Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is an experienced documentary director. Jimmy Chin is an experienced mountain climber, photographer and cinematographer. So, the husband and wife team were a natural fit to make a film about climbing, specifically the attempt to surmount the “Shark’s Fin” route up Meru Peak, widely considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Until Chin and his friends Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk reached the summit in 2011, no one in history had ever conquered it.
That team brought video cameras on both that climb and a previous, unsuccessful attempt in 2008, and their footage forms the basis for Meru. We spoke with Chin and Vasarhelyi about the process between climb and movie, and what it’s like to juggle mountaineering and filmmaking concerns.
Nonfics: So as I understand it, you did not intend on making a documentary until after your second climb.
Jimmy Chin: Yeah. I mean, I probably toyed with the idea at some point before then. But I never really thought about it seriously until after the second climb.
What made you decide to turn your footage into a movie?
Chin: For a while, I didn’t really know if I had the footage or the story, necessarily. I do distinctly remember after shooting Renan’s monologue — the one that comes at the end of the film — putting the camera down and thinking, “Oh, that would make an incredible ending to this loose idea for a film I have in my mind.” But I didn’t think about it seriously for a long time because I didn’t want to commit to it seriously. I’m the type of person who, if I start to think about something really seriously… well, you see right now.
I wanted to make the film because I think climbing can be easily misunderstood. Especially big mountain climbing and the stakes and risks there. As a professional climber, I get questions about those things a lot. I meet a lot of people who just write us off, who think we’re crazy and all of these different things. But I’ve had such a different experience with climbing, so many powerful elements that have changed me as a person. I wanted to share that. I also wanted to share what an incredible person Conrad is. I’ve spent 10 years with him on multiple expeditions around the world, through extremely difficult situations, and I think more of him everyday.
You make the point really well in the film that climbers have to constantly keep in mind all of the equipment that they have to maneuver with. When you go up on a mountain with filming equipment in addition to the regular gear, how does that change things? How much does that add to the burden?
Chin: In 2008, we just had a little handy cam, a point-and-shoot camera that shot less than standard definition. Between then and 2011, we saw the high-speed revolution happen. New DSLR cameras came out, and that was great for me as a photographer. All of a sudden, I could both shoot stills and film much more easily.
On the second climb, each of us had a camera. There’s obviously difficult challenges with that. For instance, you can’t charge up there, so we had to carry all these batteries. We weigh our food and our jackets by the ounce, because every ounce counts on a climb like that. And to that, you add these extra batteries. And it’s not like we were able to look at dailies or back anything up.
It was old school. We were run-and-gun and had to be very efficient with our shooting. You just had to hope you got it in the can. There were no retakes because, really, the climbing and the objective was the priority, not the production. We never wanted the filming to have an impact on the climbing. I mean, it did to a certain degree, no matter what. We were carrying more weight, after all. But I was fine with that. We just shot whenever things were happening.
Were there any moments when any of you possibly risked your safety to get a shot?
Chin: Yeah, that happened. When it comes to risk, well, you’re constantly assessing that. That’s my job as a professional climber. You basically spend all of your time assessing risk and doing cost-benefit analyses and all that kind of stuff. There are certain times when you’re going to extra lengths to get a shot. There’s one shot of our camp on the mountainside. I had to climb out of the way to get the shot and was in kind of dire circumstances. We were all wet and cold and had been climbing for 18 hours and getting hypothermic, and there was another huge storm coming and we had to get the shelter up, and the last thing you feel like doing is climb out to get a shot. But I did it.
What’s it like to balance risk assessment with keeping an eye out for what might make a good image?
Chin: Both on this expedition and most of the time — unless you’re doing a climb that’s based around the production, such as a commercial venture, which I’ve done plenty of as well — you’re thinking about your partners, your tasks, carrying the weight, exit strategies in case anything goes wrong and still doing all the things you have to. When it comes to photography or filmmaking, you just have to have a lot of experience, so that you have the mental bandwidth to think, on top of all that, “Let’s take a shot.”
How much footage did you capture on your expeditions?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: Not that much. I know most documentaries will get, like, 400 hours at least. But our dailies, so to speak, were very skimpy, because the filming circumstances were just so extreme. The footage was incredibly special, but we definitely had certain constraints when putting the film together.
What brought Chai onboard as a co-director?
Vasarhelyi: I came on in 2012, after the two climbs. My role was to act as an objective set of eyes and to kind of keep the film grounded. They had this incredible footage, the kind I had never seen before, and compelling characters. But I think that the climbing team was very, very close to the material. I knew how to make it all work in an 89-minute format. I was very focused on the human relationships.
Also, I’m a non-climber, so I had the audiences’ POV on the events. I could help figure out how to allow viewers to identify with the story and feel compelled by it. I thought that the friendship between Jimmy, Renan and Conrad was the heart of it. They really bring to life how the objective may not necessarily be the mountain itself, but their teamwork.
How long did it take to hash out the structure of the film? What was the process of putting a story together?
Vasarhelyi: A big part after I came in was getting further interviews with the guys. One big thing with climber culture is that it’s incredibly understated. They don’t brag. They don’t hype things. It’s not what they do. I had to force everyone to try to explain things to me, which really helped make the stakes clear for the audience.
We were changing the film until the very end, from 2012 until when we premiered at Sundance. I really am a firm believer that the more you edit, the more time you spend with something, the better a doc is. You can see nuance, you can develop nuance, you can watch it with audiences, the film is like this evolving organism. That time really helped.
How many major edits would you say the film went through?
Vasarhelyi: Probably four or five. You whittle and you evolve and you try to make something work, and it doesn’t work and it doesn’t work, and it finally works in the last 10 percent. Our challenge, I think, was that it was important to include the climbers’ backstories, but the drive towards the mountain was always so strong. You kind of always want to be on the mountain, but the backstory is what gives it depth.
Were there any films that influenced you, whether they were fiction or nonfiction or about climbing or not about climbing?
Chin: Yeah. I like unexpected films. Senna was a great film. It certainly helped me shape my thoughts around our own film. Like with mountain climbing, with Formula 1 racing people have a vague idea of what the stakes are, of what it might be like to be a professional driver. But Senna really helped me understand the stakes and the pressure and the decisions. Because I live as a professional climber, so I get these questions about it all of the time. But it’s hard to explain in small talk — “Yeah, it’s pretty scary” or “Yeah, it’s pretty dangerous.” I wanted the film to address these things in a meaningful way.
Vasarhelyi: There have been great climbing films. Touching the Void is extraordinary, of course. What really separated our project was the footage. There’s no recreations in our film. We’ve never seen stuff like this before. Nothing like the conditions under which they were shooting has really happened before in climbing films — fiction or nonfiction. That was what made this project so special.
This interview was originally published on August 14, 2015.