Into the Mind: Ski Film Director Dave Mossop on Fear, Happiness, Mortality

Only at the San Sebastián film festival can the director of a ski film sit down for an interview in a hotel lobby directly in between Oliver Stone and Diego Luna. That was where Dave Mossop found himself ahead of the world premiere of his latest visual feast, Into the Mind. Coming hot off the heels of the multi-award winning, All.I.Can. The young Canadian’s new film is an exploration of fear, happiness, and mortality set against the backdrop of big mountain skiing.

Adventure: Why make a feature film in the age of the Internet video clip?

Dave Mossop: I made a feature film because I believe that there are stories to tell that take longer than three minutes. To have the opportunity to weave a story together that takes an hour and a half is awesome. It’s a wonderful feeling to rise to the challenge because life is so much more than a collection of tiny nuggets on the Internet.

A: What was the concept for Into the Mind?

DM: Into the Mind satisfies two of my deep-seated goals. One of them is that I’ve always been fascinated with dreams, and I remember one of my film profs telling me that film producers would always turn down scripts that had dream sequences in them. Naturally, I was furious and wanted to prove him wrong. So I try to speak to that with a sort of “Inception” type of an idea in the film.

The second goal deals with death. I’ve lost a lot of friends in mountains over the years due to avalanches and head injuries. It’s very powerful. The incredible thing about using skiing or snowboarding as the centerpiece of your movie is that you can live and die doing these sports. You can have the greatest single moment you can ever possibly have on Earth, or you could die. The film is really a meditation on the moment of choice you have before you potentially kill yourself in the mountains. It plays out three scenarios that are the outcome of that decision.

A: Do you, as a filmmaker, try to point the viewer in a one direction or another with regards to that decision?

DM: No. It’s impossible for us to say which one of these choices is correct. We can’t be like: “You should never die in the mountains, you should never try to achieve your goal of skiing the craziest line or climbing the highest mountain, you should just play it safe.” You also can’t say the other thing: “Go do it, huck your meat off a cliff.” So it puts you in a really interesting position as a filmmaker trying to discuss that topic. At first, it was really frightening asking ourselves how we were going to answer the problem. But eventually I found that it was a wonderful topic for that reason, we simply left it open. You have to leave it open. In the end, the film is really just the beginning of a larger discussion.

A: How do you deal with a skier who is in that moment of choice that could potentially kill him?

DM: You absolutely have to leave them to their own means and devices. My relationship with the people I film is usually based on very strong friendship and one of the nice things about that kind of relationship is that it allows you to make decisions as a group when you are in the mountains. You are in a potentially very dangerous situation, but that danger makes it a really cool social atmosphere when there is good communication and good vibes and everyone can contribute their opinion to what we should do next. But in terms of a director telling a skier to ski the line—never, ever. You can’t do that. They know their abilities and they know their boundaries. Sometimes you can have a group discussion to help them make up their mind but you have to leave it in their hands 100 precent.

A: Do you get worried for them?

DM: Of course. It happened to me once really badly this year when I was filming this guy Julian Carr take this famous double in Whistler—which is a 30-foot jump followed by a 40-foot jump—as a single. All told, it turned into a 185-foot jump.  You could just cut the tension in the air with a knife and all of us were nervous wrecks. Adding to the pressure, this was in bounds in Whistler so there were literally thousands of people there cheering for this guy who was about to jump.

A: It seems like you have to really believe in these guys.

DM: Absolutely. I usually have a lot of trust in the athletes because they know what they are capable of, and we are also usually very prepared with our safety measures. But something like that, where it was just a guy leap-of-faithing into the abyss is very … odd.

A: Is their a fine line between looking at death and the glorification of cheating death?

DM: For sure. It’s both a very fine and very blurry line. We talk about it a lot in modern adventure media. It’s really at the forefront of what we do as all these different sports reach the true limits of human ability. Maybe once we start getting titanium bones more things will become possible. But until then you have to know your limits. One thing I’m really proud of in Into the Mind is that we try to glorify not risking your life.

A: That’s rare in this field.

DM: Yeah, it’s super rare. It’s a really hard topic to get around to and to discuss properly. I hope we manage to find a way in this film. I do think it’s cooler to not die in the mountains and instead to live al lifetime of skiing, or mountain biking, or surfing, or skating, or whatever it is you do and have all these great memories from years and years past.

I’ve been losing friends in the mountains since I was 17 and it continues to happen. It’s something that only a lifetime the mountains can give you a perspective on. It sounds very weird to even think about that kind of death somehow being somehow okay. But when you lose someone in the mountains like that you look at their life very closely and often you realize that they are living their life to the fullest and trying their hardest to live their dreams. There is something so beautiful about that that it almost counteracts the tragedy of losing their life.

A: How did you get into filmmaking?

