The Grass is Sweeter
Nick Waggoner on freedom, life, and death with Sweetgrass Productions
This story originally appeared in the February 2013 edition (Volume 41, Issue 6) of POWDER Magazine which can be purchased here.
It’s 11 p.m., and we’re lost. Six headlamps pierce the fog as we skin toward the ridgeline. The lights illuminate our breath and snow falls sideways through the beams. We’ve rerouted due to high avalanche danger and a sensitive 18-inch soft slab sitting precariously on top of the snowpack. The goal is a pillow zone called “Heaven on Earth.” It’s there that Nick Waggoner, director of Sweetgrass Productions, wants to stage a night shoot for his next film, Valhalla.
We were there the night before. Waggoner covered several lights with red and blue GELS. He wanted to give the 400-vertical-foot shot a surreal ’60s aura. Two days earlier, he and Carston Oliver climbed 2,000 vertical feet to the base of “Heaven on Earth,” across the road from Whitewater–the end-of-the-road ski area in British Columbia’s Kootenays–with a 130-pound generator. They alternated strapping the thing to their backpacks, along with several lights. It took them eight hours.
We left the house around 4 p.m. that afternoon, skinning uphill as dusk morphed into night. Oliver, Cody Barnhill, and Austin Ross left earlier to set up the lights, so by the time Waggoner, a couple of photographers, and I approached the area, it looked like a UFO landing–a random pocket of brilliant light in the thick of the forest.
“This is the prettiest shot I’ve seen in my life,” Waggoner says as he looks through his viewfinder. “This is, holy shit.”
Waggoner and Sweetgrass have been doing things differently for a while. The production company’s third and most recent movie Solitaire (which premiered in fall 2011), cemented its reputation for producing ethereal backcountry ski films. Compared to the typical action-heavy ski porn the ski movie industry releases every year, Solitaire is a dark, lonely backcountry ski journey. The film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and uses subtitles to translate the Spanish narration.
The film follows skiers through South America–on skis, horses, boats, and paragliders–as they trek from the Amazon to the Andes. The crew–including Waggoner, Ben Sturgulewski, Zac Ramras, and Michael Brown–dealt with death, altitude sickness, and monster butterflies that wanted to lay larvae in their ears. The end result: a movie that was more about solitude and self-exploration than it was about skiing.
Waggoner, 27, earned a National Geographic “Adventurer of the Year” nomination for his work on Solitaire. A New York City native, he envisioned making a life for himself in the mountains since he was a kid. He is clever, masochistic, and uncompromising in getting what he wants for his films. He’s also, by all accounts, excellent at dancing.
Waggoner’s poignant films are a unique rebuke to the athlete-centric tradition in contemporary ski movies: a personal, human angle opposed to $10,000 heli trips. But his dedication comes at a cost. Sure, his movies are different. But how long will viewers, athletes, and sponsors follow him in a restless world filled with short web series and easy-to-digest plots?
Back at the set, no one seems to give a damn. Athletes take turns launching into the red-and-blue night from a 20-foot drop. Waggoner adjusts the lights and pulls himself up snow-covered boulders after each shot, searching for the right angle. The footage looks crazy: athletes burrowing deep into the snow, disappearing behind the shadows of a pillow, then launching into the Technicolor night. And by the look on Waggoner’s face, it appears that’s just how he wanted it.
Sweetgrass began filming Valhalla in 2012 in Nelson, British Columbia. Waggoner drew inspiration from Thomas Campbell’s eccentric surf films and Bill Heath’s cult classic ski movie Sinners. “It’s about the golden age of freeskiing and freedom,” he says. “This period when people kind of rejected the norms of the time and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to find my own path, my own style, my own music, and my own culture.’”
