An Interview With Sweetgrass Productions
Above Photo: Garrett Grove
Sweetgrass Productions makes ski movies that are unlike others you’ve seen. Their last film, Solitaire, took two years to make and features exotic South American locales (including the Amazon jungle), stunning cinematography, and meditative takes of clouds moving across the sky.
It also has a conspicuous few number of landings and a subtitled narration adapted from A Heart of Darkness. Snowboarder Forrest Shearer filmed with them in Argentina and for their new film Valhalla in Alaska. Shearer says that as Sweetgrass gets better and better with the action—using their unique style of storytelling and cinematography— they’ll set the standard for ski movies.
Solitaire is breathtaking but thematically dark, which at times is explained in its making-of series, On the Road. What you don’t know while watching these films is that some harsh reality dictated (or was respected during) their making. The deaths of Arne Backstrom and Kip Garre had a profound effect on director Nick Waggoner, and he let the experience, along with the challenges of filming in a harsh environment, inform the film.
Whether it’s facing tough times head-on in South America or busting free in Valhalla, Sweetgrass shows some balls. And any skier can appreciate that.
Valhalla premieres in Denver on September 13 and will be available on iTunes on the 23rd, so Waggoner and his crew are editing nonstop, set up in a hilltop chalet. Here, he discusses his air mattress, Herzog, and the brevity of existence. You know, ski stuff.
Photo: Grayson Schaffer
This doesn’t look like the editing torture you show in On the Road like it’s the Ludovico technique. What have partnerships, like that with Backcountry, been like for you?
I think working with Backcountry is awesome—on so many levels. Honestly, I think every day how lucky we are to be working with people who are like-minded and supportive. They’re like, ‘Hey, we really trust what you guys do, and we love what you create and promote.’
It’s endemic sponsorship.
Absolutely, but I know a lot of action sports producers that have the luxury of a little bit bigger budget but are not able to make their own creative vision.
Everybody that I work with at Backcountry is really cool. If I had IBM as a sponsor, I doubt that I’d go on a mountain bike ride with them, skiing, or on a morning tour. I love it; it’s like working with friends.
On a practical level, I can tap in and get everything I want and things I didn’t even know I wanted. I spent twelve days up in the Trujillos this past spring shooting for Valhalla, and I got this massive Therm-a-Rest Dream air mattress—it’s sick. Without that, my job would be so much more difficult.
Speaking of difficult, in Solitaire and On the Road, had you been to any of those places?
I had traveled South America. I had been to the volcanoes, Bolivia, and most of the ski locations. I hadn’t been to Patagonia, but I’d been to the Amazon.
The Amazon to me, in movies … did you ever see Aguirre: The Wrath of God?
Yeah! So, Werner Herzog—the film Fitzcarraldo was shot in Iquitos—have you seen it?
Only parts. But the reason I thought of Herzog is he was so hard on his cast and crew. They didn’t stay in hotels …
Totally. I love Herzog. I think he is a perfect example. I don’t think we live by Herzog or that any of us are like, ‘We’re doing this because of Herzog.’ But we had our ideas and then learned what he did—and the way that he did it—and were like, ‘Yeah.’
They had to live in that Amazonian hell—
You have to live in hell. You have to see it on people’s faces.
It’s the biggest part of it all. For Valhalla we had people camping in bivvies and tents and living in real mountains. The moments you see at the start of the film, where Cody, our main character, is pushing our VW Bug through the desert—that’s real. Our Bug overheated and broke down and the battery wasn’t working, and he had to push it. And when I watch what we’ve cut so far, I can feel it. From Solitaire where it was like suffering to Valhalla where it’s freedom and emotion, what is coming through on the screen is real.
Why did you do that [in Solitaire]?
We wanted to make a minimal, Western-style film in the South American badlands, and ultimately everything turned out to be really challenging and really hard and expensive. Everything would break down. There would just be months where I’d wake up and be like, ‘What’s gonna happen today? What is going to go wrong today?’ And I’d think, ‘Well, surely everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.’ And then the next day, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about that.’
Were you mostly camping? What were the conditions like?
On one hand we’re in the Cordillera Whitewash, which is this massive—have you seen Touching the Void?
The same mountains. We were skiing the backside of the peak where that incident happened. In this ridiculously beautiful valley with the 20,000-foot peaks that Reinhold Messner climbed above us. We’re camping next to this creek with an emerald lake below. Quechua women are living this incredible pastoral life; 80-year-old women who have never left this valley are tending sheep. And we’re camping there in our tents, and every day it’s [warm and sunny]. We sunbathe during the day and at night have these three-course dinners from a Peruvian who’s slaughtering chickens on the spot. We’re just watching these incredible serac falls and waterfalls of ice cascading.
