A South American snow opera showing in Vail | VailDaily.com

A South American snow opera showing in Vail

Caramie Schnell
VAIL CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Michael Brown

Some ski films are a montage of powdery face shots and cliff-jumping antics.

And others, like those from Sweetgrass Productions, have a story and a whole lot of soul.

“Sweetgrass makes art – not just another rocking, rowdy ski movie,” said Vail resident Kevin Heinz, who is planning on catching Thursday night’s showing of “Solitaire” at Vail Mountain School, he said.

“Solitaire” is the latest offering from Sweetgrass. If the film’s trailer (you can see it online) is any indication, Heinz is right. This backcountry skiing, snowboarding and telemark film is more ski poetry and less ski porn.

An athlete rides a horse at dawn, a pair of skis strapped to his back.

A snowboarder makes tight S curves between foreboding rock cliffs.

A lone telemark skier trudges along as a blizzard swirls around him.

The film was shot over two years in the high desert of South America. It visits Argentina’s legendary Las Lenas, Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and Chile’s Patagonia. It’s the first North American ski film to be shot entirely in South America.

“As a whole, I think we were all taken by the scale of the Andes and how wild they really are,” said the film’s director and executive producer, Nick Waggoner. “Nobody’s every tried to film an entire ski film in South America, and we wanted to capture all of its grit and beauty, exploring a lot of places no one had ever been before.”

Sweetgrass films strive to take the audience on a journey, Waggoner said.

“There’s definitely an element of fantasy to our films that pulls a viewer out of their own world and into the world we have traveled and re-created on film. As far as locations, we’re always aiming for places that have such deep, unique texture – a ‘soul,’ if you will. Our stories are often more subtle, and the landscape is usually as much a character as the skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers.

“Overall, ‘Solitaire’ deals with the darkness in between desire and satisfaction. When you set out to make a film in South America, or ski a 20,000-foot peak in Peru, there are a lot of doubts, a lot of uncertainties and a lot of anxiety about whether you have ‘what it takes’ to live in the midst of such raw and gritty landscapes.”

Even though the Vail Valley’s landscape is more golden than white at the moment, the snow-obsessed are already dreaming about opening day.

East Vail resident Gary Smith works for Earlescapes doing forestry and landscaping during the summer and fall and is a ski patroler during the winter and spring. He said he likes to attend ski-film premieres in the fall for one reason: “Getting a good look at last year’s footage with a group of like-minded individuals.”

“They definitely ramp you up for the season,” he said. “The changes in the weather and anticipation amongst friends are usually enough motivation, but the movies kind of keep the fire stoked through the down days in the fall.”

For Heinz, a local musician who grew up in Boulder attending Warren Miller ski flicks each autumn, the soundtrack to a ski film is of the utmost importance.

“I love carrying what I see in ski films with me throughout the coming seasons, specifically the great music,” he said. “Songs from a good ski film can quickly become part of my personal ski soundtrack. Last year’s Sweetgrass film (‘Signatures’) featured music by one of my favorite artists, Bon Iver. For the rest of the season I would get inspired to ski with more chill, peaceful music after seeing its amazing juxtaposition with the beautiful action-snow-sport cinematography.”

Indeed, music is “insanely important,” Waggoner said.

“A bad song can ruin a scene, and a good one can save it or elevate it to a new level,” he said. “We’ve always been extremely sensitive to that, and there’s such a strong link between the emotion and pacing of a song and the visual.”

Waggoner often will listen to a song, close his eyes and see a movie in his head that flows based on the rhythm of the song, he said.

“My mind goes on a little journey, and then the process of making a film is the process of articulating that world that I and the Sweetgrass crew have imagined,” he said. “For this year, we have a lot of really, really powerful music that punctuates these insane moments of tension and landscapes bigger than you can comprehend.”

Zoe Keating, Fleet Foxes, Junip, Jose Gonzalez, Royksopp, and Six Organs of Admittance are just a few of the artists featured in this year’s film.

“We’re pretty damn proud of our music year after year, and this film might have even raised our own bar,” he said.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.

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