If I could make a ski movie…


Every autumn my husband and I watch ski movies, letting the scenes of deep powder and steep skiing fill us in like the first snowfall. I always have high hopes. This time of year I’m ready for the season to start, sniffing the morning air for incoming storms, keeping my eyes on the winter forecast, and sharpening my skis. Skiing is in my blood, and after a few months without the feel of metal edge on forgiving snow I start to feel a little lost.

Enter the high hopes of ski movies.

Some of them meet expectations: The recent Art of Flight knocked my socks off and classics like Steep and Deep and Blizzard of Aahhhs, never get old. Lately, however, I’ve been waiting for something better. As much as I love to watch pros ski incredible lines that I can only dream about, isn’t there something more?

Perhaps because I’m a writer, I want more out of ski movies. I want to be told a story. In Creative Writing 101, a writer learns that a compelling story must have a narrative arc. Interesting characters must transform in some way through the inevitable action of the plot. I’m not saying that ski movies should adhere to the rules of fiction. Yet, when every season starts anew with all-too similar spines, helicopters nosed in to sunlit ridges, skiers jumping over cliffs, I start to wonder how the ski movie industry is going to move forward.

A friend and reader recently lamented the glorification of cliff jumping in ski movies. As a mom, she worries that her kids will associate the kind of skiing in the movies as the norm. I guess I just wish ski movies were a little closer to the experience of real skiers.

Cody Townsend's Tracks with Bombhole, courtesty of codytownsend.com

When Cody Townsend is injured during the filming of Matchstick’s Attack of La Niña after jumping a 70 foot cliff, Scott Gaffney later admits that while watching the fall, there was a moment when he thought, “I may have just watched a friend die.” Townsend came out relatively unscathed (if you consider a knee injury and tibial plateau fracture unscathed). But still. Watch the video and the interview here.

For most of us who plan on skiing until we’re old, even a “minor” knee injury could cause lasting damage to our skiing careers. But professionals–whether ski racers, big mountain film stars or Olympic-bound freeskiers, injury seems inevitable.

If the film-going masses expect the tricks and jumps to get bigger and more impressive every year, skiers and riders will continue to raise the bar. Instead of throwing ever more impressive stunts, I hope for a different direction in the movies.

Here’s my idea for a ski movie: Take a crew of five or six professional skiers; choose individuals who can string a few sentences together without having to rely on mind-numbing uhhs and dudes and various expletives. Visit five ski areas in the world. Follow the pros as they meet locals and learn where lay the goods. The local that shows them the best lines, the best time, maybe even hooks them up with a place to stay goes with them on their next stop—heli-skiing in Kamchatka or cat skiing in BC or fjord-assisted touring in Norway. I would love to watch that guy or gal, who previously found only brief stashes of powder at his or her local ski area, approach an entire mountain of fresh lines. Call the movie, “Ski Bum Karma.”

In this way, viewers learn about individuals, real skiers sacrificing money and prestige to ski every day. These are the dedicated. These are the individuals that make ski towns worthy places to live. As much as I enjoy watching Eric Hjorleifson talk about how well Ingrid Backstrom can ski, I’d really love to hear what he has to say about Ross Gregg’s dedication and joie de vivre. Ski bums are the true heroes of the ski industry.

In the introduction to this month’s The Ski Journal, editor Mike Berard laments the recent losses in skiing, including Shane McConkey, Arne Backstrom and Kip Garre. It’s important, Berard claims, that such loss “should remind us there are more important elements to life than sliding down a mountain.” And yet these tragedies “are reminders to continue pursuing what is closest to our heart.”

To pursue what is closest to our heart—isn’t that what it’s all about? It’s really not about watching others drop big lines that stoke the fire of a million-dollar industry. It’s not about that Redbull sponsorship or those K2 skis or the Smith goggles that help you keep your eyes on the slopes. Nor is it about Crystal Mountain or Big Sky or any other ski area.

Really it is about pursuing a sport close to your heart. It is about the sparkle of snow crystals caught in a glint of snow; it is the triumphant moment just before you drop in, when your ski tips hang over the lip of the run and the wind rises up to meet you; it is that first turn—whether ripping corduroy, jumping a cornice or letting fly a million powder crystals that sweep you up and envelop your heart.

So all you ski filmmakers out there, feel free to steal my idea. It’s there for the taking. Give us more than another round of a lucky few hitting predictably big lines. Give us a story. Show us real skiers reaping big rewards, living close to their hearts.

26 responses »

  1. I love watching ski movies with my family, but I always have to echo my daughters when they ask “Where are all the girls?” We watch all the women’s World Cup races–thank goodness they’re covered so well–but I’d like to see more than a token clip of women in these big ski movies.

  2. Good point Mary-Colleen. Those girls are out there, they just aren’t getting on film. I love it that your daughter notices. My stepdaughter watches and says she wants to ski like that some day. That a girl.

