January 28, 2019
Slamdance 2019

How to Build a Film Empire Beyond the Critics from the Original DIY Guy

Warren Miller made a film per year for decades. Could you?

Filmmaker Patrick Creadon (Wordplay) sat down with ski film pioneer Warren Miller for the last interview of his life. Miller passed away nearly one year to the day of the premiere at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. Creadon and his producing (and life) partner Christine O'Malley were interested in making Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story, the opening night film of the fest, primarily because he was fascinated by Warren Miller as a do-it-yourself artist.  

If you’ve ever watched a ski movie, you’ve probably seen work influenced by Warren Miller. An ambitious, self-taught filmmaker, Miller spent decades creating his own films that didn’t just capture the experience of a downhill ski, but brought new worlds to audiences. This is what made him one of the most prolific filmmakers in history – skiing or otherwise!

“He started making his very first feature length film in 1949,” explained Creadon to No Film School about Miller’s first film Deep and Light. “He not only shot it and directed it, but then he went home and edited it and then he distributed it himself. He would go from town to town, and show his movie. And gradually, year after year, he built a worldwide audience for his films.”

Creadon spoke with No Film School on the eve of that premiere to talk about making the film and what we can learn as filmmaker’s from Miller’s legacy.

NFS: Your interview with Warren Miller was the last interview he ever gave. As a filmmaker, he obviously understood the process very well. In the film you even hear him remarking about the tripod you're using. What was your strategy to talk to him and get such an amazing story of his life on record?

Creadon: This was the first time that we had actually made a film about a filmmaker. That was really fascinating for us. The very first thing Warren says when he walks in to sit down for his interview is "Wow, that's a great looking tripod." Once a filmmaker, always a filmmaker. And even when he was 92 years old he still admired really cool equipment and new lights and stuff. He's a filmmaker to his core and so that made this project particularly fun for us.

                    We did something really interesting with his interview. We went to his home on Orcas Island, Washington, just kind of off the mainland near Seattle. And Warren had really not been feeling real well. He was 92 years old. We felt that might present a tough challenge for us because we were only going to get one shot at this,  and we needed his interview to be really good. And we needed his energy to be good. And we wanted to provide him with an opportunity to sit down and reflect on his entire life and tell his story from childhood all the way to the end.

                    We did something that I think is kind of interesting. We did a big lighting set up with three cameras, and we had a pretty big crew. We knew that Warren wouldn't be able to do six, or seven, or eight hours in a row, but he could do an hour and then take a rest. And come back and do another hour.  And then take another rest. And then at the end of the first day, we really hadn't gotten through the whole story yet so we just left everything where it was and let him get a good night's rest. And we went right back to where we were the next day. Same setup, he was wearing the same clothes, the same shirt. The interview that we get in our film actually took place over the course of three different days in a row. But you would never know that when you're watching the film.

A still from 'Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story' featuring Warren Miller in true fashion -- on the snow and behind the camera.Credit: Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story

"Warren only had a couple of tools when he started out, but he was really funny and passionate, and people just ate it up."

Creadon: When I was a younger filmmaker I never wanted to impose upon my subjects. I always felt that I had a real small window to get their interview. and then I would move on and hopefully I'd get what I needed. I think I've come to appreciate the fact that when you're telling a story as large as Warren's, spreading the interview out over several different days is better. His energy is much better, he can be well rested, he can go for a decent amount of time on camera. Being in front of the camera is kind of exhausting, especially for someone who is 92 years old.

               In the end, we ended up with sort of this larger than life, I call it a master interview. And we walked him through every chapter of his life and he had the energy and the focus to really tell his story in a definitive way. And that is largely because of that three-day shooting technique that we used. For me personally, I really like when a film like ours only uses one interview. So every time we cut back to his interview he's wearing the same clothes, he's in the same lighting setup, he's in the same world, if you will. We really had an amazing director of photography Chris Patterson, and he and his team did a great job with that. Oftentimes when you see a documentary film about someone’s life, and they use five or six or seven different interviews, I find that distracting. I like the cohesiveness of our film and the fact that Warren's retelling of it has so much energy and clarity.

NFS: After you had this amazing master interview, how hard was the process in terms of assembling everything to go with it and making a single film out of it?

Creadon: From an editorial standpoint this was a really challenging project. Our editor, Josh Earl, did an amazing job of helping us find the various through lines and the various ups and downs of Warren's life. Warren Miller lived an enormous life. He was one of America's great adventurers, a true outdoorsman if ever there was one. He traveled the world meeting people and telling stories and sharing his love of skiing with people from all walks of life. You can imagine how many stories people have of Warren, and how many colorful incidents, and funny stories that happened along the way.

                    It's great as a filmmaker to have a lot of material to choose from but it's also a little bit daunting. We had a lot of stories and a lot of material to figure out how to put into a 90-minute film. Josh Earl is such a good editor and we had a great associate producer on the film by the name of Nelson Tracey. Nelson is the only member of our team who actually watched every single Warren Miller film. He watched all 69 films! That was really important because we didn't just want Warren talking about his life story, we wanted to go through the movies and go through the pictures and the archives and really bring those stories to life. And we were able to do that because we had such a good edit team and such a good research team to help us sort through this enormous life that Warren lived.