DM: When I was 16 or 17 my parents bought me a Pentax M.E. Super, which I still have on my mantle. You couldn’t ask for a better tool to learn photography. It’s the ultra simple tools that are the best and the ME Super just has an F-stop, shutter speed, and a light meter, that’s it. At the end of the day, all the fancy tools don’t matter at all. It’s the simplest tools that are the things that really make a difference.

I ended up in a sports medicine program at the University of Victoria, but simultaneously took a film studies class with a professor named Brian Hendricks which completely blew my mind and changed my life and made me realize that that was what I wanted to do.

A: Have you always filmed skiing?

DM: Yes. When I was in my early 20s I started making zero-budget ski films in the days of Hi8 cameras and MiniDV tapes. On a typical day my friends and I would wake up at 6:00 a.m., drive to Roger’s Pass, which is a pretty famous backcountry area in British Columbia. We’d put on our skins and ski tour about four to six hours to get to the tops of the mountains. Then we’d bang off either one big run, or two or three small runs and ski all the way back. Then we’d repeat the process every day. We were so fit back then we’d do seven days a week of that for a month on end. I don’t know how I did it in retrospect.

A: When did you decide you wanted to be behind the lens instead of in front of it?

DM: I don’t know, but the transition between wanting to star in a film and wanting to make one definitely took place over a period of time. To begin with, I don’t think being the “hero” was ever really my style. Eventually, the act of being a part of this longer, larger process was so much more gratifying than just this instant moment of being the best. I think a big part of that is seeing filmmaking as an art form. A lot of action sports films are just about documenting one of your friends or someone you admire doing something really crazy. That’s more or less it–it’s like, look at this amazing moment. And that’s bad-ass, it’s fun, and I want to watch movies like that as much as everyone else. But for me filmmaking is a lot more than that.

A: What advice would you give to people who also want ot pursue filmmaking but don’t know where to start?

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DM: I’ve got this little switch in me. I believe that if anyone in this world can do something, then I can also do it. I think a lot of people lack that, but you have to believe it, one way or another. At the end of the day, all you have is your own hard work. So you have to put the hours in, get your work in front of other people’s eyes, and learn how to take criticism. If you do this enough and for long enough, those little shreds of positive reinforcement from others will start to filter through and that will, in turn, help you believe in yourself.

To me, editing is the hardest part of the job and also the most misunderstood. All of the magic, all of storytelling and the majority of the at of filmmaking happens in the editing room.

I started in photography. My mom’s piano teacher was a swiss mountaineer and photographer named Boris Roubakine. He was a wonderful man, a very sensitive artist, photographer, and musician. We had his photographs hanging on our wall as I was growing up. It’s one of my earliest memories of thinking of photography and the use of cameras in creating great art. That evolved into a still photography career.

A: What spoke to you about it?

DM: It’s a good example of how individuals in you life can change you. You meet so many people, but sometimes it just takes on great teacher to really connect and trigger something. Brian Hendricks is something of a kook–he’s got a sort of 60s writer vibe, but he’s extremely well read and a dedicated student of film. The way that he looked at film and the way that he understood the cinematic language was really an eye opener for me. I guess it revealed, for one, the potential that film has to communicated with people, and for another, the legacy of unbelievable film artwork that had been going on around my whole life without my being aware.

A: How did you combine your interest in film with your passion for skiing?

DM: When I was about 12 we moved from Edmunton to Calgary, and I became completely addicted to skiing every weekend out at Lake Louise. I fell in love with the mountains through skiing, but it helped that my father was a great geologist. One of the more amazing things he taught me was the immensity of the geologic time scale. Everybody knows it but it’s so hard to fathom but it doesn’t really affect you. You know that billions of years have passed by and we are living in just a tiny speck of time, but to really wrap your head around that is such a wonderful challenge.

I remember standing on the deck of a cabin one night and looking out and realizng that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I really liked art. And I had this little, logical process in my mind that film can include all the other forms of art. You can film people dancing, you can play music through film, you can paint on film, etc. So it’s this incredible medium that is totally out of control—anyone who says they are a master of film is not telling the truth. I don’t think it’s possible to know everything about film in every direction. The best you can do is put energy into it and this extremely chaotic form will materialize, and you just try to manhandle it into this final piece of work. That’s all you can do. A lot of times it just feels like nature wants to make films and you are just sort of it’s avatar.

A: How would you describe your films?

DM: I would say they are extreme visual story-telling. We’re very inspired by films like Baraka by Ron Fricke and Koyaanisqatsi, which Fricke also worked on as the director of photography. I love that sort of strictly visual, symbolic journey. My courses with Brian Hendricks had taught me about the use of symbols as a language, so a shot is a word, an edit is a sentence and a film is a book. So placing the shots in a certain order, using only symbols to tell a story in an incredible, language without boundaries. It can speak to everybody and has an intrinsic appeal that acts as a catalyst in different ways for everyone that watches it.

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