Gnarly Days, Rad Nights

Will time wait for filmmaker Greg Stump? (Volume 16, Issue 3)

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s November 1987 issue (Volume 16, Issue 3).

Story by Steve Casimiro

On the outdoor stage at Venice, California’s muscle Beach, the master of ceremonies strutted and preened, his well–oiled skin flashing in the harsh afternoon light as he worked the crowd. With his deep tan, molded blond hair and bulging muscles, he seemed nor more real than a plastic, life-size GI Joe doll. His vacuous comments did nothing to dispel the image, but the crowd loved him nevertheless

Sitting on a low concrete table, I watched the bodybuilding show and wondered how I would find Greg Stump, a man whom I had never seen nor met. It seemed easy: Swatch Watch was sponsoring the event, and Stump was there to shoot footage for Swatch. But the Venice beachfront park covers as lot of ground, and on that Sunday afternoon thousands of people scurried about the outdoor amphitheater, roller skating, skateboarding, hustling. I sat in the middle of all that energy, figuring Stump would appear eventually.

I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye , a blur of red and white and snapped to attention in time to see a kid on a BMX bike spring from the ground to my tabletop in one smooth motion, his front wheel stopping an inch from the far side of the table, the back wheel and inch from my right hand. He looked skyward and shouted in a thick German accent, “How vas that?” I turned my head to follow his gaze and saw, towering above us some 50 feet away in a cherry-picker crane, a man with a movie camera. Stump. He cupped his hands and yelled down, “Terrific,” and the bike rider–Hans, I later learned–popped a wheelie and bounced to the ground.

16_3

The generator fell silent. A half-second later I felt another rush of motion, and a skateboarder–Rodney, I later learned–leaped to the tabletop on his board. By now I had wised up, and I got off my perch and took a couple steps back to watch him do tricks on the small, round slab of concrete. He spun, flipped and bounced his board to within inches of the edge and then, with the casualness of a pro, skated off the table to the pavement three feet below. The generator kicked in again, and the crane lowered Stump to the ground.

Three week of sailboarding in Maui had made Stump very tan, and despite catching an overnight flight from the island to get to the Swatch event, he was energetic and upbeat. He greeted me enthusiastically, even though no one had told him that I was coming or that I was planning a profile on him, and he invited me over to the RV that Swatch had rented for the day. He grabbed two icy beers from the refrigerator, handed me one, and we sat in the doorway watching Venice. The sun beat directly on us, and the bulk of the mobile home blocked the slight breeze. Stump was friendly and outgoing, but he seemed uncomfortable at the idea of talking about himself.

“Why a profile on me?” he asked, his eyebrows arching. “Why not a story on the new movie, or on the guys skiing in the movie? That would be more interesting.”

Maybe. A movie called The Good, the Rad and the Gnarly does sound… interesting. Just as Stump’s first tow ski movies– Time Waits for Snowman and The Maltese Flamingo– were… interesting. They brought a new look to ski films. Heavy on flash, bright colors, radical skiing. Funky camera angles, a dynamic dog, negligible story lines. You either love them or you hate them. But whether the movies appeal to you or not, you can’t help but wonder about the mind that produced a mini-documentary on the secret life of sleeping bags.

Gnarly Days Rad Nights 2

Greg Stump got an early start in both skiing and movie making. The skiing started at age 8 near his home in Gorham, Maine. The movies started during a family vacation across the United States, when Stump was 10 years old. Stump’s parents made the mistake of letting him and his younger brother Geoff shoot the film that was intended to bring the grandeur of the cross-country trip home to the relatives. When the film came back from developing, the result was reel of Geoff’s sticking out his tongue or otherwise “abusing” national landmarks.

After that the parental source for film dried up, but Stump and his brother had paper routes, so the filming continued. And so did the skiing. Stump began competing in freestyle in 1969, and in 1979, when he was 18, he won the U.S Junior National Championship in ballet skiing–even today his tone is sardonic when he speaks of past competitions–and he stopped competing and skiing. He entered the University of Maine, while Geoff headed for Telluride and the life of a ski bum.

Geoff had a blast skiing in Telluride, and during one phone call home in 1983 he talked Greg into flying out for a visit. Gregg discovered powder and the pleasure of pressure-free skiing at the same time, and he took the semester off from school to say in Telluride. Then came The Droids.

…you can’t help but wonder about the mind that produced a mini-documentary on the secret life of sleeping bags.

“Ah, The Droids,” Stump said. “Do we have to talk about that? It was awful.” He sighed and shook his head, a wry grin on his face. “Basically, I just got my hands on a video camera and went around telling people I was going to make a ski movie. And I did. I got all my friends, and we went around to different ski areas and they skied and I shot. We got some products from a few companies, but no money. Really, it was just a home ski movie. A bad home ski movie.

