Riding up the Summit Chair at Whitewater Ski Area on New Year’s Eve last year, I asked Sweetgrass Productions Director Nick Waggoner if he really felt that he could tell a story—like a real drama screenplay—within a ski movie. I asked him if the ski movie format can answer the search for meaning…the search for childlike harmony in this modern, ever-connected world we live in. I wasn’t sure if it was the proper vehicle. Waggoner, 27, looked at the falling snow, then, in a moment of meditative-like thought and a challenge-like stare back at me, he chuckled and responded. "I hope so. You'll see."
At downtown Denver's Paramount Theatre on Friday, September 13, Sweetgrass raised the curtains on their highly anticipated film, Valhalla, to a sold-out crowd. Publicized and promoted for being unconventional for its true narrative arc, Valhalla made it feel like Sweetgrass was on the verge of blowing up big time or self-destructing.
Despite a script that could have been edited for length and ethereal tone, and a segment that some may deem too analogous to Ken Kesey and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Should I have been on LSD for that?), Waggoner and his Sweetgrass bretheren—Ben Sturgulewski, Zac Ramras, Mike Brown, and Max Santeusanio—gave me what I wanted: a pensive ski film that is unlike any other recent iteration, and deserved of a place on my ski DVD bookshelf. It's one of skiing's few big-budget, non-documentary films in the last 20 years that successfully tells a story, as in a ski movie with actors that don't even necessarily ski.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, Sweetgrass' fourth feature-length film harvested interest for several reasons—most notably, for its psychedelic trailers and the producers' penchant for cinematographic excellence and desire to document stories of skiing on and off the slopes. The latter supplemented by Sweetgrass' style of two-year projects, where they typically embed themselves in a region—Japan for 2009's Signatures, which won Best Cinematography at the 2010 Powder Awards, and South America for 2011's Solitaire—for the majority of those 24 months. In this case, the bohemian enclave of British Columbia's interior and Alaska acted as the Valhalla-like setting for the film's plot. Combine that with a 50-page screenplay and a fictional protagonist named Conrad, played by underrated skier Cody Barnhill, and Valhalla elicited excitement and wonder in anticipation.
I found myself practically biting my nails hoping the audience would approve of Sweetgrass' latest release because I wanted this attempt—a thoughtful story to be told within a ski film—to actually work. Do ski audiences merely desire hedonistic films with athlete/location-centric segments? Was this going to be a melodramatic vision quest of existential wanderlust? Instead of ski porn and canned athlete interviews—"bro" this and "sick" that, and "so epic!"—I desperately wanted to feel the soul of skiing through film. And maybe, like the protagonist Conrad, I longed for that childhood innocence to return and excite me into a frenzy for ski season by sitting in a theater for 60 minutes and watching skiing on the silver screen.
To start, it is undoubtedly clear digital technology has augmented cinematography to unprecedented quality, as the Red cameras shoot such a tack sharp frame, especially seen in slow-mo pow shots. Of course, it requires skilled lensmen, and Waggoner and Sturgulewski excel in that department, with their composition and post-production color. And it helps to be shooting A-level ski talent, as well, with rippers Eric Hjorleifson and Pep Fujas making their Sweetgrass debuts, while giving Sweetgrass a massive step up in skier ability from the past due to film-sponsor alignments with Dynafit and Patagonia.
Barnhill, longing for fulfillment and a return to that inner child, was cast perfectly for the character of Conrad, as the viewer follows his journey from Southern Utah to a hippy commune in the Kootenays of B.C., where he meets those searching for the sincerity in a powder co-op, along with a character played by the ever-dramatic Sierra Quitiquit. Eventually, he thumbs it north to Alaska, where, not surprisingly, the best riding of the film takes place, highlighted by Fujas, Carston Oliver, Zack Giffin, and some of the most graceful snowboard pow shredding I've seen since the cult-like Mack Dawg and Standard Films movies of the mid-’90s. This journey unfolds in six chapters—birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood, legacy, and rebirth—and artfully weaves the purity of skiing and the spirit of our tribal-like culture into Conrad's search for authenticity.
But it's not all so story-heavy seriousness. The film includes the first entirely naked ski segment, full of nips and ass—even a flatspin 3 thrown by a skier wearing nothing but an avalanche beacon. It's hilarious and wonderful and another reminder of why we love skiing, mirroring the up-and-down trajectory of life. Add that to a segment shot in the overgrown forest near Mount Baker without snow during June and July with skiers airing creeks, sliding moss-covered felled trees, boosting log jams, and even jibbing a giant evergreen.
Ultimately, I've never watched a ski film where I wanted to read the script, like I would a drama film. Valhalla may not enter the ski-porn movie masterpiece pantheon, but it's certainly the most thought-provoking and original take on the ski film genre in a long time. That, and the cinematography, makes me want to watch it again. And again. In this absurd pastime known as life, authenticity can be difficult to discover. Yet the chill-inducing conclusion to Valhalla makes believers out of inquisitive cynics that long for the youthful innocence of staring up at snowflakes for the first time.
Valhalla premiere viewer responses as told to Sarah Ward
"I did really appreciate the spiritual aspect of the film because I get that out of skiing. Good writing, good message. If I had one word to describe it I would say heady." –Andy 30, backcountry skier
"I was going to say artsy not heady. It was more like soul skiing. I want to ski naked now!" —Andy's friend
"Every time you go see them [Sweetgrass], you're reminded that they are not a normal ski movie." —Eli, 20, backcountry skier
"You can't remake this movie, that's for sure. This is like a different category of movie, a different category of skiing." —Rebecca, 23, intermediate resort skier
Click-in here to see where Valhalla premieres next.