World class climber Jimmy Chin met his future wife, filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi, over a mountain – of footage.
He had been working for a number of years on the documentary that would become Meru, the story of an attempt by Chin and his fellow alpinists and friends Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk to become the first to summit the perilous Shark’s Fin peak in the Himalayas. Perhaps because he was so close to the subject matter, the film wasn’t quite cohering.
“I had submitted it to a few film festivals and got turned down,” Chin explained during an Artists & Auteurs conversation at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. He told moderator Thom Powers, TIFF’s documentary programmer and host of the Pure Nonfiction podcast, that while struggling over the film he crossed paths with Vasarhelyi at a conference.
“I knew that she had quite an accomplished career as a filmmaker,” Chin said. “So, I asked her to screen what I had cut so far. She didn’t call me back for three months, but it was because she was in Senegal making another film. But then she came back, she screened it, she called me, said, what are you doing with this film?”
They bonded on a project that teemed with stunning footage shot by Chin and Ozturk.
“Just seeing the world through Jimmy’s lens was astonishing, and it was inspiring,” Vasarhelyi said. “And just understanding this very deep connection to the outside world, and also [it was] kind of the first time I had access as a viewer to these incredibly remote places in such a visceral way.”
Feelings of a deeper sort soon kindled between the cinematic collaborators.
“Jimmy and I began kind of falling in love in this process,” Vasarhelyi said. “But the main thing for me was I love Jimmy and was falling in love, and I wanted to help tell the absolute best version of his story.”
If Chin elevated the story – literally to 20,000 feet – what Vasarhelyi added was depth, turning what could remain a niche mountaineering tale into one about characters, three men and their emotional journey, not just their ascent.
“The question was whether these three mountain climbers would show up emotionally. And I think there was a magic in the idea that Jimmy and I were becoming permanently attached, like probably getting married, having a child,” she said. “Conrad and Renan really showed up. I remember Conrad sat for a seven-hour interview and cried. It all came [out] and so we knew we had a movie because they were able to reflect and speak in a way that civilians could understand.”
Vasarhelyi and Chin’s latest documentary, Wild Life, which they brought to CPH:DOX, also unfolds in gorgeous mountainous terrain, in remote sections of Chile and Argentina. But at heart it too is a love story, between Doug Tompkins and Kris Tompkins, both enormously accomplished people who became a couple later in life.
“Doug Tompkins had led this very successful business life and created two of the largest brands on Earth, The North Face and then Esprit,” Vasarahelyi told Deadline at SXSW, where Wild Life played before heading to Copenhagen. “But then he had this awakening and said, ‘This is not enough. It’s not what I want to do.’ And then he leaves everything behind to go to Patagonia [Chile]. And then likewise with Kris, she was the founding CEO of the Patagonia company, and she ran it for 20 years. And then she too was like, ‘This is not my life. This is not where it can end. I don’t want it to end here.’” And she found the love of her life [Doug Tompkins] in her 40s. So, I think there’s something about this regeneration that really moved me.”
The Tompkins created a life together in Chile. They could have followed the example of other wealthy people and gobbled up lots of land for themselves to enjoy privately, but instead, as the film shows, they acquired millions of acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina with the express purpose of giving it back to those countries to create national parks.
“This love story is about falling in love with this landscape of Patagonia and the lengths that they were willing to go to try and save this place that they loved,” Chin told us at SXSW. “That story to me was deeply personal and also hugely inspiring. So, that’s a big part of why we wanted to make this film, why we think it’s important, why we think it’s timely, because we’re at this moment where climate change is one of our biggest existential crises, and here’s a few people that have been able to enact such massive change around preserving the environment.”
Chin added, “What they achieved in conservation is something that we’ve never seen before, the biggest private land donation in the history of mankind.”
Chin and Vasarhelyi won the Academy Award for their 2018 film Free Solo, about climber Alex Honnold, who shimmied and scraped and clawed his way up the sheer 3,000-foot granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without use of ropes. The Rescue, from 2021, documented the miraculous rescue of Thai children who were trapped in a flooded cave (The Rescue, Free Solo and Wild Life are all National Geographic films; Meru was distributed by Music Box Films).
“It’s been very fulfilling to have this wonderful material with which to access this kind of elusive human potential, like warts and all,” Vasarhelyi said at the Artists & Auteurs talk. “In Free Solo, Alex had this audacious dream to climb El Capitan without a rope, but what was scarier for him was to talk to other people. And then, suddenly, in the film, he ends up falling in love and actually evolving emotionally, which has very little to do with his climb itself. So, they’re adventure films, but I think they’re also lenses to look at this fascinating edge that is pretty hopeful too, in that most of these stories we tell are about people who dare to dream and with determination and grit and a little help from their friends… achieve their dreams.”
Wild Life will be released by Picturehouse in theaters beginning April 14, with a broadcast debut on National Geographic Channel set for May 25, followed the day after by a launch on Disney+.
As Deadline reported exclusively earlier this week, Vasarhelyi and Chin are already at work on their next project, also for National Geographic, directing a documentary under the working title Endurance. The film, co-directed by Natalie Hewit, will tell the remarkable story of how a team of marine explorers found the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackelton’s ship Endurance at the bottom of the Waddell Sea near Antarctica. The vessel sank after becoming stuck in sea ice in 1915 and was only discovered, intact on the ocean floor, last March.
Several years ago, Vasarhelyi and Chin embarked on a different kind of adventure – parenting. The couple brought their two kids to Copenhagen, where they decided to partake in a brisk Danish tradition – leaping into the icy river for an invigorating dip. That frigid plunge may seem tame compared to the expeditions Chin still undertakes in mountainous territories around the world as a professional climber and skier for The North Face Athlete team.
For Vasarhelyi, who describes herself as very much not a climber, worry is never far from her mind about the danger her husband faces on such extreme adventures.
“There is an argument that could be made that between Free Solo, The Rescue and even Wild Life, I’ve been trying to negotiate my feelings about risk and trying to understand as best I can, because we’ve committed to this life together. We have two wonderful kids,” she said. “I’m having an active, I don’t know, wrestling match inside me. And we’ve been talking about these questions a lot because you are more likely to die above 8,000 meters than you are under 8,000 meters. Like, this is a risky endeavor, even if you’re the best. But I’m not one to say, ‘You can’t,’ because certain individuals, this is what they live for. And we’ve spent some time looking at that question.”