The Godfather of Freeski

By Beacon Staff

In the Flathead Valley, early-season ski films are a celebrated attraction for locals eager to make their first tracks, and in the coming weeks there’s a glut of options premiering on the silver screen to slake that winter wistfulness.

In its fifth year, the upcoming Whitefish Mountain Films features two full nights of films, with different titles premiering at venues in Kalispell and Whitefish, as well as a slate of professional and local athletes and filmmakers, including the indelibly dubbed “Godfather of Freeski,” Mike Douglas, who on Nov. 8 and 9 will showcase the freshest and most innovative ski and mountain culture films of the season.

The Whistler, British Columbia-based Douglas will be on hand to introduce the films and raffle off a winter war chest of gear and other prizes, while live music, beer and food will also be on tap. All proceeds benefit Whitefish Legacy Partners and Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol.

Pro skier Molly Baker, who appears prominently in one of the festival’s most anticipated films, “Valhalla,” will introduce the feature alongside its director, Nick Waggoner. Local phenom and Olympics hopeful Maggie Voisin, the 14-year-old freeskier who burst onto the slopestyle scene in 2013 with a first-place win at the Association of Freeskiing Professionals World Championship in Whistler, B.C., and Whitefish’s Parkin Costain, 13, a top-ranked junior freeskier who also competes on the national circuit, will introduce a film edit they’re producing in tandem.

As a homegrown film festival, the event has humble origins, and its focus on local as well as regional films and athletes is by design – a style fostered by founder and organizer Greg Franson.
“It’s funny because this all started as a potluck in our living room about eight years ago. It was just friends sharing slide shows on old-school projectors of the adventures they had been on,” Franson said, noting that the Banff Mountain Film Festival was similarly adopted by skier and mountaineer Chic Scott.

It’s also fitting that the local rookies who are tearing into the freeski scene will appear alongside Douglas, who was instrumental in developing Salomon’s Teneighty ski, the first twin-tip ski on the market, allowing skiers to land tricks from either direction and ski backwards. The spark of innovation helped revolutionize the emerging sport as Douglas pioneered a brave new direction for “new school,” or freeskiing devotees.

With his production company Swithchback Entertainment, Douglas also helped lead the revolt against a languishing crop of ski films, reinvigorating the genre with his Salomon Freeski TV, now in its seventh season, among other projects.

The film industry’s renewed verve will be on full display at Whitefish Mountain Films as features like “Into the Mind” by Sherpas Cinema and “Valhalla” by Sweetgrass Productions debut along with a smattering of shorter films from the Flathead Valley and throughout the Northern Rockies.

The Beacon caught up with Douglas in advance of Whitefish Mountain Films to talk about innovations in the sport and in film.

Beacon: You’ve been affectionately dubbed the “Godfather of Freeski.” What contributions to the sport do you feel advanced you to that level of recognition?

Douglas: That came mainly from my involvement with developing the Salomon Teneighty, which was the first twin-tip ski.

Beacon: How did the twin-tip ski come about, and how was it revolutionary?

Douglas: In a nutshell, it was the product of a group of passionate mogul skiers. We were called the New Canadian Air Force. It was myself, J.P. Auclair, Vince Dorian, J.F Cusson. We loved to ski but we weren’t that stoked on where skiing was at as a sport or where it was heading. At the time, snowboarding was really coming along, it was emerging as a new and interesting sport and people were getting really fired up about it. So we decided to start doing the same thing on skis. Shortly into the process we realized that there were no skis on the market for what we wanted to do. We came up with some designs, shopped them around and the first twin-tip ski was born.

Beacon: Can you explain how “new school,” or freestyle skiing as it is today, emerged in the ’90s?

Douglas:It was a shot in the arm for skiing. It kind of stopped the floodgates of so many athletes heading toward snowboarding and got them back on skis again. Anyone who was around at the time remembers that the growth rate of snowboarding was crazy and skiing was kind of being eclipsed. Freeskiing made our sport relevant again.

Beacon: What other innovative gear or style advancements have you seen since then?

Douglas: There’s been a bunch of stuff. Shane McConkey’s contributions to ski design really revolutionized how we ski in the backcountry, especially with the introduction of fat skis and rocker (reverse camber) designs. Since the advent of new ski technology we’ve seen skiing become an X Games sport and now an Olympic sport, so it has grown in a lot of different directions.

Beacon: Could you describe your segue into filmmaking?

Douglas: I’ve always had an interest in filmmaking, ever since I was a kid. I made my first ski movie in high school back in the ’80s. But for most of my life I was more keen on being the guy in the films than being the guy making them. Then, as I hit my mid-30s, I realized I was older than you’re supposed to be as a pro skier, so I decided to diversify my involvement in the sport and started Switchback Entertainment. As a production company, we have been growing and diversifying ever since.

Beacon: How has filmmaking influenced the sport of skiing over the last decade or so, and how have you helped push the genre’s boundaries with the advent of Salomon Freeski TV?

Douglas: We kind of have an open slate on the stories we can tell and we are trying to push the limits a little bit in terms of storytelling and filmmaking. In general, I think we have seen a huge shift in the last three or four years. For the longest time, ski movies were focused solely on an athlete’s performance or on a single trick. Now it is a lot more about the filmmaking. I think when you do something the same way for so long people get bored and want to see something new, and there are so many new and different production companies coming on the scene and pushing the boundaries, like Sherpas Cinema and Sweetgrass Productions. They’re changing things and that is what it’s all about, keeping it fresh. You see that in films like “Valhalla” from Sweetgrass Productions and “McConkey” from Matchstick Productions.

Beacon: What’s the toughest part about telling a ski story through a movie?

Douglas: Avoiding clichés. It is really easy to go and tell the surface story of a trip. You take a bunch of pro skiers on a trip to some place exotic and hear them talk about how this is what they live for and this is what it’s all about. It’s all this stuff that we have heard a hundred times before. It is definitely a lot more difficult to find stories that are deeper. But those are the stories that we find are most rewarding.

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