Shelby Stanger: The following show is about making art as a couple, persevering, and so much more. If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you might remember late last summer, when I interviewed Alex Honnold. If you haven’t heard of Alex, he’s one of the best free solo climbers ever. In June of 2017, he climbed about three thousand feet in just under four hours to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite and he free soloed it. Meaning, he did it without any ropes. Here’s a little bit of our conversation from last year. It’s important because next we’re talking to the people who filmed Alex’s amazing accomplishment, which has been nominated for a huge award.
Shelby: I think about you free soloing El Capitan. It’s an idea, I think I heard you say, you had since 2009?
Shelby: It’s a long time to stick with a goal.
Alex Honnold: It wasn’t a goal. It was more like a simmering back-burner goal. It was only a goal for the last year or two.
Shelby: A two year goal–
Alex: An eight year dream is still a big thing, right? For sure.
Shelby: Yes. How did you stay focused? What are some of the things you did to stay focused?
Alex: I wasn’t focused on El Cap. It was always, for the first six years or so, it was more like, “Oh, I’ll do that next year.” Then I’d show up in Yosemite and look at the wall and be like, “Hell no. I’m not doing that this year. It’s way too scary.”
Shelby: You actually had that– Okay, that’s good.
Alex: Yes, of course. Otherwise I would’ve done it in 2009. Had I tried it in 2009, there’s a 75% chance I would’ve done it, but I wasn’t really comfortable with that 25% that I didn’t. Yes, it always looked scary because it wasn’t that certain because there was a pretty good chance that I might fall off and die. I obviously wasn’t willing to take that chance.
Shelby: That climb was a huge accomplishment and conveying it on the big screen, an amazing feat. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, two accomplished documentary filmmakers, turned Alex’s climb into a powerful, terrifying, and beautiful documentary called Free Solo, which was recently nominated for Best Documentary at the 2019 Academy Awards. Here’s just a quick taste of the film before we hear from Chai and Jimmy. In this clip, you’ll hear Alex, his girlfriend Sanni, one of the best all-around climbers in the world Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin himself and Alex’s mom. Here’s the trailer.
Jimmy: Does it feel different to be up there without a rope?
Alex: It’s obviously much higher consequence.
Tommy: People who know a little bit about climbing they’re like, “He’s totally safe,” and then people who really know exactly what he’s doing, are freaked out.
Alex: I thought about El Cap for years, and every year I’m like, “That’s really scary.” I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort. El Cap is the most impressive wall on Earth.
Tommy: It’s 3,200 feet of sheer granite. It’s the center of the rock-climbing universe.
Alex: Obviously, I get interview questions about it all the time, “Oh, would you like to do that?” You’re like, “Yes, for sure.”
Jimmy: You have a girlfriend now, I heard.
Alex: It’s awesome. It pretty much makes life better in every way.
Sanni: It’s really hard for me to grasp why he wants this, but if he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.
Alex: Everybody who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now.
Alex: I haven’t been injured in seven years. Suddenly, I start getting injured all the time.
Sanni: What if something happens? What if I don’t see him again?
Alex: I could just walk away, but it’s like, “I don’t want to.”
Jimmy: I’ve always been conflicted about shooting a film about free soloing just because it’s so dangerous. It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death. No mistakes tomorrow.
Alex: I’m starting to become siked.
Jimmy: If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge.
Tommy: I can’t believe you guys are actually going to watch.
Crew Member: Jimmy, do you copy? He just started climbing.
Shelby Stanger: I’m Shelby Stanger, and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living. This movie took my breathe away. As an adventurer, creator, and athlete, I was incredibly inspired by seeing someone at the top of their game pursing one of the wildest ideas out there. I had such a great time talking with Alex that I wanted to talk to the creators of the film, Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, who happened to be married to each other. Besides the fact that I really admired their work, I was curious what it would be like to make something of that scale with your loved one? Making this film a film about risk, about love and accomplishing something so great had to be incredibly difficult. Doing it with your significant other, had to come with its own set of challenges. I was lucky to catch Jimmy and Chai when they were in town, in Los Angeles for a big award show. We started our conversation from the beginning of their relationship. I’m just curious, this podcast is close to Valentine’s Day, and I’m wondering how you two met.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: You’re so good at telling that story.
Jimmy Chin: Oh really?
Jimmy: We were at a conference where I was giving a talk and I saw Chai outside of the venue. It was probably 15 minutes beforehand, so I was just chatting her up. We were hanging out and I invited her to come to the talk. She politely declined, said, “No. Not really that interested.” [crosstalk] Then I had to go on and give a talk. It turns out she did go see the talk and was clearly very, very impressed. [laughs]
Chai: Blown away, in fact. What happened was that Jimmy was giving a talk about Meru, this incredible climb that he did with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. It’s essentially a story about failure and then succeed– like in returning to something and succeeding. I was there at the conference with one of my best friends from childhood who’s professor at Harvard studying social justice, but she was writing a book about failure. I was like, “You got to meet this guy, he’s got this amazing failure story.” Then Jimmy hung out with us all weekend and we became friends.
