Reminiscent of Step into Liquid and DogTown Z-Boys, freeskiing is making it’s debut with a major production company and coming to theaters nationwide this December. Steep is the product of the late Peter Jennings independent film company that was created to produce documentaries for a broad television market. Picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classic, Steep will eventually be in theaters in 80 cities across the country; not with one showing, but a run of showtimes and continual engagements.
With the likes of Seth Morrison, Ingrid Backstrom, Shance McConkey, Eric Pehota, Glen Plake, Chris Davenport, Doug Coombs and more, the characters in Steep are a seasoned and talented group of the best of the best. Mark Obenhaus, writer, director and executive producer of the movie has worked for years with ABC and has worked on numerous award-winning documentaries including many of Jennings works. Obenhaus, with the spurring of Jennings and others in the ski industry, was convinced there was a story to be told of the rise of big-mountain skiing and the people involved, the sacrifices they make for their sport and the thrill that comes with being in the largest and most majestic mountains in the world
I sat down with Obenhaus yesterday afternoon, the evening of the first screening in Denver, to chat about the movie and learn what brought the project to fruition.
NB: Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to chat with me! Do you have a few minutes to talk about Steep?
MO: Yeah, indeed.
NB: Great, so what I wanted to start with, is it’s been my impression that this was a long process in the making and you encountered some setbacks along the way. But what initially inspired you to take on such a project
MO: Well, everybody who worked on the project liked to ski. That’s king of how we all landed here. And I’m speaking for myself and producers Jordan Kronick and Gabby Tenenbaum and everybody else who worked on it. So it wasn’t a hard choice, let’s put it that way!
NB: Tell me a little about how it came to be.
MO: Well, we’ve been working on it for really about two and a half years and it started as a much broader project. This is before I was involved and before Gabby and Jordan were really deeply involved. There was a little bit of shooting done that wasn’t quite the kind of thing that the three of us, myself in particular, like to do so we kind of pushed aside what had been done before. When I got involved, I started looking for what I guess I would call a story or a narrative that we could tell. We wanted to tell a part of the bigger history of skiing.
The initial ambition before we were involved was to do a kind of big film about a global idea that told the larger, huge long history of skiing. I found that to actually be kind of boring. But, I felt like there had to be a good film we could make about skiing of the type I make. I make films that have some sort of story line and have character development. I make documentaries and that’s the kind of film I’m always looking for. Give me a good story and good characters and I feel I’ve got a movie.
NB: So what did you find in the greater realm of skiing that you could focus on?
MO: It didn’t take very long to realize that there was a remarkable thing that started happening in the, let’s say, about 1970, a little before or a little after, when people in the states, Bill Briggs, and in Europe people like Patrick Val and others started thinking outside the resort and into big mountains. And I just realized that this was a little idea that a few people had and look at it now! Now it’s a big sport. You’ve got a magazine, Freeskier. And it’s now a sport that has different branches. And I just though, jeez, this is a great story to tell. The more I looked into it, the more characters kind of came to the fore.
One day during a visit to Jackson Hole, we met Billy Briggs and heard his tale. We took the measure of the man and thought, what a cool guy. He’s just a good dude. And then we met Doug Coombs and Doug’s life really covers the whole period. He was, I think, 14 in ’71? And he’s been out of bounds ever since. So if just felt like… here was a story taht would be really fun to tell and some wonderful characters and that’s really the genesis of the whole thing.
NB: What did you encounter that hindered your process:
MO: In making the film, though, none of us were experienced in making ski films and probably had we not been so green and ambitious, we wouldn’t have made some of the decisions we made. We thought we could pull this off in one winter and didn’t. We went on and on and on.
NB: Did you have any help from current ski filmers?
MO: Sure, there’s a whole section of the film that is really devoted to movie skiing because, when I say there’s a story to tell, that’s one of the places skiing has gone. And skiing for the camera has changed the sport. So we used in that section in particular, footage from Matchstick of Ingrid and Seth and Shane and a little bit of Davenport as well. So there’s a good dose of Matchstick. They were very important in our film. In my mind, we wanted an alliance that we could count on and they are an extremely well run company. So we look at film and say, ‘We want that shot and that shot and that shot.” Matchstick was always able to deliver the film needed and not just on tape or on DVD but actually give us the original material so we could get our own edit and at a really high level. We took particular care in taking our original film and turning it into digital information through a state of the art technology for transferring film to tape medium. It just produces a beautiful picture.
NB: How will the quality or viewing be different than that of say, Seven Sunny Days?
MO: I think because we transferred all their material and our material using the same technology, it all looks great. It really looks good. I don’t think you’ll look at it and go, oh that was shot by our crew and that was shot by their crew. I think that technically we’re operating in a pretty much similar fashion. We shoot super 16 and they shoot super 16.
NB: How is this going to be seen? Where can we all see it?!
MO: This film was made from the very beginning with a hope that it would be embraced by, let’s call it a core audience, and it would also interest and move a broader audience. It was always intended for theatrical release and that’s always your hope. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. We were lucky enough to show it at the Tribeca Film Festival and it was picked up for distribution by one of the really prominent companies, Sony Pictures Classic, so it’s going to be released on December 21 in about 20 places and then between then and the end of March it will show in about 80 cities. It’s a broad release, large theatrical release, and will be promoted and advertised pretty widely.
NB: So athletes we work with, like Ingrid and Seth, what was their reaction to being a part of this and knowing their skiing is going to reach a broader audience than they’ve ever been accustomed to?
MO: Well, I can’s speak for them, but I’ve gotten to know them pretty will by this time. I just spent a week traveling with Ingrid. We were in LA, Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis in a few days. We invited any of the skiers that could make it to the premiere at the Tribeca festival and Ingrid was there, Dav, Sane, Andrew McClaine, Eric Pehota… They all liked it. I think they were very very pleased with it so I wouldn’t want to put words in their mouth but the impression certainly was that they were very happy to be a part of it.
NB: I’m sure the ski industry is very excited to have what we know and love and are passionate about being broadcast to a broader audience. I think that’s what we’re constantly trying to do is grow our audience.
MO: That was my goal, that’s why I made the film. For me, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always admired skiers. I think skiing is a really beautiful sport and it requires a kind of athleticism that I think people underestimate. I don’t think people realize — the general who are really only dealing with ski racing that crops up to their attention every four years — that here’s this sport that requires extraordinary athletic ability and commitment and sacrifice and I don’t think that the general is aware of that and aware of these athletes. I’m just very happy that people look at the film and admire what they see and begin to realize the skill level involved and again I emphasize the word sacrifice that people make to continue to pursue this passion for the sport. There aren’t any Alex Rodriguez’ here who are living large and getting millions of dollars for it. This is something that you have to love or you better not be doing it.
For more information regarding Steep and the people involved, visit steepfilm.com.