Rumor has it the first snow has fallen on the high peaks in Colorado — just a dusting, a promise of things to come. The bubble of hope and possibility rising in the chests of every would-be ski bum at the thought of that is what the latest film from Sweetgrass Productions, Valhalla, looks to latch onto and lift the ski industry to new heights.
There’s no doubt, says Director Nick Waggoner, he can feel it in his bones — the way a half-metal man can feel a storm coming in his metal hardware — this is definitely the best film they’ve ever made. Valhalla will be a step up even from the visually stunning Solitaire, Sweetgrass’s previous release, filmed in the high deserts and empty peaks of South America.
“I think we just figured that the ski film needed it. It’s something we knew people wanted to see and wanted to hear, and the time was right,” Waggoner says. “I think the classic ski film, for most purposes, is kind of dying out. It’s not quite as exciting because it’s been done for so many years, and I think it’s our desire to both create something new artistically but also to voice the things that were really near and dear to us about the ski experience and life in the mountains and to communicate something through skiing that was bigger than skiing, that was more about being alive, and being a human being. So whether you’re a skier or not, this message will hit you and it will kind of speak to your heart.”
To that end, they’ve delved into narrative — a man and his heroic journey through interior British Columbia and on to the wilds of Alaska, for a fabled, powdery paradise, for a place so beautiful, and with such beautifully untracked lines, that it inspired the reverence of a child.
“We bring people back to the simplicity of when they were a kid — when you’re a child, everything is beautiful and everything is fresh and new and stunning and exciting,” Waggoner says. “As people get a bit older, I think that they kind of get disillusioned and they lose sight of the beauty around them and they kind of don’t see life as so much of an adventure any more and there’s no reason for that. So I think that this is really like a spark for us and a spark for our audience to see that life is really this beautiful, amazing thing and that’s the journey that our character is kind of undergoing. Those are the questions he’s asking himself — where did the beauty of my youth go, what happened to that simple joy when I was a kid and was deep in the woods and saw the wonder and awe in every snowflake.”
OK, and there’s some really awesome skiing in there, too — some of their highest quality skiing yet, he says. Shoots include a night scene and a scene that required hauling truckloads of snow into the Canadian rainforest near Mt. Baker and building a ramp for skiers to huck with glistening, emerald green trees as the backdrop — and a mattress as part of the crash landing pad.
“These guys would launch over rivers and trees and rocks and land on a landing no bigger than a couch,” Waggoner says. “If they landed six inches to the right, they would annihilate themselves. It’s a pretty wild thing to do but I think it serves the purpose of the movie, which is kind of seeing skiing and seeing life with new eyes.”
What Waggoner says he hopes shines through for viewers is the heart and soul that went into making the film, whether it was hauling snow or boot-packing 2,000 vertical feet with a 140-pound generator in temperatures 20 below zero to capture those night shots.
Sweetgrass is still 95 percent human-powered. In two years of filming, they’ve done five to 10 days of filming from a helicopter. The result is a more down-to-earth product.
“It’s a lot of hiking up mountains, it’s a lot of early mornings, cold tents and frozen feet,” Waggoner says. “It’s a really wild life and I think what I love about it is, you can’t imagine the things that you will see doing this kind of work. You can’t forecast it or plan ahead for the things that you will see, from landscapes to the people you meet.”
This year, as they filmed frequently in Canada, it was also a lot of dealing with immigrations and customs, building sets in the middle of the snow and hiking a peak for three and a half hours only to watch the clouds roll in, obscuring the lighting for a shot — and then do that four days in a row.
“Making ski films is kind of like a good lesson for life in teaching you, no matter what comes your way, you have the ability to overcome,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever turned back once an idea is set in motion, and I feel the same for my crew.”
They organized 35 people for the one day in the week they could all be there, planned the shoot for three weeks in advance, and then the day it was supposed to happen, it started to rain.
“You just shoot the rain falling in the snow, and ultimately that footage somehow finds a way to weave itself into the story,” he says. “Those real feelings, weaving them into the story, gives it a sense of realism.”
Of the soundtrack, a mix of The Beatles, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Waggoner says, “That’s all I listened to for about a year and a half, to keep myself in the mindset of the film, keep myself in the rhythm and enjoy the music.”
And that is the hope for audiences, who can catch Valhalla at the Boulder Theater on Sept. 26 — that they’ll sit back, enjoy the music and get psyched on life, Waggoner says. “I can’t imagine anyone leaving the movie and not having some idea of how they’re going to make their life in the next day, week, month or year more fun, and that’s pretty cool.”
Valhalla screens at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the Boulder Theater. Tickets are $14 in advance, $17 at the door. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Visit www.sweetgrassproductions.com for more information.