Every year, Freedle Coty starts over. After the credits have rolled on his last ski movie, the filmer and creative mind for Level 1 Productions hits the road to film with skiers across the continent, rewinding the process back to the beginning.
"Right away, right off the bat, you flip the hourglass over again," he says.
Coty, 33, has made ski movies for 17 years, joining Level 1 in 2003 and before that, making ski edits on VHS tapes with high school buddies. With a new ski season comes a new ski movie, and Level 1 has kept up with the annual pace even as the internet laps the traditional ski movie and instantaneous Instagram stories outrun web edits.
"Freedle is very, very, very, very opinionated and stands behind his opinion 110 percent no matter what, which more often than not, is good."
Despite the ever-evolving ways we consume ski media, Coty sticks to the script. The goal, year in and year out, is to produce a feature-length film that is both original and creative. Level 1 achieved that with Pleasure, their 2016 release that won "Movie of the Year" at the Powder Awards. For Coty, a high school dropout who has become one of the world's most consistent, loyal, and creative ski filmmakers, success brought new challenges. Pleasure was the culmination of his craft. Where other movies have left him hungry to do better, now he struggled to find inspiration.
"I read this great quote from Picasso--success can be your worst enemy because you start copying yourself," says Coty. "It can be way more detrimental. To copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. You get a pat on the back and some accolades, and then you're like, 'Where do you go from here?'"
The first time I called Coty, on a Monday in the middle of February, he was in Pemberton, British Columbia, where he had temporarily moved into Tatum Monod's house to spend his days pointing the camera while she sent backflips off powdery windlips in the woods. The film didn't have a working title, no theme, just a Groundhog Day schedule of watching the weather, sledding out to the backcountry, and timing shoots with untouched snow, interesting features, and good light. At that point, the movie was hardly more than some files on a memory card with little vision for what it would become.
Coty was unsure how long he would stay in Pemberton or where he would go next. Maybe he'd scoot over to Alberta; Switzerland was on the table, too. Snow and his own whims would dictate his immediate future. He was a one-man satellite filmer dispatched by Level 1, a film company of four. Josh Berman is the founder, producer, director, and businessman who calls the shots. Jonny Durst is the cinematic eye, the talent with drones and camera setups who shoots many of their urban segments and helps Berman edit the movie. George "Schui" Baumann is the graphic designer and creative director who works on the movies in post production. Coty's role is harder to define. He gravitates toward filming in the backcountry and calls himself a "general specialist." He works on the movie's broader theme that wraps all the pieces together cohesively. I asked Berman what Coty was known for: Dust spots on the lens, he said, half joking. Then he called Coty "the tastemaker."
"He's not afraid to help create something different and feel good about breaking the mold," says Berman. "Freedle is very, very, very, very opinionated and stands behind his opinion 110 percent no matter what, which, more often than not, is good."
"Snowboarding is a beautiful sport to me. It's this beautiful twin of skiing. Sometimes it looks so right and it feels very natural. That's what I look for in skiers, people that can bring that aesthetic and moments of magic."
Level 1's most inspired concepts in recent films--a British woman narrating Pleasure, for example--came from Coty. His tastemaking extends beyond the script. Coty has mentored some of skiing's biggest names, like Monod, who laughingly calls Coty her coach.
"I got so used to him coaching me through these things and teaching me different tricks or showing me stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise seen," says Monod. "Because he has been filming for so long, he has such an eye for it."
Parker White met Coty when he started to film with Level 1 in 2009 and they became friends, then roommates, as White climbed pro skiing's ranks and launched "The Big Picture," a web series, with Chris Logan.
"He's always got a good alternative perspective on shit. I think for that reason he is so valuable when it comes to making a film," says Parker. "I just think of him as Freedle, the most weird, unique, coolest fucking dude I know."
But in February, Coty was running dry on inspiration. "The whole vision thing, if you have that, you can run with it. It can give you double the energy, double the motivation," he says. He was looking everywhere for something to trigger an idea--conversations, magazines, music, old movies. He kept notes in his iPhone. "I'm a culture vulture," he says.
Coty has been studying culture since he was young. He and his younger brother, Emil, grew up without internet or a TV for most of their childhood in Stowe, Vermont. His parents built their home before they had kids, living off the grid with kerosene lamps.
