Ben Sturgulewski readies ‘Ruin and Rose’ for world premiere in Aspen

Eric Hjorleifson in "Ruin and Rose."
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Ruin and Rose’ world premiere

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, Sept. 16, 8 p.m.

How much: $16.75

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

Africa’s sand-blanketed Skeleton Coast is an unlikely setting for a ski movie — there isn’t a chairlift or a flake of snow in sight.

But those harsh desert expanses fired the imagination of snow-film auteur Ben Sturgulewski, who shot much of his ambitious new feature “Ruin and Rose” there. The much-anticipated title from Matchstick Productions has its world premiere at the Wheeler Opera House today.

The movie imagines a dystopian future consumed by sand, without mountains or skiing, and follows a young boy across the desert in search of the lost world “made of mountains and water and magic.”

“It’s something totally different,” Sturgulewski said in August while editing the final cut of “Ruin and Rose, “and really a foray into a weird world, to see if it works and people will respond to it.”

Sturgulewski wrote a 22-page script for the film, nearly half of which is set in the desert, building a narrative about the post-apocalyptic society and the boy yearning for a world of snow and skiing..

“The film, I’d say, is the most in-depth narrative of any ski film that I’m aware of,” he said. “I mean, it’s not ‘Hot Dog’ or ‘Aspen Extreme,’ but it’s got a fleshed-out story.”

Sturgulewski has been on the vanguard of ski movies that have been pushing the envelope in recent years, attempting to include more narrative between the cliff drops and powder spray. He co-directed Sweetgrass Productions’ groundbreaking 2013 epic “Valhalla” — the high-water mark of narrative ski porn — about skiers dropping out and finding a utopia in the woods. Others have followed suit, like Sean Pettit’s 2015 “The Masquerade,” which spliced a gangland thriller with the standard globe-trotting extreme skiing of the genre.

The acclaim and audience embrace of “Valhalla” was far from a sure thing. With its narrative emphasis and nontraditional segments of naked skiing, a lit-up nighttime session and a session on a snowless wooded slope in summertime, Sturgulewski said he feared it might be “too weird” for the ski-movie circuit. But he was emboldened artistically by the film’s runway success, which led him to Namibia and the idea for “Ruin and Rose.”

The Wheeler Opera House premiere is something of a homecoming for Sturgulewski, who cut his teeth as a founder of Sweetgrass — along with Nick Waggoner and his Colorado College classmates — and premiered its first features, “Handcut” (2008) and “Signatures” (2009) at the Wheeler.

“Ruin and Rose,” he hopes, is the next step in the progression of action sports storytelling.

“It’s a story of hope and redemption told through skiing,” Sturgulewski said. “It’s going to be funky on every level. I’m really excited about the story aspect. It’s going to be something really unique.”

Handled well, a narrative and a meaty fictional story can raise the emotional stakes for the ski segments — giving audiences more than the usual spectacle of world-class skiers helicoptering or hiking to far-flung peaks.

“It can be a little bit more impactful because they’re applying it to their own lives, their own relationship with the outdoors, versus it being, ‘Oh, that dude is doing something I could never do,’” Sturgulewski said. “It’s something they can relate to.”

Of course, the on-mountain action still has to deliver. The crowd packing the Wheeler tonight for the premiere of “Ruin and Rose” might be open to some more experimental filmmaking, but they’re also looking to whoop and cheer some epic big-mountain ski segments and to get stoked for winter (isn’t that, after all, what the autumn ski-flick season is for?).

The “Ruin and Rose” crew did a camping trip into Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains, during which they got 10 feet of snow over three days, which promises some slobber-worthy footage. And they jetted across North America and Europe for segments in the Canadian Rockies, the Sierra Nevada and the Alps with a cast that includes Sammy Carlson, Russ Henshaw, Eric Hjorleifson and Michelle Parker.

The high point for Sturgulewksi, however, was shooting the first jib segment of his career in a long-abandoned Soviet Era building in Bulgaria.

“A skier brought to my attention this crazy old Communist building with this amazing dome and this incredible interior. … In the winters, it’s filled with snow,” he explained.

Sturgulewski and his crew kept their eyes on a live webcam of the building throughout last winter, waiting for snow. When a storm finally hit, he flew overseas and scared up a cast of European skiers to attack it for three days of dawn-to-dusk skiing and filming before the snow melted away.

“It was the eeriest place I’ve ever been and this incredible example of decay and all this art and tile that’s been scavenged over all these years,” he said. “It was the most stunningly beautiful aesthetic place and had this stunning vibe.”

Couched within the larger narrative about a world without skiing and snow — a world that every skier and snowboarder has contemplated in the age of climate change — the high-flying feats of the “Ruin and Rose” cast have the potential for more emotional heft than audiences are expecting.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of, ‘What does skiing mean? What does being outside mean? As human beings, how does that affect us?’” Sturgulewski said. “What I like to try to do with my films is try to tap into that and explore that intimacy we have with nature. In that regard, skiing is just a tool to get to that feeling.”

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