The location, an idyllic community in the Kootenays full of artists, free spirits, and strange, provides a fitting setting and characters for the film. One afternoon after skiing, Waggoner showed me an edit they recently put together of local girls and guys skiing naked, some of the skiers falling–one girl even taking a sapling to the chest–and others shredding. “You got to live it,” he says. “Like a Hollywood film, you got to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get wild and find that freedom within ourselves.’”
Waggoner finds ideas for Valhalla by listening to a catalog of music. At the Sweetgrass house in Nelson’s Rosemont neighborhood, we listen to music from the ’60s–Motown, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, and the Mamas & the Papas–and watch Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary. “Once I have that vision,” he says, “it’s kind of impossible for me to ignore it. I think through years of filming and being in the mountains and also growing up in New York City–having to take the Greyhound to go skiing–I realized that if I wanted to get what I wanted, I had to be willing to put up with a lot of shit to get it.”
A common aesthetic for Sweetgrass is setting up a stationary shot so the skier slowly moves through the frame, putting just as much emphasis on the riding as the place and the feeling of being there. Waggoner is more interested in capturing moments between the moments, the ones you don’t see while skiing, like the way a ski pole slides through the snow or the subtleties of a skier arcing a huge turn or airing a pillow. The result is a study of the minutiae that makes up the act of skiing, both on and off the slope.
“I want to take people somewhere with our films,” he says. “We are taking people to another world, to another place where maybe they don’t have the courage to go, or they don’t have the means or whatever, or the knowledge that that world exists. And for me, it’s really awesome to go out and explore those places and to bring them back and share them with people and inspire them with stories by exploring something new and a different way of seeing skiing.”
Unlike most ski production companies, Sweetgrass takes two years to complete a film. The group spends their summers planning and editing, then travels and shoots in the winter. Waggoner and Sturgulewski do most of the filming and editing, but those duties are also shared by Brown and Ramras, who also handles business operations. Sturgulewski, Waggoner, and Ramras met while attending Colorado College, and brought Brown in, whom Ramras had grown up with in Salt Lake City.
Waggoner himself grew up far from the mountains, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He once took Stefani Germanotta, now more commonly known as Lady Gaga, to a high school dance. His father is an investment banker and his mother is a consultant. They divorced when he was young, after which he lived with his dad while his older brother stayed with their mom. Growing up, Waggoner was always creative and ingenious. He was featured in a New York Times story for winning a contest that showed humans’ interactions with mice. And he was a practical joker. For Christmas one year, he gave his brother a huge box, inside of which was another box, and so on until a half-dozen boxes later, his brother got to his gift: a dildo. Another year he slipped K-Y jelly into his brother’s stocking. His father called him “Nickster the Dirty Trickster.”
“He was a wild man,” says his mother, Marci Flava. “He’s been his own person since the beginning. Very clever. Very intense. Very independent.”
When Waggoner was 12, his brother gave him Matchstick Productions’ Sixth Sense for Christmas. Waggoner says the film changed his life. “I’d ride the subway jamming out to the music (from the film), daydreaming about airing pillows and spinning and just shredding,” he says. “That was my way of getting out of the city.”
Waggoner developed an independence and sense of adventure at a young age, too. When he was 14, he saw a storm brewing in Summit County. By that time his family was taking regular ski vacations to Vail, and Waggoner decided he wanted to catch a powder day on his own. He booked a ticket to Denver, hitchhiked to Vail, and slept in the stairwell of a hotel.
A few years later, he studied film at Colorado College. On a spring break trip with Sweetgrass co-producer Sturgulewski, the two needed a place to stay at a California ski area. They went to a bar, hoping to figure something out. After the bartender announced last call, Waggoner told Sturgulewski to go outside. Waggoner then hid in a closet until the bartender cleaned up and left, then let Sturgulewski in a back door.
They sat behind the bar drinking until they passed out. In the morning, they stuffed a bottle of Blue Label in their backpack and headed off. “Blue Label” became the original name of their film company. Their first project was Ski-mers, which starred the future members of Sweetgrass on trips to St. Anton and Nelson, and earned acceptance into the Colorado College Film Festival.