Shelby: What attracted you to each other? Jimmy, I’m curious, what about Chai? I’m sure there were lots of girls who were like, “He’s a photographer.” When I was in my 20s’ all you had to say was, you’re a professional surfer, a photographer, a boat captain. [chuckles] I gave you a little bit more of an in.
Jimmy: It was probably the fact that she wasn’t at all interested.
Shelby: It’s awesome.
Jimmy: [chuckles] Just kidding. Actually the first thing that made me perk up was her sense of humor. It was very dry, very cutting, very smart. Within the first five minutes of hanging out with her, that evening that I met her, she made a couple of comments that had me like dying inside, because they were really spot on but really sharp. They gave me a sense of her humor, but also her intellect and her insight into the world around her.
Her observation of the world and her, I guess, perspective, which I thought was really pretty incredible. That was probably the first thing that I noticed about Chai. Then I brought a rough cut of Meru to her. I knew that she was a documentary filmmaker, a serious documentary filmmaker. I wanted her to take a look at the film. Over the course of corresponding over the film, we got to know each other. I met with her in New York, and yes, things moved from there.
Shelby: What year was this? About when you guys first met?
Jimmy: This is 2011.
Shelby: It sounds like you guys came from somewhere similar backgrounds, or maybe it’s because I heard it on Rich Roll Podcast that you both said you had “tiger parents”. What does that mean?
Chai: I had really never dated someone else who is Asian-American. We had similar memories. My mother is Chinese and our parents had similar values. I think we also, maybe similarly rebelled against them, [chuckles] but also brought- like learned those lessons that were important, in terms of discipline and excellent and determination. The joke is I think Jimmy can handle my mother better than I can. He’s very experienced with elder Chinese women.
Jimmy: [chuckles] That sounds funny.
Shelby: They love you, I’m sure. I think it’s really interesting. When I interviewed Alex, he talked about how one of his parents was a professor. I read that your parents– hopefully, I read this right, I don’t know. Your parents were professors. “My parents are professors, my fiancé’s parents are professors.” Did that shape you in any way?
Chai: I think, of course. I think you always know– My father is a professor. My mother worked in the finance side of big nonprofits, including universities. Jimmy’s parents were librarians at the University of Minnesota, Mankato. I just think you grow up– There is always this joke, is like you know a professor’s kid. I’m sure there are many other people who have similar traits. I grew up in this wonderful environment of learning and ideas. The strongest memories I have are grad students from all over the place at our house.
Jimmy: Yes. That’s very similar to mine, where there’s always a lot of students at the house. They would throw these social gatherings and all the students would come over and hang out. Then I would spend a lot of time running around the university and hanging out in the library actually.
Shelby: That’s great. Probably just sparked this huge curiosity and desire to always learn. I don’t know. I think from that I also learned how to be resourceful, and you guys seem very resourceful.
Chai: I think it also just that it shows, growing up in that environment you understand that the world is very big out there, because universities are these places where people from all over the world come. I think that will stay with you and it will make you more curious.
Shelby: Chai and Jimmy are some of the most creative, thoughtful and disciplined people I’ve met, and this definitely comes through in Free Solo. It probably also helped that they work together before. Chai mentioned Meru earlier, it’s a film that Jimmy started creating about his 2008 summit of Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. Chai joined the filmmaking team later. I’ll let her explain. Free Solo wasn’t your first project that you worked on together.
Chai: We directed Meru together, but I came in later. It was different. We were falling in love and it was urgent to me to help Jimmy best express this incredible and inspiring personal story about friendship and obsession. Also the footage was– I just remember when I first saw this collection of footage, this rough cut they had put together and it expressed all of the most powerful parts of who Jimmy is.
Be it this amazing connection to the outdoors, the earth, or this discipline, this camaraderie, this loyalty to his friends, loyalty to his family, and a guy who’s clearly very, very good at what he does in imagery. Meru was different and it was a really special journey for both of us. Free Solo is special in a different way because we started it together. It’s a good example of the marriage of our talents, no pun intended, where there’s no one who can bring a more intimate, insightful look or gaze to the climbing world.
As well as Jimmy’s the best guy to direct the stuff in the vertical space. Also in terms of he understands climbing from inside too, whereas for me I am an outsider and was interested in different types of questions. The sheer magnitude of the production, be it they were on the wall like hours and hours and hours a day. We were also interested in this intimate side of Alex and also his family, his background, where he’s going personally, we needed both of us.
