Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Phone call takes me back
Vail, CO, Colorado
A surprise phone call from a former cameraman of mine today led to a half an hour of reminiscing.
Brian Sisselman many years ago had just graduated from UCLA film school and wanted to be a ski photographer in the worst way. He showed me his sample reel that included footage from some of my own films that he had rented and re-edited.
No big deal. He was hired as a driver to take stuff back and forth to the film labs in Hollywood from Hermosa Beach, where our studio was at the time.
Brian had a good eye and before I knew it this morning, we were talking about some of his exploits and of ours together. He once led a filming expedition to the mountains on the south polar ice cap. The crew lived in tents for three or four weeks and climbed for every turn they made or filmed.
We talked of the time I sent him to the Cedars of Lebanon to ski in their famous powder snow. It rained for nine days straight and finally when he was about to give up and head for somewhere in central Europe, we had a decision-making phone call.
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I said, “Remember, Brian, that our films always tell a story. What if we tell this one exactly like it happened? You tell me the snow is as bad as you have ever seen it, anywhere. What if I just show the really bad rain puddles and the soaking wet ponchos and plastic sacks and tell the audience that we went all the way to North Africa and this is the kind of snow that we found? Remember what Jean Claude Killy told us? A mountain is like a beautiful woman. You can go to her as often as you want to, but she will only give you what she wants to.”
This is what the Cedars of Lebanon decided to give us on this trip. It worked for the audiences, worked for the art of filmmaking and we did not waste a lot of money on an unfinished sequence.
Brian reminded me of another trip, his flight to 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and the skiing in untracked powder down to a small village in a valley below. Every kid in town had a pair of skis and used them almost every day. They were made out of 2-foot-long pieces of cherry tree with a piece of a bandsaw blade for the bottom with the front end turned up for the tip of the ski. Galoshes and woven vine completed their ski equipment, but there was no mistaking the fact that all of the kids had a giant smile on their faces.
The first time Brian worked for me, or with me, I should say, we had the camera pointed at Martina Navratilova, the world-class tennis player and a very good skier.
She had wanted to ski at Aspen, and I wanted to film at Snowmass because I knew that the terrain was better suited to her cruising style. We started off on the wrong foot, but at about 11:30 a.m., when I pointed out to Martina that Aspen was socked in with a lot of clouds and we were working in bright sunshine, she understood that we knew what we were doing.
The sequence worked and I found out later that my director of photography and general manager, Don Brolin, had given Brian strict instructions to not let me out of his sight from the time we got up to the time we went to bed. The results paid off because I was inclined to wander around like a kid sometimes.
When the film company moved to Boulder and the new owners decided that less narration on my part in the films was the direction they wanted the films to go, Brian boldly objected because he knew what had made the cult value of the films entertaining.
Knowing what he knew, he resigned and moved his family to Portland, Maine, and went to work for another film company. Today, Brian and his wife, Jenna, own a very successful Madras clothing company in India and Peru with their headquarters in Portland, Maine, and do great business up and down the East Coast. While filming in India during the years, Brian developed some good relationships that have grown into business relationships and partnerships today.
One of Brian’s best sequences had nothing to do with extreme skiing. It was on the slight slope that led up to a rope tow somewhere. The day before had been warm, and during the night it froze rock hard and clear as glass. It was impossible to walk up no matter what kind of boots you were wearing. His shot of people slipping, sliding and falling all over the place and of a black Labrador using his toe nails to struggle up that ice covered ski hill is still a favorite in my memory bank.
Years ago, I received a phone call from someone who was going to open a helicopter operation in Alaska. He wanted some coverage of what he said was the steepest and best place in Alaska to ski and film. I told my ace adventurer, Sisselman, about it, and the first phone call I got from him from that part of the world was, “Holy moly, it is so steep that when I am standing on the side of the hill with my camera, my elbow hits the snow.”
Brian brought back the first truly spectacular footage of the mountains around Valdez, Alaska. The footage started a record-breaking group of young skiers who were doing things that had never been done on skis before. It was as though the skiers were in a free fall while they were making turns wherever they wanted to make them.
Brian went from that kind of life to buying two sewing machines for two men in India. From then on, those two men did not have to travel two hours each day to work and two hours back. Brian’s get-it-done attitude enabled he and Jenna to buy a small building and enlarge it to four stories somewhere in India and not have to travel, ski or film anymore.
Does he miss it? You bet, but probably not as much as I do because I did it for longer, 55 years to be almost exact. Brian and Jenna’s lives today are still just as frantic as they always were, and it was great to hear from him.
Get in touch with him at Cape Madras, Portland, Maine, if you want to follow in his ski tracks. I can tell you that his camera is definitely not for sale nor are his last pair of free skis that he got while doing a job in Sun Valley.
All it took for Brian to get the job was to spend four years learning how to run a camera and phone me for a job. I think it is called initiative, or preparation meeting opportunity.
Who is in your phone book?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications.