Meru, the new documentary by, of, and for the mountain climbers is a true labor of love [our review here]. In 2011, three lifelong friends, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, set out to tackle one of the most death-defying peaks on t he planet, the Shark’s Fin on the Himalayas’ Mount Meru. And they brought cameras in their pockets. Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk were kind enough to take some time out of their un-relatably courageous climbing schedules to have a refreshingly un-Hollywood, non-slick chat with me about filmmaking as a natural extension of the adventure, how to make sure the cameras don’t weigh so much that the rations suffer, what most mountain movies get wrong, and an old climbers’ lifehack for what to do with that last rind of Parmesan.
Would you rather be climbing right now?
Conrad Anker: (laughs) Yeah. I think we could call that one a no-brainer. But it’s all part of the journey.
I’m just so curious about the actual filmmaking process during this climb. Were you three the only film crew? How big were these cameras? How the hell did you film this while climbing?
Renan Ozturk: There was no film crew. Just a group of friends documenting what was happening. There were no second takes. Just trying to get what we could with a handful of batteries and a couple cameras.
Which came first—were you planning to go on this climb and then decided to film it, or was the movie always the plan?
RO: The plan was to support Conrad on the climb, first and foremost. The movie came later. We were documenting, the best we could. Conrad was our fearless leader, and he dealt with all the logistics and the gear and the plan . It’s just what we do, it’s part of our experience being on the mountain. Being on the mountain is documenting things, even if you don’t know how it’s going to end up. So this was an amazing opportunity to go to these places in the world and bring back these stories. So, we did the best we could with the technology that we had. Lightweight, small cameras, shaving as much as weight as we could because the cameras were equivalent to a certain amount of food that we can’t bring, so we have to take it seriously in that way.
Any concern the filmmaking would take away from the experience of the climb?
RO: This was just kind of an extension of how I experience the mountains. Conrad is in base camp mapping every single day of the weather, and keeping his expeditions—he’s gone on 40+ expeditions or however many he’s done. I’ve always loved to experience with a form of art. First painting then it became video.
CA: Storytelling has always been an extension of the expedition, the adventurer’s experience. People come back with stories, going back all the way to Homer and the Odyssey. This is just a current iteration. That being said, if we had brought along a camera crew, it wouldn’t have been a pure experience. Doing it like we did, it was cinema vérité— it was raw, it was real. We didn’t rehearse anything. We just turned the camera on and documented, much the same way a writer would take notes in a notepad. When you see a high-end production of a climbing film where they have a top-down shot, a shot from a distance, a POV shot—all these things are spliced together and you think “wow that’s really great stuff.” But what what Jimmy and Renan were able to do on our climb was to capture the essence of that moment, that day, whether it was the second of October or three years earlier, they were there and they caught it.
What about climbing is the hardest to capture? Or impossible to capture?
CA: The way that Renan and Jimmy were shooting, we don’t have top-down shots, you’re not staging a fall. The beauty of this film is that it captures what it’s like to be on the Himalayan big wall without staging anything, so everything in the film is shot while we’re on the climb.
RO: Yeah, I’m gonna give Conrad all the filmmaking questions now.
RO: When you’re shooting climbing, the most dramatic angle is, somehow to have some rigger or you rig the rope yourself and you go up before the climber and you shoot top-down—that’s the most dramatic angle. So, that was impossible to get on this because we used every drop of energy we had to just go up the mountain. But it turned out that it was more the overall story and the moments in between on this one.
What originally brought each of you to climbing and what keeps bringing you back to it?
CA: I was introduced to it by family. At probably age 14 I realized that this is what I wanted to do. It’s fun, and it’s where I knew I wanted all my work and my time centered. And when I’m out there, I’m living in the moment—I’m really excited and happy. Being able to find that anywhere in life is a good thing.
RO: It’s a bug that bites all of us in a different way. Probably bites a lot of us when we’re kids climbing trees. But I remember seeing a photo of a spiky Himalayan summit in a National Geographic that really inspired me. And then beyond that you start to meet the characters of climbing, and you realize it’s a closely knit group of people who are passing down the knowledge of those who have achieved these different climbs around the world. And that really drew me in—meeting characters like Conrad and Jimmy. You’re spending time in these places, getting to know crazy cultures around the world. For Meru, the cultural experience we had on the way in was really memorable and just as much a part of it.
What are some misrepresentations of mountain climbing you’ve seen perpetuated in past films that tackled the subject?
CA: Well, there are fictional stories like K2, Cliffhanger, and Eiger Sanction. They set it up, they create the tension—it’s theater. The climbing shots are recreated. They’re creating based on everyone’s preconception of what climbing is about, perhaps modifying it, adding to it, making it a little more harrowing and scary. (laughs) The goal with Meru was to make a film that appeals to the hardcore climber, from the 25 year-old man who wants to climb in the Himalayas to someone like my mother, who sees the human emotion in the story. Reaching that range of demographics, that’s the beauty of this filmmaking.
You mentioned people’s preconceptions about mountain climbing. What are some misconceptions that you run into on a regular basis?
CA: That we have this insatiable death wish, that we’re using these massive apparatuses to swing across huge chasms, that we have bolt guns that shoot perfectly into the rock…those are the Hollywood films. With the specialty films, the core audience knows the particular climbers and come into the movie knowing the basics and understanding that. With Meru, there will be viewers who know that going up in the mountains is dangerous, but why do they do it? And maybe they’ll understand a little bit more about why we do it after watching the film.
At one point in the movie, it’s said that when someone dies on a climb, it seems there’s no justification or such a life-threatening activity. How do you justify it? Or do you? How present is that in your mind?
CA: I’m pretty aware of it. I’m here—my wife and my kids are in the kitchen making lunch. I’m surrounded my trips to the mountains, and I’ve lost a lot of friends to the mountains. It’s a dangerous game…..(laughs)…maybe people won’t start climbing after they see this film after all and just think “these guys are crazy.”
RO: Yeah, more and more you think about the loved ones and the consequences. With my wife, it becomes harder and harder to take these trips. But they also understand that you’re doing it out of passion because that’s you’re calling—it’s what makes you tick. It’s kind of a catch-22. It’s what we have to live with if that’s your calling.
Were the roasted cheese rinds good? Those looked good.
CA: (laughs) Yeah. A friend of mine from Northern Italy shared that with me years ago. You have meals with Parmesan because it’s a hard, durable cheese—you can snack on it, you can cook with it, it doesn’t go bad. Don’t throw the rinds away, you cook them over the grill and they become these little grilled cheese.
And the rest of your diet?
CA: One type of breakfast, which was oatmeal with protein powder and dried blueberries. Two energy bars for lunch. Couscous with olive oil for dinner.
What’s the next climb? Is there anything more badass than Meru?
RO: There are so many possibilities out there in the greater ranges. That’s one of the beautiful things about climbing. And people are re-imagining how to climb things as well. Instead of just climbing a single feature, they’re scaling multiple features, going sideways across skylines. All that being said, Meru seems to be one of the most obvious, beautiful last remaining lines out there of significance. The power of the place is recognized by many different religions.
CA: Yeah. It probably won’t be me—it will probably be Renan and Jimmy. There are a lot of big faces left in the Himalayas. That’s where they’re at because of the size of that range, the difficulty, and the altitude. Hopefully the film will inspire the next generation to get out there, and try an adventure of their own.
For more Silver Screen Riot interviews, check out more of our “Talking With…” series here.