Director Nick Waggoner and his Boulder-based Sweetgrass Productions crew spent two years filming in the backcountry in Argentina, Peru, and Chilean Patagonia to make Solitaire, a film unlike any of the other ski and snowboard porn premiering this month.
We caught up with Waggoner and producer Zac Ramras in advance of tonight's world premiere at the Gothic Theater for more on the gritty gambles they took to add a South American epic to the Sweetgrass filmography.
Westword: I've been following along with all the teasers and making-of clips you've been releasing over the last few months. Can you tell me about the decision to pull back the curtains a bit to let your fans in on what you were up to as you were working on this film?
Waggoner: There's so much that goes into making these films and there's so much in the lifestyle that's just so wild. It's an adventure just to go out there and try to capture these moments, and there are all these little flavors that don't really fit into the big film bit they still make really amazing stories and they're part of the appeal of filmmaking for us, so as we were going through all the footage we wanted to share the process of unraveling some of the mystery of going to these places and trying to figure it all out.
Ramras: Plus it's really fun for us to relive those moments.
Waggoner: It's really cool to be able to think and reflect and look back at the time that you had and to try to make some poetry out of it and share those stories with people.
Westword: A quote at the end of Episode 2 caught my attention: "The camera is just an excuse. There's a lot more to skiing than just sliding on snow.
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Waggoner: Being able to camp at 13, 14, 15,000 feet for three weeks is amazing in its own right, and to sit there with the locals talking with them about the Robin Hood of Peru and stories of buried gold in the mountains... to float down the Amazon... there's just something about those moments. All the journeys along the way to make the film happen lead us past so many amazing people and such incredible experiences, entirely separate from but completely related to the skiing itself.
Westword: Who was the most amazing person you met?
Waggoner: We met this woman Gloria. It was her and her daughter and they lived at the end of this valley at 14,000 feet in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It took us ten hours from a remote city to get to this town, and the farthest she'd gone in 8 years was about three miles from her stone hut. From day one she was just the most welcoming, amazing person. She'd spin yarn and talk to us, and we'd come back at the end of the day and she'd have cooked us a lamb in this underground oven. She'd hand us full plates and we'd sit there and eat it with her, and then invite her to our camp and give her soup. It was just this amazing process of just being human, finding these amazing opportunities to have people be hospitable and then to return it. I think that whole exchange really empowers us to travel more and to see more. At the end of sharing soup with this woman, we're in this candlelit tent in the midst of this cathedral of the most incredible looking mountains you've ever seen, and she says, "Could you just say my name in your video? I want the world to know that my name is Gloria." To her it was a pretty far out idea that she'd be on a video screen somewhere around the world, and it reminded us that it was pretty far out for us to be down there making this film.
Westword: What was the driving idea behind shooting an entire ski film in South America?
Ramras: It's kind of the last frontier.
Waggoner: How many cameras have gone to Alaska and British Columbia and places that consistently provide good skiing? In South Amerca that does not exist: There's no promise. You think that there's the promise, that if you wait long enough things will work out, but they don't. That was something we wanted to engage with, we wanted to take on that challenge: Nobody's ever gone to South America and come back with a lot of really good footage. The cameras have only ever gone to a tiny little percentage of this entire continent, but there are all these amazing places and ridiculous landscapes that are so unique and have never been seen before. We came out of Signatures and Handcut, our last two films, and understood that there was a formula we could follow, but we wanted to challenge ourselves and we wanted to see and ski something new.
Westword: What was the snow like?
Waggoner: It's really inconsistent, everything from really good dry powder to really windblown, textured snow. The wind is truly the architect of the snow down there, and it either rips it off and blows it clear into another planet or deposits it in weird places, or creates these striated artistic patterns. It would snow two feet one night and we'd be all excited, then get up the next morning and get to the top and it's all gone. Our spirits were just broken time and time and time again. But when it's good it's so, so good.
Westword: You mentioned earlier that you were going for poetry. Obviously you set out here to do things a bit differently than the usual ski porn being made.
Waggoner: It started with the way were skiing, which was almost entirely in the backcountry. Initially we made that departure because it was like, 'Here's the way ski films have been going for a long time, with helicopters and everything,' and the energy and the vibe of those film was really in contrast with the energy we feel when we're in the backcountry skiing. We had this whole checklist of the things we loved about skiing, and everything on that list -- the peacefulness, the reflectiveness, the unknown, the wildness, and the real culture of these places -- all of those elements were absent from what we were seeing in ski films. That was part of the initial split for us. We could just get a helicopter, but I think that our process slows us down and allows us to get more into the genuine texture and flavor of the places we're traveling to. It changes the way you look at mountains and the way you think about skiing, and it allows us to spend way more time out there, which is why we got into this in the first place.
Westword: There still aren't a lot of films out there that feature a mix of skiers, telemarkers, and snowboarders like Solitaire. Was that a conscious decision to blur those lines?
Ramras: We choose people that we want to be out there with, and that really dictates who was on our film. Telemark guys and splitboarders were some of the only people who could hang.
Waggoner: At the same time I think the backcountry vibe in our films is approachable, and I think people can relate to our film and think, "I could go and do that," versus, you know, a helicopter taking off of a yacht or whatever. A very select few people have the money and time to pull that kind of stuff off, but guys who have been out skiing in the backcountry could go actually go and and do some of what we do.
Westword: From what I've seen of the film it has a very distinct visual style. Did you have something specific in mind from the outset?
Waggoner: We put an emphasis on the landscape in this film, making the landscape be just as much of a character in every shot as the skier, because it's such a unique place and it has all these visual details that you don't see anywhere else. In the end the film is really about the land and all of these wild places that we go, and the effect that it has on you, the way you feel when you're there. You turn on the camera in a place like that and you think, 'How am I going to shoot this differently than I would if I was somewhere else? What's unique about this place and how do I capture it?'
Westword: There are so many premieres and big over-the-top parties going on this month. What's it like for you to be able to show a film in a place like the Gothic Theatre, knowing that the locals are going to go nuts for it?
Waggoner: It's what I think about when I'm in a tent in a sleeping bag, cold and wet and miserable, and it's what keeps me going. When I think about that moment of showing this film that we've worked so hard to make happen, it just makes my heart beat so fast. I can't even think about it after about 7:00 or I won't sleep that night. It's kickass to get to share it with people and come over that hump, where you push through all the trouble and all the difficulty and get to inspire people. And then you party, of course. All the tension just sort of flies off.
Westword: Is there anything you want people to take away from watching this film?
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Waggoner: We hope that our journey and all of these things that were difficult along the way, inspires you to go ski something hard or engage with something that you might not know if you can accomplish. This is really hard, but you can do it. Have that faith in yourself to go exploring and to not fear it and run with it.
Zac: Or to fear it and engage it anyway.