Directing duo Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi are perhaps most known for their Oscar-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo, which painted a gripping portrait of climber Alex Honnold as he attempted to scale El Capitan without any rope.
The natural world and how humans engage with it has long been central in the couple's films, but their latest Wild Life represents a deeper, more intimate view of that bond than ever before. Due to extensive archival footage, access to private journals, and the longstanding relationship Chin held with Kris and Doug Tompkins—who each left their lives of being executives at Patagonia and the North Face and to move to Chile to begin conservation work—the documentary grapples with broader questions about sustainability and who it is that gets to determine the path forward. The result is a film that will appeal to fans of Free Solo, but is altogether its own quest.
Wild Life begins a limited run at Lincoln Square Bellevue on Friday May 5. The Saturday evening 5:20 pm show will include a post-viewing Q&A with Vasarhelyi. Before the film's release, I spoke with both Chin and Vasarhelyi about how they approached this latest documentary, especially considering the proximity they had to its central subjects.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Compared to your previous films, Wild Life makes use of more archival footage to fill in the history of how Kris and Doug met as well as the work they would begin to do in Chile. How did you go about the process of choosing what you would include?
CHAI VASARHELYI: This was the first time I’ve made a film where I never met the participants. Jimmy had spent time with Doug and Kris, but I had never met Doug. He had passed. So I think it put a lot of pressure on that archive. The history of Patagonia, the history of North Face, the history of Esprit, or just even those moments in the '60s; they were just delicious, and it was so much fun to go into them.
We find our films through the process, and there was a gravitational pull to this idea of regeneration or second chances. Both Doug’s decision to leave everything behind, and Kris’s decision to leave her post—basically her family, as CEO of Patagonia—embodied that idea. That was what became our guiding light, and it allowed us to navigate the decisions of how to get there.
This is a question for both of you. During a post-showing Q&A at the DC Alamo Drafthouse, Jimmy discussed being close with film's documentary subjects. On the one hand, you have access to all these personal details and stories. On the other, you want to make sure to tell a balanced story. How did you both respectively approach striking that balance?
JIMMY CHIN: That’s the strength of our directing partnership, between Chai and I. She's obviously a brilliant filmmaker, but she brings a level of objectivity that is really critical in the telling of these stories. I knew Doug, and I’ve known Kris for over 15 years. I had a lot of respect for not only how they lived their lives, but also what they were doing with their lives. Those relationships and being brought in were really critical for having access. Kris said, "I wouldn't have made this film with anybody else." So there was a level of trust that was really important for them to open up their story to us. But we’re nonfiction, documentary filmmakers. We’re journalists. You want to present the story in a way that is balanced, and I think with Chai coming into it having that perspective was critical.
VASARHELYI: It was really nice to be 11 films into my career, and have a pretty stark understanding of the value of our storytelling. The stakes are super high no matter what. Our reputations, our own objectivity, are very important to us. I think you have to tell a balanced story. That’s why the middle of the film goes into quite some detail about how you actually make a national park. We had to really dig in and try to encapsulate this. Show both sides. Try to find the voices of those who were against the parks. You have to do it. I don’t know how you do it otherwise.
Free Solo is a movie that feels painfully honest of its central figure, his flaws, and his struggles. Did that carry over or inform this documentary?
VASARHELYI: It informs all our films. Character studies are when you get to know somebody and grow to appreciate them. The thing about Alex [Honnold] is that he is radically candid and honestly I am too. When we did screenings with Alex, people would laugh with him because they understand that’s just who he is.
For this, there are some really painful lines in there, like “Doug was an asshole” and “Kris is the godmother of my kids, and we all didn’t think it was a great idea.” We were trying to excavate these parts of Doug’s character, and what was hard—really hard for us, actually—is Kris’s strength is almost counter to this. Her graciousness, her generosity, and how outspoken she is... neither she nor Doug are people who are used to opening up their inner lives to others. It’s a generational thing, but it’s also that they owned their own companies.
But Kris handed over 24 of her journals of intimate stuff. It was nice working with such knowledgeable participants who understand that the risk of being insincere is more serious than that of being flawed. It speaks to their credibility, too.
What do you think this documentary has to say about the relationship between conservation and capitalism? Do you think they can coexist together?
VASARHELYI: It’s absolutely essential that it all work out. Right? There is no option here. It’s gonna be bad business not to be taking care of [the environment]. Conservation comes in many forms, and this was one thing that this particular group of individuals could do. I also have a lot of faith in younger people; I feel like they’re going to make the right decisions. I don’t know, I kind of lost my train of thought. Jimmy, you should pick up.
CHIN: No, I think it’s a good train of thought. One of the poignant things about decisions that Doug and Yvon have made is that they were pioneers in exactly what you’re talking about. They broke trails for the rest of us by showing the world what’s possible—being really successful in business, but also contributing in a very meaningful way to preserving and protecting wild places. It’s interesting that they are visionary people and that they had these creative impulses and instincts to use their companies to do good. There are a lot of ways to do this, and for founders or CEOs of companies, it’s taking that creative instinct—that has allowed them to be successful—and then applying it in a way that allows them to contribute.
Wild Life opens Fri May 5 at Cinemark Lincoln Square, 700 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue.
Chai Vasarhelyi will host a Q&A Sat May 6 after the 5:20 pm show.