Sweetgrass For Art And Humanity:
Interview With Nick Waggoner

by v3rsus (September 2009)

v3rsus: What exactly is Sweetgrass Productions?

Nick: I started Sweetgrass Productions in 2007. I started the company by myself, and it was a way to get more serious amongst a couple of collaborators, a couple of friends who were making films at the time. We were skiing around the mountains and we were making films, but we also went to school at that time. So we were making films in classes, and it wasn´t just about skiing. We were watching films and we were studying filmmakers. Starting Sweetgrass Productions was a way of saying: "You know what? Let´s take it to the next level, let´s get a little bit more serious about it, and let´s put more time and energy into it." Now I work with five of my friends, people that I went to school with, people that I have known for four or five years. It has blossomed into this collaboration, and it is very interesting. Collaboration is difficult to actually achieve and do well, because of people´s egos, people´s different creative processes. Part of what has been satisfying about the past project “Signatures” is that I´m learning to do that better. I´m learning to work with other people a little bit better. If you have five different pictures you have to get an understanding of where other people are coming from.

v3rsus: So it started with a passion for skiing?

Nick: What started it was a passion for skiing, but I think also something that I wouldn't happen to know at the time: a passion for art and a passion for photography, and a passion for, almost, writing, in a weird sense poetry: in the sense of the rhythm of writing. The whole process of writing, to me, even if it was a paper on "Mac Beth" in seventh grade, writing that paper, there was a craft to it. There was an artistic process to it, the expression of yourself in those words. The way you crafted a sentence could be totally unique. Even if everybody in the class, 40 people were writing the exact same paper, you could have a sentence that nobody else had. And the way that you expressed yourself on that paper was unique. I think the same can be said for filming.

v3rsus: Is creating something unique part of the philosophy behind Sweetgrass?

Nick: I think everybody has a very unique artwork. What makes people who make films, or people who write, or people who are artists different is that they channel that view and they take that outlook on life. They make things different. It's not that our perspective is better. It's not that at all. It's just that we find the need to put the energy into expressing ourselves on film.

v3rsus: When you portray the locals of the areas where you are skiing, is that a way you pay respect to them or is it a statement for forgotten values and against a fast-pace, superficial culture?

Nick: I think it's very much putting value on these things that are forgotten, things that I see. The ski and snowboard films that are coming out are so superficial. Young kids that are watching these films are receiving values and they are picking up images that I find are so contrary to what being in the mountains and being a human is all about. It's showing this image that will sell a product, but it's really not making our communities any better, it's not making our mountains any better, it's in fact making them worse. It's taking the soul out of them. For a person out in the mountains I think reflecting is a very, very important process. There is no reflection in films or images about big cars, money and women.

v3rsus: Do you think pop culture reached a point where you have to oppose it as an artist?

Nick: I feel that it's not that people don't feel that way. It's not that people inherently want that pop culture. I really feel that they're kind of getting fed this thing, and they don't really have another outlet, or they are not aware of another outlet. Maybe they are not strong enough as a person to say: "You know, this is what I like. I don't like that. Even if 200 people like that, I'll be one that doesn't." Showing an alternative on a lighter level, through skiing, to say you can aspire to be a respectful person who appreciates the mountains, whether it's from a natural perspective or from a cultural perspective, that's what I want to be putting into our community.

v3rsus: Is it important to you that your movies express this bond with nature?

Nick: There is a strong element of reflection. There is almost an integrity of being out on your own, on your own support, on your own legs, on your own power. There is an adventure in going out on these missions working the mountains, not really being sure if you can succeed, if you can accomplish the mountain that you want to climb or ride. It's a challenge to be out there in the back country. It's something that you learn from. You learn about yourself, you learn about your own weakness and your strength. You learn about communicating with other people and you strongly bond with other people, based on the simple concept of trying to survive and get through it, in this whole back country environment together. My best friends are people who I consistently spend time with in the back country. The by-product is almost this environmental message: get away from the motors. I don't choose to be environmentally conscious. It's a process of learning about yourself.

v3rsus: Is back country skiing causing a harm to the environment, or do you take precautions when you bring your equipment up there?

