By John Clary Davies
As the old story goes that never grows old, in 1937 Warren Miller taught himself how to ski on a pair used, $2 dollar planks with no edges and leather toe straps for bindings. After a stint in the Navy, Miller moved to Sun Valley. He and a surfing buddy camped out in the parking lot in a teardrop trailer. Eventually, he bought an 8mm camera. From there, Miller directed a ski movie annually from 1950 to 2004. In an e-mail exchange, Miller, now 87, reflected on his career for Powder.com.
The Navy service let me move away from being around a completely dysfunctional family and opened my eyes to travel from Los Angeles to Chicago, Florida, New Jersey and Guadalcanal to help supervise the rescue of 27 people on our Sub-chaser that was sunk in a hurricane. They had dropped the bombs in Japan, and a week later the war was over. I suppose I grew up a lot in those years, as I’d never had a good role model to follow and the Navy established some discipline.
My camera brought me freedom and a chance to document and share it. It was like having a magic carpet and a passport all rolled into one.
I don’t know how conscious I was of making a living doing something that allowed me a lot of beach and mountain time. But in 1946, I had perfected doing only what I wanted to do, so I guess the natural outcome was the film business.
Ward Baker and I lived in a trailer throughout the winters of ’46-47, and then again in ’47-48. Ward Baker was a high school surfing buddy who had surfer’s knees so he wasn’t allowed in the service, so he became a commercial fisherman and surfed all the time. We were either in class for the Navy or on a ship. Still makes me grumpy. In the spring of 1949, I was trying to build a house in Ketchum, Idaho. I started missing the beach (girls) and surfing, so I sold it before it was completed and high-tailed it back to the beach.
I learned to live quite comfortably on my wits, as comfortable as you can get in a 12-foot-long, 8-foot-wide trailer with an outside kitchen in the back. The temperature inside was the same as outside, and the lowest temperature was in January one year at 30 below. I never have been a drinker because my dad was an alcoholic, but we ate a lot of rabbits and ducks that we shot down near Shoshone. Plus making tomato soup out of ketchup and hot water, filling it out with lots of free, oyster crackers in the Roundhouse of Sun Valley.
Life was simple then.
I first started making movies with an 8mm camera. Film and processing were $11 dollars a roll, and I was only making $125 a month, eating only because the ski areas fed me. My first film was taken mostly in Squaw Valley, the first year it opened, ’49, and in Sun Valley.
Essentially, a lifestyle has developed around me, or as my wife says, a cult following. It’s all about freedom, and that is what I’ve been fortunate to share with so many people all these years.
For the first years that I produced a feature-length film, starting in the fall of 1949-50, I had a projector, screen, and microphone and a tape deck in my truck, which I would live in while on the road, and I’d hope for at least three people who wanted to watch it. Sometimes we had more than 20 or 30 people and would have to pass the hat to collect as much as a dollar or two and a ski patrol pin when someone had no change.
During those same years I was married, and had a son whose mother passed away from cancer when he was a year and a half, so life was really tough and sad, but I’d pretty much chosen where I wanted to go by then. I’d have to go pound nails or dig ditches to try to make ends meet. Other times I’d show in bars and restaurants and then ask them to pass the hat, sometimes collecting as much as 60 bucks!
It was pretty exciting when the film tour became popular and anticipated. I would give my personal appearances and show the film from the stage in at least 100 cities. I was guaranteed $200 per night, which meant that I could finance the next movie and raise three kids at the same time.
It takes a great deal of time and thought to provide an entertaining film, with rhythm and different features than just extreme skiing. That is so overdone and boring by now. Where did the entertainment go? I don’t suppose it’s any more expensive as it was then, to do the whole job, and well, it’s just relative to what the dollar is worth, but it takes so many parts to do the entire film and tour. And it’s very important to study psychology, because as a filmmaker your job is to entertain and change the minds of the people that watch your movie.
I made a film on horseracing that won a silver medal and almost doubled attendance at the racetrack. On another film, I worked with Howard Head, analyzing the metal skis he was making. We put the ski in a vice, distorted the tip 10 inches and with the camera taking 1,000 pictures per second, we were able to study the fluctuations that occurred. Every ski on the market has benefitted from those experiments in that putting fiberglass in them resulted in the ski returning to normal and dampening the action. My staff was probably the only people who ever saw the movie, but I was really proud of it.
I also had the pleasure of spending six months traveling all over the world with Jean Claude Killy, in the process of making 13 television shows in the winter of 1968-69. He’s a truly amazing athlete and person.
A recent film that I particularly enjoyed was Mount St. Elias. It was an excellent effort in filmmaking.
No one has operated (Warren Miller Entertainment) for a long time who really understands what the cult following was. These things happen, and the originator’s vision is often lost; I think that is regrettable.
What an amazing life it has been, probably the most exciting thing if you put it all together are the amazing, wonderful, interesting and brilliant people I’ve been able to meet and become friends with.
So many people have picked me up when I was low and I hope I did the same for them.