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Valhalla Film Preview: Ski Filmmaker Nick Waggoner on Finding Freedom

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Photograph courtesy Sweetgrass Productions

Sweetgrass Productions director Nick Waggoner was named one of our 2012 Adventurers of the Year for Solitaire, a film that artfully depicts a two-year, human-powered ski odyssey around South America. Since getting to know the Sweetgrass team—which also includes Ben Sturgulewski, Michael Brown, and Zak Ramras—we are confident these guys will continue to capture and redefine the spirit of adventure for decades to come. They are the ones to watch.

For their upcoming film, Valhalla, the crew hunkered down in Nelson, British Columbia, and the Kootenay region, known for its freethinkers, artists, and great powder. What transpired is completely different in tone and feeling than Solitaire. Something untethered and new. “Valhalla is where you run to find that freedom, to explore what it really means to be alive, to feel your heart beat through your chest,” says Nick.

The full Valhalla film will release in fall 2013.

Below, Nick answers our questions about how they made the film.

We know Sweetgrass as a literary crew—your previous release, Solitaire, had a narration drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So it’s not surprising that you chose a Norse mythology reference for the title for your film about Nelson, British Columbia. Can you tell us about this connection?
Nick Waggoner: The connection for Valhalla is twofold—both paradise in the afterlife of Norse mythology and our local mountain range where the film is based. For us it carries meaning of enlightenment, when you’ve regained the power to explore your own life in a hedonistic way. As a society we’ve steered ourselves so far away from the things that actually make us happy—and it’s a shame, because the mountains, and people, and a little hooch, and some sunshine go a long way. Valhalla is a film about asking questions rather than following the shepherd, about developing your own rules based on a simple principle: what makes you happy. It’s a freedom we all feel as young children, the weightlessness of youth, the beauty, and the awe. That’s what the 60s and 70s were all about—questioning what had come before, finding freedom in a world that was telling everybody what to do, how to dress, what was right, and what was wrong. Valhalla is where you run to find that freedom, to explore what it really means to be alive, to feel your heart beat through your chest.

What’s that player in the opening shot?
NW: We filmed this all on the Red Epic, a high-tech digital camera, and a little bit on super 8 as well, but none of that’s here. What was shown in the opening was an original reel-to-reel from 1965, the Cipher VII. I found it at a local thrift store, and opened the box to find original reels of Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, and decided that it was a sign. I had to have it. And now it plays a part in the script as well, totally organically.

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Mountains in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska; Photograph courtesy Sweetgrass Productions

Is the location important to the film?
NW: The Kootenay region is home base for the project. For anyone who’s ever been here, it’s populated by freethinkers, artists, and an array of alternative lifestyles. Historically it was a haven for Vietnam draft dodgers, and the film will really tap into the souls who call this place home.

There’s a moment of snow-less skiing in the trailer. And is that for real? How?
NW: That skiing is in the summertime not too far from here, and it’s 100 percent real. It’s on the mountains outside Mount Baker. Several days of building went into that one shot. There’s plenty more….

Who are some of these beautiful athletes in it? How’d you pick them?
NW: It’s actually a requisite that you have a nice butt. It’s required to film with Sweetgrass. We cast for it.  The for real answer is: Eric Hjorleifson, Cody Barnhill, Carston Oliver, Zack Giffin, Johan Olofsson, Adraon Buck, Ryland Bell, Josh Dirksen, Aidan Sheahan, Molly Baker, Forrest Shearer, Taro Tamai, Stephan Drake, Eliel Hindert, Will Cardamone, Jaime Laidlaw, Trevor Hunt, Donny Roth, Jesse Hoffman, Austin Ross, Nick McNutt, Paul Kimbrough, Alex Paul, Thayne Rich, and Kazushi Yamauchi.

You’ve been a nomad lately, at home in a school bus following powder, but it seems you have found a home in Nelson?
NW: I can’t technically say I’ve found a home here, but I’m certainly digging the community and could see myself perhaps filling out encyclopedia-sized stacks of paperwork to be able to stay here for good.  If you are a Canadian woman reading this, between the ages of 20 and 85, I’m keen to marry you. Tomorrow.

What was the biggest challenge around this film?
NW: The biggest challenge around this film is in creating something new. We’re trying something different (again!), marrying a narrative style with documentary. It’s difficult to achieve both story and action in the same film. It’s taken us almost half a year to write a script—and the writing part is something you can’t force. Inspiration comes at the strangest of times, and you just kinda run with it, writing feverishly in a dark cave until your thoughts are on paper. It would be pretty easy to go out there and make a film with stock ski segments and keep the status quo, but the challenge—and the reward—come from going where there isn’t a blueprint.

This trailer has so much groove. Was it hard to have creative agreement in the vision of the edit?
NW: We are a team of four, and coming to consensus on creative style and vision is really challenging. I can’t begin to express the amount of energy that went into the shots, the scenes, the colors, the design. There’s a lot more to it than anyone realizes. All that said, it’s an amazing feeling to stay up until 6 am with Ben, Mike, and Zac, shaving off a few mm’s here and really diving into the craft. I’m lucky I get to work next to super talented guys who are willing to put their lives into creativity.

Like Solitaire, was this all human-powered—did you hike up the mountains you rode?
NW: Still human-powered. In Alaska we took a float plane in and camped on the glacier for ten days to film some of those lines, flying in a generator to charge batteries and dump footage every night. One in every 40 days or so, we’ll also use a helicopter to access peaks and ranges that are too deep to tour into, but then we hike from there. It’s challenging, but it’s on the long walks every day that we get inspired.

There were some tragedies around your last film. Though indirectly related, they affected you, of course. Did that shape this film at all?
NW: I think we came out of Solitaire as a whole wanting to create something light and fun, something that really made people laugh and smile. When people sit down in the theater or in their home to watch the feature-length version of Valhalla, their hearts are going to explode out of their chests, and their mouths are going to tear at the corners from so much smiling. We won’t say we warned you….