(Ed’s note: The newest Powder magazine—the Photo Annual, January 2012, No. 40.5—hits newsstands today, and features a story about veteran cinematographer Matt Herriger. This post is an interview component to that piece, replete with Herriger’s new film trailer, up top.)
By Matt Hansen
Meeting up with Matt Herriger in downtown Chamonix is a lot like getting zapped by lightning—the enthusiasm he gives off is electric. But that doesn't tell the whole story. First of all, lightning bolts aren't friendly. Nor do they have huge smiles, or wear bandanas, or sweep you into the underbelly of the greatest ski town on the planet. They don't have a gleam in their eye when talking about traveling in some far off distant place. And lightning bolts certainly don't leave you with a desire to go do something crazy and rad and memorable. Like skiing some beautiful line that requires utmost focus—what Herriger calls Jedi training—or ditching all that you know to head off into the unknown. But that's exactly what it feels like to get to know the guy everyone calls "Moo."
Herriger, 46, is a cinematographer who has spent his entire adult life chasing down the dream. Kids don't ask for his autograph, but the truth is that he has been integral to TGR's films for more than a decade. As one of the premier big mountain and steep skiing cameramen in the world, his recent credits include work on Seth Morrison's The Ordinary Skier, and Jeremy Jones' Deeper and Further.
"He's a really brave cat," says Dean Decas, a Chamonix local who like Herriger grew up in New England but has spent the greater part of the last 20 years skiing the steep lines around Mont Blanc. "He's not afraid to put it out on the line and take risks. When he moved to Cham (in the mid '90s), he lived in a place without electricity or running water. He had no phone. That was so he could spend his rent money on mountaineering gear. That's always how he has been. If he's going to do it, he's going all the way in."
This winter, Herriger continues to walk out on a limb. A movie called Winter's Wind marks his independent debut as a filmmaker. The film is not ski porn. Nor is it a documentary. Rather, it's a story about your everyday kid who decides to follow his dreams as a skier. It is at times touching, soulful and inspiring. From the first chairlift rides at a small ski area, to ski bumming in Squaw Valley, to trips to Chamonix, to the struggles and sacrifices required to make it a lifelong adventure. Much of the footage is archival from throughout Herriger's years behind the camera, and includes skiing by Scot Schmidt, Micah, Decas, Mike Wilson, and others. Schmidt and Gary Bigham, the notorious ex-pat who lives in Chamonix, are the film's inspirational figures, and no doubt big influences over Herriger's own life. In classic Dick Barrymore style, the film is narrated as the story progresses.
The film's concept, though fictional, reflects Herriger's own path in his search for truth and meaning as a skier. Winter's Wind does not have a release date. Stay tuned to Powder.com for updates. But we were able to sit down with Moo at a café in Jackson Hole to get his thoughts on where he came from, and where he's going.
I grew up on the Cape, and my dad would drop me off at the ski area on weekends. He had no desire to ski at all. So he'd drop me off and go to town to make business calls. And while I was skiing, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is the sickest thing ever.”
Growing up back East, all you know is Aspen. So that's where I wanted to go. A friend of ours who'd been out West a few times told us, "If you want to go chase Morgan Fairchild's dog around the mountain, go to Aspen. If you want to be a skier, go to Squaw." And I thought, “Well, I'm a skier, I'm going to Squaw.”
Within a month after being at Squaw, I was working at Rosie's Café and looking for roommates, and ended up living with Becky Schmidt—Scot Schmidt's sister. I was already kind of star-struck on Scot. Blizzard of Aahhhs had just come out.
Right before my first day of work, Scot comes into the house, and we put Blizzard on the tube and watched it together. I ended up going into work an hour and a half late. I thought I was going to be fired but then explained to them that I'd just watched Blizzard of Aahhhs with Scot Schmidt, and everyone thought that was pretty cool.
Next thing you know, Scot is going up to Shasta with Larry Prosor. I got the call up with Eric DesLaurier and Scot for The North Face. It ended up a two-page spread ad in Powder. And Scot got the cover from that same shoot.
The ski modeling was just to get photos in the mags. It didn't even seem like there was a huge film thing going yet. It was basically Warren Miller and this other guy, Greg Stump, who was edgier. And that was kind of it.
I was captivated with ski movies. I thought, “That is cool art.” It was about getting out, doing films, the thought of traveling… It was too much. I did Hedonist with Steve Winter, did the jumping off cliffs thing, and moved in with Tom Day. He started showing me how the film camera worked and we'd go out filming together.
Squaw was so competitive. It wasn't like Jackson, which was about how rad can you be and stay undercover. Squaw was like, “I want the sickest shit, I want the best gear, and I want early ups.”
For me, it was about getting on the trips. And the catalyst was moving in with Tom Day. The whole time, he was like, “Go to Chamonix, go to Chamonix.” And I'm thinking to myself, “How are you going to get the loot, to keep your house, and your dog, and go to Chamonix.” It was the impossible thing. Then the miracle happened…
A gal that I'd worked with from The North Face started an agency, and I gave her a headshot. I was filming with Scott Gaffney for Walls of Freedom, and he started doing The North Face movies with Rob DesLauriers. And this girl calls me to tell me an Italian company is doing a Marlboro commercial and they want you. All you have to do is make little video of yourself and send me two headshots. So I told Scott, “Let's make a little video of me being sexy in the river.” We had the kayaks and really long hair. He put in some funny footage, and sent it in. She calls us up and says, "You got the job."