Shelby: I’d love for you guys to dive deeper into what your exact roles were on Free Solo, and how they complemented each other.
Jimmy: Let’s see. There’s so many facets to every film. We are very interested in making a film that has a lot of emotional depth, but also we wanted excellence in all levels of the craft. Visually, the storytelling, the narrative, the editing, everything else. We bring a few different things to the table. I think Chai already mentioned that she is more of an outsider. She can be a lot more objective to the story, and while I’m an insider I can bring a lot of the nuance and understanding of the culture and the spirit of Alex’s endeavors.
Those two played off each other very well because I think you need both to tell a full story. That’s one of the ways we function is that we balance this internal gaze and external gaze at the story. Then, of course, there is the logistical aspects of filming it and shooting it and how we wanted to do that. How do you manage, produce, direct on a big wall in Yosemite, or in some of the other locations like Morocco? Putting together the right teams and what kind of people you needed. Understanding what kind of space that Alex needed which was really important in this film. Since I’m a professional climber and have been for almost 20 years, and the crew that I picked were all professional climbers. We understand in a very deep way how best to handle, not just the logistics but also how to handle Alex’s expectations and making sure that we preserved his experience as a climber. Wanted to have the space for him to still be true to himself in his motivations when there’s a big movie production hanging over it. That was really important.
Chai: I think also it’s sometimes elucid that people don’t quite understand that, we took this feature length nonfiction filmmaking model and brought it to the mountain. Our producers came from the documentary feature side, our editor comes from the documentary feature side. Our entire post-production crew comes from that side. Then applied it to your journey that Alex went on where the high angle team had to evolve– We all had to learn to meet in the middle, basically. We were all interested in different things which also made it more complex. It was a constant negotiation where it was weighing the needs of each side of the film.
Shelby: Is there an example or scene in the film where you guys really had to work together to achieve it? First off, you did an awesome job explaining climbing in something that’s pretty impossible to comprehend to everybody. Climbers and non-climbers, what you did is terrifying. Is there anything where you guys had to negotiate to make it come out the way you wanted it to?
Chai: I think that a good example is, this idea of preserving the experience of Alex, preserving Alex’s experience. Which I didn’t fully understand and then Jimmy explained it to me, was that protecting Alex’s experience of the climb itself. He should still enjoy, and feel, and live his Free Solo of El Cap the way he would live it if we were not there. To a non-climber this is– the way you want to say it is like, “Preserve Alex’s experience of the climb,” and to a non-climber we’re like, “He’s climbing.” [chuckles]
It was a avery elusive idea and it was something that Jimmy said was very important, so we put it in. We lived with it for a while and then we took it out. The film– that’s just the way docs work. You keep on working with them till you try to refine, refine, refine. I knew it was really important to Jimmy, and I knew that meant that it was really important that we include it. Like it’s something honest that I may not have a direct attachment to, but if he says it’s important, it’s important. It was always a thing in the back of my mind. Then finally whereas the film was basically almost finished, we were able to put it in a way that it really works.
Shelby: What’s the way that you are talking about? I’m a little lost on this.
Jimmy: Well, when you’re on a production and you climb for the love of climbing, and there’s all these people around you trying to film. It’s very disruptive, it’s a very distracting. It can feel like an obligation, it can feel like work. For Alex to Free Solo El Cap, this was such a monumental achievement. The idea that we were going to take that experience away from him and make it feel like work, was in my mind unacceptable, because I know how precious it is to get to that point.
I’ve always prided myself in filming in a way that wasn’t disruptive. Like I pride myself in shooting in a way that where I don’t have to stop people and disrupt their flow and their experience. That’s not always the case by any means. Sometimes you just have to ask and be like, “Hey, can you give me five minutes. I’m going to get up ahead and I’m going to get the shot.” That happens.
In a perfect world, if I could execute perfectly, people wouldn’t even know that I’m filming and they were just going to have their experience. That’s important because I know what it feels like to do something that I love, and then have like a totally unprofessional crew that’s a little loose and disorganized. You’re standing around and it’s actually really not a very positive experience. To execute a perfect production, I didn’t want Alex to have a negative experience, especially on this solo that he’s dreaming about for 10 years.
Shelby: That meant you had lots of rules in place.
Shelby: Like we weren’t allowed to talk about–
Jimmy: Guidelines. Yes.
Shelby: Guys had to be dialed. You referred to it as–
Jimmy: Yes, that’s right. The crew was so badass.
Shelby: Can you share some of those techniques, because I love some of the things you did to make that happen.
