The pavement passed beneath us as I stared at the Beatles poster taped to the window of the old, converted yellow school bus--Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Gazing into the eyes of Paul, John, Ringo, and George, memories of college flooded back. I felt like I was in some hipped-out caravan on an acid trip as probably 35 others and I surfed along, trying to stay upright in the speeding vehicle. Most of the windows had stuff over them--colorful promo shots of ski movies and other far out flair--so no one could really see out or tell where we were going; we could have been anywhere but it didn't matter. Time had begun to lose meaning. A small, hand-held "keg" was being passed around and people drank thirstily from it, holding it aloft for one another. Everyone was psyched and spirits were high, having just seen the premier of Sweetgrass Production's new film at the Aladdin Theatre and with winter knocking at the door. People were itching for the snow but first it was time to party and celebrate the 2 years of filming in Nelson, BC and endless hours of painstaking editing that all culminated in an international tour with their new baby, Valhalla.Ben Sturgulewski was somewhere in the mix, living it up, his large smile surrounded by a red beard. Mike Brown was there in the back of the bus too, holding up the much sought-after "party pack" and generally looking pleased with the how the night was progressing. Zac Ramras was behind the wheel, steering the "Cool Bus" to unknown locales through the Portland night with his own mischievous grin. It was a Wednesday and I had to get up at a decent hour in the morning but I went along anyway. (Nick Waggoner was in another city during this tour stop, getting ready for a premier elsewhere.)
I had been put in touch with a couple of the guys at Sweetgrass Productions through a mutual friend--the powerhouse Portland health and wellness guru Skylor Powell. The other connection was that myself, Skylor, and 3 of the 4 Sweetgrass guys had all gone to the same school--Colorado College, a breeding ground of hardcore outdoor athletes, professional climbers and skiers, and generally fabulous, fascinating, and successful people. These guys are case in point, taking a front-seat role in revolutionizing the ski-movie genre and creating four major, increasingly ground-breaking films all by their mid twenties.
Ben and I had coffee the day before the premier, at Albina Press on Hawthorne and 50th, and talked about Sweetgrass Productions. The other guys were at the home base at Ben's girlfriend's house, doing the endless emailing and promotional busywork involved with an epic world tour with numerous big time sponsors--Patagonia being the primary supporter. After we'd chatted and sipped our caffeinated beverages and were readying to leave, Ben suggested I come over that evening to their potluck, to meet the other guys and hang out. I accepted.
I stopped at New Seasons for a 6 pack of beer that evening before heading to the address Ben had given me. As I walked up to the front door could see in the window to a full table of people, looking deep in conversation. My social anxieties kicked in a bit but managed to stay relaxed. I knocked on the door and a dog started going crazy, barking at the stranger outside. I tried to let myself in but the door stuck. Throwing my shoulder into it, I finally opened the damn thing and burst into the room, dog leaping all around me and a whole group of strangers just sitting there and staring, wondering who the hell I was.Ben was nowhere in sight so I had some explaining to do; "Um, Hi!…I know Ben… He and I met today…He invited me here…I swear…Ahhh, what else?…I'm friends with Skylor…I'm a freelance writer…"It took a little while but as soon as I mentioned that I was a Colorado College alumni the tension really broke and it felt as if I was fully accepted. Everyone was very nice. A backyard bonfire ensued (that's where Ben had been when I'd first arrived…hard at work getting wet logs to light) and the beer and stove-top mulled wine creation flowed. A few people (myself included) attempted to split logs of firewood with shovel blades to varying (mostly poor) results. It was a fine time and I was thankful to be in attendance; it was clear I was with good people. It was also clear that their time filming and working on location must have been a ton of fun; they knew how to kick it for sure. I looked at these young men and marveled at what they'd accomplished already…and I hadn't even seen Valhalla yet.The next night I did see it and I'll simply say: Valhalla is the best ski film I've ever seen. It's true.I came in just as it was starting and sat toward the back by myself and settled in to absorb what was to come. I didn't know what to expect, had no idea what I was about to see…Tabula Rasa style.Then it started…My thoughts of the film blew in like fresh snow…...I was mesmerized, but not by the technicality of the tricks or the prowess of individual skiers or snowboarders. The talent was unquestionably amazing and the athleticism stunning but it deliberately wasn't "ski-porn"--one epic line after another until your eyes glaze over and even the most gnarly run ever seems boring. The cinematography was gorgeous; more artful, detail-oriented, and composed than anything I've seen. The music was perfect, not normal ski movie fare. Most importantly Valhalla kept me intrigued; it has a plot, like reading a book, not just flipping through a magazine. There was a story, a bigger purpose, something to say besides "Look at me! I can huck back flips or drop giant cliffs with my name plastered on the screen!" A deeper excitement was inherent during the viewing too: there was the distinct, thrilling feeling of a new genre being launched, of new ground being broken.There was a problem though, a big one: I wanted even more. I want them to do what they were doing times 10. I want them to head where they're heading even faster…cause it's gold, for real, it's awesome and it's just the tip of the iceberg. The future is bright, there's no question about that.The "Cool Bus" finally came to a stop and we stepped out onto the street. I tried to orient myself with only partial success. We were on Sandy Ave. somewhere. I normally pride myself in my directional ability but when I get driven around on a psychedelic party bus for a half hour, essentially blindfolded, I can't promise anything. I soon learned we were at Church. Djs spun beats, people danced and the Sweetgrass boys had fun in