So I fly down to Arizona, and I'm there with these super hot models from L.A. And there's me. One of the casting people was like, “How did you get this job?” But it all worked out. The beauty is we made 16 grand in one week. But they took their cut, and by the time the whole thing was over, I had four grand in cash. So I took that and went to Chamonix.
I had no idea what I was doing. Tom Day says, "You fly to Geneva. Take the train from Geneva. Go to Argentiere and check into the Belvedere. The next morning you wake up and buy your pass. That way, at least you know what you're doing the next day."
On that first day, I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and it's bluebird. I get down to the kitchen and it's so early that I beat the breakfast guy. Then I show up in line and no one's there. I'm just about the leave and Ted Shred [legendary ski bum from Jackson Hole] shows up. All his buddies had just left town and he tells me he needs a climbing and skiing partner.
After the Belvedere, I moved into the Shack with Troy Jungen and two Danish ski bums (Back in the '90s, Jungen wrote the Ski Bum Thesis for Powder about this primitive Cham crash pad, and Greg Stump included it in his movie P-Tex, Lies and Videotape. Yes, we are going deep here). And since I didn't have to pay for the hostel anymore, I was able to get ice axes, harnesses and all that. And that's when I started Jedi training. We were chasing dragons, and looking up at the mountain and saying, "There's Gandalf up on that cliff!" We were letting our minds go wild.
It was so liberating and enlightening, everything was open and wild. And the wilder you were the more captivated the French people were. They loved to see the passion. If you had it, they were so into it.
After that, I thought, “Well, I think I'll be a guide.” Tom Day says, "Jesus, Matt, that's a lot of responsibility. I think of you more of an artist." And I thought, “I am kind of an artist. But how the hell do you get all that equipment?” He says, "Go get yourself a 1500 Bolex. Chip away at some lenses, use this old wooden tripod, it was handed down to me.” So I got a film camera and started shooting at Squaw. Todd Jones [from TGR] sent me 10 rolls of film and a day rate. They paid it within the week. Which never happens anymore. The industry has changed so much.
TGR was my style. They were about the dirty pickup truck and ski bums.
Let's make no mistake: The whole time just getting to this point has been walking the razor's edge. It's that fine line of trying to do what you love, trying to stay with what you love doing, and staying on the edge of society. You gotta answer that question: How do you make it all work? That's what I'm examining in the film right now, too. Even though it's fictional, it's realistic.
My dad has questioned and hated everything about skiing since I started doing it. So the razor's edge is also seeking approval from your parents and the rest of society. I'm still skiing. I'm going to make the film thing, but at the same time you're getting older, and maybe you should be making more money, and maybe you should be living a certain lifestyle and living in a certain place. Most people have to make that decision at some point in their life. I realized I couldn't do that until this film was made. But now that I'm making it, it opens up so many other doors.
I'm filming with Jeremy Jones and I'm 46 years old and climbing up those mountains and hanging it out. And I'm looking at all those people we've lost in this sport—guys that weren't even supposed to get a scratch in the mountains.
When Arne passed it really shelled me. I really loved that kid. He was everything that skiing should be. I started questioning the importance of skiing, and the importance of even being happy. When it happened, I was working on the Seth Morrison movie, and I'm thinking, “How important is what we're trying to do and say here and people are dying?” And as I thought about it, I realized that's why we ski. That's why it's important for us to be happy that we go out there and celebrate life in the mountains.
Gary Bigham was big inspiration for me as well. He's still skiing every day and hanging with Plake. He's a major character in my movie. He plays the older guy riding his bike and being the ski bum in Cham. He's 60 and riding awesome and skiing awesome. He's so happy and surly at the same time.
The idea for Winter's Wind started 10 years ago with Micah Black in Argentina doing a film shoot with TGR. We wondered why nobody was making films about the journey. He flew out to Cham the next spring on his own budget, and we put together a short seven-minute film called Winter's Wind. George Couperthwait, who was with Rossignol at the time, said, "What is this—a story about a lonely guy? Does he meet a dog or anything?" So after that, Micah and I started looking for “lonely guy” shots.
As the years went by, we chipped away at a few other segs. I had house in Victor, [Idaho], I was working for TGR, making car payments… and I lost track of the ball. I broke my hand on a bike ride after a TGR premiere and had to wear a cast for three months. I went back East to convalesce, and it drove me nuts because my dad's there saying, “What are you going to do now?” And, “By the time I was your age I had a million already.”
So I go down to New York. I'm in a bad mood and it's getting worse. I go up to the roof, I'm playing guitars, and just started eating myself up. At one point, I was looking over the edge and thinking, “Should I just jump? I'm gonna be 50 years old and I'm still shooting for TGR.” I had a mini breakdown, my midlife crisis. That night, I went back to my journals to remind myself that it's been a rad run. And I immediately went back to Victor and sold my house. It was the greatest thing in the world. I wanted less overhead, more adventure, and to get my freedom back. I realized how much freedom meant. It wasn't the security, but the freedom to know I could do whatever I wanted. I took all the money from the house and put it into my film.
Sometimes you have to go into the mountains by yourself. Sometimes, it's about finding your own answers. It's going in there, being a Jedi. You gotta go to the top of that mountain, make your little peace, and say, “Let's be on it.”
I had to say no to Jeremy Jones to go to Norway in April because I was in L.A. editing. I didn't go to Cham this year, for the first time in I can't remember. But you know what? I'm good with it. There's a million gorgeous places to be in this world, but there's nothing greater than your own epic journey.