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‘Meru’ Co-Directors on Friendships at High Altitudes and the Quest for First Ascents

'Meru' Co-Directors on Friendships at High Altitudes and the Quest for First Ascents

Stakes are high when climbing one of the most inhospitable
peaks in the world, and deciding whether a shot at glory warrants the
tremendous risks is not a painless task. Located above the Ganges River in a
remote location in Northern India, Mount Meru represented the ultimate test for
a group of renowned American climbers. This mountain had defeated some of the
best teams in the sport and remained unconquered for many years until the
relentless reached the summit. Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk 
persevere through hardships and near-death experiences to stand where no human
had before. Their quest for this historic first ascent and their unbreakable high-altitude
friendships are documented in a film simply titled “Meru.”

Chin was not only part of the action at 21, 000 feet, but he
is the co-director of the film and the one in charge of shooting the
breathtaking and often frightening footage under strenuous circumstances.
Documentarian Chai Vasarhelyi served as the other
half of this filmmaking team to create a narrative that could enthrall
audiences beyond those already interested in mountain climbing or extreme
sports. By centering their story on Chin’s relationships with his teammates and
the utmost respect they feel for one another, the co-directors captured the
human drama heightened by this astonishing natural setting.

“Meru” had it’s World Premiere at this year’s Sundance Film
Festival and has now been released by Music Box Films in L.A, NYC, and other
cities around the country.

Aguilar: It seems like you two were on completely different paths career wise, how did you connect and began working on this project together?

Chai Vasarhelyi: Jimmy
and I met at a conference. He knew I was a documentary filmmaker and he was in the
process of making this film. He shared a cut with me, and I don’t know if you
know this but Jimmy and I are now married, so in the process of getting to know him
I became involved with the film.

Aguilar: Jimmy, what are some of the reasons you are so passionate about climbing despite the risks? It is the rush or the feeling of accomplishment that come with each incredible feat?

Jimmy Chin: It’s
kind of why a musician makes music or why an artist makes art. It’s
what they do. It’s what they love. It’s what they are passionate about. It’s
gratifying on a lot of levels. It just happens that mountain climbing has these risks. Whether or
not you consider me lucky or unlucky as somebody who’s found their passion,
because I don’t think everybody necessarily finds his or hers, that’s one
thing, but mine happens to be climbing. 
It’s an incredible way to interact with the landscape, to be outside, to
spend time with friends, to travel, and I love physical movement of it. It’s also very
cerebral, it requires a lot of difficult decision-making all the time. You are
constantly making decisions and some minds like that. Mathematicians have a
certain type of mind, and climbers have a certain type of mind, because
climbing poses these incredibly interesting problems for them. Those are some
of the reasons why I love it. It’s also very beautiful and an incredible
experience.

Aguilar: Shooting
footage while climbing must add another layer of complexity to the already physically demanding environment. How do you manage these two different aspects simultaneously?

Jimmy Chin: The
thing is that climbing and my filming have really grown together.
They didn’t just paralleled each other but they grew together. When I go on a
big climb or an expedition, it’s just part of the process to shoot. Of course,
Meru was an extremely challenging climb and the filming of it was extremely
challenging as well. It was kind of like the ultimate test for me and what I do on
a lot of different levels. But definitely, the shooting was extraordinarily
challenging. Managing the physical duress that you are under, like staying warm
and other things, while dealing with is this other narrative in your head
as you think about filming.

Aguilar: Chai, do you
feel like you bring a different point of view given that you are not a climber? Was that part of the reason why you wanted to work on this film?

Chai Vasarhelyi: Yes,
I think that was the strength of the collaboration. My role was to really be
objective as a non-climber and to focus on the human story and the
emotional journey of the characters. That’s how Jimmy and I worked. I was
supposed to be an outside voice

Aguilar: Obviously, you were not
present during the shooting and saw the footage after the fact. Does that change the dynamic for you as a filmmaker when trying to assemble the story? 

