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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #55: E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Team for Big Wall Climbing Documentary ‘Meru’

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #55: E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Team for Big Wall Climbing Documentary 'Meru'

For married couple and co-directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, an odds-defying wall climb gives way to a grand humanistic study. In “Meru,” three friends embark on the never-before-conquered Shark’s Fin, a part of Mount Meru in the Himalayas. In a sense, this is a visceral study of willpower and mental strength. But Chin, a veteran climber and photographer (and co-cinematographer for this film), joins forces with award-winning filmmaker Vasarhelyi to uniquely pose deeper questions about passion, ambition and friendship.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

Three elite mountain
climbers sacrifice everything but their friendship as they struggle through
heartbreaking loss and nature’s harshest elements to attempt the never-before-completed
Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, the most coveted first ascent in the dangerous game
of Himalayan big wall climbing.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

“Meru” is really about
passion, ambition, and friendship. Where do you draw the line between following
your heart and your responsibility to others? How do you leave your family to
pursue a highly dangerous sport? Can you live to your greatest potential if you
don’t follow your passion? We wanted to make a film that gave audiences the
visceral experience of going on a difficult alpine big wall climb. “Meru”
examines this idea that following your passions is not always just this
beautiful thing; it can be fraught with internal conflict, doubt, and
intractable compromise.

Tell us briefly about yourselves.

Jimmy is a fifteen year
veteran of the North Face Athlete Team, a National Geographic photographer, and
a director of commercials. He has climbed notable first ascents in the
Himalayas, traversed the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet on foot and is one of the
few people to ski Mount Everest from the summit. Chai is an award winning
documentary filmmaker, whose previous films include “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring
What I Love” (Toronto, Telluride, 2009) and “A Normal Life” (Tribeca FF, Best
Documentary 2003). She has received grants from the Sundance Institute, the
Ford Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, among others. We between New York City and Jackson Hole, Wyoming with our daughter.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

The challenges of filming in
the high altitude mountain conditions on Meru were extreme. The mantra was “don’t
drop the camera!” Off the mountain putting together the narrative we were faced
with the challenge of balancing the sheer scale and danger of the climb itself
with bringing to life the personal choices and subtle complexities of the
characters. Their actions may appear extreme but we wanted audiences to
understand the many personal decisions involved. At its heart “Meru” is a
personal story.

What do you want Sundance audiences to take away from your film?

We hope “Meru”’s story about
struggling to achieve one’s dreams will inspire but we also hope people think
about the delicate balance between ambition, loyalty, family and friendship. Of
course, we’d love audiences to walk away with a visceral experience of cutting
edge climbing in the big mountains and gain an understanding of the stakes,
risks and sacrifices involved in a being a professional mountain climber.

Any films inspire you?

“Senna” and “Whiplash” were
both sources of inspiration. “Senna” which was directed by Asif Kapadia is
masterful documentary that brings to life the experience of a Formula 1 driver
in a very visceral way. “Whiplash,” which was directed by Damien Chazelle, so
compellingly articulates the struggle to become great, it’s grueling to watch.

What’s next?

Jimmy is currently planning
several expeditions. He will be shooting an assignment for National Geographic
over the winter of 2015. Chai is currently finishing post-production on Incorruptible,
a Sundance institute supported documentary film that chronicles the turbulent
struggle to preserve democracy during the recent presidential elections in
Senegal.

What cameras did you shoot on?

Two constraints for filming
on the climb were weight and power. Every ounce counted. We were pushing the
weight issue already by bringing two cameras even though they were small
cameras by normal production standards. The other issue was power. There was no
way to charge batteries on the climb so we had to carry all the batteries we thought
we would need and shoot sparingly. On the climb we used the Canon 5D Mark II
and the Panasonic HC-V. Off the mountain we used the RED Epic for interviews.

Did you crowdfund?

We did not crowdfund.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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