Renowned ski filmmaker Warren Miller admits to feeling just a little guilt over wrecking so many lives over the past 40 years.
"I'm probably responsible for screwing up a lot of lives and careers. I mean, people see my films and skiers having fun, and they just figure, ‘Why work in a place like Washington, D.C., for 50 weeks a year and wait to ski Vail for two weeks, when I can live like a ski bum in Vail and be poor but happy?' I think that's the impact some of my films have had," said Miller during a break in his busy schedule at Mt. Cranmore last weekend.
Probably more than any other media person, Miller has helped spread the popularity of skiing to new heights, showing the thrills, spills and beauty that the sport has to offer. "Forty percent of our paid attendance when we show films are non-skiers. I think we've been able to show the fun of skiing to those people over the years. And for those people who ski, we offer a vicarious vacation experience to some of the best resorts in the world," Miller noted.
Tall, bald, and humorous, the 64-year-old Vail resident was in town with his wife, Laurie, last weekend for Mt. Cran-more's 50th anniversary celebration, partaking of the festivities, but also shooting some footage, which he intends to use in his 40th feature-length film (and his 450th film overall) scheduled for release next year.
"We make one 90-minute feature film a year. This is our 40th anniversary of making Warren Miller ski films, so next year's film will have a certain amount of nostalgia. Cranmore's 50th will tie in nicely, because I started skiing 10 years before I made my first film, so it's also my 50th year skiing," he said.
While in the Valley, Miller served as race announcer for last weekend's Chapstick Celebrity Challenge Race, which raised money for the US Disabled Ski Team, and he spoke at Friday's reception for the.Eastern Ski Writers Association where he also showed some hilarious ski films from his extensive library.
It was at Sun Valley, Idaho, Miller told his audience of ski writers, that he first got his start in the ski business 42 years ago. "I went to Sun Valley's 50th anniversary two years ago because it was the 40th anniversary of my living in a parking lot there," Warren quipped, noting that he spent eight months skiing that year for only $134. From Yosemite to Aspen, the then 22-year-old Miller managed to "camp out in parking lots at almost every ski resort in the West during the winter of 1946-'47."
Miller recorded his experiences that winter in a book, "Wine, Women, Warren & Skis," a tome written in 1953 and originally published by Miller himself. Now, after many years spent in the bottom of a rucksack, the book is being offered for sale by Miller again. Like his films, the book offers a humorous look at life from the perspective of an un-abashed ski bum who lived "on his wits and frozen rabbits" and who learned how to take 8mm ski movies while living in an eight-foot-long trailer that was "four feet wide and below zero most of the time."
The liner notes for the book perhaps sum up the contents best: An incredible saga of oyster crackers, ketchup, skiing, frozen ducks, goat meat, powder snow, sleeping in the parking lots of the best ski resorts in the West."
It was tough in those days, but Miller stuck it out and lived the life that any of us weekend closet ski bums would trade our best pair of Volkls for. He not only became a filmmaker, but made money at it through hard work. He'd take to the road every winter, spending days filming the shots for the next year's films, while he spent nights showing the films from the previous winter's shooting to any group that would have him.
It was after seeing a disappointing ski film in 1948 that Miller decided he could do better. After getting his start teaching skiing at Sun Valley, he had moved to Squaw Valley to teach there. During lunch breaks, he made his first ski film. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the early days, Miller was a one-man film company. "When I started," he said with a laugh, and with a certain amount of amazement, "I had to do the writing, choose the musical scores, and shoot the picture, as well as market it. But that's how you learn, doing every facet of making motion pictures."
Four-hundred fifty films and 40 years later, Miller is in the enviable position of calling his own shots, so to speak. His company now employs a crew of 18 production people at an office in Los Angeles, and four photographers who are based throughout the country. The photographers get the shots now, and the production staff turns Miller's ideas into reality. Well, cinema verite, anyway.
"I now supervise the editing and the music, and I do all the writing. I decide where we'll send photographers and what we should be looking to shoot," Miller said, noting that he doesn't have to travel as much as he used to. "I'm on the road maybe only two to three times a year now, going to special events like this," he said, "unlike the old days when we'd travel from October through March. I can remember doing shows in Nashua, and then coming up here to film at Cranmore. I once took a cab from here to Burlington, Vermont, for $30, then got on a train to Montreal, which then took me to New York City. Winter went like that all the time. I blame it all on poor planning," he laughed.
Married last year ("My scariest moment as a filmmaker? The night I asked my lovely wife to marry me," Miller quipped), he and Laurie now spend most of their time at their home in Vail. When they take up residence on his boat in British Columbia or at their home in Hawaii, Miller takes along a video viewer that allows him to script the scenes. He then mails the sequences back to the production staff in California.
"He's immensely talented at taking the footage and turning it into a story, all with his own style," said Laurie, a former ski school director in Washington state who met Miller on a ski trail. Of all his accomplishments, Miller makes it clear that it is his marriage that gives him the greatest sense of happiness and achievement.
Of the 200,000 feet of film shot by Miller's crews for his last film, 3600 feet ended up being used in the piece. "Like anything creative, there's a lot more to it than most people suspect," Miller said. Overall, the message of his films is simple, he says: "Pretty ladies, handsome men, good skiers, good scenery, make it romantic and funny."
The vocation has taken him to all parts of the world, from Israel, Argentina and Europe to New Zealand and northern Africa. A trip to Russia to film skiing there is on his list of places he'd someday like to go. "It'd be fun," he said, "to find out what makes 'em tick."
While at Mt. Cranmore last weekend, Miller said his cameraman, Brian Sissleman, planned to use some of his own skiers, schussing on the mountain's sunny slopes. Other footage was shot of the re-enactment of Hannes Schneider's arrival by rail at the North Conway Train Station Saturday morning. Perhaps Miller's most enjoyable moment came when he was able to capture on film a ski outing he took Friday with ski greats Herbert Schneider, 68, and Otto Lang, 81, the former instructor at the Hannes Schneider Ski School in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria, and later a filmmaker in this country.
Miller was impressed with the similarity between Hannes Schneider's skiing and that of his son, Herbert Schneider. "I met Hannes Schneider at Sun Valley in 1951 at the Harriman Cup races. I got 45 minutes of his time back then for a film, and we got to take a few runs together. He was the ski god back then," said Miller. "Herbert skis just like his dad: smooth."
"This celebration," he added, "is very near and dear to my heart. And any time I can help out the US Disabled Ski Team, well, I'm happy to do it."
Look for Miller's film next fall as part of his 40th anniversary tour. If you skied at Cranmore last week, you just might see yourself up there on the big screen. Oh, oh. There goes another career.
NOTE: Warren Miller passed away January 24, 2018, at age 93.