The original film tour bus as seen in this still from 'Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story' directed by Patrick Creadon. Credit: Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story

"I think that, like every great filmmaker, Warren's films really reflected the times that he lived in, and his filmmaking style evolved over the years." 

NFS: In the film, you showcase Warren's style of storytelling, how he created these experiences that were more than just the down hill skiing. He had a style, and a humor, with his somewhat narration. An a film where he visits Russia he has a line, "I was surprised to see our pilot was the bartender from the night before" which is so funny in this droll way. Ski and snowboard movies today, not all but many, don’t have much of a story let alone this unique style. Was his style storytelling something that had to have come from that early time period?

Creadon: Well I think that when Warren Miller started making films in 1950 he only had a couple of tools at his fingertips. He had an old, wind-up, bolex camera on a 16mm film, he had a little bit of money, which allowed him to travel by bus or by train from location to location, and he had a really good sense of humor. And with those three things he went out and shot these films and then edited them together. When he went from town to town with his films originally these films had no audio, he would just play them MLS with no sound, but he would be sitting on the stage narrating to people what they were seeing. Sometimes he'd play some music in the background that kind of fit with the footage that they were seeing. So Warren only had a couple of tools when he started out, but he was really funny and passionate, and people just ate it up.

            Over the years, now we're talking we're almost 70 years later now, the tools have changed. Now we have GoPros and we have drones and we have skiers that ski off the sides of mountains with parachutes, et cetera, et cetera. So the movies have become more colorful and more sophisticated and more action packed – which I think is a reflection of the times that we live in. But one of the things Warren really did well is his movies, which is a reflection of the times that his movies were made in the 50s and 60, his movies were largely like instructional films. He was literally teaching Americans how to ski because so few of them did it back then. Well today we don't need to do that. Skiing is a huge, multi billion dollar industry. So the Warren Miller films today are less about teaching people how to ski and more about technique and personality and action and great music.

                    I think that, like every great filmmaker, Warren's films really reflected the times that he lived in, and his filmmaking style evolved over the years. That helped him leave behind such wide array of different kinds of movies and styles and techniques. And I really love that about him. He never tried to be anyone other than who he was and his movies really are kind of an embodiment of his sensibilities.

Here are just a few of the films from a long list on Wikipedia that Warren Miller directed in his decades-long career. A film a year!Credit: Wikipedia

"As a filmmaker, if you spend your days constantly comparing yourself to other people's work and other people's success, you're bound to make yourself miserable. "

NFS: Warren Miller was a very ambitious filmmaker. In the film there’s a moment that stuck with me where he witnesses the theatrical success of Endless Summer. People thought the film was a lot like his style, but for whatever reason he never transcended into the mainstream the way the one film did. And while he was disappointed, that didn’t stop him in any way from continuing to be a prolific filmmaker. Is there a lesson that filmmakers can take away from his filmmaking career?

Creadon: I think that there are two lessons that I really learned while we were making this film. Number one, take pride in your work and in the results that you're able to achieve. As a filmmaker, if you spend your days constantly comparing yourself to other people's work and other people's success, you're bound to make yourself miserable. The world of filmmaking is filled with so much talent and sort of different style and approaches that at the end of the day as a filmmaker really the films hopefully that mean the most to you are the ones that you make. And that you should measure yourself simply by the self-satisfaction of making the film and being satisfied with the results that you're able to achieve. There were lots of other filmmakers who made more money than Warren did, or sold more tickets than Warren did. But Warren made the kinds of movies that he wanted to make and that only he could make

I think filmmakers should always remember that, especially young filmmakers. It's good to set really high goals and it's good to have sort of heroes within the filmmaking community. But there's going to be ups and downs as a filmmaker, and at the end of the day, hopefully, what brings you the most satisfaction is the story you told and the way you told it and the way that you told it. Warren definitely did that.

                    The second lesson that I found with Warren's story is just this idea that filmmaking can be very demanding. It can require that you're away from home a lot. In spending time with Warren and learning about his life, I saw that finding harmony between your filmmaking career and your personal life is very, very important. And it's not always easy. I take a lot of pride in my work and Christine and I put out the best films that we possibly can. But our family life and our personal life is frankly every bit, if not more important to me than what I do for a living. In a way, I think that actually makes me a better filmmaker because when I go home at the end of the day, I go home to a loving family and people I want to be with. We work hard at finding harmony between our work life and our family life. And I think with Warren, he is one of the most prolific American filmmakers of all time. And he was a self-described workaholic. He was on the road 250 days a year. He created an empire. He created a library of films that have millions and millions of fans around the world.

But I think for Warren, we discovered that the challenges within his own personal life were hard for him and weighed heavily on him, especially later in his life. He made tremendous sacrifices to become the filmmaker he was. He was a very loving, warm, funny person and loved his kids very much, but he was away from home a lot and that's created a lot of challenges in his life. I don't know that Warren had any regrets. He takes a lot of pride in the work that he did. And now that he's gone, I think his children have a great appreciation for what he did. But if having a family is important to you and being a filmmaker is also important to you, you're going to have to work very hard to try to find balance between those two.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.     

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