Portland, surrounded by their entourage of adoring fans and friends. I ate a double cheese burger for $5 and drank a whiskey-ginger and enjoyed the scene, chatting here and there, happy to have made the acquaintance of the fine crew of film makers. I talked with a hardcore climber/backcountry skier guy who works at Next Adventure and has a very large reddish mustache. The beats ensued. It got late; it was 1 on a school night. I said peace to my new friends, thanks for everything-- the film, the hospitality, all the inspiring work--and that we'd be in touch.I left Church and started running back to my car, nearly 3 miles away. I went the wrong direction at first but it was ok, I only went a block or so before realizing. The faces of Paul, John, Ringo, and George flashed through my head as I jogged along in my blue jeans and it seemed Sgt. Pepper and his band were running along side me in the cool, quiet night (morning.) I thought about Sweetgrass Productions and the four guys who have created their dream and seen it to fruition and I couldn't help but hear the song in my head--Track 2 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band:"Yes I get by with a little help from my friends,with a little help from my friends…"Q&A with Ben Sturgulewski:MC: Tell me the Sweetgrass Productions "creation story" …When and where did you start? Who are the main players?BS: At Colorado College, I was roommated with Nick Waggoner from freshman year, and along with our friend Zac Ramras we made a yearly trip every Christmas break to some far-flung part of the world to go skiing and conduct underage drinking. Every year we'd take this endeavor a little more seriously, filming one another in these exotic locales-- BC, Austria, Russia, and beyond. Every year we'd have a bigger camera, and would be focusing more on the cinematography and the skiing than the drinking. By the time we were seniors, we'd gotten ourselves pretty awesome (at the time) cameras and were thinking seriously about taking a stab at a real ski film. We recruited Zac's high school friend Mike Brown, and set off to the hill in 2008. Our first film 'Hand Cut' was born as a senior film project, and the rest is a whirlwind of history-- the film found an audience, we found some money, and the next thing we knew we were in Japan for a winter making a film called 'Signatures,' which found more audience and more money, sending us all a-gaggle to South America for two years in the making of 'Solitaire'. Exponential theory raged on and all of sudden we were in the process of making 'Valhalla,' thinking... dear god, what have we created?MC: Valhalla is your 4th film… How is it different from the first 3? What's the driving theme or message are you trying to communicate?BS: Valhalla is vastly different from any of our previous films or really any 'action sports' film before it. We wanted to throw the ski-film formula out the window and actually attempt to tell a story first and foremost, that was supported by the action. The question was what kind of story could skiing tell-- that wasn't Aspen Extreme. What kind of feeling and core emotion did it inspire? Ultimately it seemed obvious that if skiing meant anything, it was a sense of possibility, of freedom. When a ski or snowboard is strapped on, very cold, inhospitable, alienating terrain instantly transforms into a landscape of unlimited potential and humans are capable of feats they simply couldn't achieve otherwise.Ultimately we wanted to unwrap that basic potentiality of what freedom could mean, and place it into a fictional narrative that anyone could relate to, that would hopefully inspire them to look at their own lives, to check in and see how/if were living their own freedom. And if what they saw wasn't satisfying, to present some alternative options! Skiing being one of them. Using that as the core idea, the story slowly evolved to take on many forms of freedom, including the retro vibe harkening back to the 60s.
MC: Tell me about the progression in your work, how things are changing over time, and where you want to go with Sweetgrass in the future.BS: Its pretty interesting working within a genre that historically has been really derivative-- not much changed in the ski film industry for decades. That mindset is changing rapidly as people are beginning to recognize that there is a lot more to skiing than bigger tricks and badder lines, and they're beginning to have to innovate to keep peoples attention. I think its important to never attempt to make the same film twice, but to always be pushing in a different direction and going outside of your comfort zone. Its always a gamble. The past three films we've made, right before they're about to come out, you're absolutely freaking out worrying whether or not people will get it, will be able to communicate with it and be inspired by it, because the content is so vastly different from what they're accustomed to. Our last film's script was pulled from 'Heart of Darkness' and narrated in Spanish. Our current one is a narrative ski film about naked hippies. On paper these are ridiculous ideas. But for every film we've made, its worked out, and I think what we're learning is that we can be confident in our audience, and we can respect their intelligence, and push them a little bit further into the unknown each time. That's a liberating feeling, and that confidence allows you to start thinking even more outside the box. So while I can't necessarily say what's next, I can say it will be something wildly different and its going to scare the shit out of me to make it, because it always does, and that's what makes it personally worthwhile.MC: What inspires you to make these films? What artists inspire you and/or influence your work?BS: There are plenty of people pushing ski filmmaking, but I think we're pushing it in a pretty unique direction, and there are no cues or precedents on how things should be done, so we have to make it up as we go along. There are definitely a contingent of people who aren't into our direction, which is fine, but we have to have some trust in our path and sort of push blindly into the darkness. As such, usually a new film is undertaken as an opportunity to one-up ourselves, since that's oftentimes the only tangible frame of reference. Usually I finish a movie frustrated with all the mistakes I made, and look at the next one as an opportunity to practice and fix those problems. We're all perfectionists, striving to outdo ourselves. It's not very healthy to be honest!