In 2008, Sweetgrass released Hand Cut, which explored the Coast Range and Colorado’s Red Mountain Pass through a 16mm film. A year later, Sweetgrass’ Signatures dug in to the expression and meaning of a turn in Hokkaido, Japan. The film won Best Cinematography at the 2010 POWDER Awards. For Solitaire, the crew spent two winters in South America, and will stick to the two-year formula for Valhalla.
“You kind of have to become the place before you can make a film about it,” says Waggoner. “You have to absorb all of it, let it soak in.”
Sweetgrass produced 14,000 copies of Solitaire, which won best cinematography, best director, best editing, and best emerging filmmaker at X-Dance, in addition to a long list of other nominations and awards. The company’s title sponsors were Dynafit and Patagonia, but when Sweetgrass was getting started, Waggoner financed his films by working at summer camps. Sturgulewski bought his first camera with money he made while fishing in Alaska.
The group has also had help from family. Waggoner’s family recently loaned the company $43,000 for an Epic Red camera. They also try to take as many non-skiing gigs as they can to subsidize their ski movies. Last winter, Waggoner went to New York to film high school Rockette dancers for a reality television show, in addition to shooting for HBO’s “24/7: Boxing,” NBC Sports, and Under Armour–specifically, a commercial with Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.
There is an inherent risk to filming with a director who knows what he wants and is determined to get it. The night we looked for “Heaven on Earth,” the Canadian Avalanche Centre had forecasted high avalanche danger on all aspects. After a conversation on a fork-in-the-road ridgeline, we decided to turn back. We skied 300 feet at a time, near the skin track, to be safe. Waggoner found himself on a steeper pitch–closer to 40 degrees than the 30 to 35–and suddenly, a 50-foot wide, 18-inch soft slab carried him and his headlamp down the slope.
We heard nothing at first, then heard him swear and some branches break. He caught hold of a tree as the slab ran a few hundred feet downhill, then bootpacked up to the group. Later, after a tense ski out, when we finally saw the lift shack of Whitewater’s Glory Ridge Chair, I was surprised he wasn’t more shaken up.
“I want to be able to put myself in those situations and somehow feel that I can still be safe and get those shots and experience those things,” he says of moments like that one. “For me, that fine line is really like this electric moment, because you realize not that many people are willing to put themselves in that way of harm. But avalanches and snow-wise, that’s probably the one area I don’t compromise, because I think it has the most potential to kill me out of all the things I do.”
Another risk is that, because of Sweetgrass’ stylized method of filming, experienced athletes are sometimes hard to find. Jacqui Edgerly, who has appeared in three Sweetgrass films, says she grew frustrated with their slow pace. Others won’t work with them because they don’t get credit in the film–only a mention at the end. Waggoner says this is a rebuke to the egocentric, chest-bumping approach of mainstream films. Still, the style makes it hard for athletes trying to make a living from skiing.
In June 2010, the Sweetgrass crew planned a trip to Peru with talented ski mountaineers Dave Rosenbarger, Kip Garre, and Arne Backstrom. When they arrived, they learned that one of the skiers had died while skiing in the Andes. They didn’t know which one it was until they went to help recover the body–and saw Garre and Rosenbarger in a tent. They realized then it was Backstrom, the reigning Freeskiing World Tour champion who was going to star in Solitaire. Waggoner remembers sitting at a picnic table at a refugio eating lunch, Backstrom’s body a few feet from him, reflecting on the thin line between life and death in the mountains.
“It was pretty profound for me to see that,” Waggoner said to me on the phone last spring. He had just hitchhiked from Carbondale to Boulder. His speech was slow, deliberate, and reverent. “And what I was thinking about in that moment was his family and all the conversations and all the love and the time that had gone into making him the man that he was, and how quickly that was lost.”