And then you go to the Amazon, and you’re given a Coleman family tent from Walmart with no camping pad and no ventilation. It’s the Amazon; it’s 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity. We crawl into these tents at night and sleep on the ground, sweating through our clothes; and we’re soaking wet and can hear the sound of bugs dropping on the roof.
There were some ridiculously tough conditions. But when you’re in that tent, sweating through your clothes and you look over at your buddy—like I looked over at Zac and we just laughed. There was some sense of joy; it was ridiculous and wild.
After watching Solitaire and On the Road, I was thinking you were a really dark dude.
I can be. I think we all have an appreciation for the scale of emotion. I don’t think Valhalla would be so rad, so fun, wild, and free, if we didn’t feel the intensity and darkness of Solitaire. It’s only because of that yin and yang and balance. How can you appreciate true happiness if you haven’t been to the darkest, gnarliest place you can go? Yeah, overall, I don’t feel like I’m very dark.
Some of the quotes: ‘We are but a fleeting moment’—
Well, that stuff’s true. It’s about being part of something bigger. The beauty around you—there’s a lot more detail out there that at first glance you don’t see.
You say, ‘The longer you stay in the game, the closer it gets.’ What is the ‘it’?
We had a couple people die during that project. They weren’t filming at the time that they died. Kip and Arne were basically on an acclimatizing trip for our film. They were going to go in for three days and come out. We landed on the ground in Huarez, Peru, and we walked around, getting over jetlag a little bit, getting our supplies together, hanging out at this place Zarela’s that we know really well. We were with our paragliding buddy, going to the guide shops and looking for beta, and the third shop we went to [someone says], ‘Oh, some American guy died up there today.’ And within 15 minutes we were in a van driving to the scene. Hiking through the night.
So you found out who it was.
I didn’t know who it was—I had no idea who it was; I just knew it was one of our guys. But we were driving up there. And I basically went from sea level to 15,000 feet and slept for two hours, and then woke up in the morning and had to unzip the tent to find out who was missing.
I unzipped the tent and saw right there that it was Arne. I knew that he was the one. The rest, the next three or four days, was the closest that I’ve seen and might ever see, dealing with death. And watching friends lose their really close buddy. I was just raw. Really raw.
When in the film process did this happen?
First day of Solitaire. The very first day.
So that may have colored the experience.
Absolutely. It colored the experience. But every time from then on, for two years of the project, I was paragliding off peaks and just thought a lot about my own mortality. I won’t get into the details, but it was graphic. It was gnarly. And I watched Kip and Dave. From an outside perspective, to understand the weight of everything that was going on, to be around Kip and see how he dealt with it and how strong he was … The next year I said to Kip, ‘You know, I’d like to be able to tell the story if you’re OK with it and if you’d like to go back down to Peru.’ I saw in that moment all the strength vanish, and I saw him get quite emotional. He said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that.’ Three weeks later I emailed him and said, ‘Hey, if you just wanna talk, let’s do it,’ and two weeks later he died in an avalanche in the Sierras.
The whole project had this dark cloud over it. So yeah it wasn’t just some idea that we had and wanted to discuss. It was real and it was heavy.
Photo: Garrett Grove
In the same way, with Valhalla, we’re free. We’re having a good time and partying. And skiing naked.
The skiing looks sick in the trailer for Valhalla.
Absolutely. The riders we had, the locations—it’s pretty insane. I think it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, that’s just an art film,’ with Solitaire for sure. With this film—the skiing is world-class—they’re gonna be like, ‘Damn, that was a wicked ski film.’
And the snow: we were skiing some of the best conditions on Earth. South America is not forgiving. You’re gonna eat shit. Regardless of how good you are.
Where did you go?
We were based in Nelson, British Columbia. We filmed everything within a 150-mile radius. And then Alaska.
Did you use helis?
We would fly in, with a ski plane, and then camp and tour. I think over the two years we did 10 days of heli, and most of that was to drop in a zone and tour.
What’s your aversion to helis?
Well, you can’t fly when we wanna be filming. You can’t fly a heli in the early morning, because of morning fog and ice, something about pressure. And by hiking we capture everything leading up to the moment. We’re in that area for six hours, whereas they’re in there for 20 minutes.
So we get to be out there at times when nobody else can.