“If you’re going to make a film, it should be about something that is incredibly meaningful to you.“
If you enjoyed my conversations with adventure athletes Alex Honnold (RRP 351), Conrad Anker (RRP 170), Hilaree Nelson (RRP 364) and Colin O’Brady (RRP 207 & 235), then you are going to flip for today’s episode with Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin — the dynamic and talented filmmaking duo behind the stunning new documentary Free Solo — a beautiful cinematic celebration of human possibility.
A graduate of Princeton University hailing from New York City, Chai is an award-winning film director and producer with Hungarian, Chinese, and Brazilian roots who cut her filmmaking teeth under the legendary Mike Nichols. Her first film, A Normal Life, won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003. Her second film, Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, was released in theaters in the US and internationally. The film won numerous awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Middle East International Film Festival in 2008 and a nomination for the Pare Lorentz Award at the 2009 International Documentary Association Awards.
An award-winning cinematographer and director in his own right, Chai’s husband and creative partner Jimmy is also a professional climber, skier, mountaineer, 18-year member of The North Face Athlete Team and National Geographic Explorer. Over the past 20 years, he has led or participated in cutting-edge climbing and ski mountaineering expeditions to all seven continents and made the first and only American ski descent from the summit of Mount Everest. Known for his ability to capture the authentic in some of the world’s most high-risk environments, Jimmy has worked with many of the greatest explorers, adventurers and athletes of our time, documenting their exploits in the most challenging conditions and locations in the world. He has garnered numerous awards shooting on assignment for publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and Outside Magazine, and has directed commercial work for a wide range of clients, including Apple, Chase, Pirelli and The North Face.
Jimmy’s technical acumen matched with Chai’s storytelling superpowers have created two of the most compelling documentary masterpieces in recent memory. The highest grossing independent documentary of 2015, Meru won the Sundance Audience Award, made the Oscars shortlist and was lauded by Variety as one of the best sports documentaries of its type in recent memory.
Their latest collaboration, and the primary focus of today’s conversation, is Free Solo – a riveting, intimate, unflinching, edge-of-your-seat, sweaty-palm-inducing thrill ride portrait of Alex Honnold as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: a death defying quest to free solo the world’s most famous rock – the 3,200 face of El Capitan in Yosemite — without a rope.
It’s an accomplishment the NYT called “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind ever.”
I concur — and cannot recommend this masterful film more highly.
But there is so much more to Jimmy and Chai’s collaborative partnership — and the story behind Free Solo — than meets the eye.
This is a conversation about about the power of story to inspire. To open people’s eyes to human possibility.
We discuss the cross-pollination of Jimmy and Chai’s talents — how Chai’s strong background in serious nonfiction documentary work matched with Jimmy’s cinematic eye and 20 years of climbing expertise creates the perfect storm for adventure filmmaking that emotionally connects with a broad audience
We talk about the purity, beauty and treachery of free solo climbing.
We dive into the importance of trust, as well as the very serious ethical questions posed in making a film where the very real possibility always looms that their friend and the film’s protagonist could very well die.
We explore the unique genius that is Alex Honnold. The diligence and attention to detail that he brings to his craft. His talent and drive. And the rigor and intentionality that he brings to his life. It’s a combination that captivates. Celebrates the human spirit. And reminds us that anything is truly possible.
In addition, I urge you to check out the YouTube edition of this episode HERE, which features the full conversation supplemented with amazing clips from the movie itself.
It’s a great honor to meet and converse with Chai and Jimmy. I sincerely hope you enjoy this exchange as much as I enjoyed having it.
Peace + Plants,
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Thanks to this week’s sponsors
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Note: One of the best ways to support the podcast is to support the sponsors. For a complete list of all RRP sponsors and their respective vanity url’s and discount codes, visit my Resources page and click “Sponsors”.
Background, Context & Reference
- Connect with Chai: Instagram | IMDb
- Connect with Jimmy: Website | Instagram | Twitter | IMDb
- National Geographic: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- The North Face: Athletes | Jimmy Chin
- Follow Alex Honnold: Website | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube
- Documentary: Meru*
- NY Times: Review: In ‘Free Solo,’ Braving El Capitan With Only Fingers and Toes
- NY Times: Alex Honnold, a Soul Freed in ‘Free Solo’
- NY Times: What if He Falls?