While Waggoner is anything if not sincere, his philosophizing isn’t for everyone. Critics of Sweetgrass say Solitaire is too abstract; too focused on the cinematography instead of the skiing; the skiing isn’t the best; the artsy shots are too contrived. In the film, one of the shots is of a skier wearing a full pack in the middle of the salt flats, far from the mountains. The soundtrack is the acoustic melodies of Fleet Foxes and Jose Gonzalez, not the upbeat poppy rock you hear in other flicks. Later in the movie, skiers backslap 720s and ski bulletproof sastrugi.
Still, others, like mountaineer Trevor Hunt, insist the company has proven its worth through its work ethic and distinctive films. That, and going places other cinematographers won’t. “They just kept their shit together, man,” says Hunt, who appeared in Solitaire. “It was full on. Ptor Spricenieks and I, we’ve skied all over the world, skied gnarly stuff, and that was up there with anything we’ve ever encountered… There’s a reason why people don’t do that kind of filming. It’s fucking hardcore.”
A spider crawling on my arm wakes me. Waggoner stirs. We’re in the house he rented in Nelson. His mattress lies directly on the cement floor, across from mine in his unfinished room. A rotating cast of athletes comes through and stays at the house. On my first trip, 19 people stayed here. Two slept in closets. He doesn’t have many possessions lying around: two glass lamps; unopened bottles of Laphroaig single malt, Bulleit bourbon, and Carolans Irish Cream; and a handful of books, including The Filmmaker’s Eye, Film Editing, and Just Kids.
We eat high fiber cereal with almond milk for breakfast and head up the hill. Like a true New Yorker, Waggoner doesn’t drive. He walks in his Dynafits from the house, to the coffee shop, to the hill, to the liquor store, and back to the house. Once on the hill, we end up in a shack called The Shrine, passing a B.C. cigarette while Waggoner reads an Üllr poem aloud. Then we drop into the trees to ski two feet of fresh.
“In skiing we’re always thinking so much about what we’re going to get out of it or what we’re going to produce from it, especially as filmmakers and professional skiers and photographers,” Waggoner says on Whitewater’s center-bar double chair. “There’s this huge focus on what we’re going to produce and what the outcome of it is going to be, and in doing that you kind of lose track of, like, why you’re doing it and what’s fun about it and just the simplicity of having a good time with your friends and not thinking about what you’re going to post on Facebook when you get done at the end of the day, or what you’re going to Tweet or blog about.
“It’s really just about being in that moment and being free and feeling the ultimate connection to that turn. There’s the ultimate freedom when you’re turning and when you’re not thinking about anything but that moment. All you’re thinking about is that turn and at the same time, it’s so much more than that, so much more than just the simplicity of that moment. It’s like everything and nothing at the same time.”
As Waggoner learns more about skiing and filming, the company continues to evolve as well. He says Valhalla is going to create a lot of opportunities for Sweetgrass. For now, each member of the company earns a livable stipend. It’s not their income that worries Waggoner about Sweetgrass’s sustainability, though. “I think the more challenging part is keeping up the human spirit with the grind, the masochism of it,” he says. “Nobody is making films in the style that we do.”
Back in the trees, the powder is overhead and everyone hoots and hollers. It feels like the best moment of our lives. Once we bottom out at the cat track and are cruising back to the lift, I look behind me and see Waggoner with a huge smile, shaking both fists in front of him in joy. On the chairlift, he sings a Joe Cocker tune and giggles randomly and uncontrollably.
“That’s where you connect to skiing and the snow and the people and it’s where I feel like as a creative person I have my ideas and that’s where they spark, when the light bulb goes off,” he says. “It’s not when I’m in my room on my computer, like racking my brain for ideas. It’s when I’m in a turn that I’m like, ‘bing!’ and everything makes sense in that moment. Everything makes sense when I’m just skiing to go ski.”
Sweetgrass dropped the trailer to Valhalla last week. To read John Clary Davies’ review, click here.
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