VALHALLA: Nick Waggoner on the Ski Film Everyone is Talking About

Yesterday the trailer for VALHALLA (watch it on iTunes, Sweetgrass Productions’ upcoming film, hit the Internet stiring much excitement and speculation from the ski/snowboard community. For the past two years, the Sweetgrass boys—Ben Sturgulewski, Zac Ramras, Michael Brown, and Nick Waggoner—have been stationed in Nelson, British Columbia, exploring what it means to find freedom in a place with a long legacy of attracting freedom seekers, artists, draft dodgers. Nelson also has access to some of the best skiing on the planet.

Their resulting film, VALHALLA, breaks new ground by combining a narrative storyline with enough jaw-dropping skiing and riding from top athletes to thrill and satiate “ski porn” purists. The team also used top-of-the-line cameras, on par with that of Hollywood director Peter Jackson in The Hobbit. They did things like film skiing at night in minus-20-degree temperatures while launching fireworks. And once again, their production was almost entirely human powered, meaning a whole of lot suffering went into each shot.

If we learned anything from their previous projects Solitaire and Signatures, we know that Sweetgrass has a way of stirring the mind and soul in the most genuine ways. Add us to the long line of people waiting to get into VALHALLA‘s Denver premiere on September 13. Here Nick Waggoner, one of our Adventurers of the Year, give us some background on the film.

ADVENTURE: What percentage of VALHALLA is “ski porn”?
Nick Waggoner: Percentage-wise, it’s important for people to know that this is still a ski and snowboard film. They’re going to get hit with the most impressive action of any Sweetgrass film, a gigantic leap from our past work. Pep Fujas, Kye Petersen, Eric Hjorleifson, Zack Giffin, Ryland Bell, Josh Dirksen—the talent we had come out for this film is so damn good, so impressive to watch, that we almost have to rub our eyes as we edit. Is this really ours? Yes, it is, and it’s rad. Gigantic BC pillow stacks, AK spines, creative urban-like hits in non urban-like settings, BLOWER pow—everyone is going to see riding that they’re used to catching in an Matchstick Productions or Teton Gravity Research flick, just with a distinctively Sweetgrass style and a story that will speak to their minds and hearts, as skiers, and as people. This marriage of action sports and narrative has never been done before, but, rest assured, even the most hard core snow freaks are going to leave the theater saying, “DAMN, I didn’t think that was possible.”

A: Tell us about the classic ski film Sinners (we haven’t seen it) and how it influenced Valhalla?
NW: I don’t know if Sinners influenced VALHALLA so much as it influenced Sweetgrass. It was the genesis, the “ah-ha” moment when four friends came together with a common purpose and a desire to seek out the kind of soulful, unadulterated, pure experience seen in Bill Heath’s work. That film sent us all on the trajectory to this day, starting with our original trip to Nelson as 18-year-old boys on winter vacation from college. It showed us that both ski films, and skiing, had a lot more to offer, were a lot more complex, than just adrenaline. It can just be skiing and snowboarding, but it can also be so much more, if you’re willing to engage it in that way. Sinners will always be in our minds—it’s weaved into our sensibilities as people and as filmmakers.

Give us a run down of the locations in the film where you shot skiing and other scenes?
NW: It’s no mystery that BC is paradise for winter. It’s candyland, a fantasy world of deep snow and epic peaks, many lifetimes of exploration, adventure, and fun. Over our two years we traveled through some of the deepest snowpacks on Earth, from Whitewater Ski Resort and Rogers Pass, British Columbia, up to Haines, Alaska. This last winter I spent four weeks up at Golden Alpine Holidays, a lodge system north of Golden, and right across from legendary cat skiing operation Chatter Creek. It was paradise. Unimaginable pillow lines, meters of snow that fall at 0 F, and a deep, stable snowpack, and mini-AK spine lines right out the door. Everyday we’d come back to family dinners, and saunas, no internet, no emails, and that’s super refreshing and pure.

Come spring, we headed up to the Tordrillo range in Alaska for 12 days of high pressure. We had a stellar crew—Pep Fujas, Carston Oliver, Zack Giffin, and Cody Barnhill. I’ve never skied through such gnarly terrain in my life. On our last day we sessioned an 80-foot crevasse gap, watching Pep throw the smoothest switch rodeo 5 straight to his feet, landing with incredible ease. It’s one of the iconic ski shots of the film no doubt.

