Mankato native Jimmy Chin has scaled some mighty mountains in his career. But the climbing photographer and outdoor filmmaker reached new heights last Sunday with his wife and collaborator, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
Their film, “Free Solo,” which makes its world broadcast premiere Sunday on National Geographic Channel, took home the Academy Award for outstanding documentary feature. They shared the stage with the movie’s star, Alex Honnold, who stunned the climbing world by conquering Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot El Capitan vertical rock formation without ropes.
Chin, a Carleton College graduate, was still on top of the world two nights later, when he called from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Q: You’ve had a couple of days to process. How are you feeling?
A: I mean, I don’t even know. The night was insane. When you start a film, you never imagine you’re going to win an Oscar. There are just so many steps and so many pitfalls during the process. I’ve been on the train before with a film called “Meru” [the film was shortlisted for a 2015 Oscar, but didn’t get nominated]. So you never want to make any assumptions or feel any entitlement. It’s such a fickle thing. It’s a very happy ending.
Q: Any celebrity encounters that were particular memorable?
A: When you’re on the award circuit, you meet a lot of people. Antonio Banderas has seen it four times. Brie Larson has been incredibly supportive. When we walked to the stage Sunday, Bradley Cooper was standing up in the front row. That was surreal.
At the parties, I got to hang out with Taylor Swift and Spike Lee. I could keep name-dropping. The film really connected with a lot of people. Having your peer group talk about the film and ask a lot of questions, that’s the reward. I’m really, really grateful.
Q: And then your friend Jason Momoa (“Aquaman”) handed you the award.
A: He had a choice of what category to present and he picked documentary feature because, he said, “I want to hand it to you guys if you win.” I actually went climbing with Jason this morning. There’s an Instagram shot of him crushing me with one of his bear hugs. He did the same thing backstage, too.
Q: I noticed that you and Chai got bleeped at the start of your acceptance speech, but I couldn’t tell who was the guilty party.
A: That was absolutely me. She would never do that. She’s too composed. I didn’t even remember what I said, but I got a lot of texts afterward. When you get to the mic, the room kind of explodes. I was just overwhelmed. You’re kind of in a fourth dimension, like an out-of-body experience.
Q: When you were at the podium, it seemed you were going to say more. But you realized Chai was on a roll and let her do almost all of the talking. Smart move. Her speech was one of the highlights of the evening.
A: Absolutely. We were both supposed to speak, but we kind of ran out of time. When we were backstage, she turned around and immediately said, “Ohmigod, I’m so sorry.” I was laughing. “It’s totally fine. We won an Oscar. We are going out tonight.”
Q: When you were growing up in Mankato, did you ever dream about winning an Oscar?
A: Not at all. I don’t think we even watched the Oscars. It was so far from our world.
It’s funny. The older I get, the more nostalgic I get for Mankato. A few years ago, I was invited to speak at Minnesota State University and driving in from Minneapolis, passing the signs for Shakopee, Le Sueur, it was so moving. It was the fall and I remember the smell of leaves. It was kind of a visceral reaction. It was so moving. I now live in New York and Jackson Hole, but I miss Mankato, a small town that’s relatively quiet.
Q: What it is about your upbringing that helped prepare you for show business?
A: My general demeanor is definitely shaped by being a Minnesotan. My parents are a huge part of my drive, my ambitions, my attention to work ethic. My first jobs were a paper route and corn detasseling in the hot summer with jeans on. A lot of times, I’ll meet someone that I really like and then I find out they’re from Minnesota. Well, of course. We’re nice people. We’re generally not very full of ourselves.
Q: That being said, you appear on camera a lot in “Free Solo.” Not very Minnesotan.
A: I don’t love it when people put themselves in their own movies. When we were editing, a lot of those scenes were in the we’re-not-going-to-do-it bin. But we realized there was an ethical question at the heart of the film: Was our presence as a camera crew making it more likely that Alex would fail? We would have gotten skewered if we hadn’t addressed that.
At the heart of a lot of nonfiction films is the question of whether by being there, you are changing what’s happening. In this case, changing what’s happening could have meant life or death.
Q: In addition to capturing Alex’s climb, there are a lot of personal moments that help us understand him and his girlfriend. I was particularly struck by the shots of Alex eating his dinner with a spatula. How important were those moments?
A: Chai and I are not interested in making films that don’t have a lot of depth and emotional layers and multiple story lines. We bring totally different things to the table. And when we come together, it works really well. Chai and I both agree that neither of us could have made this film without the other one. Not even close.
Q: On Sunday, the movie will air on television, introducing it to a whole new audience. Is that still a big deal, or have you kind of moved on?
A: I take nothing for granted. It’s likely more people are going to see it on TV than in theaters. You make these films because you think they’re important and inspiring. The fact that National Geographic is airing this without commercials with that kind of reach, I’m deeply appreciative.
Q: So where are you going to put your Oscar?
A: It’s funny. I’ve got it sitting in front of me right now on the kitchen counter. As I’m hammering out e-mails, I keep picking it up to see how heavy it is. I think I’ll keep it here for a while.