Jimmy: If you’re a professional climber and you’re working with a film crew, when you have to wait around because: they’re not efficient, they’re not knowledgeable, they’re a liability and they’re dangerous up there. Those are all the things where if you’re a professional climber and you work with a crew, you’re hyperconscious of their capacity to move around on the wall, and all these different things. Just their skills as climbers, it becomes very apparent, you can’t hide that stuff.
This team was hyper-efficient. They were all world-class climbers, and they were all professional climbers as well, so they’re all very sensitive to the needs of the subject. We really wanted to be sensitive to the needs of Alex because the stakes were very high on all kinds of levels; personal, physical, spiritual in a way. Even if we weren’t perfect all the time, Alex knew the efforts that we were going through, and we were really, really tight production on that wall in order to make this happen.
I think he was very conscious of that because you can work– Tommy said that too. When Tommy was like, “This is the tightest production I’ve ever been on.” We wanted to be super dialed. I also think that’s professionalism, and I think Chai comes from a real nonfiction serious filmmaking background. She also brought that expectation to our production in a different way, and so I think everybody raises their game to be the best that they could be on this shoot.
Shelby: It was really clear that they did preserve Alex’s experience. In our conversation last year, in addition to saying he occasionally would say hi to Jimmy while he was on the wall. Alex also said that he had space to think about, not only what was coming up next in his climb, but he also had time to think about the magnitude of his goal and all the people who helped him get there.
Shelby: How long did it take you to get to the top?
Alex: El Cap was 3:56, so it was like almost four hours.
Shelby: That’s a good chunk of time to be without a rope [chuckles]. Was there anything you remember you thought about, or are you just 100% focused?
Alex: No, there’s all kinds of stuff. On the easy terrain, I was thinking about a lot of stuff. On the most difficult sections of the route, I was 100% focused. Empty-blank mind just performing. So much of the climbing on El Cap is five, nine hand cracks, really technically easy climbing. I was always thinking about anything. Low on the route, I’m thinking more about what’s to come or what’s happening. You’re thinking about the whole experience ahead.
I had a wave in the middle where I was– I don’t know why, but I was overcome with gratitude for all that. It’s like a powerful experience, so I was thinking about all the different partners that I’d worked with on the route. Then up high, I had a few pitches where I was just thinking like, “I am the man. I’m crushing this. This is so amazing, I feel terrific.” Then just as quickly, being like, “Relax, deep breaths, you are not the man, you have to finish.” It’s really easy to be like, “I’m killing, I’m so good,” and then your foot slips and you’re like, “I’m dead.” Yes, it was awesome. It was a really good experience.
Shelby: There’s things that you did. Besides having an excellent crew and being so well trained, you didn’t ask him when he was going to climb.
Jimmy: Yes, there were guidelines. Part of the production guidelines was that we also never wanted to put undue pressure on Alex. That meant that like external pressure, the pressures of the production, we shielded him from all of the pressures that you feel as a director and a producer that has to make a film and deliver something.
Shelby: Just Alex was never supposed to be aware of any of the external production pressures: be it financing, be it press releases, be it the 15 people that were on the ground in Yosemite. You just tried to insulate him. I guess the real point would be also insulating him from our own feelings that were complicated about the risks involved, and that were a constant conversation.
Shelby: Yes, working on this production, especially where someone’s life is on the line, your friend, it sounds incredibly stressful. On top of that, you’re working together. How did you guys navigate the stress that could have affected your relationship?
Chai: It’s certainly tough living– We’re very ambitious in being directing partners, as well as a married couple. I believe, in this case, it really empowered us because I trust Jimmy absolutely in his decision making about: what is important on that wall, and how to manage our crew, and how to assess the risks involved. I believe that he trusts me in terms of what I think is important to try to capture, otherwise where the emphasis needs to be. Even the moments that I’m like, “It’s actually critical that we film this on the wall.” It makes it a very productive conversation, not necessarily a conflict because we have that trust.
Jimmy: Yes, there wasn’t really any issues, I don’t think, around how we work as directors so much. There’s some push and pull for sure, I guess, where we’re questioning just to understand something. I don’t ever doubt what level of excellence she wants to bring to the production. I definitely trust her instincts on the narrative and how that’s going to play out. What people are going to get, and what people aren’t going to get? What we need in terms of the story, or in terms of something around climbing, where I’m like, “Well, people will understand that, right?” She’ll be like, “No.” I’ll be like, “Okay.”
Shelby: What was an example where you had to come in and explain climbing a little bit better.
Chai: In Meru people started asking us what did we learn in Meru and bring to Free Solo. We learned in Meru that actually you don’t have to explain very much. That also means that you lose some very precise concepts, so you don’t have to explain very much because it’s not that important to the story. If it reveals something about your character or pushes the action forward, great, but the details of how to climb- we were like it’s really important that you understand the three hardest parts. That you understand what differentiates them, but particular moves, there’s only one move that we really had to express and explain.