Chai Vasarhelyi: I
think in all of the films I’ve made is the human story that’s really important
to me. This is the first time I wasn’t present in the action, I wasn’t in the mountain. Every other film I’ve made I was immersed in the
action, so it’s a different type of challenge but I think the approach is very
similar as with my other work.

Aguilar: One of the
most remarkable things about the film was witnessing this special kind
of friendship that climbers share. They are not just
friends, their bond is much more profound because their lives depend on each other.

Jimmy Chin: One
of the motivations for me in making the film was to make a film that really
spoke to what I found to be the most profound aspect of climbing, which was the
friendships that it created and mentorship. My whole career exists because I
had really incredible mentors. The power of that mentorship, the power of
the friendship and what you can achieve when you put those things together, that
was really the focus and very essential to the film for sure. It makes me very
happy that you found the story about our friendships very powerful because
that was something I felt was really important and special about climbing.

Aguilar: Climbing is a collective sport, just like filmmaking is a collective art form. Neither of them can be done without the help of some like-minded people.

Jimmy Chin: We
talked a lot about the parallels between filmmaking and climbing mountains just
in terms of the commitment it requires, absolute devotion, and the belief that
you are going to make a film and that the film is going to be OK, as well as the risks
you have to take. You are never going to climb anything great if you don’t take
risks, and I don’t feel like you can ever make a really great film without
taking risks either.

Aguilar: There is a point in the film when we don’t know if you are going to continue or not. Was that a turning point for you or did you ever consider retiring from the sport?

Jimmy Chin:  After the avalanche it wasn’t like I didn’t think I was gonna do any more expeditions, but it shook
me pretty deeply. I didn’t really know how to manage it very well. I certainly wasn’t thinking that I was
going back to Meru at that point. I was so far from even considering it. It
wasn’t like I didn’t think I could do Meru, I just wasn’t even thinking about
it. What really came to me was that climbing as sport and as practice is really important to me, but it’s also my
community and how I interact with my peers. To take that away was too much
to think about. I still love it. I live to climb. It gives me a lot of joy and
purpose.

Aguilar: Conquering Meru and making a film while doing it must be a surreal, gratifying and emotional triumph.

Jimmy Chin: I
would say, of course, as a climber first ascends are your legacy. We kept
really pushing and I’m proud and happy to have done it. I really appreciate
that the film says what I wanted to say and it’s going to outlive me. For me
the film has been something I’ m 
incredibly happy about.

Aguilar: Chai, while watching the footage were you
shocked at the lengths these men will go to achieve their dream?


Chai Vasarhelyi:
It
was actually a little different because I only got involved after they had finished
the climb, so I knew the outcome. But I definitely found the lengths to which they went to
achieve this very moving. What I also found very moving was the act of friendship that allows them to bring
Ranan back on the second climb and how it shows that the objective was not
necessarily the summit, it was more important for them to remain a team and to
honor that friendship and teamwork. I though that with the right structural work and emotional work this
could really fulfill Jimmy’s vision of what he wanted the film to say and could
help this film reach a wider audience beyond the core audience.

Aguilar: Jimmy, tell me about Conrad and how important has his mentoring been for you and for the film. From what we see in “Meru,” he seems like an amazing character.

Jimmy Chin: Conrad
is an incredibly humble and generous soul. He also happens to be one of the
great climbers of our time and one of the most prolific climbers of our time. I
really do owe my career to Conrad. He took me under his wing and believed in
me. I’ve always wanted to share this. Part of what I wanted to show is what
an incredible person Conrad is. I’ve spent ten years worth of expeditions with
him. When you spend that much time with somebody in those kind of circumstances
and you come out of it thinking that person is more incredible than when you first met
them, that says a lot because during that time you see every side of that person. Hopefully the film shows what kind of character Conrad is. I didn’t make him out to
be more than he is. It’s incredibly meaningful to me that Conrad likes the film
[Laughs].

Aguilar: Are there any
mountains out there you still hope to climb someday?

Jimmy Chin: There
are a few out there, but we also have a daughter. My world isn’t just consumed
by climbing. Making films and the creative aspects of life are very gratifying for
me as well. There are some film projects in development that we are thinking about
right now.

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