In our backyard, Whitewater Ski Resort is as cool as a resort gets. The skiing and vibe are phenomenal, and we were able to build several of our sets on location there, setting up temporary tipi villages, ski touring in large outfitter tents, and building night time bonfires down in the valley forest for some of our night time scenes. I can’t say enough about the community there– everyone from the liftie to the mountain manager took us in as family and entertained our weird and wild ideas without question.

A: Who are your skiers and riders?
NW: Eric Hjorleifson – Cody Barnhill – Carston Oliver – Zack Giffin – Pep Fujas – Kye Petersen -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 – Thayne Rich – Kazushi Yamauchi – Keely Kelleher – Ralph Backstrom – Piers Solomon -Johan Jonsson – Alex Yoder

A: Are they also actors with a storyline?
NW: We have four main actors in the principal stories, and many extras from the local scene. Cody Barnhill is our main protagonist, flanked by Sierra Quitiquit as the leading lady, and Alex Monot as a wild, bohemian French man. And then there’s Yama, which means “mountain” in Japanese, the Hokkaido snow surfer seen in all orange at around :59. All these characters progress Cody’s characters journey, which as you can gather, is about seeing winter, and life, with the freedom and awe of a kid. They are his mentors along the journey. And the beauty of all of this is that most of these scenes kind of became real, as everyone became friends, and interaction became natural.

So many of the scenes you see in the film are reality, car crashes, and laughter, smiles, parties, skiing, winter camping. It’s really beautiful to see it all come together. As you can imagine, it’s a bold move to bring this kind of
style to a ski movie, a scripted story. So when it works out, and feels right, and engaging, it’s pretty damn satisfying.

A: You shot at night with fireworks. Sounds dangerous. Were there any close calls—with the fireworks or otherwise?
NW: It was -20 outside and we were hauling generators with human power into the darkness in deep BC snow. Sessions began at 10 pm and ran until 6 am. Of course people got hit.

It was madness, so cold that lighters didn’t spark, and fireworks developed a mind of their own. When the generators quit every night, our athletes would ski by the glow of the fireworks, exploding shells and sparks bouncing off their gore tex, whizzing by their heads as they spin and flip through the dark.

I give huge thanks to Zac Ramras, Michael Brown for being the engine behind those nights, and Eliel Hindert, Austin Ross, Nick Mcnutt, and Keely Kelleher for their hard work and incredible skiing. The footage from those nights is incredible, and like many segments in this film, completely unlike anything they’ve ever seen. At least 30 percent of the ski and snowboard segments in the movie are totally unique, and NIGHT is no exception.

A: Is all the skiing/riding human powered, as in Solitaire?
NW: 95 percent of the skiing in the film is human powered. There were a handful of days in Alaska where the helicopter was used for access and drops, but otherwise, yes.

We spent a total of 16 weeks working on the project camping or in remote lodges, from remote base camps on glaciers for weeks, to short missions in our backyard.

When most people realize the reality of how we produce these films, I think they’re incredible shocked at how difficult, both physically and mentally, our work is.

I think it’s in our DNA to suffer, and not just because it gets us better shots, and better light.

A: What kinds of cameras did you use?
NW: We stepped it up for VALHALLA, filming with 3 RED EPIC cameras, a state-of-the-art Ultra HD 5k resolution, compared to traditional 1.9k HD. The cameras alone cost more than our entire budget for Solitaire, but the real value is the excitement it gave us as filmmakers, to know that we had the same technology in our hands as Peter Jackson who made The Hobbit. It’s not an auto pilot system, but when exposed well and pointed in the right direction, it produces some ridiculously beautiful images.

A: You were seeking freedom. Did you find it? And did it satisfy you?
NW: Absolutely. I’m more keenly aware of what I want now, and what satisfies me, more than ever. Which in a sense is freedom. To be able to follow your own heart, no?

To have the confidence to do what you feel and what excites you, no matter what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to act. I feel much more alive and awake, and I owe a lot of that to the experience on VALHALLA, which has only just begun. These films, after all, are a vehicle for expression and for learning, and it’s really the process, not the DVD or the end product, that is the most rewarding for us all.