Shelby: Yes, and you’ve got to go see the movie to talk about that move because I would give it away right now.
Jimmy: Yes, but it’s also, we learned that you could allude to things and people would get it. I had a lot of hangups on Meru because I would be like, “Oh, but they have to understand that this is why.” Normally, it didn’t matter because people understood it on a visceral level, but then, in some moments it’s very helpful like in the boulder problem. Explaining that move alone expresses so many things across the entire climb, so you just have to find these moments and choose your moments where you really dive in.
Shelby: Here’s another clip from the movie about the infamous boulder problem.
Alex: The boulder problem has a 10 foot section that’s incredibly difficult. It’s a very intricate sequence. You’ve got your right hand on a crimp, left hand on a side pull and then you put your right foot onto this dimple thing. Right hand goes up to a small down pulling crimp, left foot goes into a little dish and then you drive up off the left foot into the thumb press. That’s the worst hold on the entire route, so you get maybe half your thumb on the hold.
You roll your two fingers over the thumb, switch your feet, left foot stems out to this really bad sloping black foothold. Switch your thumbs and then reach out left to a big sloping bread loaf type hold that feels grainy. From there, either karate kick or double dyno to an edge on the opposite wall. In some ways, it makes more sense to do the dig, two-handed jump because you’re jumping to a good edge, so there’s actually something to catch. The idea of jumping without a rope seems completely outrageous. If you miss it, that’s that.
Shelby: I learned so much about climbing through that movie. I mean, I’ve only gone to the gym a couple of times and climbed outside, but I think that’s what was so great about your movie. You guys did such a good job. You also inserted some scenes that made it really funny. Whose decision was it to keep the guy in the uniform in the mountain?
Chai: Well, that wasn’t a decision. There was absolutely clear, it always had to stay in. There was really no question. It doesn’t get any better where Alex, who is a unicorn is attempting the unicorn endeavor and suddenly there’s a lavender unicorn on the mountain with him.
Shelby: I’m going to interrupt just so you know we’re talking about this unicorn. Alex starting his climb up El Cap and there’s a guy sleeping on a portal ledge. He wakes him up and he’s dressed literally in a unicorn suit. It was one of the most magical moments in the place where unicorns should come from, which is Yosemite Valley, like the most beautiful place on earth.
Jimmy: I jokingly call Yosemite the unicorn mating grounds. The fact that there was a unicorn on the climb, right in the middle of the climb was amazing.
Chai: We should have probably titled the film The Unicorn-
Chai: -but that wouldn’t apply really. One, in terms of the boulder problem, we were very careful where we put it, like where we put these explanations in the film. By the time you get to the boulder problem, a person who doesn’t understand climbing can be involved. Another example is the word “Pitch”. Like what is a pitch? [chuckles] It’s very clear to climbers what a pitch is. The non-climbers can guess, it’s like a pitch but they think of pitch like the slope. We never explained it. It’s fine. People talk about it, you get it.
Shelby: I learned what a pitch was in that film. Thank you.
Chai: You got it.
Shelby: When we come back, Jimmy and Chai talk about working with each other and how having their two young kids around the crew in Yosemite affected the mood, plus what they do for fun when they’re not filming and what project they’re working on next. First, a word from our sponsor.
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Shelby: It wasn’t just the stress of their friend attempting this massively risky feat that Jimmy and Chai had to deal with, but they had two small children of their own. Plus Alex was also starting a relationship. You seem like you have pretty Zen personalities. You’re a little different than a lot of Hollywood producers and directors. I could tell you have some fire in you too. I’ve really enjoyed the times when my partner has worked with me on a project or edited a podcast, but we also can’t really work together because I would try to order him around and it just wouldn’t work. I’m just curious, if you could dive just a little deeper into how you guys work together so well. There’s a lot of respect, I can tell, between you two.
Chai: Well, you should add like the other complexity-
Shelby: And kids.
Chai: –is that we have two children. We had our first child during the making of Meru. We had our second child right at the beginning of production of Free Solo. Our kids are small, and so it was really important to both of us that they’re on location with us. That’s hard. It’s hard as a parent because you have these really long production days and you’re away from them.
Shelby: How did you do that in Yosemite?
Chai: It was a priority. The kids came and we rented a house.
Shelby: You rented a house, okay.
Chai: Alex’s uncle Alex to both of them. It was kind of a family affair. The idea that one of our children is around the production meeting is fine for us. It had to be that way because we’re married, because we’re parents, because we’re working together.
Shelby: Probably there’s also softened conversations if there’s a child around.