"Freedle had an idyllic childhood in the sense that we live in a dead-end valley called Nebraska Valley," says his mother, Audrey Coty. "He grew up at a good time. It was before the internet and ubiquitous cell phones. He was always involved in projects. Freedle was passionate from day one, completely immersed in whatever he was doing. For example, the pioneer phase."
Between third and fifth grade, Freedle collected pelts and skin caps, learned how to tan a deer hide, built forts and cooked in them with a cast iron skillet. He read his way through the westward expansion in the library. Later, he dropped the "pioneer phase" and focused on the '60s. "He spent a whole year on the Beatles," says Audrey.
Freedle's parents are maple sugar farmers. His dad also does woodwork and his mom teaches piano lessons. They are both skiers, Nordic and downhill. His grandfather, Victor, was the first of the family to settle in Stowe. Victor was born in 1901 (he died when Freedle was 4 years old) and graduated from Princeton as an accountant.
"Then he just quit," says Freedle, "and for the next 50-plus years of his life, he traveled and made outdoor films, mostly skiing but also other stuff, fishing and wildlife and that sort of thing. He was completely poor his entire life. That's something I grew up with. That's part of my DNA. The story of him and what he did. There are certain ways where history is repeating itself."
Freedle recently digitized his grandfather's footage to submit to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, which last spring inducted Victor, who was a predecessor to ski filmmakers Warren Miller, John Jay, and Dick Barrymore.
Coty was still in Pemberton. Trips to Switzerland and Iceland had fallen through. The snow was good in BC, so he stayed to film Monod, Wiley Miller, and Thayne Rich, who drove up from Utah. The routine continued. Coty would wake up to rain, check the freezing levels, then make the call on whether to go out or take a rest day.
Despite the long days in the backcountry--they were often on the mountain for 12 hours at a time--a seed of an idea had formed: He wanted to make a mockumentary about the subconscious habits of skiers.
"What we go through on a daily basis and what we stress out about, it's just kind of funny when you step back and look at it," says Coty. "You're in this game, but at the same time, it's the silliest endeavor ever."
Like many of his films, this one, called Habit, would come to represent him. "The movie this year is Freedle in a nutshell," says Monod. Coty wrote the script, which is laced with his dry humor and incorporates his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and his deep appreciation for style.
Coty snowboarded during his high school years before coming back to skiing, which influenced the way he approached ski filming. He devoured snowboard magazines and movies almost exclusively as a teenager.
"Snowboarding is a beautiful sport to me," he says. "It's this beautiful twin of skiing. Sometimes it looks so right and it feels very natural. That's what I look for in skiers--people that can bring that aesthetic and moments of magic."
In high school, his parents surrendered to technology and their sons' complaints and bought a TV and VCR and gave Freedle a camcorder.
"I just remember him sitting there with his camera in his lap, just holding it like it was glowing. That's when his current life started," says Audrey. The Coty household turned into jib central. "The phone was ringing off the hook. They were making plans. They built jumps at the house. We had photo shoots right here. I just always had a feeling that he would do something I couldn't visualize."
When the X Games came to Mount Snow, in Vermont, in 2001, Coty went for the chance to see skiers like Candide Thovex and Tanner Hall compete. That's also where he met Berman, who was a student at Dartmouth and had just made Balance, the East Coast jib flick of the era. Berman was selling VHS tapes out of his backpack. Then 16, Coty bought one. A year later, they met again on a photo shoot at Sugarloaf, Maine.
School, meanwhile, was a lost cause for Coty. His mom says that getting him to do his homework was like talking to a wall. His grades were consistently failing. He spent his junior year at a technical career school to study multimedia and design. He dropped out of high school entirely after Christmas of his senior year.
"That was a huge release," says Audrey. "He went off filming for the rest of the winter. He was free and he could start pursuing his passion."
In 2003, Coty moved to Kirkwood, California, and took the night shift as a janitor so he could ski (he switched back to skis that winter) and film all day. That same season, Berman hired Coty to help him with Forward. Coty went to Freeze magazine's Parkasaurus at June Mountain, Powder's Superpark at Mammoth, and Mount Hood that summer. That year, he planted his feet as a part of Level 1. He has been making movies with Berman every year since.