Bad doesn’t begin to describe The Droids, but looking back now, the quality of that first ski movie wasn’t so important as the precedents it set. It showed that Stump could create something out of practically nothing, it showed that he could convince people to back a guy (in the form of products or permission to shoot at a certain area) with absolutely no track record for movies, and it showed that Stump could follow through on something he said he could do. All of those things were critical for Stump to get the sponsors for his next project, Time Waits for Snowman.

Snowman is what you could call Stump’s first “real” ski movie. That is it had sponsors who provided products and money, it had a script, and it was made with the expressed purpose of being sold to the general public. The chief sponsors of Snowman where Swatch Watch and Salomon. POWDER also sponsored Snowman, and continues to sponsor Stump. The film centered around Sump and his crew of skiers as they struggled to make their movie in the face of stiff opposition by the evil Dr. Delam. Parts of the movie arem not surprisingly, awkward, but what is amazing, given the fact that Sump knew so little about movie making, is that most of Snowman works.

“I was completely ignorant,” he said of his start in movie making.
“There were a lot of mistakes,” said Geoff. “A lot of trial and error. For example, our radios. We didn’t have any at first. We used to have to yell, and ‘go’ sounds a lot like ‘no’.”

It was real seat-of-the-pants stuff. Stump had intuition, luck and help from a few outsiders. Bruce Benedict, a freelance ski photographer, was instrumental in teaching him about lighting conditions.

“Greg really hadn’t done a lot stuff like that before, so he didn’t know the technical end of it. Since I was there I just became helpful. Greg’s got a natural eye, and the rest of the stuff, the technical stuff, you can learn.

“He always had a pretty good ideas of what he wanted, but he also was open to input from the skiers. We would run back to the hotel room at Snowbird Lodge after shooting and plug the tape into the TV and watch if four or five times. It was a real quick way to learn, and it was also imortant for the skiers to know what was going on,” Benedict said.

Jerry Grandey is a freelance assistant director who works on real movies, movies such as Risky Business, Raging Bull, and Steven Silver’s latest Batteries Not Included. Grandey hooked up the Stump in Telluride, and eventually worked with him as an occasional, informal adviser.

Stump’s approach “was a real teach yourself way to filmmaking,” Grandey said. “Greg has learned so fast. He hasn’t been exposed to the normal ways of making movies. Regardless of that he seems to come up with a good product. He knows his subject better than anyone else I know doing ski films. He’s a real fun-loving guy who can’t help but have fun when he shoots. I think that really translates to the films.”

Benedict added, “I would say Greg is in there higher on the fun scale, because he realized it’s one of the most important ingredients. You have to get past the pressure, ignore it, blow it off, become irresponsible with other people’s money, in a responsible fort of way.”

Stump’s bottle of beer was sweating in the heat. It left a ring of water on the metal step, and when he picked the bottle up to take a drink several drops flew through the air and landed on his bare leg. A 40-ish women in a bikini, with an earring in her right nostril and an elaborate tattoo on her right breast walked up to the RV. She looked to the stage, where the who was ending, and asked Stump, with a trace of sadness in her voice, “What was it, a bodybuilding contest?”

Gnarly Days Rad Nights 3

“Yep, just ended,” Stump said.

The women turned to her companion, a short, shirtless man with slicked back hair. “Oh, honey, did you hear that? A bodybuilding show! And we missed it. Darn.”

“Yep you missed it. And it was something,” Stump said, with a straight face and most sincere tone in his voice. The couple walked away disappointed. I turned the conversation to his movies.

“Everything started with the motivation of making a ski movie, but the reality of it was that you have to do a lot of other thing to be able to do that, like wooing sponsors. The miracle is that has gone away. Now we get paid for exactly what we want to do. I feel like I’m getting paid for being myself. I’m doing what I’d do if I had a choice,” he said.

You have to become irresponsible with other people’s money… in a responsible sort of way.

“I see my audience as my friends. We’re making a documentary, only we’re documenting ourselves having fun. I think the reason that people either really like or really dislike my movies is because there’s so much of me in each one. If you have a different sense of hum from me, then you aren’t going to like it.”

Stump and I sat for a couple minutes in silence, and then a redheaded women in a black dress hurries up to him and said, “Greg, we’re going to need you soon to shoot the point-of-sale tape.”

“Ok,” he said. “Let’s wait awhile until the light is right and then we’ll do it.”

Stump introduced the women, Kathy Gowland, who is Swatch’s director of special events. Swatch sponsors a lot of events three days–freestyle skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking– and Stump is frequently hired to shoot the carious spectavels. Swatch is also one of Stump’s major sponsors, helping to underwrite all three of her movies and a 50-college tour of Stump’s new film. On this day, at Venice, Swatch brought Stump in to shoot the bodybuilding show, a fashion show, and rap-style vignettes performed by passerby to promote a new watch in the Swatch point-of-sale videos that appear in department stores.

