“Wild Life” documentary directors talk Colorado visits, “Free Solo”

As one of National Geographic’s biggest film releases of 2023, the documentary “Wild Life” soars on splendid imagery of South America’s rugged Andean Mountain Range, vast and arid plains, and stark, endless skies.

But as with the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo” — also directed by veteran filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin — the story inside the images lives much closer to the ground. “Wild Life,” which premieres nationally and in a trio of metro-area theaters on Friday, April 28, isn’t just about land, but the people who work to save it as well.

We caught up with the co-directors over the phone in advance of Chin’s in-person visits to the Landmark Chez Artiste on April 28, moderated by Denver Post contributor Lisa Kennedy, and the Century Boulder on Saturday, April 29, moderated by acclaimed writer Jon Krakauer. The film will have its broadcast debut on the National Geographic Channel on May 25, followed by Disney+ on May 26. An early version surprise-premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year.

In Colorado, Chin will further explore the making of “Wild Life” and talk about the remarkable life of the main character, business legend and preservationist Kris Tompkins, whose Tompkins Conversation has amassed 14.8 million acres of pristine parklands in Chile and Argentina while navigating initially strong resistance from business groups and lawmakers.

“Wild Life” is, at last, a love story between Kris and her late husband Doug, told at first through the businesses they founded or pioneered (Patagonia, The North Face and Esprit) and then through the land they loved and preserved.

Q: How long did it take to make this film?

Chin: We went down there and did a little bit of shooting in 2016, but that was before we had an intention of making a feature documentary. I’d gone down with cameramen to interview (former Chilean president) Michelle Bachelet and that was the first time I visited with Kris. It was a year after Doug died (in a kayaking accident) and she was still grieving very deeply. Chai and I thought that was an important moment in Kris’  journey, so we followed up a few times and realized there was a lot more to cover to fill in the story.

Q: The film also leaves room for that grief Kris felt, and even opens with it. That feels unusual in an ostensible nature documentary, but not in a love story. How did you give equal time to that but also the Tompkins’ donation of tens of millions of acres of land and marine habitat to the Chilean and Argentinian governments?

Chin: We’re documentary filmmakers so we follow what happens, and this story revealed itself. It’s the story of seeing Kris going from this deep grieving to having to pick herself up and not only continue on, but also really push hard to make this audacious dream a reality. That’s part of what’s really inspiring about her story — this idea that you can have a second and third chance. We made the decision to start with Doug’s funeral, which was a really liberating moment because it allowed us to live with the grief and find meaning in it.

Q: Do you have a rule of thumb for balancing imagery? For example, the stunning helicopter and drone shots vs. talking heads and archive video and handheld, on-site footage?

Vasarhelyi: It’s case-by-case, and our only rule is that it follows the character and story. All our films are really tightly crafted and so it’s about, “How can we best complement the character?”

Q: Did you feel any danger down there, given that Kris and Doug at one point had their phones tapped and were receiving death threats over what some worried was land-hoarding by wealthy outsiders?

Chin: No, no. At least by the time we were a part of that journey with them they had pretty well established what their intentions were. They’d had some success having spent 25 years really working with the local communities and building that trust and those relationships. A lot of that opposition was much earlier, and it made sense at the time that people would be suspicious. But their success was having the long-game in mind and putting their heads down and working relentlessly. It’s their fortitude that allowed them to achieve this.

Q: How did “Free Solo” and other successes affect the making of this film?

Vasarhelyi: Each one of our films is an adventure and a step along the way. All our films are related because they’re inquiries, and each builds upon another. You learn lessons with every (project), and they’re very practical. With “Free Solo” it was very clear that we had this platform for stories. “Wild Life” we made for our children in that there is so much fear around climate change. I look at these small people who are terrified in their hearts and bodies, and here was a hopeful story about putting one foot in front of the other, and the concrete things people can do even when the worst has happened.

Q: I love that the film talks about the early “dirtbag climbers and surfers and skiers” who created the modern outdoor industry and culture. That phrase is a badge of courage in Colorado.

Chin: I spent many years living out of the back of my car as a dirtbag climber and ski bum, so there’s that obvious relationship with that lifestyle. We love that part of the story and I think it’s important because it shows the beginning of the arc, and it makes them relatable. Maybe not to everybody, (but) they’re very real people and everybody has a journey to find meaning and purpose. It’s incredible to see this small group of friends and the impact they were able to have on the world. They defined a lifestyle and an ethos.

Q: Jimmy, you’re a longtime climber. Did anything about Chile surprise you?

Chin: Before I went I didn’t understand the vastness of the wilderness that’s down there. There so much wild, remote wilderness and just stunning landscapes, and they’re very varied, you know? It’s high desert, it’s glaciated alpine ranges, it’s lakes. Geographically it’s like California with this huge coastline on the west coast, but it has a feeling like no other place and feels very raw. In the film, (Patagonia founder) Yvan Chouinard says how it felt authentic to him, like the Wild West of 100 years ago. Kris and Doug worked really hard to create a lot of national pride for people to recognize these landscapes were national gems, and the whole idea of land philanthropy was really new. Twenty-five years later, I think the people of Chile are very proud of what they have in their country.

Q: What’s the value of in-person visits with this film when you’ve already got such great distribution?

Chin: Nothing makes me happier than sitting in a theater full of people, but it’s not like we put out a movie every day. We work really hard, so when we get lucky enough to get a theatrical (release), it’s nice to connect with audiences and do Q&As and support bringing people back into theaters. We wanted to show why Kris and Doug fell in love with these landscapes to begin with, so the landscapes are also a character in the film. We want to create the most stunning visuals we can and we love seeing it on as big a screen as possible.

Vasarhelyi: For me, it’s about the communal experience. There’s still something special about being able to watch movies next to other people and not on a laptop by yourself. It’s moving that people spend time and money to come out to theaters.

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