Nick: I grew up in New York City. I didn't necessarily grow up with an understanding of how to take care of mountains, how to take care of rivers, or how to be conscious of the environment. It's something that you learn from being in the mountains, from being around other people, who say: "Don't pee right next to this river or stream." or "Don't build a fire right next to this stream." or "Don't drive a motorized vehicle that is spilling oil all over the place into this pristine environment." It seems like it's really straight forward, but a lot of people don't have that process. The people that I go skiing with take a certain pride in their communication with nature, and their understanding of it, and the ability to have no impact on the environment that they are in. It's completely contrary to how we, as a society, live our lives; the impact that we have with our cars, our energy use and our houses. I only need one room. I don't need this massive house to live in. People haven't had that need all their lives, they have learned to think that way. Making ski films is, in a roundabout way, educating people and promoting these values that are totally different from what you grow up learning. You don't grow up thinking that you really want that other car and not the big one, even if the big one is cool.

v3rsus: How do you choose the places where you film?

Nick: When we chose for "Hand Cut", we were going into areas that have this mining heritage. It was very much based on the culture aspect. The same can be said for Japan. Being over there this whole winter was driven by incredible skiing, but at the same time if there wasn't some sort of exploration for us as people and filmmakers it wouldn't have been at all interesting. I think the culture aspect is super important. Human interaction is the most fundamental and most rewarding process: Understanding other people and where they are from, what their value system is, and how that can teach you something about yourself. Being in Japan I looked at skiing and snowboarding in a completely different light. There is a totally different vocabulary, perspective and style, if you come from a place where skiing is a sport and a physical action. In Japan skiing is an artistic and philosophical exploration of yourself, your connection to the mountains, and your emotions. I remember the feeling on the last day that I was skiing with Taro (the main character of "Signatures") on top of this hill. The whole time he explained to me that it's not about going so fast, but about style and how your skiing connects with the mountains. When you've been hearing that for a couple of months it sinks in, and all of the sudden you start to think about this: It's your body, it's your skiing. It's a completely different process. It's almost like yoga. It's just awesome.

v3rsus: The quality of your images is pretty impressive, considering that Sweetgrass Productions started out as such a small project. Do you use your own equipment?

Nick: We have our own equipment. It's been really fascinating to see how the quality of our films has become so much better. We still are a small company, but we're growing pretty fast. In terms of equipment and the release of quality images it comes back to integrity, self-discipline, and determination. It's a race with yourself, to proof that you can work that hard and accomplish these things. The satisfaction that you persevered, and that you worked so hard to make this idea become a reality, is almost incredible.

v3rsus: What are the events like when you are on tour with your movie?

Nick: It's a way to get our films to people and to meet them, and to go to that community. That's what I really enjoy the most: Going to people's hometown and chatting with them after the film, and to hear that they appreciate our film and that they share these values as well. That's such a powerful moment. To be able to tell stories to people and have them be totally quite and listening when Taro is talking to his family about raising kids, the values they get, and the things they don't get from not being in the city. That's the jist of the tour. The tour is a pain in the ass and it takes so much work to make it happen, but when you get these incredible shows, whether it's 20 people in a coffee house or 500 people in a theatre, it's pretty awesome. Where I would like to see us going is getting creative with the presentation and bringing art into that as well. The art doesn't stop with what the film is. Maybe every three or four tour stops we could find a musician or band from that area, and give them the film two or three months ahead of time, and get them to interpret it however they want. Then the show, when you go to the theatre, basically, there is no sound, maybe interviews. They are providing the live soundtrack, right there on the spot, so that every single show on the tour is completely unique. If you provide a live soundtrack you support and engage the local artists and the local musicians. That would be so incredible.

v3rsus: Is it important to you to bring that cultural aspect to skiing?

Nick: That's what we hope. Skiing has this strange stigma, and people who don't ski kind of stay away from that. If you miss the culture and if you miss these values it's starting to cease to be the skiing that I know and the mountains that a lot of people in Colorado know. These values haven't been part of skiing in the recent past. I find that we are so detached from our natural state, from our human instincts. I don't see it as much that people are trying to be kind off the bat and to just meet you on a human level. It's some sort of protection of your own ego. I always find it fascinating to just be straight with people, and the reaction that you get from just being genuine. It's not like it's an easy thing for me to get up on stage and say: "Hey this film is a reflection of us, a reflection of our hearts. This is who we are." But if you're bold, and you have that kind of confidence in yourself, and just say: "This is who I am.", and you show that to people, that you can be who you are, a lot of aggression and mixed up bad emotions would dissolve, and we would be a lot more comfortable with being ourselves. Making people more comfortable with subscribing to their ideas, and not subscribing to pop culture.

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v3rsus 2009