Sweetgrass Interview

Unless you have been living in a ski media vacuum (more power to you if you have), you are likely familiar with Sweetgrass Productions or at least their backcountry ski films: Hand Cut and Signatures. Both films offer a refreshing thematic, if not downright artistic, take on the otherwise predictable go big or go home approach to ski movies. If you have been paying attention to the ski blog world you are likely to have seen some of the 12-part webisode from Sweetgrass about the making of their latest backcountry ski film, Solitaire. The web-based shorts offer a behind the scenes window into the two-years spent filming and traveling in South America to create Solitaire.

Sweetgrass Productions is the work of many, but it is Nick Waggoner and Ben Sturgulewski whose creativity and drive make it happen. I was able to catch up with Waggoner last week during Mountain Film in Telluride, Colorado before he heads back to Peru and the Amazon for the bulk of the summer.

Here is what Waggoner had to say about Mountain Film, his summer plans, making ski films and his current project, Solitaire.

Off-Piste: What brings you to Telluride for Mountain Film?

Waggoner: We have a short film here that my business partner Ben Sturgulewski produced. It is a short called Desert River, and it is all from Haines [AK] shooting with Stephan Drake from DPS Skis. Ben grew up on the island of Kodiak, and his family is deeply rooted in Alaska. He takes a lot of pride in his home state and it [Desert River] is his poem about the beauty he sees in Haines and the Alaskan life.

Off-Piste: So, like your other ski films, Desert River sounds like it follows a similar thematic approach where it relates to skiing through the story of a place.

Waggoner: Definitely. I think all of our films are like that. It is what makes the process worthwhile. It is not just about capturing beautiful images; it is something more than that. The challenge for us is in finding the themes and executing them. We know we have the legs to get us to the places, and we can film sunrise a hundred times, but it is digesting this and putting it into the context of something more than a traditional ski film does that makes it cool for us, but also really tough.

Off-Piste: For sure. Somewhere there needs to be inspiration for the theme that carries you through.

Waggoner: I think so. Sometimes I think music is the most powerful muse.  Just hearing a song and feeling a mood. All of our films carry a distinct mood throughout the whole piece, and I think music is a very important part of that. One song, maybe three minutes can determine the trajectory of our lives for two years. It’s crazy, but it’s kind of how it evolves. It’s hearing music, having this kind of movie play in your mind … and figuring out how to make it real.

Off-Piste: So, is there particular music that has been driving your work on Solitaire?

Waggoner: Originally, a lot of the work inspiring Solitaire was from this cellist named Zoe Keating. She does all this amazing layering of her sounds to create all these wild moods, and I think it is perfect for all the varieties of landscapes that we are visiting in South America – from the darkness of the Amazon and the jungle to 20,000-foot peaks in the Cordillera to Patagonia. It’s all about creating these moods. … It is an electric moment for me to hear the music and envision the piece.

Off-Piste: Is your heading Peru to continue work on the Solitaire project?

Waggoner: Yeah, it is. I’ll be in Peru, and Ben will be in Bolivia on the high volcanoes for a month. We are continuing to work on this. Last year we lost Arne Backstrom in Peru. We are going back to the drawing board, going back to the place to capture what we had set out to when we started concepting the film.

Off-Piste: Is the Amazon trip connected, too

Waggoner: Yeah, it is this amazing add-on to the Cordillera HuayHuash. The Amazon, obviously, is this really vibrant landscape in South America. All of the Cordillera HuayHuash and the Cordillera Blanca feed the water on the Amazon. It is this connection, this journey – the skier through the Amazon all the way to these peaks. … A lot of our film is inspired by  western cinema, the tradition and scenes of western cinema. One theme in the old West was dealing with native Americans, the wildness of the experience – the difference between cultures. The Amazon is the perfect modern place place for that. It is such a crazy, dark, scary, intense place. All of the people who live there are the backdrop for creating this journey, this tension of moving toward the mountains.

Off-Piste: What’s your schedule for the film?

Waggoner: The movie will premier September 16 in Denver. We are spending June and July doing final shooting, and August is going to be all about cranking on an edit. The premier will be followed by three months on the road with the film.

Off-Piste: Sounds like you are going to be a busy guy for the foreseeable future.

Waggoner: It is coming together, but it is crazy to think it is all only 70 days away…

Off-Piste: Thanks. We look forward to another inspiring film!

Check out the Desert River short film below and we will have the next webisode installment on the making of Solitaire during the third week of June.

The Desert River from DPS SKIS on Vimeo.

Presented by Patagonia…

Every spring in Haines, Alaska, a river bulges and rages towards the sea, fed by the thawing of a massive mountain snowpack. These same mountains fuel the hunger of those willing to test their skills against the desolate white beauty of Alaska’s high desert– giving life to river and skier alike."