BS: There are plenty of people pushing ski filmmaking, but I think we're pushing it in a pretty unique direction, and there are no cues or jprecedents on how things should be done, so we have to make it up as we go along. There are definitely a contingent of people who aren't into our direction, which is fine, but we have to have some trust in our path and sort of push blindly into the darkness. As such, usually a new film is undertaken as an opportunity to one-up ourselves, since that's oftentimes the only tangible frame of reference. Usually I finish a movie frustrated with all the mistakes I made, and look at the next one as an opportunity to practice and fix those problems. We're all perfectionists, striving to outdo ourselves. It's not very healthy to be honest!All that said, as much as we may be fumbling around in the dark in the ski genre, our films are definitely inspired by non-ski cinema. Solitaire took lots of its aesthetics from Spaghetti Westerns, and Valhalla was hugely inspired by 60s and 70s counter-culture films like Easy Rider. Non-narrative films like Baraka provide constant inspiration on how to tell stories in alternative ways. We're all huge fans of cinema and would probably be working more in that field if we weren't so obsessed with skiing. In the end I guess our forte is in bringing those two worlds a little closer together-- if we were to leave any legacy on the adventure film world, that'd be one to be proud of.MC: When did you first begin skiing and spending time in the mountains and what do you enjoy most about those things?BS: I grew up in Alaska and have been skiing since before I can remember. I'd say the magic of being in the winter mountains is its ability to reconnect you to nature in a heartbeat. Stepping back into the wild again is like meeting an old friend, where you're instantly communicating with one another like no time has passed. Being out there just puts you right back into that pure and simple mindset, and all the extraneous trivialities of our complicated modern lives sort of dissolve and leave you with the simplest sensations, the simplest emotions. Its this awesome process of reduction right down to the bare essential, and as cheeseball as it sounds, whatever you're left with is probably all you need to be happy. Valhalla is a bit of an exploration of that concept.MC: Tell me about this famous naked film clip from Valhalla that went viral on the internet. So you're just going to do everything naked now, right?BS: In our explorations of freedom, nakedness seemed to be more or less a constant. But the filming started when we'd go out on gray and cloudy days... those are tough conditions to make things look good in, and we'd be struggling for shots, so we'd take a sip off the flask and tell the athletes the only way they'd get any screentime that day would be if they took off their long johns. Those who complied are now Vimeo superstars... and their mothers live in shame. We'd actually never originally planning on doing a whole naked segment, maybe just a smattering of shots here and there throughout the film to keep things exciting, but in the edit it became apparent that it was deserving of a little extra love. Its pretty funny that a bunch of shots that were more or less an afterthought born out of bad conditions and fine whiskey became by far our most successful piece ever! I think we'd be pretty foolish to ever film people in clothes again.MC: If you could be a different animal what would you choose?BS: I hear eagles have eyeballs that can zoom, so if that's true I vote eagle. If not... probably still eagle.MC: You're still young and have had great success with Sweetgrass Production, skiing and touring the world with your films and having amazing adventures. What advice would you give to a young person trying to follow their passions and make a go of it? What sort of entrepreneurial tips would you pass along?BS: I wouldn't consider myself an expert by any sort of the word, but from my experience, with great risk comes great reward. There are millions of people out there doing things along fairly parallel lines, and if you can figure out at an angle and offset the balance a bit, if you can rock the boat... chances are its going to pay off sooner or later. Each of our films has been an exercise in shitting our pants while pushing the boundaries of what we thought would be acceptable to audiences and to sponsors. Is a multi-multi-million dollar clothing company going to be happy about sponsoring 2 1/2 minutes of naked (clotheless) skiing? Like, with real penises in it? Can they handle spanish subtitles, can they digest narrative arcs? These are questions that have no answers until the world premiere, and everything in between is faith and pants full of shit. But things work out, and faith in your idea goes a long way, so grab some coins for the washing machine and let loose.Photos Courtesy: Sweetgrass ProductionBuy Vahalla on iTunes: georiot.co/1ZKvPurchase the DVD and Blu Ray at: sweetgrass-productions.com/shop/