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Warren Miller: You Want Your Ski? Go Get It
I have been asked many times if I could start a film company today and make it grow like it did when I started in 1950, with a borrowed 16mm camera and $100 from each of four friends to start the company.
I first thought that because of a recent ruling by a judge in Texas that would make what I did virtually impossible because he passed a law that says “You can’t take a picture of another person without their permission.” Luckily he reversed that.
When people talk about the many ski movies I’ve produced they invariably talk about the comedy portions of the films.
I always operated under a court ruling that said: “Anything that you do in public is being done with or without the public’s permission and therefore can be photographed and reproduced.” What about all of the spectators at a professional football game who don’t sign releases?
For years there was a great television show called “Candid Camera” in which the host and cameramen photographed people in normal situations and then said funny things about them, which is exactly what I did all of those years.
People remember the rope tow sequences, people falling off of chairlifts, and who can forget the lady in the yellow stretch pants bending over to tie her ski boots when I made the comment, “She looks like a yellow cab with both doors open.” I wasn’t very nice back then.
Don Brolin’s chairlift sequence at Snow Valley, I think, was the classic one for what was an obvious reason to me. When beginners rented skis they could buy a chairlift ticket or a lesson in ski school. Most of them bought chairlift tickets and when they got to the top of the chairlift it was the first time in their life they had ever seen an unloading ramp.
Naturally they clutched up and didn’t get off of the chair in time and often went around the bull wheel and started back down the mountain still in the chair. Other people would simply step out of a poorly adjusted safety binding and to get them out of the way the lift operator would pick up the ski and throw it down the hill and holler, ”If you want your ski, go get it!”
The operator threw the ski down there to get the beginning skier out of the way of the skiers coming down the off ramp, many of them for the first time in their lives, and with very little control. Don had to get these photographs early in the morning because on the second or third trip up that chairlift, every uncoordinated skier would’ve been down that ramp once or twice already and could then handle it without falling.
I always had the belief that the world wants to laugh and rarely is it given that opportunity.
After spending all summer supervising the editors, I would start crafting the script with as many jokes as I could insert in the movie. Once we had a barely finished film I would have numerous previews in our small theater. At intermission, after narrating the first reel live, I would ask for audience criticism and then do the same thing at the end of the second reel. This was the only way I could hone and refine my narration so it produced the humorous mood that I wanted the people to leave the theater with.
For about the first 50 years or so of producing my ski films, I narrated the show live in as many as 110 different theaters during October, November, December, and January. The narration after that many live shows was a great deal different than the show I started the season with. Something I never did understand was that an offhand remark to an audience in the West could bring down the house, but when I said the same thing in Connecticut or Massachusetts or anywhere else in the East, that same loud laughter would not happen even though both audiences were the same size.
This is not to say that I concentrated 100 percent on comedy for the film. The reason I spent years trying to go to different places each year is that way back when I was a Boy Scout in 1936 I had a 39-cent camera and took pictures of the Boy Scout pack trips. I really enjoyed sharing these little tiny black-and-white photographs with some of my junior high school friends who never left the neighborhood where they lived. It was fun to share those trips and I think that this was a major motivation of my entire professional career.
It is interesting to me that when I started making ski movies there were less than 15 chairlifts in North America but luckily for me, there were enough skiers sprinkled across America who brought a friend to my early films to let me grow the business.
In about 1955, or five years after I started, I couldn’t get to all of the cities that wanted me to come and narrate my film just for them. So I learned how to put my voice right on the film along with a musical score and I could then show it in many of the smaller cities.
At about that same time I was able to rent a sound film version of my show full of ski action and comedy to a man and his wife who worked at the Alta Lodge. They ran the film one or two nights a week all winter and eventually put enough money aside to buy a summer camp somewhere in Michigan.
That seasonal rental at Alta spread to one in Aspen at the Slope, Boyne Mountain, Sun Valley, and in many other resorts as well. I have no idea how many people were laughing at the show or how many people were bringing friends and taking them to the local rope tow and giving them their first opportunity to experience total freedom.
It’s a fact that when you’re smiling or laughing you feel much better. Doesn’t matter where you are; it’s the same feeling of freedom without a care in the world, similar to the feeling that you get skiing down the mountain.
Another of the biggest laughs we ever got was when we filmed the National Inner-tube Downhill Championships. The crashes were so awesome that when I said, ”The inner-tube is 36 inches in diameter which exactly matches the IQ of the people riding will them,” the laughter from that one line became a loud roar.
If you think seriously about some of the outfits that skiers wear, they resemble a waterproof clown costume that if anybody on your board of directors saw you wearing it anywhere except on a ski hill they would kick you off of the board.
Anyone who owns a pair of skis can remember their first ride on a rope tow or a chairlift and the enjoyment it brought to their lives. I tried to bring that same enjoyment to my audiences with my humorous sequences.
Do I miss producing action sports movies? Of course I do. However, in today’s world of government overreach I think all of the rules and regulations probably would shut me down if I produced the movies that I enjoyed doing for 55 years.
I hope you miss them too.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)