Free Solo filmmaker Jimmy Chin tells TV Real about his new National Geographic series Edge of the Unknown.
In 2018, audiences across the globe were mesmerized by rock climber Alex Honnold’s death-defying quest to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, as documented in National Geographic’s Free Solo. A box-office hit in the U.S., grossing over $29 million, the film landed many awards, most notably the Oscar for best documentary feature. Free Solo hailed from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and was the latest in Chin’s many creative endeavors documenting life on the edge. The accomplished climber, skier and mountaineer is now fronting Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin, which premieres on National Geographic on September 5, before joining the Disney+ lineup on September 7. The ten-part production goes behind the scenes of several leading athletes’ most hair-raising adventures, featuring the likes of Honnold himself as well as surfer Justine Dupont, snowboarder Travis Rice and more. TV Real caught up with Chin to discuss how the show came about and his and Vasarhelyi’s first-look pact with National Geographic.
TV REAL: What was the story you wanted to tell with this show?
CHIN: These are the greatest stories you haven’t heard of. We previously made Free Solo about Alex Honnold free soloing El Cap. It opened the floodgates; we realized that there was a lot of interest in these types of athletes. Just visually, it’s extraordinary to watch what they do. Still, there wasn’t much context or an understanding of who these athletes are, what they’re doing, what the stakes are, the kind of decision-making they have to use in risk assessment—all of these different layers. This show aims to give the audience more context and appreciation of who these athletes are, what they do, the level of detail and training and their mentality. In some ways, people don’t necessarily relate immediately on the surface to these athletes. But if you watch the series, you understand that they are very much human, like you and me. They have to make tough decisions to do what they do. How much do you sacrifice to do the things that are meaningful to you? Those are things I think every audience can relate to. We hope to give the audience a much deeper appreciation of the depth and the layers of what they see on social media and in these [athletes’] films and videos. Ultimately, it comes back to this idea of common humanity with people we might not think we can relate to.
TV REAL: How did you decide on the athletes whose stories you wanted to tell?
CHIN: If you come from my world of big mountain snowboarding, kayaking, Arctic exploration, skiing, all these different sports, this roster is literally the best of the best. Story was the most important to us. And they had to be truly masters of their craft and have that credibility of being one of the greats. Whether one was as famous as the others didn’t matter as much as they had to be the best of the best. We’re looking at some of the most challenging moments in their careers. Often, these are the ones they didn’t talk about or didn’t get much attention for. These are the greatest stories you haven’t heard. You might follow one of the [athletes] loosely, but you might not have known that this one moment changed the course of their career. It’s not a space anybody’s ever taken the time to explore. For me, as an athlete, those are the most important moments. They also shine a light on people’s true characters because that’s when they’re the most vulnerable. That was a huge part of the motivation of the series.
TV REAL: How did you and the team decide on the format, combining the athletes’ footage with interviews with them, and your reflections on these stories layered on top?
CHIN: I would like to tell you we were just brilliant, and we just thought of it and executed it. I was never supposed to be in the show. I was trying to tell somebody else’s story. But over the course of making some of the earlier ones, when we were starting to edit, I kept saying: Someone needs to give context. We need to interview somebody else because I still don’t get the sense of why Travis [Rice] is so great. He’s so great because he’s not just a snowboarder; he’s an artist. He doesn’t look at his snowboarding lines as physical things. He’s looking at them like an artist. He’s also hugely involved with how it’s captured. He’s directing as well. I’m trying to explain this and [the other producers] were like, Well, why don’t you tell us? We’ll interview you, and you will tell us how great Travis is. I did that; everyone was like, that’s useful, do that for the next one! And the next one! That’s how it happened. I wasn’t planning on making a show called Edge of the Unknown with me.
TV REAL: Was it strange for you to be in the studio so much, given we’re so used to seeing you hanging off mountain ranges?
CHIN: I’ve been a professional athlete for a long time. I’ve had the camera pointed at me a lot over the last 20 years. This is my 22nd year on the North Face Athlete Team, so I’m used to it. Probably the most painful part of this process is the people trying to interview me, the director: No, no, that’s not the right question! I can try to answer the question, but you asked the wrong question. Can I tell you the question I want you to ask me, and then I’ll answer it? I’m horrible. “Why would you ask me that question? That’s not a good question. The real question is….”
TV REAL: You’ve been in your own hair-raising situations. What are some of the things you’ve learned from these other athletes’ stories?
CHIN: I always feel a lot of empathy. I’m pretty cold and clear when the stakes are high, and I have to make hard decisions in difficult moments. If I allow myself, I can be deeply empathetic to a person’s situation. Maybe this is why I’ve ended up being a filmmaker and a photographer. I can put myself in their place and feel what they feel. That’s the two sides of me. Part of me can be easily emotional. Like if I let myself be. That’s not just crying when I’m watching movies on a plane! It’s part of my process. It’s how I draw inspiration from the stories that I tell. If I know what they’re feeling, I’m translating that to an audience. My first film, Meru, was about translating what I felt toward my partners. That sense of mentorship, brotherhood and loyalty that I felt toward my climbing partners and my mentor, Conrad [Anker]. I want people to understand that the reason why we climb is beyond just climbing mountains. It’s about the sense of loyalty and friendship you have. It’s a common goal. In the storytelling of this series, I hear the frustrations of many athletes. I hear the challenges. I’m about to do this heavy expedition to kayak this river. I have a newborn. Is this the right thing for me to be doing? But this is who I am. How do I justify it? Is there a way to justify it? There are all of these conflicting, internal conflicts that happen. There are many layers to these athletes. I want to express that.
TV REAL: Tell us about your relationship with Disney and National Geographic and the storytelling opportunities the first-look deal has afforded you.
CHIN: It’s been a dream come true to have Disney and National Geographic support our work. It’s a real vote of confidence for us as storytellers. They’ve given us a lot of latitude in terms of what we bring to the table as filmmakers and even for me as a photographer. Having that support, belief and trust allows us to do the best and greatest work we’re capable of. They’ve given us the resources and the trust. Those two things, in this industry, are challenging! Because we have that trust and those resources, we were allowed to do our best work. That’s the relationship, and hopefully, it’s symbiotic: We bring them the content that allows them to achieve their goals as well.