How Free Solo Filmmaker and Pro Climber Jimmy Chin Brought the 2021 Ford Bronco Into America's Homes
The Drive sat down with the filmmaker to talk Broncos, the great outdoors and where he keeps his Oscar.
The long-delayed, long-anticipated launch of the 2021 Ford Bronco finally happened on Monday, but the hype train hasn't slowed down since. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, and the reservation site crashed multiple times on Tuesday under the strain of all those looking to fork over $100 for a spot in line. Understandable given the amount of time we all spend on computers nowadays. Also, it looks pretty damn good.
Tens of thousands of people tuned into the live stream to watch the Bronco's grand debut, but for millions of Americans, their first look at the two-door, four-door and Bronco Sport on Monday night came in a commercial blitz of three splashy reveal films broadcast near-simultaneously across ABC, ESPN and National Geographic.
If they looked slicker than your average ad, it's because they were; the spots were co-created by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and pro climber Jimmy Chin, who took home the Oscar for best documentary as the co-director of 2018's Free Solo.
The videos, embedded throughout this piece, feature pro climber Brooke Raboutou, country singer Kip Moore and Chin himself mediating on their successes and what it means to be able to escape into the wild—plus plenty of Bronco action shots. As the creative director for a project that needed to pull double duty in telling a story and showing off the trucks, Chin was instrumental in crafting that first impression for folks. (Over in our weird world, we've been obsessed with the Bronco revival for years, but I'd bet most people in this country just found out about it on Monday.)
More importantly, Chin was also one of the lucky few people outside Ford to not only see but drive the 2021 Ford Bronco back when we were all poring over the latest spy shots. I managed to put aside the collective jealousy of the enthusiast community when I had a chance to sit down with Chin on Monday morning before the big show and talk more about the Bronco, the importance of getting out into nature, and where he keeps his Oscar.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jon Alain Guzik: How did you get involved in this project?
Jimmy Chin: I've been a longtime National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, and Free Solo was obviously released with National Geographic as the studio behind the film [which is now owned by Disney]. I think they just thought it was a very good fit, you know, given the idea and the themes of the campaign and a vehicle the Bronco. There were a lot of intersections that made it a good fit for me to creative-direct the spots. We brought on different and really talented directors for the spots. I worked on thinking about the ideas around the pieces and how we could just tie them all together in a way that fit this campaign.
I also think that, you know, we had such great talent, which is weird to say because I'm one of them [laughs], but I'm speaking more about country music singer Kip Moore and climber Brooke Raboutou. All three of us have a very deep appreciation for the outdoors and we all found deep inspiration from spending time in the natural world, even though each one of us has had different connections with the outdoors.
JAG: People are starting to feel really cooped up nowadays. I’ve always thought that cars give people a sense of agency to get out and go somewhere.
JC: I agree, I kind of talk about that idea in my piece. I think this is, in a lot of ways, unique to the United States, but for me there was always the idea that the open road represented freedom. When I was in college, I drove off to spent the summers in Montana at Glacier National Park and then after college, I lived in on the road for almost eight years out of my car. So in a lot of ways, the idea of having a car does give you that sense of agency to go wherever you’d want to go.
I lived, oftentimes, just following the seasons between climbing and skiing. There was a lot of time in those years where, you know, I wouldn't know where I was going to be a few days later. That idea of exploration and adventure and just kind of being able to go where I wanted to go is something that I've held on to my entire adult life. I've gone on adventures on all seven continents but I always come back and living on the open road is still one of my favorite things to still do.
That's the sense I wanted to put out in these films. How, you know, particularly given the circumstances in the last few months, that being able to get out and reconnect with the outdoors, getting back to those wild places is important. For me, as a photographer and a filmmaker and an adventurer, it is also kind of like returning home, going back out to nature. I still find it's therapeutic for me to be out in the mountains.
JAG: How do you feel that relates to the Bronco?
JC: For me, in my personal experience, this is a vehicle that is perfect for where I live in Wyoming, where there are just tons of dirt roads. The terrain here is pretty varied too—a lot of the places that I go climbing, or fishing or whatever, the roads are washed out in the spring from all the runoff.
It was a really exciting project for me on a number of levels. Obviously, just getting to see and drive the Bronco really early and before the big reveal was pretty exciting. I was really curious, as a fan, what it was going to look like and how they redesigned it and to tell you, it's just a beautiful vehicle. I also got to drive it a ton during the filming. We did have a professional driver come in and unfortunately, he didn't get a whole lot of time driving the thing because I ended up doing a lot it myself. I'm used to driving these kinds of roads, so having the Bronco and the ability to test drive it one on all these different roads that are basically my backyard was really fun.
JAG: Have you spent a lot of time off-roading in the past?
JC: I wouldn't say I’d define it as off-roading. I don’t really off-road, but the roads here are mostly dirt roads that are pretty rough and steep and there are some really burly forest roads.
JAG: You have that long eight-year experience living in your car, a 1989 Subaru Loyale. What advice do you have for people, especially the younger cohort, that have that wanderlust to live in their car and to follow the outdoors?