Chai: It certainly did-
Chai: –and added some element of joviality to it.
Jimmy: The crew, all these burly camera guys, those are all of the people that Marina grew up with and running around with. It’s really cool for us to be with our crew and having them see the kids growing up. It was really a big family affair, which what’s made it really special.
Chai: Also, Tommy and Becca’s children, Caldwell, are exactly our kids age. That was super fun like going to trick or treating in Yosemite at the rangers office as a family. There were some incredibly memorable moments. I think also it partly factored into why it was almost the right time. We understood that we could bring our kids to Yosemite. This was something that we could do together. We could stay together as a family. There’s always a little bit of that too.
Shelby: When I talked to Alex last year, he told me how he met his girlfriend Sanni and she sounded like a total badass. Here’s a clip from our conversation last year. How did you guys meet?
Alex: Basically, I was on a book tour. Well, from her side, she’d been hit and bumble pretty hard and was over it. She had made a decision that from now on, she was like over the online deal and she was just going to– The next cute guy she saw, she was just giving her number and was keeping it old fashioned. Keeping it real. She wasn’t really a climber. She climbed a tinsy bit, but wasn’t into it. One of her friends who was a climber brought her to this book event. He was like, “Cool. There’s this thing going on. Come tag along.” She came and was like, “That guy’s cute,” so she’s like, “Give me your number.”
Shelby She waited in line to get the book signed and then–
Alex: Yes. Yes. There was like 200 people on line. I signed like a million books.
Shelby: How do I say her name? Sanni?
Alex: Yes. It’s short for Cassandra.
Shelby: Sanni you’re my hero.
Alex: Yes. Sanni is a strong proud woman.
Shelby: She just gives you her number on what? A piece of paper? A bookmark?
Alex: Yes. Just a little piece– It said something like, “Because you made me laugh.” Something else. Sanni with her phone number.
Shelby: I was curious about how Sanni was going to be portrayed in the film. I was surprised at how much I felt for what she must’ve been going through. I knew that Jimmy and Chai must have been incredibly thoughtful about how much of a role she was going to play in the film and how they portrayed her character. Plus, as good friends of Alex, they would have had some insight as to what he was like in a relationship. I love there is a love story within the film. I thought Sanni’s character was so interesting and fascinating.
I know a little bit more about what she does now outside of the film. I thought you really described her character well. It was complicated. Then there was a guy behind me in the theatre who’s like, “That girl’s annoying.” I Literally wanted to turn around and slap them because I could feel what she was feeling. I mean her love of her life is about to put his life on the line. It was a nine year dream or something for Alex. They’d only been in the relationship six months. Did you give her relationship advice or how did you–
Chai: I think that Sanni’s character has a lot. The space and thought that we’ve put in to how important Sanni was to the film, has a lot to do with Jimmy and my relationship. It’s true. It’s just that I can deeply empathize with Sanni’s situation. We began making this film when Alex was online dating.
Shelby: [laughs] He’s a funny guy.
Chai: It’s funny. Yes. How do you explain what you do for a living? Can you come home to my van? Then he met Sanni. Sanni is from the nonfiction gods in some way. Here was this emotionally intelligent woman who is self confident enough to say, “This makes me uncomfortable, but I’m going to try to love you anyway. I do love you anyway.” That was a revelation for Alex, and you see him evolve emotionally in the film, which without her, he’d be only reacting to the crew.
There would be no one else that could respond to him the way you and I probably are responding to him in the movie, being that this seems so form what we’re trying to get inside of it. We respect his drive but it makes us feel complicated. There are a lot of different levels to the film I think because of Sanni. She brings out a certain side of Alex’s character. It was really important to represent the female perspective in a more nuanced and complex way because that’s more accurate.
Shelby: When I interviewed Alex, he told me they met because she gave him her number at a book signing. I think that’s badass. I completely respect a woman who does that. Alex is so quirky but incredibly focused and just relentlessly disciplined and unwavering in his decisions and focus in life. I know just the short time I was around him, I was really inspired in a way that I haven’t felt except for around one other athlete. That’s being around Bethany Hamilton. I felt different after being around her. I felt really- just in that short time I was with Alex, I felt different. How did being around that energy of someone who’s done the impossible affect you both?
Chai: I mean it gets back to why we wanted to make the movie to begin with, which was incredibly inspiring. Alex actually makes you want to be a better person, in mundane ways as well as in big ways. He makes you want to think about how you live your life. Consider this idea of a life of intention. Understand that time is ephemeral. He also makes you not want to use any plastic at all, and think very carefully about why you’re eating meat. Do we really need to take a car? All these things. It’s just who he is. We hope that audiences feel it the way we do.
