How two filmmakers fell in love while making their Sundance-winning documentary
The story of Meru, the film that just a few days ago won Sundance’s “U.S. Documentary Audience Award” is incredible: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, three of the world’s best mountain climbers attempt to climb 21,000 feet to Shark’s Fin peak of Mount Meru, one of Earth’s most impossible climbs. After a failed attempt in 2008, the friends returned in 2011, beat the odds, and achieved the impossible.
The story of this film is the height of inspiring (pun ABSOLUTELY intended) and the story BEHIND the film is equally inspiring for all us hopeless romantics out there. Documentary director and subject Jimmy Chin met E. Chai Vasarhelyi while making this film, and Vasarhelyi eventually became Chin’s co-director and wife.
As Chin tells us:
“Well, basically I met Chai and I found out she was a filmmaker, I was in the midst of recutting and chopping and navigating [Meru] I had all the climbing footage and I had the story and I had some interviews but I was very close to the film. I asked Chai if she would screen the film, she’s a real documentary filmmaker, I was excited, I was like ‘Maybe you can help me,’ and she was not totally warmed up to the idea, but when I shared it I remember she called me up and said ‘What are you doing with this?’ We then met in New York and she became interested in the film and I was obviously excited. I think we started dating before we actually started working on the film”
Vasarhelyi, who had 5 documentary features under her belt prior to meeting Chin, wasn’t about to jump aboard just any project. But she fell in love with Meru:
“I take it very seriously when I screen someone’s film, there’s no point in screening someone’s film unless you’re going to give them very honest feedback. And I also feel you have to get back to people immediately. I was struck by their material, I thought it was stunning, and I thought it was a tantalizing puzzle, they had all the pieces.”
And pretty shortly after falling in love with Meru, Vasarhelyi started falling in love with Chin:
“So we did begin dating and I felt quite strongly that it was church and state between work and love, so I was happy to just take the role of advisor. But as I spent more time with Jimmy and the project, it became clearer what had to be done. I thought I could be helpful as an outsider who didn’t know very much about climbing but was fascinated by the psychological and personal dimensions of the story.”
At this point Chin and Vasarhelyi became co-directors on the film. Now, as husband and wife, and co-parents of both a documentary film and a 15-month old human child, the two are constantly balancing the personal and the professional and at this point are basically experts at conflict resolution.
When asked how they resolve creative disputes, Chin laughed and said “We both butt heads until we knock each other out on the floor.”
Vasarhelyi added “I think it was about explaining process. When I hear feedback from Jimmy, I’m always trying to figure out what that feedback is about, it was important for me to express what was in his heart of hearts, maybe I didn’t understand the reason immediately, but it was important for me to excavate and figure it out.”
So if blind dates and Internet set-ups aren’t working with you, it might be worth getting LITERALLY creative and finding a bunch of partners to artistically collab with. If you’re creating what you love, you could end up meeting the great love of your life. You guys, it happens.