Ski legend Mike Douglas’ new film “Snowman” is far deeper than the usual ski porn. This is a documentary for general audiences that tells the story of friendship, risk, life and death in the mountains.
By Jason Blevins
Mike Douglas, the Canadian creator of twin tips skis and acrobatic pioneer known as the “godfather of freeskiing” is a veteran player in the world of ski porn. His super-sized skiing can be found in dozens of ski flicks, where an endless barrage of jaw-dropping stunts, sweeping vistas and thumping bass lines tends to stun as much as entertain.
He was well into forging story-rich shorts as the boss behind the award-winning Salomon’s Freeski TV episodes, exploring the art of storytelling with a healthy dose of ski porn moments, when, in March 2009, he got two phone calls. One gutted him: his close friend and longtime film partner Shane McConkey died in a ski BASE jumping accident in Italy. The other nearly did the same: His lifelong friend Kevin Fogolin, who, as a kid, joined Douglas in sparking a deep appreciation for all things snowy, had narrowly escaped a harrowing helicopter crash while doing avalanche control work in British Columbia’s cascading Coast Range.
Coming so close to losing his two best friends in a single month might have pushed most people into a huddling position, steering clear of anything remotely risky. Not Douglas. The loss of McConkey and the terrifying tale of Fogolin’s crash spurred the 45-year-old to take one of the biggest gambles of his life, risking his financial stability and reputation as “the godfather” by producing “Snowman,” a full-length documentary on his friendship with Fogolin designed not for skiers, but general audiences.
“You need to be willing to take risks to make things happen,” says Douglas of what he’s learned after nearly three years of work on “Snowman.” “It’s a major theme in the film and also something we were very conscious of during production. Vulnerability is a scary thing. While not all risks pay off, a life without risk would be incredibly boring.”
At first, Douglas imagined a short story, akin to his Freeski TV episodes. But the story evolved as he explored not only Fogolin’s crash, but his rekindled friendship with the kid who joined him decades ago in ditching class on powder days. “Snowman” follows Fogolin’s job as an avalanche forecaster in Canada’s precipitous, slide-prone Coast Range reaching its climactic arc when Fogolin’s helicopter crashes and rolls down a mountainside coming to rest below a long-fused explosive he had just thrown in a hanging snowfield.
“Once we dug into it we realized there was a bigger story about life and risk, and we thought it would make a good feature,” said Douglas, who enlisted his Switchback Entertainment team in making their first full-length film. “They kept me honest and weren’t afraid to tell me when something wasn’t working. Ultimately, we wanted to make something that would challenge our abilities as filmmakers.”
The movie is certainly a big step in Douglas’ evolution as a filmmaker. It’s not a ski flick but it’s got the thrills with plenty of bombs, helis and avalanches.
Beyond the spectacular imagery, there’s a story. “Snowman” shows how playing and working in the mountains molds both lasting friendships and perceptions of risk. It’s very compelling. The build-up to Fogolin’s climactic crash and the fallout of McConkey’s death mark Douglas’ best cinematic moments in a career that has thrived on both sides of the camera.
And the camera work—especially the massive avalanches captured by plexiglass-encased, sea buoy-strapped cameras—is on par with any top-tier documentary.
“Snowman” premiered at Douglas’ hometown Whistler Film Festival last December, harvesting the fest’s “Best Mountain Culture Film” award. In September, “Snowman” opened the Breckenridge Film Festival. Douglas has also released “Snowman” on digital platforms like iTunes and Amazon. Late last year, as he ran out of personal cash during post-production, so Douglas harvested 490 donors who raised more than $50,000 Canadian dollars through a Kickstarter campaign to support the movie. Interest remains high, he said.
“Every day I get messages from people saying it really struck a chord with them,” Douglas said. “The nicest surprise is to hear that even people who don’t ski or spend time in the mountains seem to be connecting with it.”
Check out the movie at snowmanfilm.com