Jimmy: Well, I have known Alex for quite some time. When I first met Alex, he’s come a very long way. Socially, he was always a little bit awkward. Sometimes we’d say, “Alex, if you like that girl, you can’t say things like that.” We’d be like, “We know you understand what the word tact means? You know what that means? Now like apply it to what you’re saying.” I think that I’ve been surrounded by a lot of people who are very motivated and very disciplined about what they do. Alex stands out because he applies it more than just to his sports, to his climbing. He applies it in all aspects of his life. Like Chai was saying, his diet and what he uses, and how much he chooses to run or walk somewhere, as supposed to take a car. If he reuses a plastic bottle for six months it’s all nappy and dirty because he believes in reuse. The pants that he solo’s El Cap in, he’s climbed thousands of pitches in that pair of pants.
He also did the first– traversed the Patagonia Mountain range. Those pants that are shredded by the time he solo’s El Cap, he’s sponsored, he can get a pair of pants a day if he want and he sticks with reusing the same pair of pants. It’s hard to ignore that and not make you think about the things that you do on a day-to-day basis. I guess on a bigger level he’s also a disciplined enough to pull something off that seemed impossible.
Shelby: You guys ever going to try to live in a van for a little bit?
Chai: Sure thing. We have a van.
Shelby: You have?
Jimmy: We have a van.
Chai: Yes, we have a van.
Jimmy: Yes. We take the kids on.
Chai: Yes, we can fit everybody.
Shelby: I love it.
Jimmy: We go road-tripping.
Chai: Jimmy is the best camper ever. Those very little I have to do. It’s like being with the single most efficient gracious and also aesthetically super-organized camper ever.
Shelby: It’s like eagle scale.
Chai: It’s awesome. Like beyond. [chuckles]
Jimmy: I lived in a lot of vehicles for a long time. It’s my happy place.
Shelby: That’s great. What’s the best thing that came out of working together on this film impacting your relationship and your family?
Jimmy: We’re very happy with the film how it turned out. That’s been very positive for us, just to know that the respect and trust we have for each other is played out in what we’re able to bring to this film. I think it gave us a lot of confidence moving forward as well, because every time we’ve worked on something together we’ve learned how much more we can trust each other in certain things. We also understand even more the strengths we bring. We have a shorthand and a lot of things that I think will help us move forward in our next projects and we’re very excited about that.
Chai: I think also one thing that has come from these experiences, is this real value of the present and as that applies to everything. Be it the achievements of your work, be it like where we are as a family, how fast time flies with children, how fast they grow up. We’ve lived five very intense years with these two films and two kids, but somehow being able to do that together has been very valuable.
Shelby: Any advice to people who want to make art as a couple and stay married?
Chai: [chuckles] I think you have to do different parts. You’ve got to have different duties. Jimmy and I are directing partners as well as producing partners, but we have different responsibilities within that.
Jimmy: Yes, we come from very different places so that’s I think helpful. It’s never easy having a family, juggling careers, being on the road a lot. It’s constant negotiation. One of the things we’ve also learned is that we used to try to apply certain things saying, “Okay. Well, we have to live this one way because that’s the way I’ve wanted to live. She wants to live this way and that’s how she’s always wanted to live.”
Literally, have to just take it day-by-day and not put this tremendous pressure on the future or what you imagine the future has to be. It is, again, about what she’s saying. You have to just be present and take it one step at a time and trust that everything is going to work out. We’ve been through enough now where we’re like, “Okay, well–” All this pressure we put on each other before wasn’t very useful in terms of how we had our imagined the futures. We’re trying to put our imagined futures on each other, but you just go day-by-day and trust that it’s going to work out.
Shelby: You constantly communicate. I can tell you both are really good communicators to each other, at least it sounds like it. [chuckles]
Chai: One of the real challenge is we end up talking about work more than other things when we really should be talking about other things. It’s super interesting and we’re super engaged.
Jimmy: It’s a whirlwind right now.
Chai: Yes, it’s a whirlwind.
Jimmy: There’s so much happening and what we’re hoping to do in the future, I do think that we both have similar ambitions. I think we both have a fairly good view on what we can bring to the table so we’re excited. There’s certain things that we don’t have to talk about because they’re understood. We know where we want to go with our work, and what we’d love to do, and what’s exciting to us, and what works. That’s fun.
Shelby: Any other values as a couple that you really try to honor when working together?
Jimmy: The respect thing is probably the biggest because that applies across the board beyond just partners and when you’re working with somebody and– Well, you want to find someone that you respect that you work with.
Chai: We also really align that the work we do has to be meaningful. Has to be meaningful for us, probably has to have, hopefully make the world a little bit better. Certainly it has to be executed with best practices, be it our unemployment policies, like how we treat our crews. The diversity that’s within our crews. In order to leave the house and leave our wonderful children, it has to be meaningful.
