being married.
Jimmy, explain how you're able to film and climb at the same time. What are the technical challenges of doing both jobs at once?
Chin: Shooting and climbing have evolved together for me. I filmed with Renan Ozturk, who's the cinematographer on the trip as well, but there are some basic rules:
- Shoot when you can.
- Don't hold up the climb.
- Don't drop the camera.
And that's pretty much all you're going by. [laughs]
In this film, you're going without guides and you're having to lug your own gear. Especially on the initial climb, where the weight of the gear is certainly a factor, is the gear for the shoot actually a problem? Are you lugging even more stuff than you need at this point?
Chin: Yes, we are. We even cut off the labels on our jackets to save weight. Every ounce counts on a climb like this, so even a camera and a lens can add up. [laughs] We had two cameras, which were small, but still, those were probably equivalent to two days' worth of food.
Chin: Yeah, because you can't charge batteries up there, and you're not downloading your cards at the end of the day. So you have to carry all the cards and all the batteries, which adds up. It does figure into the calculations of planning.
So, as you're climbing, does it get to a point where you're asking yourself, Are we making a movie or are we climbing a mountain?
Chin: There are different types of productions that I work on, and this one was certainly more focused on the climbing. We shot what we could, and while I always think about shots that I missed, overall I'm really happy with what we captured.
Chai, when you first saw Jimmy's footage, how long ago was it, what kind of shape was it in, and what was the story you saw that you thought might be able to reach a wider audience?
Vasarhelyi: It was in 2012, and I had met this incredibly charismatic guy, Jimmy, and I was struck by how personable and interesting he was. And then he shared this film with me, and he wasn't in it. I mean, he appeared, but his heart wasn't in it.
It was hard to understand the emotional reasons and satisfaction that these guys get from climbing while living with all the risks, so I felt like there needed to be emotional work on the film.
It sounds like you were trying to answer for the audience the questions that you yourself had about the guy you'd just met.
Vasarhelyi: Absolutely, I was. I'm not a climber, but I felt like there was a real emotional connection that the audience could make with these guys, because what they do is inspiring and it's very moving. The story elements were there, but the structure and how they were speaking about their own experiences needed to be looked at.
So you met as creative collaborators, not as a couple? What's the chicken-and-egg here?
Vasarhelyi: I'll let Jimmy answer that.
Chin: [laughs] Yeah, I learned that she was a filmmaker. I had been working on this film, so I shared it with her to get some feedback. She hadn't shown very much interest in me until after I shared the film with her, and then of course I realized that she was really interested in the film. Eventually she became interested in me. [laughs]
So it wasn't that you had a great personality? You had great footage?
Chin: Pretty much. [laughs]
So much of the movie is about the collaborative nature of climbing, and the reliance that each climber has on the person next to him. You've now taken that connection into the filmmaking world where you're working with Chai. Are there similarities or differences between those different types of collaboration?
Chin: Yeah. [laughs] There are so many parallels between expedition climbing and filmmaking, like financing the trip and trying to convince somebody to help you chase this objective with all these unknowns — you don't know where it's going to go, you don't know how it's going to go. You just have to have faith in yourself and you need to be inspired and work hard, but that trust between climbing partners is very, very key — we hold each other's lives in our hands, and there are a lot of life-and-death decisions to be made constantly. You have to trust each other all the time.
In the filmmaking with Chai, it's challenging when you have two directors with two ideas, but we came from such different places. And honestly, when I saw the finished film and saw it screened at Sundance and I saw how all the decisions have come together, it's the first time I've really appreciated what she brought to the table. I mean, I knew on the way, but it's been really incredible. That's how great partnerships happen: when people come together with really different skill sets but really strong strengths.