  3. Amen, Kim! Even though I’m an old fart (37), I only started skiing in January, and so I’m fresh to the process of acclimatizing myself to the ski culture. I’ve already watched plenty of ski movies, and it’s pretty clear that the vast majority are, no matter how good the athletes or how steep the lines, boring and repetitive.

    Since I like to watch these movies with my kids, I’m especially annoyed by footage of some jibber trying to smash his skis in a fit of prepubescent pique when he screws up a rail slide. Or the “woohoo! let’s shoot some small trees!” scene in Art of Flight. WTF, ski movie producers.

    And like you, for me the movies that manage to combine a gripping story with action are the ones that capture my lasting attention. So I loved Jeremy Jones’s “Deeper”, and I’m already looking forward to “Solitaire”.

    I’d already been having daydreams about “wouldn’t it be great if” there was a documentary about the ordinary lives and excitement of ski patrollers and skiers, so I got a big smile on my face when I saw you express the same opinion. Last time I spent too much time thinking “wouldn’t it be great if”, I spent 18 months writing a book, so maybe it’s lucky for my family that I know nothing about filmmaking 🙂

  4. My most common “Wouldn’t be great if” dream sequences usually starts with me in the heli getting ready to be dropped at the top of a powdery spine and ending with a round of high-fives with all the crew at the bottom. Wouldn’t it be great if they just paid me to ski? I can see why the ski filmmakers want to keep making movies. It’s a sweet gig. But still. For us viewers something a little more compelling would be great.

  5. Kimmer, “Sinners” by Bill Heath is the end of all movies in our home in the hills of Sammamish. The music and the powder is out of this world, albit there is just a little hucking in the middle of it.
    It’s old school, but good.
    See you soon in the hills

  6. Good concept! And more girls/women, too! Ciao from Italia, where it’s warm and sunny every day. Alas I will be back in cool and damp Seattle soon…but then I get to think about the ski season ahead.

  7. Great idea! I think that it would be fun to see people in ski movies that I can relate to. Huge stunts are cool, but so far out of any experience I will ever have that I just don’t get engaged with the film.

    I also share your thoughts on making the actual story a little more interesting and well-told. Your description of “uhhs” and “duuuuudes” and various expletives cracked me up – so true.

  8. You hit the nail on the head. I loved the old Warren Millers, but I’ve stopped going to the new ones. I miss joining all my patrol buddies there, but the movies are just too repetitive. I miss Miller’s narration and sense of the story.

  9. That is really what made the old Warren Miller’s great to me–the time he spent with locals and patrollers ripping up their hills. Honestly, there were a couple of his regulars who inspired me far more than any of the pros going huge did. I thought, ‘I can learn to be that good’.

  10. Love this post, Kim! I think it’s so important for people to demand more of the extreme-sports film industry. I love watching impressive physical feats just as much as the next girl, but there’s a point where films would pack more inspirational punch, if they just included a little emotional perspective and vulnerability.

    Your post made me think of a climbing documentary I just watched, called To the Limit (Am Limit, ha). The film follows two well-known speed climbers as they attempt to break the speed climbing record for freeing the nose of El Cap.

    Instead of being the testosterone-filled, climber-porn I expected, it turned out to be a fascinating look into both the physical and mental challenges that climbers face. The downsides and challenges of climbing aren’t overlooked, but addressed, which only made the climbers’ passion for daring feats that much more powerful.

    To me, that’s what is inspiring. Not only watching climbing gods do the impossible, but learning that real people, dealing with the same insecurities and challenges I face, are attempting amazing feats, simply for their love of climbing.

    If you can get over the super-cheesy bits in the movie (bad dreams about falling) and the uninspiring climbing footage (with the exception of a few great shots), this movie is definitely worth watching, even for skiers. 🙂

    Thanks for the great post, Kim!

  11. its worth noting, that if you want to watch people ski slowly and give high fives to each other while being judicious with their terrain, snow and risk level decisions, there are plenty of homevideo style pov films on youtube/vimeo/etc that A) lack the budget to make movies that feature any turly inspiring terrain, b)lack the talent to create any truly inspiring ski footage and c)lack the ambition to market it to the people who want to see the real life adventures of some normal people. Just sayin.
    Just make sure to swing back by MSP, TGR, etc once you get bored of it.

    • Good point Kris. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I watch all of the ski movies every year. I’m not saying I want to watch lesser films, but rather wondering if it’s possible to make the good ones better. Is it possible to bring the real experience of a great day on the slopes with friends to a movie? I think so.

