By Danielle Ennis
If you happen to be in Denver Sept. 15, we suggest you check out the premier of Sweetgrass Productions’ latest film, SOLITAIRE. Stitching together Southern Hemisphere skiing and snowboarding with adventure travel and culture, director Nick Waggoner and crew succeeded in carrying out powder cinematography in some of the most inhospitable conditions. A two-year project, SOLITAIRE is filled with uncharted lines and deep-rooted tradition. It’s also a story, and enlightening on far more than just snow, something Waggoner talks about here with Powder.com.
POWDER.COM: Why the title “SOLITAIRE”?
NICK WAGGONER: Skiing is a lot about going to places you’ve never been before, skiing lines you’ve never skied before, trying a trick you’ve never tricked before. And all that has to do with the unknown—you’re not quite sure if any of it will work or if you can do it. At the core of SOLITAIRE is this idea of the lone, solitary, skier, in the middle of a massive darkness, dealing with the tension of the unknown and what lies ahead. The Andes are a rugged and wild range, pounded by winds, and built out of rock a bit sharper and sand a bit grittier. There are no certainties in a range of that scale, and our film is really about that tension and the individuals that have to deal with that mystery, without a foot on firm ground or, mentally, any sense of security to latch on to. The South is a wild place, much more wild than the west.
How does SOLITAIRE blend backcountry skiing with Western cinema? SOLITAIRE was inspired by old westerns, their landscapes, and their sense of tension. The old Sergio Leone films always made you feel the moment, made your heart beat in anticipation of the moment when the hammer of a revolver finally clicked and exploded the chamber. Western flicks have a lot of themes to them, and I won’t get all film geeky on you, but, in short, it’s really about capturing the landscape and desolation.
What troubles did you face in these sorts of places? We’ve faced more setbacks and tragedies than I can relate. On the first day in South America in 2010, Arne Backstrom passed away while we were en route to meet him, Dave Rosenbarger and Kip Garre. Kip also passed away this May in the Sierras. It doesn’t get much more serious than that. On a day-to-day basis, the Andes destroy you. They absolutely annihilate you, your plans, your crew, your morale, and everything in between. From bad weather to sickness to logistics, there is literally no end to the chaos that South America can put in your way. And in spite of all that, it’s a huge reason why we chose the continent, and why SOLITAIRE really makes sense. It challenges you in a major way.
How are you going to get two years of a filming project edited into a movie in a month’s time? Editing on that time frame takes years off your life. If you want to know what it feels like, smoke three cartons of cigarettes, starve yourself, don’t sleep for a week, and stare at a light bulb for 16 hours a day. It is very much an extension of the film theme—we’re going into the unknown, largely alone, attempting something potentially impossible. We’re really big on method acting here at Sweetgrass.
Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile—that’s a whole lot of skiing and culture combined. What did you guys learn off the mountain? Two years in places as wild as Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile ultimately color the film, and change it for the better. We’ve slept on dirt floors, amongst tarantula nests, stuffing our ears with cotton so butterflies wouldn’t lay eggs in our ears. We’ve watched guinea pigs get killed, and we’ve eaten them 10 minutes later. We’ve sat in giant valleys at 14,000 feet, in the shadow of 20,000-foot peaks, while 75 year-old women spin yarn and tell us about the history of their land, of buried Incan gold. We’ve climbed up the rowdiest of glaciers at 1 a.m. as lightning raged in the clouds of the jungle to the east—little bursts of pink glowing on the horizon. Hot damn. It’s been a good time.
Did the merciless outweigh the magnificent? A month of waiting, and stressing, and trying to move up a glacier or get to a zone, or ski a line, pisses you off. I don’t care if you’re a monk; South America has a way of getting inside your head and making you feel the darkness, the defeat, the struggle. And sometimes you succeed and sometimes you flail. We never wanted a sure bet with this.
And the reward? All of the above. The lightning storms over the jungle… the side of life no one else gets to see, the grit and the glory.