JC: I've always been a minimalist and believer of less is more and for me, the main part of the appeal of living on the road and living out of a vehicle was the way it simplifies your life. You bring what you need and no more, and you just kind of strip down all the things that you don't need. That in itself is a form of freedom. In the end, it's also just about living in the moment enjoying the moment. In real life, there's a lot of pressure in the world to know exactly where you're going and what you're going to be doing all the time. That's something that's kind of hard to shed but when you're on the open road the freedom of not knowing where you're going can be pretty liberating.
JAG: Do you still go car camping or live out of your car for long stretches?
JC: I take my kids out to nature all the time. The last time we went out was a few weeks ago, on a little climbing trip, and they're still pretty young so I'm sure we'll be doing more in the future.
JAG: I have two little kids of my own. How do you reconcile that open road feeling, wanting to hit the road with having to schlep all that kid stuff? I mean you were so aggressive about cutting weight from your climbing gear, you would cut the labels out of your clothes to save weight!
JC: [Laughs] I hear you, it’s a lot of stuff. But I've kept it pretty minimal. I'm trying to instill a sense and those values with them, like you don't need a ton of material things, and that you want to be rich with experience. That's something I'm trying to pass on to the kids and hopefully they'll grow up with those values.
JAG: Besides the Subaru you owned and your forthcoming Bronco, are you a big car person? Or is it a more utilitarian thing for you.
JC: I’m definitely much more utilitarian. I've had a pretty broad spread of cars in the past, but l am crazy excited to pick up my Bronco early next year. It’s such a perfect vehicle for Jackson. I don’t think I’ve ever owned something with that much ground clearance and with such an awesome suspension and one where I can just pop the top off too, which is gonna be really fun to have around here in the summertime.
JAG: What else do you like about the Bronco?
JC: It just looks badass, too.
JAG: How far do you usually drive in a day to get your training in?
JC: It depends on how much time I have. I live really close to the mountains, so sometimes it's just like a five-minute drive, and from there I can access quite a bit of terrain, whether it's training runs or climbing. I also live pretty close to...I mean I'm five minutes away from the south entry to Grand Teton National Park, but getting out deeper into the park is like half an hour. But yesterday I went climbing in a specific area in Idaho and it was like an hour and a half to get there and the last half hour is on dirt roads.
JAG: It must be beautiful and completely empty out there.
JC: It's really stunning right now, but there are a lot of people coming into and around Jackson right now though because people feel cooped up and there's a lot less travel now to other places like Europe. So people are exploring their backyards and national parks around the country, and reconnecting with outdoors whether or not it’s in their backyards, nearby or a few states away.
JAG: Which kind of brings me to another question I wanted to ask you. How do people get more involved with outdoor stewardship?
JC: I hope I inspire people to get outside and to enjoy the outdoors. I feel like there's so many benefits from it. For children and adults, it’s a great way to spend time either with your friends and family. I've always had the idea that people protect what they love, and there are so many places I can think of that are really special to me in the outdoors. I’ve had deeply meaningful experiences with friends and family in national parks. So when you love a place, you want to take care of it. That's a big step towards people not just enjoying the outdoors, but wanting to protect and preserve those places.
JAG: What was your most memorable experience from those times you had living in the back of your car?
JC: I mean, I have so many. But back then, I used to joke about a saying we had—that there was a leisure class at both ends of the economic spectrum—and I remember waking up in on a National Forest land out in the Sierras to just like the most beautiful view I had ever seen, no one around but me, and thinking like well, this is a million-dollar view and I’m just a total dirtbag climbing bum and I'm waking up and I get to enjoy this view.
That kind of goes back to this idea of like living simply like, how much do you really need? I have a lot of younger adventurers, climbers and outdoors people saying to me, how did you get to where you are right now and how do we get to do that? I always look at them and say, you should just enjoy where you are right now, enjoy living in your car or your van or your vehicle and really embrace it because I spent my entire adult life trying to get back to where you are right now [laughs].
JAG: Final question, or two: How has your life changed after you won your Oscar, and where do you keep it?
JC: I'll answer the second question first. It's actually about five feet away from me in my gear room in the back of my garage so when people say, hey where do you keep your Oscar, I'm like well it's in the back of my garage.
JAG: That’s rad.
JC: One of the things that happened for me after I won the Oscar was that I found a deeper appreciation for all of the choices I had made, because winning an Oscar is this kind of pinnacle in the film world. It was an extraordinary experience leading up to winning—making the film, the success of the film, the campaigning—was really exciting and a lot of fun and I enjoyed the ride. But it gave me a reference point for the rest of my life, and I realized how meaningful my experience had been outside of winning an Oscar. It kind of reinforced the idea that what I've always loved doing is still what I will always love doing.
Jon Alain Guzik is an editor-at-large for The Drive with a long history as an entrepreneur and media raconteur, covering the automotive industry with a jaundiced eye towards figuring out how companies build and market the cars you really want to buy—or not.