- NY Times: The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold
- Outside: Free Solo’s Director Doesn’t Give a F**k About Climbing
- Outside: Eight Adventurers Who Changed Our World
- Outside: The High-Performance Secrets Inside Athletes’ Guts
- Outside: Gear: One Minute With Jimmy Chin (VIDEO)
- National Geographic: Alex Honnold Isn’t Fearless – He Just Accepts Death
- National Geographic: Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever
- GQ: Rock God: How Alex Honnold Climbed El Capitan
- MPR News: How to make a movie where your friend might die: Jimmy Chin on ‘Free Solo’
- NonFiction Unlimited: National Geographic | Free Solo with Directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
- Fstoppers: The Razor-Thin Line Between Triumph and Death: Jimmy Chin Discusses Shooting ‘Free Solo’
- The North Face: Alex Honnold – El Sendero Luminoso [VIDEO]
- Rock And Ice: Jimmy Chin: What I’ve Learned
- Studio Daily: Free Solo Co-Director and DP Jimmy Chin on the Risks and Rewards of Action Cinematography
- Nautilus: The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber
- Outdoor Photographer: Life On The Edge With Jimmy Chin
- Deadspin: The Antarctic Expedition That Included Alex Honnold Sounds Frigid And Terrifying
- Guardian: The edge of reason: the world’s boldest climb and the man who conquered it
- Support: Honnold Foundation: Supporting solar energy for a more equitable world
- YouTube: Jimmy Chin: The Deeper Meaning of Climbing | The Atlantic
- Book: Alone On The Wall* by Alex Honnold
- Documentary: Valley Uprising*
Notable People Discussed
- Alex Honnold: professional free solo rock climber (Free Solo the Movie) & podcast guest
- Sanni McCandless: life and transition coach, Alex Honnold’s girlfriend in Free Solo the Movie
- Colin O’Brady: pro endurance athlete, mountain climber, adventurer, professional speaker. Two-time world record holder for the Explorers Grand Slam and Seven Summits speed records and (2x) podcast guest
- Conrad Anker: rock climber, mountaineer, author and podcast guest
- Brogan Graham: former collegiate rower, coach, November Project co-founder and podcast guest
- Bryan Fogel: Academy Award-winning American film director (ICARUS), producer, author, playwright and podcast guest
- Peter Croft: Yosemite National Park, Squamish, British Columbia as well as the High Sierra rock climber and mountaineer
- Deane Potter: was an American free climber, alpinist, Base jumper, BASEliner, and highliner. Potter died in a wingsuit flying accident in Yosemite National Park
- John Krakauer: writer and mountaineer, primarily known for his writings about the outdoors, especially mountain climbing
- Clair Popkin: NYC Based CInematographer and Camera operater
- Mike Nichols: was an American film (Closer*) and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian
Related Podcasts You Might
- RRP #351: Alex Honnold: The Free Soul Of Free Solo Climbing On Fear, Risk, Mindset & What It Means To Be Truly Alive
- RRP #170: Climber Conrad Anker On Suffering, Risk, Reward & The Allure Of Meru
- RRP #366: In Search Of Mastery With Dr. Michael Gervais: How To Develop A High Performance Mindset
- RRP #364: Hilaree Nelson On The Virtues Of Living An Adventurous Life
- RRP #235: Colin O’Brady Shatters The Explorers Grand Slam World Record: Ruminations On Risk, Limits, Fear & Giving Back
- RRP #307: Big Mountain Skier Lynsey Dyer On Sport As Art
Thanks to Jason Camiolo for production, audio engineering, interstitial music and show notes; Margo Lubin and Blake Curtis for video, editing and graphics. Portraits by Reece Robinson. Theme music by Ana Leimma.
*Disclosure: Books and products denoted with an asterisk are hyperlinked to an affiliate program. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
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