"People come and go in a small business all the time," says Berman. "But [Coty] has been very much a part of this family. In a lot of ways, my relationship with him is as much like big brother, little brother as anything else. It's been that way as far back as I can remember."
Level 1 originally built its reputation and fan base for its footage of park and urban skiing, as well as for bringing up new talent with its SuperUnknown contest. So while Coty prefers the powdery backwoods of British Columbia, where he ended up staying for the rest of his winter, the end-of-the-season shootout on the gigantic park jumps at Mammoth, California, was a reunion he wouldn't miss. We wanted to do some spring skiing before the shoot and made plans to meet up around noon, which was Coty's way of saying we would really meet up at two.
It was mid-May and we found stashes of wind-packed pow on the fins of rock walls, a remnant of Mammoth's record winter. Coty skis hunched over and fast. His posture is awkward, but dialed. His ski setup is worn: Black and yellow La Sportiva boots with tech inserts so stripped he kept popping out of his 4FRNT skis and Marker Kingpin bindings. On chairlift rides, he was easy to talk to and disarming, and he dropped plenty of movie quotes that I couldn't place. His grin was toothy and gummy. His facial hair looked like whiskers. The skyline was cut with rocky peaks and snowy bowls, the kind of terrain that inspires Coty and makes him think of the possibilities of skiing and filming.
We skied to the bottom and hopped on the park lift for our last laps. A handful of people recognized him and said hello in a chorus of "Hi Freedle!" and high fives. After the lifts shut down at 3 p.m., we met up with the rest of the Level 1 crew and about eight skiers and loaded the snowcat to drive to a gap jump and a quarter pipe halfway up the mountain. Coty stood apart from the rest of the tall-Ts in his red puffy and white snow camo--a hooded windbreaker with a wicket ticket from Bridger Bowl. He set up his camera at the bend where the skiers lined up their tracks toward the hip of the quarter pipe. They came whizzing down the ramp in a full tuck before launching into the air with a dizzying mix of spins, twists, and inversions.
Coty decided to do a track shot on his skis, so he pushed the camera against his chest and the eyepiece against his head. As the skiers came down, he slowly skied straight ahead. After the shot, he whipped around and skated back up the ramp to do it again. Making ski movies for half of his life, he is used to the job's tediousness, and he believes in his work.
"Skiing itself doesn't need any of us," says Coty. "It doesn't need us at all. It doesn't need pro skiers. It doesn't need filmmakers. It doesn't need us to make movies. People can just go ski.
"Everything is just this leech off of this sport," he continued. "You have to start thinking about what we're giving to it... It's a driver. It's also an ego check. How can we make an impact or give back in any way at all? Which hopefully doesn't get too self-righteous. Here's this great gift to skiing. You can take it."
The summer brought on new routines, this time in front of a computer in a garage attic in Bozeman, Montana, where Coty lives when he's not on the road. He broke up the time with side work constructing log cabins. The editing process is slow. Durst and Berman edited the raw ski segments while Coty wrote the script that tied the movie together under his concept of a mockumentary based on old-school PBS educational videos. They also incorporated clips of Coty's grandfather's footage.
Three weeks before the premiere on September 18, the Level 1 team--Berman, Durst, Baumann, Coty--met in Denver and finished the movie.
"It was an incredibly slow build up, and then exponentially, once the dots are filled up, you're just like du du du. It's like making a puzzle," says Coty.
I asked him if he thought he achieved his original goal, to create something original.
"Yes," he said. "I can't believe it actually. But yes."
Level 1 premiered Habit at Denver's Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, an old jazz club. About 1,200 people showed up. When the lights dimmed and the movie started to play, Coty moved around the theater. He likes to watch the crowd, but he also enjoys seeing the movie on a big screen with a nice sound system.
"So many times over the years, people have wanted to write the obituary for these ski movies. And it's just like, every year, if you build it, they will come," says Coty.
The premiere behind him, we talked about what was next. The ski movie was out, the credits had rolled, and he would hit the road to do the movie tour, which, in many ways, affirms why he still makes ski films every year.
"It's the same thing as somebody going to a niche band concert where everyone is from somewhat different walks of life," says Coty. "Skiing is a language. It ropes people together from all over the world. That's definitely something that you find out when you travel for skiing. We speak the same language. It's not words. It's this thing. It's bigger than a sport in that way, for sure."
In January, Coty will start over again.