The sun sank lower, and by about four o’clock it had burnished the park in a California gold, Stump packed up his camera and film magazines and walked toward the beach where Swatch execs and New York advertising agency workers waiter for him in front of a graffiti covered wall. Bruce Benedict was there to run the sound. The plan for the shoot was simple: “Real” people would stand in front of the graffiti wall and chant short poems, rap style, about Swatch’s new watch, Stump would shoot the footage, which would later be overdubbed with music.

It probably wouldn’t be fair to say that the shoot quickly degenerated into chaos. It didn’t have a chance to degenerate because it was unorganized from the start. Stump watch silently as Swatch execs gave the volunteers, already nervous about standing in front of a movie camera, were confused further by the anarchy on the set. They stumbled over their lines, and Stump had to shoot three or four takes of each group of volunteers. Despite the mess, he remained calm and in good humor. Once his voice rose above the hubbub, “OK can I ask a question? Will somebody tell me what we’re doing?

Later, he said, “I was just the camera in that situation. It was Swatch’s show. And if I had tried to put any control on that shoot it would have exploded.”

That’s a sharp departure from the way Stump usually works. During production of his movies he controls almost everything. It’s his style, the style he used when he shot skiing and boarding footage recently for Converse and Juicy Fruit ads. He says it’s the only way he wants to work.

“They shouldn’t use me if they don’t want to do it my way,” he said. “People should be allowed to do things on their own terms. They do a much better job.”

Some of his friends worry that he’ll burn out and that his work will suffer. Grandey, who Stump says knows him well, said, “The thing that’s difficult, and I think Greg knows it but doesn’t know what to do about it, is he’s doing everything himself. He has to arrange the ski area they’re shooting at, asses weather, set up the shot, figure who’s got what equipment, decide who goes where and who’s capable of what. That’s a combination of jobs that in a normal feature film four or five people would be doing.

“The other way to deal with that is to start give up some control of doing it yourself. That’s something that every filmmaker is always faced with. It’s at a point where Greg has some choices to make. He can either get more structure and try to take on more people or continue to do what ‘s doing.”

Stump insisted he is not going to burn out, and that he will continue to control all aspects of his films. There was a sense of frustration in his voice as he defended his style: “I got in ski films because I wanted to make the films. I don’t want to tell someone else how to make my movies. Look at the big ski filmmakers–Warren Miller Dick Barrymore and Jay make ski films, films that are tiny by feature film standards, and Stump repeatedly said that his goal was to make “real” movies. Grandey thinks that sump has the potential to make feature films–if he can give up some of his control.

“Oh, he definitely has the potential. But there are things that need to be tested. I see a number of things that Greg has that not that many people are able to demonstrate. But there are a number of things that are necessary for feature films that aren’t evident in his ski films, like story sense. He starts with a story line, dances around it with flash and then comes back to it later. In feature films you want to have a little more emphasis on the story.

“He also has to learn how to trust people to do the things he would like to do himself but doesn’t have the time. I’m hoping he can do that more next year. I think he need to start getting more good people attached to him so he can give up some of that control and not worry.”

Gnarly Days Rad Nights 5

Everyone connected with the Swatch shoot seemed relieved when it ended, and it was with no little enthusiasm that Stump, Benedict, Gowland and the others headed to Rebecca’s a nearby bar. After a quick drink, we piled into Stump’s rented BMW to go across town to Ed Debevic’s, a nouveau diner in Beverly Hills. We crept through the cramped beachfront streets, but when we hit the open boulevards, Stump punched it. Hot new reggae boomed on the stereo, and we zipped in and out of traffic. Good brakes, that BMW.

Eating at Debevic’s is like stumbling back into the ‘50s. The booths, the titles on the floor, the lighting fixtures–all straight from the Cold War era. Even the waitresses were perfect: the beehive hairdos, the dangling earrings, the smacking gum. Our waitress was named Frankie, and she took our orders with a finely honed sulk: “Yeah doll, whatcha want?” Stump, at the other end of our table of eight, went for the pot roast, I think. Kathy Gowland picked the meatloaf. I took a chance on the Atomic Burger.

Stump didn’t say much during dinner. Mostly he say back and watched other people making spectacles of themselves with ketchup. Occasionally he would shout through the group with a grin, “Getting your story yet?”

After dinner, around midnight, Stump, Benedict and I found ourselves on a deserted Los Angeles street in front of a darkened nightclub. Stump was disappointed it was closed–it had been his idea to go there–and he tried to convince us what a great club it was.

“No really, guys. Beautiful women, great music, cheap drinks,” he said.
“Uh huh. Sure Greg.”
“I’m serious. Really.” He paused for a second, thinking about what to do next.
“Look, why don’t we just go back to the hotel and close down its bar?”