Shelby: After talking to Jimmy and Chai so much about the film, the making of it, the impact of the process on their relationship, what they learned, I wanted to know what they do when they’re not filming critically acclaimed documentaries. Tomorrow when people are listening to this will be Valentine’s Day, and taking your date to Free Solo is a great idea, because it’s terrifying, you’re going to want to grab on your partner.
Chai: I think the most important part is that you’re going to want to grab onto your partner really, really tight.
Shelby: Besides taking your partner to Free Solo, what’s a great day that you guys like to do?
Chai: We like to ski and we like to eat many things, or go to the movies, or go to the theater.
Jimmy: Actually, like staying at home and watching a movie together is pretty precious. We go out because we go out so much for work, and when we’re in New York to see our friends, we love– Our social lives as well. When we go out to eat, we like to eat good food and we like to explore that.
Chai: It’s not like fancy food. We like to go find the interesting-
Jimmy: Hole in the wall.
Chai: Hall in the wall Asian food, or eat Korean food–
Shelby: There’s Densen down the street, that’s supposed to be really good. How do you guys do Jackson Hole in New York?
Chai: As best as we can.
Shelby: Do you live in New York and you live in Jackson, or you both just split time in both places?
Chai: We just spend all over the place.
Shelby: You’re just all over the place?
Shelby: That’s a great combination, the city and the mountains. You just need a little house now on the beach– [crosstalk]
Jimmy: I used to have a place. I had a place in Mexico on the beach-
Shelby: There you go.
Jimmy: -Sayulita for 10 years. The tri-factor, ocean, the mountains and the city.
Shelby: That is incredible.
Jimmy: That’s still the tri-factor. I sold the house because I thought it could be more fun for us to travel to different places. We were just down in Costa Rica not that long ago. We like to have some surf time, ocean time, for sure.
Shelby: Making a feature film, the publicity that comes along with it and now all the press in transporting from screenings to award show, I imagine it would be easy to get a little overwhelmed but Jimmy and Chai seem pretty cool calm and collected. I had a feeling that even though they were still in the middle of showing their last project with Alex, they’re probably already thinking of their next big project. What are you excited about? Right now you’re in the middle of this moment in time where for most people this would be as peak as peak gets, and it’s beautiful time.
Chai: It’s interesting like this is my sixth documentary feature film, and most of all six of them I have walked– I’ve been backing myself and being dreading it. Making a doc is like getting married to someone and that’s actually-
Shelby: Or having a baby.
Chai: -what happened to us. We had a real baby at the same time. With Meru, I always used to say like, “It’s church and state. This is not a great idea.” Yes, that was one way we backed into it. Free Solo we were very worried about the risks. Our upcoming film is the first film and we backed into it a little bit, we were worried about the pressure. We were both really excited to dive into the world of Kristine Tompkins and late Doug Tompkins and Evan Shanard. The national parks that they have established in Patagonia and looking at just their remarkable lives that they’ve lived and how they really live with intention. It’s almost an extension and the ideas that we’re interested in Free Solo. They’re so private, they’ve never really shared these stories, but it’s a lot of pressure too. I’m excited to think about those ideas and spend time with these amazing people.
Shelby: I love this concept of living with intention. I think that’s exactly what you pulled off so well, what attracted me most to this film. Any advice to people who want to live more wildly or be more creative with their partner?
Jimmy: I think that if you find the right partner, you doesn’t have to necessarily work professionally, but I mean should be someone that you love to go on adventures with and have fun with and explore the world with and have a good time with.
Shelby: This Valentine’s Day, or this week, or whenever you’re listening to this podcast, I hope you and someone special, whether it’s your significant other, your best friend, a relative, maybe even yourself. I hope that you get out there and do something adventurous, preferably with ropes, in helmet if you go out on a ledge. I also hope that like Jimmy and Chai, you honor each other’s values, embrace each other’s strength and have a little fun when you’re at it.
Also you want to hold each other close tomorrow or have an excuse to grab onto someone tightly. Well, go see Free Solo in a theater near you and tune in to the Academy Awards on February 24th to find out if jimmy and Chai will take on the statue. Thanks again to Chai and Jimmy and to National Geographic for helping put this podcast together, and to the really nice guy in Los Angeles who helped us record this.
This podcast is produced and edited by Annie Fassler, it’s co-produced by Chelsea Davis. It’s supported by REI a brand that helps us get out there and explore on more adventures. Wherever you are in the world. I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day with your loved ones. I hope you’re also giving yourself some extra love, attention, and care. Tune in the week after next for the story of a woman whose accomplished one of the most challenging marathons swims in the world. In the meantime, remember some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
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