  12. I agree with this post. I too have wished for a ski film normal viewers could relate to better. One thing I’d love to see is what pros do on the in-between days. Are they still out there? Do they use this time to explore new lines and memorize terrain so time is not wasted when it’s deep? Do any of them keep a pair of extreme-hourglass parabolic cheater skis and secretly slice groomers? What did folks do to stay busy and revved up during the January dry spell last winter? Do they write poetry? (Did you read the “La Nina Lament” at NWAC last January? I still remember the classic line – “we’ve had lots of cold, we’ve had lots of wet, we just haven’t had both together quite yet”). I’ve seen close ups of skiers clicking in on knife blade Alaska ridges with the heli blowing a cloud of spin drift…yeah yeah yeah….but what about clicking in when the parking lot is jet black, your knocking pebbles and muck off your boots, the snow is slush, and your pants are already soaked before you even sit on the lift? How do pros have fun on those days? Is it days like this when guide-books like Squallywood get drafted? Should we be using these in between “down” days to explore our resorts better? Try new equipment? New techniques? Practice new tricks in the park? Teach our little groms? Tell me, ski film producers, how the pros stay busy and passionate during real life ebbs and flows of storm cycles. And none of this “hop on the next flight to where it’s dumping” copout nonsense.

  13. I would add, I thought there was some fantastic storytelling in Steep. The timing of those guys producing that project the same winter Coombs died makes the film extremely dramatic. I think Swift Silent Deep has good storytelling – it’s a fantastic story actually, and touches everyone of us who has enjoyed the privilege of ducking a perimeter rope in the last 8 or so years. Without the JHAF fighting to open the backcountry, backcountry ski participation would be nothing like it is today. But other than a few exceptions, you’re exactly right Kim. I went to the premiere of LIght the Wick in Seattle last year….it was just a patch job of ski stunts with no story, and then they tried to top it off with some stupid 3D shots of Sammy at Stevens. I’d way rather wax skis.

  14. I just read through some of the comments above….Kim you might have a strong enough network and following of like minded people at Crystal to pull a film like this off! Something like “One winter in the life of a normal ski community” or something. Regarding budget, well, it’d be cool to do this on a really low budget, this would authenticate it as being “normal.” Crystal is ripe to burst onto the scene. Jackson is played out, and we’re not on Unofficial Networks. We should tell the world about this community of normal people who love to shred no matter what the conditions. And hardly any of us ever shovel our driveways….most of us drive at least an hour through the freakin rainforest every time. And seriously, does anyone else have an in bounds traverse track that dips into a national park? I think you/we have a great story to tell…..

    • Hmmm. All good points John. It’s funny how Crystal locals tend to be very proprietary. Perhaps that’s because many Crystal locals actually were stockholders at one time. It lends a vibe of ownership, which is great. And sometimes that dips into wanting to keep it for themselves. Do you remember when Warren Miller crews were here a few years back? Whoa, talk about negative chatter at the Elk. No one seemed to want their ski area well known. Of course, they also didn’t want to share the goods with professional skiers, but that’s another story.
      I agree that Crystal has a great story to tell. The wheels are officially turning in my brain.

      • That’s a good point….and after I re-read my comment, I could see how some of the proprietary type would never want Crystal to “burst onto the scene” (myself included). That is but it isn’t what I’m getting at. I think it’s cool that we’re not one of the resorts on Unofficial (although I think we more than qualify), and that we’re rarely featured in Powder’s Shooting Gallery, etc. I was glad the Powder’s October issue featured Baker and not Crystal. But this all plays into the “thesis” that this is what makes Crystal a “normal” mountain, yet we are abnormal in that we have such dedication and enthusiasm and talent to shred without ever being noticed for it. I mean, even little things like the fact that the vast majority of our best lines are not visible from a lift, compared to KT-22 or Jackson/Snowbird trams which are a constant showcase to huck your meat.

        More food for thought, but it goes with what I’m saying, I absolutely DESPISE that a full length feature film on Seth Morrison is titled “The Ordinary Skier.” Fine to do a feature film on Seth, but please don’t call him ordinary. I have not seen the film, but in my mind, he is one of the most abnormal skiers to ever walk the planet. I actually wrote a letter to Powder along these lines. It is not just that he has won all these awards and is probably sponsored down to his dogfood and toenail clippers. For me, what makes Seth Morrison extremely abnormal, is that the freak never smiles. Man do I despise that about him. I’d way rather shred slush with one of my friends at Crystal who laugh and have fun than shred Alaska with a hundred stone faced Morrisons for a week. Shane McKonkey is far more “ordinary” to me in that sense, even though he’s a total knucklehead. My point is, Crystal is full of ordinary skiers who love to shred and I think it’d be cool to tell the story about what a good time we have. Tyler got this point across pretty good in one of his interviews in Dynasty, so props to him for saying that.

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  16. Great article I found by googling this morning…

    Even before I read this, that is the plan I have for this season. We are filming a lot, and will be documenting intermediate through pro level skiers just out for the thrill…secret spots, work-life balance, upsetting the wife/husband for a day to chase powder.

    Good to see there is an audience for what I am working in this season 🙂

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